Ghosts of Christmas Past: Week One
This is the first Sunday of Advent--the first Sunday of a season of expectation and waiting, as we look forward to the coming of the Messiah, and to new beginnings.
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.
When I was kid, my parents had this album I would listen to over and over again, especially around Christmas. It was a recording of a radio broadcast of the famed actor Lionel Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol.
A Christmas Carol is the story of Scrooge, a miserly old curmudgeon who hates Christmas and who cares about nothing except making money. Everything changes when he's visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley.
Marley tells him he'll be visited by 3 spirits before the next day--spirits who will teach him the error of his ways.
Barrymore played Scrooge on radio broadcasts for twenty years from 1934 to his final performance in 1954. It has been said that it was Barrymore who brought Charles Dickens' story to fame in the United States.
It was a huge part of my childhood, and captured my imagination. So when I thought about this sermon series and the idea of the ghosts that haunt us this time of year, I couldn't help but make the connection.
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 offenses and embrace forgiveness.
Let me ask you a question...
Do you know someone who is easily offended? You know the kind--the kind that you feel like you have to walk on eggshells around.
It's like their radar is always up and running just waiting for that moment when someone says something, or does something to set them off. The world is full of nails and they are a hammer.
Maybe that person is you.
Listen, I get it. I'm that person sometimes, too. There are a number of things that offend me. Here are some of them:
1. Bible Verse Quoting Guy
2. Not Ready To Get Off The Plane Person
3. Junk Mail Made To Look Like A Check
4. Sink Laziness
5. Wrong Way Toilet Paper
6. When One Size Fits All Doesn't Fit
There are a hundred little things every day, am I right?
But... what about the big things? What about the true offenses that hit you deep inside your soul?
What about the betrayals you've experienced?
What about the abuse that you've endured?
What about all of the holidays that have been ruined by a family member's bad behavior?
And to that end, what about the way your family has been divided because of feuds, or someone's addictions?
How do we rid ourselves of these ghosts?
We have to internalize something that is incredibly simple, yet also incredibly profound and true. It's the one thing that I want us to hold on to today:
Life is too short to live offended.
Our conversation partner today comes to us from the Apostle Paul, and his letter to the Colossians.
Let me share a little background on the city of Colossae:
The ancient city of Colossae was built on a major trade route through the Lycus River Valley in the Roman province of Asia Minor (in the southwest corner of modern-day Turkey). There the Colossians manufactured a beautiful dark red wool cloth (colossinum) for which the city became famous.
The city was destroyed in the year 17 BCE, and rebuilt. Paul is writing to them to address some issues that they are dealing with--struggles with conflicting theology, assimiliation to Roman culture, etc. They were also dealing with some division within their community.
This passage paints a unique portrait of the Colossians:
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
The imagery that Paul uses here is interesting, isn't it? It's the idea of putting on new clothes. And the clothes that Paul is inviting the Colossians to put on are pointedly named:
Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience---a pretty nice outfit, right?
He exhorts them to forgive in a particular way---"as the Lord forgave you." What kind of forgiveness are we talking here? The kind of forgiveness that keeps no record of the past... the kind of forgiveness that includes sacrifice... the kind of forgiveness that sees past all divisions, broken relationships, offenses...
And then Paul tells them to love "above all." This kind of love is the kind of love that causes you to decrease so that love can increase. You fade into the background and the love of Jesus takes over. You become less so Christ can become more. When people see you, they see love.
Then he invites them to let the peace of Christ "rule." Paul uses the language of the day to describe what gets to sit in the big chair of your heart. If peace rules, that means that all of the rest of the things that would take the place of peace are banished... bitterness, anxiety, anger, grudges... all sent packing.
So what is Paul wanting his readers to do here, essentially?
Paul wants his readers to go out of their way to let go of offenses and embrace forgiveness—way out of their way.
So how do we figure this out in our own life? How do we live in such a way that we don't live offended.
First, we have to learn to stop being easily offended.
One of the things that I struggle with the most is when someone questions my competency. It hits me right where I live. I've had to learn that not every criticism or comment is meant to take aim at my abilities or competency, however. I often take offense where there is none intended.
Story about guy who ended up telling someone how much he thought of me, after I thought he hated my guts.
When you go into a situation with the attitude that you are going to assume the best about someone intentions, it opens you up to truly see them as they are. Maybe what you will find is that they are more than you thought they were. Maybe you will discover that they are broken and hurting. Whatever you discover will enable you to let go of your resentment and your offense.
One of the most important things that we can learn by doing this is that not everything is about us. It's hard for us to see this, but when we do---we can learn that our happiness doesn't depend on others, and our ability to not live offended doesn't depend on them either.
Second, we need to work toward getting over the big things.
There are some things that have been done to us that are difficult to get over. Maybe you were abused, betrayed, stabbed in the back. Maybe what was done to you is something that has left a burning, gaping hole in your heart.
The first thing you need to do if you want to be free from the burden of this pain is to get rid of the playback reel in your own head. Some of us walk around with a playback reel in our heads that plays the event over and over again.
And there's dialogue in that playback reel, some of it coming right from our own voice, speaking words of shame, guilt, failure...
Or we relive the incident over and again, building up anger every single time we do it. We stew in our own bitterness until it consumes us. Some of us don't know how to live without the feelings we get when we relive it. They are like old, hateful friends that we despise, but we keep inviting to dinner.
Stop the playback.
And then find the resurrection moments in the midst of the pain---because they are there. There are always moments where what was dead and gone comes back to life, where there is hope in the middle of sadness or anger. Where there is a glimpse of light in the darkness.
We need to hang on to those moments for dear life. We need to lift them up, and make signposts out of them so we can find them when we feel lost.
They can be people who showed up when we were at our worst, who sat with us in our pain, who held us when we needed to be held... who said the right things when we needed to hear them.
It can be that morning you woke up and felt like yourself again, and you started to realize that what was done to you wasn't going to mark you forever.
Then you need to give yourself a break.
You need to forgive yourself.
All of the negative self-talk, the ways you beat yourself up, the energy you spent on all of that negative emotion. Let it go, breathe, find a place to simply be and know that God is God and you are not, and God has stuff going on in your life to bring you to hope and a future.
It's time to let go of the ghost of offense. Let it go, and let your arms open to embrace forgiveness--to those who have wounded you, and most of all forgiveness of yourself.
Because Life is too short to live offended.