A Blue Christmas Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Lutheran Campus Ministry / Creighton University
11 December 2016 + Third Sunday of Advent
Matthew 11.2-11; Isaiah 35.1-10

He had been so sure, so confident, so certain.

He proclaimed a bold message of repentance and the dawning of the messianic age: Repent! For the reign of heaven has come near! One who is more powerful than is coming! Here is the Lamb of God!

He baptized the crowds in droves. He was sought out by all and attracted an impressive following.

He was prophetic, firmly rooted in the social justice tradition of Israel’s prophets before him. He took risks and called out the hypocrisy of the religious elite.

And what did it get him? Prison. Next stop: execution. Desperate for some vindication that he hadn’t gotten it all wrong, he sends his disciples to Jesus: Are you… the one… who is to come? Or… are we to… wait… for another? You can hear the undertones of regret, the disappointment, the dashed hope, the confusion.

A Blue Christmas, indeed.

On a day when many churches will light a pink candle, representing joy, on the Advent wreath, and when outside our churches we’ve been inundated for weeks with nonstop reminders of a joyous Noël, such a scene from Matthew’s gospel seems out of step.

Maybe, though, it’s the Christmas season that’s out of step. After all, it’s still Advent, a season marked by waiting, by yearning, by hopeful expectation, by a promise yet to be fulfilled.

I suspect that many of us might identify more with the dismayed and disenchanted John the Baptist in a prison cell than the manufactured cheerfulness of a Hallmark holiday movie.

This time of year on a college campus, the anxiety and stress of final exams and papers is palpable — only matched in intensity for some with the thought of going home for the holidays, when “family” conjures up images of discord, conflict, and estrangement. Or if you’re anything like I was: a freshman at the end of your first semester wondering if your degree program is right for you, or a senior at the opposite end of the spectrum wondering what life will bring after a suddenly much-less-distant graduation.

Still for others, it’s the death or illness of a loved one, or strained or broken relationships, that color the holiday blue.

In a way, John the Baptist—revered as a saint on our liturgical calendar—gives us permission to observe a Blue Christmas. His despair and his questioning remind us that doubt is not the opposite of faith but is itself a very real part of the life of faith. John offers us an example of faith that makes room for doubt, for grief, for questioning, for not having it all together—and says that’s okay!

Christian Wiman, a poet and author who grew up in the Christianity of West Texas, was diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of blood cancer in his late 30s. In the wake of his diagnosis, he wrote candidly about his struggle with faith: “Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life. Those who try to make into this are destined to become brittle, shatterable creatures.” [1]

In other words: There’s no point in pretending. There’s no point in pretending everything is okay when it’s not. And there’s certainly no point in questioning one’s own faith, or self-worth, because of it.

Blue Christmas, dear people, is oftentimes more faithful to the season than the opposite.

It’s no accident the color of Advent is blue, the color of the night sky just before dawn. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Blue holds the promise that the sun will rise, and that even after the bleakest, coldest, longest night, the light will break forth, as the new day arrives. Blue may be the color of sadness, but blue is also the color of hope.” [2]

That’s not meant to be some grand answer for we who find ourselves “blue,” but it is meant to be hope — and hope is much better than a definitive answer. Hope is the product of memory and imagination.

Hope is the central message of Isaiah’s vision. With imagery of wilderness and desert, journey and liberation, this is meant to be deliberately evocative of the exodus,  the way out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom, pointing an exiled people to their collective memory of God’s past faithfulness to give hope for the future.

That hope is rooted in memory, but it also begs to be recast, reimagined, for a new reality. Even as Israel was once delivered from slavery, here they imagine a new future free from exile. And even as Jesus has already come in history, we still sing for Emmanuel to “come, o come” because we still live with real pain and real problems.

Jesus’s answer to John’s pleading questions is intentionally open-ended: What do you hear? What do you see? The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear. Images evocative of Isaiah, of God’s action in the past, of a yearning for God’s continued action. Hope, rooted in memory, fueled by imagination.

Still, in the mire and in the muck, it’s easy to imagine one type of Messiah, as John might have, a victorious conquerer who would make everything right again. But what we get is something much more profound, as Christian Wiman again reminds us:

If Christianity is going to mean anything at all for us now, then the humanity of God cannot be a half measure. He can’t float over the chaos of pain and particles in which we’re mired, and we can’t think of him gliding among our ancestors like some shiny, sinless superhero…

No, God is given over to matter, the ultimate Uncertainty Principle… what a relief to befriend contingency, to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck. [3]

The Messiah for whom we wait, the promised one for whom we yearn, the long-expected one for whom we hope, is Emmanuel, God-with-us, indeed one of us, struggles and all, who holds us and reminds us that through it all, we are not alone.

[1] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 17.

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/25/forget-red-and-green-make-it-a-blue-holiday-instead/?utm_term=.ca7ed04709a2

[3] Wiman, 17.

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