The Ghost of Christmas Past

You know the story. Everybody knows the story.Miserable old businessman Ebenezer Scrooge lived for nothing but money. The problem was, his money was not making him happy, it was making him miserable. Everyone in his life knew it. His office clerk, Bob Cratchit knew it. His nephew, Fred knew it. The two nameless chaps collecting for the poor knew it. His deceased business partner, Jacob Marley knew it. However, Marley also knew change was still possible, so he came to visit Scrooge. He told him that three more ghosts would come to visit him. The first would be the Ghost of Christmas Past. The second would be the Ghost of Christmas Present. The third would be the ghost of Christmases yet to come, or the Ghost of Christmas Future. They were coming for one reason, transformation!

When we last left Scrooge, he was waiting. When the clock struck one, the waiting ended. The Ghost of Christmas Past came in the form of a young woman. Her presence is so bright that he can hardly see her. In accordance with her name, she shows him his past Christmases. His memories are a mixed bag. Some of his Christmas memories were wonderful memories. There was the Christmas that he partied with old Fezziwig. There was the Christmas his sister Fanny escorted him home. Some of his Christmas memories were not so great. There was the Christmas he spent in school alone. How many wonderful Christmas memories do you have? How many Christmases do you wish you could forget? In many ways, we are no different than Scrooge. You know the truth.

Everyone is expected to be merry at Christmas. Does anyone here have a problem with that last statement? For many, Christmas is not merry. For some, Christmas is not merry because of the death of a loved one. It may be a spouse. It may be a parent. It may be the death of a good friend or the death of a child. For some, Christmas is not merry because there is a lack of money. They are unemployed or underemployed. They have mismanaged their money in the past, and that has tainted their present. For some, Christmas is not merry because of reality. In their youth they had such dreams. They were going to see the world and make a million along the way. They have seen nothing but their leaky wet basement in their rented home. For others, Christmas is not merry because of failing health. Does anyone here feel like they have let the youngest generation down? Do I have to go on, or do you get the picture? Christmas has a way of magnifying our disappointments. Christmas is not always merry.

Our scripture lesson for today comes from the first chapter of Luke, verses 26-45. You know the scripture. Perhaps, we have grown too comfortable with it. It is not really our fault. It has been told and retold over the past 2,000 years. It has been promoted by both the secular and the sacred worlds. Countless sermons have been written about it. Some of the greatest pieces of music have been inspired by it, and the masters of the art world have tried to capture it. In every home a Nativity set sits proudly on display to remind us of the story of the birth of Jesus. Do you know of anyone who does not know the story of the birth of Jesus? This morning I challenge you to look at this story from a different perspective. In your mind’s eye, strip away the traditions. I just want you to listen to the words. What does the Bible say? The Bible says it all began with an unwanted pregnancy. That unwanted pregnancy placed a young woman in a difficult situation. Once you walk in Mary’s shoes, the scripture suddenly comes to life.

Mary models for us how to survive in our world. She illustrates three things about life. They are the outline for my message today. First, she illustrates for us that life is hard. There is nothing easy about life. Second, she illustrates for us that sometimes we need others. She went to her cousin, Elizabeth. Third and finally, she illustrates for us that we always need God. I promise I will be brief.

First, Mary illustrates for us: life is hard. Life has always been hard. If you do not believe me, then look at the Nativity itself. Do not glamorize the story. Do not get sucked into the tradition; just read the words. Every person in the story was in a difficult situation. Mary was in a difficult situation. In a time that valued morals, Mary was an unwed pregnant woman. Joseph was in a difficult situation. There was no right answer. On the one hand, he has every right to divorce Mary and walk away. The problem is, Mary would have been found guilty of adultery. That means she could be stoned to death. How could he live with her death on his hands? On the other hand, if he takes Mary as his own, then he brings shame on himself. He is saying he has broken the abstinence law during the engagement. Zachariah and Elizabeth were in a difficult situation. They have no children and their society demanded children. If you turn to the second chapter of Matthew, then you find the story of the Magi. All they wanted to do was worship the new-born king. Do you remember what happened? Their sincere actions led to the death of two-year-old baby boys and younger. Do I have to go on? Each one of the characters reminds us that life is hard. Do you know of anyone who has a hard life? Could it be that you have a hard life? Do you know of anyone who has ever said, “Life is much easier than I ever expected!” No! Life is hard! If you agree that life is hard, say, “Amen!” Scrooge was rich, but he had a hard life!

Second, Mary illustrates for us: sometimes we need others. Look at the story one more time with me. Mary was from the town of Nazareth. In her time, Nazareth had a population of between 100 and 400 people. Have you ever lived in a small town?

Have you ever worshipped in a small membership church? Everyone knows everyone else. Everyone knows everyone’s business. Mary is single and pregnant in a small town. Everyone in her life is talking about her pregnancy. She is the hot topic at the well. The story says she went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. Biblical scholars believe she went for two reasons. First, she goes to Elizabeth to escape the people in her life. Second, she goes to Elizabeth to receive some unconditional love. Has there ever been a time in your life when you needed the counsel of someone else? Have you ever been the counsel for someone else?

Sometimes we need people. Mary went to Elizabeth. Where do you go? Have you ever gone to visit a relative? Have you ever gone to visit a friend? Have you ever traveled to a counselor or a support group? Don’t feel guilty! Sometimes we need people. And all of God’s people said, “Amen!” Scrooge was rich, but he had no unconditional love.

Third and finally, Mary illustrates for us: we always need God. Beyond our reading for today comes one of the great pieces of scripture in the Bible. It is called the Magnificat; it means “glorifies”. In that song, Mary completely surrenders to God’s will. Just think about that for a moment. She sacrificed her dreams and desires for her life for God’s will. Generations later, she reminds us that we always need God.

One of the things that makes Christmas so difficult is all the images of the season. Christmas is the most visual holiday of the year. The season is filled with Christmas trees and Christmas lights. It is filled with Christmas cards and Christmas gifts. It is filled with Santa Claus and the Nativity. There are Christmas movies and Christmas cookies. There is both sacred and secular Christmas music. No matter where you turn, you are reminded of Christmas. You are expected to be merry. What happens when Christmas isn’t merry? For many, those images are painful. Do you know anyone who can’t wait to get Christmas over? Maybe we need a new image?

Years ago, Kathryn and I had the great fortune to travel to Israel. It was a great trip and we saw amazing things. The highlight for me was traveling to Bethlehem. It is not far from Jerusalem, about 5.5 miles. You can feel the spiritual tension. It is a sacred spot for three major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, and the Muslim faith. Every Christmas Eve I think about being in the Church of the Nativity. It is the spot where they say Jesus was born. The exact spot is under the center altar. We stood in line to get to that spot. The spot is marked by a brass star on the floor. To feel the spot where Christ was born, you had to get on your knees. I did it and I felt a spiritual rush. All the problems of this world seemed to disappear, and I viewed the world with eyes fixed on eternity. I was not the only one. Others felt that spiritual rush. There was a woman on the other side of the center altar who was overwhelmed with emotion. She was crying because she touched the spot where Jesus was born. I will never forget that experience. It was like touching the fingertips of God. How would your life change if you could touch the fingertips of God?

You know it is true. There is nothing easy about life. It is so hard that sometimes we reach out to others. It may be in the form of a support group or a professional counselor. That supporting person may be a relative or a friend. Sometimes we need others. However, we always need God. David Jeremiah once said, All the Christmas presents in the world are worth nothing without the presence of Christ.”

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