Ghosts of Christmas Past - Week Two
This is the third Sunday of Advent--the third 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.
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 shame to embrace affirmation.
In our house when our little dog does something wrong--which is almost never by the way---we might use the word "shame" to express our displeasure.
On those rare occasions we'll tell him "Shaaaaaammmeee!!" and he hits the floor in sorrow and misery.
But why that word? What is it about shame that brings us to our knees, that makes us hit the floor so to speak? What is it about shame that makes it haunt us so?
Shame is the one of the most debilitating, painful emotions that we can feel. Because it lives inside of us--deep inside of us in secret places that rarely, if ever, see the light of day.
And most of the time the shame that we feel about the things we've done, or the things that have been done to us begins with the way we interpret the feelings or intentions of other people.
We take what others say or do---whether they intend it or not, and we internalize it, making it all about us. Here's a good example of this in my own life.
The other day I was at a band concert, and had to wait through two other bands to get to the one my kid was playing in. I was looking on my phone a lot as I sat there--reading emails, catching up on football scores, texting people.
The lights were not out in the auditorium, I was sunk down low in my seat. But for some reason, my phone offended this lady who was sitting behind me---not directly behind me, mind you... but behind me.
She tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Excuse me, your phone is distracting!" in a judgmental, not even trying to really do a stage whisper.
I was embarrassed, and mumbled something to her. I looked around me and everyone in my row was on their phone. Then I got mad. Then I decided to move. And then I felt mad that I moved.
In one quick moment I was filled with shame that went straight to a place where I believe all kinds of negative things about myself. It wasn't this woman who caused all that.
When it comes to shame it's the self talk that gets you, isn't it?
I'm going to share something a little personal, but I have a hunch that there's quite a lot of us in here who will identify with what I'm about to say.
There's this phrase that runs in my head sometimes--a way I talk about myself to myself. It goes something like this: "You always do that."
Maybe you have your own phrase. Like, "That's just like you!" or "Story of my life!" or "I'm such an idiot!"
So what happens to us when we internalize the things that happen to us, the moments when we feel shamed? It moves from merely being a behavior to an identity.
It's not just about what you did, or what happened... it becomes "This is who I am." Or we say things like "I'm bad..." "I deserve this..." You begin to believe the things that you say about yourself, the things that you've internalized, and made all about you.
And then--we begin to hurt others.
Because that's what happens, doesn't it? Hurting people, hurt people. When you internalize your shame, and begin to live with all of that stuff deep inside of you, it makes it far more likely that a person will lash out verbally, emotionally and even sometimes physically toward others.
The people in your life who walk around like an emotional terrorist... most likely they are filled with shame, sometimes at a level they don't even fully understand.
So what do we do to break this cycle? What do you we do to live shame free?
That's what we are going to be talking about today--and I want you to know this one, very important thing:
Living Shame-Free Is Easy, When You Know Who You Really Are
Our conversation partner today comes to us from the Apostle Paul, who wrote a letter to some Christians in the ancient city of Philippi, which was in Macedonia---now modern day Greece.
Before we did into this text, let's spend a few minutes talking about the Apostle Paul and his past.
This was a guy who was so bent on eradicating Christians that he actually worked to become authorized by the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, to set out to arrest them, and bring them to the council---where they would be killed if necessary.
This was a guy who stood by while Stephen was stoned to death---held everyone's coats, took the blame, self-righteous in his certainty. Watched a man die right in front of him. Cold blooded.
But that was in his past.
At the time of this writing, he was in prison for being a follower of the same Jesus he once persecuted others for believing in. He's probably shackled to a guard. He's either in Rome or on his way to Rome where eventually he'll be executed by Caesar.
And now let's read this passage with these thoughts in mind.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.I love what Paul does here. He acknowledges his own shortcomings, his "not yet" status, but he doesn't let that define him. His realization that he is not where he ought to be is simply a realization of his own frailty, but without judgement.
He doesn't internalize it---the shame from his past.
And further, he says that he is letting go of what has happened in the past--it no longer dictates how he feels about himself. I am sure that there were times early on in Paul's Christian walk when he felt that shame. There were probably people who were distrustful of him, derided him, maybe even confronted him about the things he'd done.
But those things are all behind him as he strains toward what is ahead. And this identity that Paul is living into is one that is eternal---it is an identity formed outside of time by God. It is an identity Paul finds in Christ, believing that when God sees him, he sees him through the lens of Christ.
In other words, Paul lets go of his shame, let's go of his past and lives both presently and expectantly if that makes sense. He is confident of who he is because of Jesus. And he is hopeful in what he will be because of Jesus.
What Paul wants his readers to realize is this: they are not defined by their past, no matter what they've done or what's been done to them... they are defined by Jesus himself.
Jesus was called "Beloved" by God. This is who we are--those of us who find our identity enter-twined with Jesus' own. We are Beloved.
So how do you internalize this? How do you get to a place where you can let go of your shame, and step forward into the new things that God has in store for you--a future that is filled with hope and purpose?
There are two things that you need to know:
1. What happened shaped you---but does not define you.
I have a friend who was raped as a young woman. There were a lot of years where she carried the shame of that around with her. She had been sent all kinds of horrible messages as a teenager in the Christian environment she lived in--about the kinds of girls who get themselves into those kinds of situations.
She blamed herself. She internalized the shame. She began to believe things about herself that were absolutely false.
But over time she began to realize this truth: What had happened to her did shape her as a person. It wounded her, it scarred her, but it did not define her. She was more than what had happened to her. She was more than a moment in her life.
And when that realization came---that she was not defined by that moment--it changed her. She woke up to a new sense of faith, a new sense of God, a new sense of herself, not defined by shame, but renewed in grace.
Maybe you can identify with this feeling---you have been living as though what happened to you or what you did is the defining moment of your life.
The defining moment of your life comes when you realize that you are so much more than a moment--especially in the eyes of God.
2. You are who God says you are---and God says you are beloved.
I will never forget the day I stood at the bedside of a man who had been in an accident when he was a child that robbed him of his ability to walk.
He was in the hospital on that occasion for one of the myriad of things wrong with him. He was not a pretty sight. And he wheezed when he talked in a way that made it hard for me to understand him.
Tell the story about how he shared his near-death experience...
I love the story of Mary in our Advent scripture readings. She was a teenage girl with not a lot of prospects in the culture within which she lived. A poor young woman living in a small village somewhere in ancient Israel.
She was not rich, powerful, influential... not worthy in the eyes of the world, and even in her own eyes.
But when she heard the words that she was "Blessed among women..." that she would be the mother of the Messiah... that she would be the God-bearer...
All of those things that she might have believed or said about herself melted away. She internalized what God said about her, and it changed everything.
No matter what you might believe about yourself--no matter what others say that believe about you... I want you to hear these words from the Apostle Paul: "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ." No condemnation.
You are not condemned. You are worthy.
You are not condemned. You are called.
You are not condemned. You are filled with purpose.
You are not condemned. You are beloved.
This is who you are. You are who God says you are, and God says you are beloved.
If we embrace these two powerful truths---it can change everything for us. We can let go of shame and embrace affirmation---the kind of affirmation that transforms us into the people we long to be.
Because living shame-free is easy when you know who you really are.