The Real Work of Christmas: The Brokenhearted
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
January 17, 2016
“Yet even now, says the Lord,return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain-offering and a drink-offering
for the Lord, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the aged;
gather the children,
even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her canopy.
Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage a mockery,
a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
“Where is their God?” ’
Well, today I’m getting a taste of my own medicine! Let me explain and give you a peek behind our worship planning curtain: At both St. Tim’s and Christ Church, we are held together by many things but especially through the Word of God read and proclaimed! Our worship teams, for a total of five services (including St. Tim’s), work together three to four months out, all on the same Bible passage and sermon theme. The medicine that I usually dispense but am taking today comes from my practice of taking a few days, three times a year to plan out the sermon themes four months in advance—all offered from the same Bible passage we share in the services. Primarily Mark at St. Tim’s and Louis (and other preachers here from time to time) must then come up with sermons based on my themes. Since I own and originate them, that’s relatively easy for me! But I never realized what a challenge that might be for my preacher colleagues until, after a class at Duke, our wonderful Duke Divinity School intern—and new daddy—James Kjorlaug asked if he could do this series we’re beginning today, with a focus on everyone getting involved in missions in some form! He had just finished a class on the famous poet-preacher Howard Thurman and wanted the experience of forming a sermon series before he graduated. Great, I told him, go ahead. What I never foresaw was the challenge James would give our Christ Church–St. Tim’s preachers in the texts he chose! As the Aussies would say though, “Good on yah, James Kjorlaug! You’ve pushed the boundaries of your elders and what better role is there for young ministers!” As mentioned, James based this series on the Word of God but also the beautiful inspiring words of the late Dr. Howard Thurman:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the people,
To make music in the heart.
What a beautiful poem and sentiment! What an expression of why the Incarnation occurred! Our prayer as pastors is that this series makes the poem more than sentiment and mere expression of the Incarnation! Our prayer is that this poem becomes as beloved to you, as you hear it each week, as your favorite Christmas carol! Our prayer is that this poem expresses more than sentiment for you, as it becomes your life as you Incarnate Jesus, as His Body on earth the Church. And what wonderful Sunday for this series to begin! Today, is United Methodist Human Relations Sunday and tomorrow we remember the “Drum major for justice,” the only Christian minister honored with a national holiday, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
And what a rich book and passage young Rev. Kjorlaug has chosen for our proclamation today and through the series: the Hebrew prophet, Joel.
Joel was written perhaps about 500 years before the birth of Christ. It was written after a devastating time in Israel, an epic ruining of the land by locusts. The prophet describes three kinds of locusts coming like an army to eat first the new sprouting plants, then the grown vegetation, and finally even the scrap stems. Nothing was left. Following this came a horrific drought, one so bad that even cattle and wildlife were mourning, in a way. And true to prophetic literature, the prophet viewed the calamity through the lenses of being God’s messenger. It seemed that the people had left the ways of God and the prophet warned that even worse was coming: the day of the Lord, where the Lord’s army would complete the annihilation the locusts and drought began. This is not exactly a power of positive thinking passage, is it? And such is the set up to our text today, for there is timelessness to the writings of the prophets.
Joel’s message is for us: If the people will turn back to God; if the people with deep spiritual practices of fasting, penitence and mourning over their sinful ways will seek God’s mercy; if the people gather in true worship, letting nothing keep them from the assembly of God’s people; and if, their priests will plead on their behalf, God’s mercy will bring restoration.
Yet, here’s the pertinent question for our day and time: Do we weep over anything in our spiritual life? Are we aware of our straying from God’s desires for our lives and the world, enough to mourn and decide to turn back to our creator? I mean, after all, most of us have it “pretty good” don’t we? Most of us have a roof over our heads, enough food and clean water to get by on; most of us take for granted the incredible freedom and resources our nation has been blessed with, don’t we? Without a doubt the Israelites of Joel’s time had been through massive destruction with more promised and we have no precipitating event, like 9/11 when folks returned in droves to houses of worship, for a while. And could it be that the “returned in droves for a while” is our spiritual Achilles heel? Culturally, we almost defy logic, don’t we? You would think that in times of relative prosperity we’d flock to church to thank the source of all that is good and loving in our lives. And yet, it appears that our satisfaction with the status quo keeps us away from worship! Our budgets and accrued vacation time take us away rather than draw us into the “solemn assembly,” as Joel put it.
