Ghosts of Christmas Past - Week Four
This is the first Sunday of the Season of Christmas--and it's also the conclusion of the sermon series that we've been sharing throughout the month of December.
Christmas is a time of year when we celebrate the coming of the Messiah, the arrival of the new--a chance to begin again, to find restoration, renewal...
But for a lot of people this time of year brings a lot of things that they have been struggling with into sharp focus.
We all struggle with the Ghosts of Christmas Past in our own way. And it's this time of year when we often begin to think more deeply about the things that have happened to us, the pain that we've felt, the losses we've endured.
These ghosts always seem to find their way to us when we're at our most vulnerable, or when we are filled with memories and feelings... when we are anticipating the end of a year and the beginning of something new.
That's the focus of this sermon series. We will be learning to let go of the things that are keeping us from being the people we were meant to be... letting go of what was in order to embrace something new.
Today we'll be learning together what it means to let go of grief to embrace new life.
My first encounter with loss as a kid came when my gerbil died.
Story of Farah Fawcett Gerbil and the sunflowers.
It was my first inclination that there was something bigger going on... that there was life after loss.
One of the most definitive books on dealing with grief carries the title: All Our Griefs, All our Losses. Because grief and loss aren't just connected to death, are they? We feel loss in so many areas of our life...
Loss of a job
Loss of a relationship
Loss when your kids grow up and move on
Loss when your health fades
Loss when you experience changes
I've come to believe that there is such a thing as a Christmas Hangover---for some of us it might be a bit more real than imagined, am I right? But seriously, it's a real thing, especially when it comes to loss...
And these losses that we experience seem to be felt so much more intensely during this time of year, don't they?
And after all of the hoopla, the celebrations, the gift-giving... we sit down for a moment and look around at all of the decorations that have to be put away... the bills that we'll have to pay next month...
And reality sets in a bit.
The reality that nothing really changed---the losses are still there. They didn't go away. So what happens when we realize this? It can lead some of us to despair, to anger, to
How do we let go of our grief and embrace the new life that God longs for us to embrace?
I believe it comes down to embracing a very important and very simple truth--a truth that is going to weave it's way through this entire sermon:
God is always giving birth to new things and new people.
Our conversation partner for today comes to us from the Hebrew prophet, Isaiah.
The portion of Isaiah that we'll be reading from today is from the portion of the prophetic word that is commonly known as "Second Isaiah." These prophetic works were written in a different time than the first part of the book, during the time of the Hebrew exile in Babylon.
In chapter 43, the prophet delivers a word from God to the people of God--a word that speaks of hope---impossible hope on the other side of grief.
Explain what happened with the exile, destruction of the Temple, etc.
Here's what God says:
16 This is what the Lord says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
17 who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
18 “Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
20 The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
21 the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.
I've always loved this passage so much.
There is a grief-stricken reality to this moment that cannot be denied. But God is doing something new in the midst of it.
God is speaking in the prophecy, and reminds the Hebrew people, "This is what I've done for you in the past... remember when you were slaves in Egypt? Remember how you stood at the edge of the Red Sea, trapped by water on one side and the Egyptian army on the other? Remember how I rescued you?"
And then God says, "That's nothing."
Liberation was once again about to happen, God declares. But there is wilderness on the other side of that liberation. And God calls up those images from the past to show how God's love never fails.
And then God says, "Forget about all of that stuff---I'm doing something new, I'm doing something amazing. You grieved what was lost, but not it's time to embrace new life.
God wants God's people to learn from losses, to be shaped by grief, but not to be consumed by i t.
So how do we figure this out? How do we learn to leave our grief behind to embrace the new life that God is bringing forth all around us, in us and through us?
There are two things that we need to take to heart:
First, your loss was not a judgement---it just happened.
One of the most common things that happen to people who experience loss is a tendency to internalize why it happened. In other words, we blame ourselves.
I've had so many conversations over the years with people who suffered a painful loss--of a loved one, their job, health... and eventually began to ask: "What could I have done differently so that wouldn't have happened...?"
Which seems like a reasonable question, right?
And there might be good answers to that question, to be fair. But what often happens is when there aren't any really good answers, we tend to find our way to this question, "What did I do to make this happen?"
Or we drift into this question, which is where many of us land when we're struggling to understand all our losses and all our griefs:
"Why is God punishing me? I must be a bad person."
Not many of these question, especially the last one are very helpful. If this is where you are right now in your struggle with loss---internalizing it all, making it all about you, and what you have done or left undone...
I want you to hear this. You are not to blame--God doesn't work that way.
That's not how this works... Jesus and the story of the man born blind.
Jesus basically says, "This is not about what someone did or didn't do. This isn't about fixing blame. What's happening here is a moment when you get to recognize that God is always up to something new--even in the midst of loss and suffering."
Story of the woman from my church who could not let go of her grief--didn't want to let go of it... like an old friend. Self-pity, blame...
When you finally get this, it sets you free to do the work of healing---not something that happens overnight.
Second, you need to step outside yourself and your circumstances.
I always give the same advice to people who come to me seeking relief and a path forward away from grief. Talk about it. Volunteer. Practice Self-Care and find Support.
If you don't have a therapist, confidante, close friend, pastor you trust... find one.
If you aren't volunteering and doing something to get yourself out of your comfort zone and help others... fix that.
If you aren't doing things to take care of yourself, yoga, hobby, travel, friends, gym, meditation, etc.... you need to change it.
If you don't have a community of faith, a group of friends, a support group for conversation--find one.
Follow up with the story on the woman who changed her life.
It will change your life. Because Gd is always giving birth to new things and new people.