And that very fact, backed by our actions, may be the crux of our brokenness. We blithely carry on our lives as if we somehow deserve our position in life. But more, such an attitude immunizes us to the pain of others. I suspect that “living the way we do” deserves more of God’s judgment than we think; I suspect that consumerist, immunized-to-the-pain-of-others living is more a sign of God’s impending judgment than it is a sign of God’s favor. Here’s the reason: What we take to be as God’s favor—having more time, talent, and treasure than we need—more often than not stops with us! And God’s Word teaches the opposite: Our time, talent and treasure is in our lives to be passed on to others. We’ve been entrusted with more than we need and therefore are expected by God to do more with what we have! Bloomberg News reports that the average American annually, in each category, spends twice as much on: restaurants, clothing, cell phones, cable TV, personal services, and cars than they give to their church,. And this hits home: Christ Church has a near 10 percent deficit in our budget this year, which we’d love your help in closing. It’s not too late to return a commitment card, give a special gift, or increase your pledge.
And against this background of forsaking the assembly and low giving levels, we purport to be the Body of Christ on earth—the hands and feet of Jesus making a positive difference in the lives of people by giving spiritual teachings, counseling, teaching of children, youth and adults, worshipping, accepting all, and reaching out. And we live in a time and era with such dire need of the church to be the Body of Christ: We live in the number one food insecure area in America. Greensboro also has, it seems to me, a lot of work still to be done in the area of racism and acceptance of all. We just don’t know our fellow citizens, and if we don’t know them, how can we love them? In the 2000s, the Triad area has lost 90 thousand jobs, and unemployment among some ages and groups is unbelievable, despite touted recovery in our economy. Heroin use, gang violence, and crime mark the present and only seen future for many. Isn’t this enough to “rend our hearts” over?
You see, for the Hebrew people, “hearts” was like us saying our “wills.” Our passage is tantamount to the prophet Joel asking the people to make a conscious choice, a decision to turn from sinful ways and to live the way God wanted them (and wants us) to live. God is asking us to choose to recognize our own brokenness, to return to God and do his work.
This so informs how we are in mission. Our being in mission isn’t the “people who have it all together” helping the poor people who “don’t have it all together.” Our being in mission isn’t so much an “episodic” call; it is a call for a lifestyle of serving. Our being in mission is a call for people—us—broken in different ways, to do all we can, as God wants, to make a positive difference in the lives of others who are broken differently than us! For those unable to get out much, you have the most important ministry I know of: prayer support. For all of us, in our being in mission, financial generosity is a must. And yet, no missional lifestyle occurs until we venture outside of our comfort zones and begin relationships across all of those barriers humanity has erected: race, class, language. We cannot love if we do not know people, and as a friend of mine says in the title of his book, Life is Too Short Not to Love!
I want to close by sharing a story from Henri Nouwen: “One day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every man in it unless the young man was handed over to them before dawn. The people went to the minister and asked him what to do. The minister, torn between handing over the boy to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words: ‘It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.’ Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden. And after the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people. But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room. That night an angel came to him, and asked, ‘What have you done?’ He said, ‘I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.’ Then the angel said, ‘But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?’ ‘How could I know?’ the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said, ‘If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.’” 
While versions of this story are very old, it seems the most modern of tales. Like that minister, who might have recognized the Messiah if he had raised his eyes from his Bible to look into the youth’s eyes, we are challenged to look into the eyes of the young men and women of today who are running away from our cruel ways. Perhaps that will be enough to prevent us from handing them over to the enemy and enable us to lead them out of their hidden places into the middle of their people where they can redeem us from our fears.
Here’s what I think we need to be about at Christ Church: Understanding that all of our blessings in life should compel us to worship each week in order to thank God. Next, all of our blessings are a sacred trust from God, which are to be returned to God proportionally; “to whom much has been given, much is required.” We should be generous knowing that not doing so results, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 25:30, in “being thrown in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then, we are to be a people of genuine contrition, sadness, and mourning over our not being the people God wants us to be. But we shouldn’t stay there. We should arise from our pleas to God having decided to live a missional lifestyle, reaching out with all we are and all we have, a broken people ministering to differently broken people, to make a positive, loving, Kingdom difference in their lives. They will certainly make a difference in ours. But it all has to start with relationship—our relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—first being honest to God and then starting relationships with those different from us. We can do it. We must do it!
The decorations are in the attic; the gifts exchanged; the Christmas season is over—now let the real work of Christmas begin in our repentant hearts, our loosened checkbooks, and our willing hands!
- Share with your group when you take down your Christmas decorations.
- Share with your group, in your own words, what you believe to be the core of Dr. Howard Thurman’s poem.
- Share with your group what you think are the cultural/social changes that contribute to people not making worship attendance a priority.
- Share with your group what you believe our culture needs to “rend our hearts” about and turn to God.
- Share with your group one commitment you are willing to make to live a missional/servant lifestyle.
 Thurman, Howard, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985)