“All in the Family”
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
December 8, 2019
I wonder how this season feels for you? Does it feel heavy or light; burdensome or freeing? Does it bring you joy? Or, to use, non-church language, does Christmas make you happy? There are scientists who actually study what makes us happy and one of the studies was a bit of a surprise.
Scientists studied Olympic medal winners to find out who was happiest. They wrote about it in the journal Scientific American. The scientists went into it assuming that a person’s happiness level would match with their level of medal: that gold winners would be happiest, then silver, then bronze. But that is not what they found. Gold winners were happiest, of course, but silver winners were not next. In fact, they were pretty unhappy; whereas bronze winners were thrilled. When they mapped the faces of medalists, 2/3 of the bronze winners broke into a huge grin upon winning. Not a single one of the silver winners smiled at all. Zero.
What the scientists realized was that silver medalists were focused on what might have been—that they almost won gold but didn’t. Bronze medalists, in contrast, were focused on gratitude. They knew they were this close to not being on the podium at all. Christmas carries some heavy baggage of “what might have been” or even “what once was.” The season is heavily weighted down with nostalgia.
There is nothing wrong with a little bit of nostalgia; listening to an old carol and remembering it was your mother’s favorite, or sitting still awhile to remember the Christmases when you were a child or when your children were small. There is nothing wrong with that. Except that nostalgia can play tricks on us. When we look back our memory can both iron out the difficult parts and it can place a freight load of emotion on those memories that they cannot hope to bear.
When nostalgia becomes this kind of experience for us at Christmas, it means no other Christmas can ever live up to our memories, no other Advent will we feel closer to God than the Advent of 1997 or 1951. We can live our Christmases as the silver medalist who is missing out on the gold.
New Testament professor David Bartlett has noted that “Nostalgia is memory filtered through disproportionate emotion.” And that is what can happen to us at Christmas. And it is a dead end. It will leave us feeling empty and bereft of all we could have had. Bartlett finishes his statement with this: “Faith, in contrast to nostalgia, is memory filtered through appropriate gratitude.” Nostalgia is memory that rests in what might have once been or what we do not have now, and faith is memory that rests in gratitude.
And gratitude is what Advent and Christmas are all about. Let’s take a moment to realize again that we were lucky to make it on the podium at all? Today we lit a candle called the “Bethlehem” candle—a city I know I have never been to and certainly one that is not the hometown of anyone in this room. We hang Chrismon ornaments on our tree upstairs that are in Greek, literally in Greek, because that is the language the gospel writers spoke! Mary, Joseph, John, even King Herod, they were middle eastern Jews who lived over 2,000 years ago in a land over 7,000 miles away. They saw the fulfillment of 3,000 years of middle eastern Jewish scripture. We are not their people, nor do we recognize their place or understand their time. When we hear the Christmas story, we are overhearing the promises God has offered to someone else. Think about that for a moment. At Christmas we are overhearing the promises given to others first—to Mary and her family of course. Then to her people, the ancient Jews of Judah. Then to pagans throughout the Roman Empire. And so on, and so on.
Part of those promises, each year, are found in this strange figure of John the Baptist. He is not the first person you think of at Christmas and you might even feel like he is in your way: let’s get to the shepherds and manger already! But John offers some of the best good news we could ever hear. We shouldn’t be surprised that he offers it in a pretty abrasive way, considering he is a pretty abrasive character. But it is still very good news indeed. He says to some representative Jewish leaders, when they tell him they are certain of their winning place because they are children of Abraham, he says to them, “I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
That was it—some very good news for us. Did you hear it? He is telling them that God can add to his family anytime he wants—raise up new children for himself even from the most unlikely of ingredients. And, it turns out, in the birth of Jesus, that is just what God did. Paul puts it this way in Romans. He writes, “For I tell you that Christ has come so that the Jews would know that God keeps his promises AND so that Gentiles might know of God’s mercy.” Those two reasons.
For Jews, God is a promise keeper—they have indeed won as he said they would. And for Gentiles, outsiders, you and me, God has shown us mercy because we have been brought into a story that was not originally ours, brought into a family who joyfully grafts us onto its tree. We are the bronze winners at Christmas! The memory of this can deepen our faith during this season and every season for we should be grateful we are even on the podium at all.
Famously Jesus told a parable about a line of workers who all got paid the same amount. Whether you were at the beginning of the line and had worked all day or at the end of the line and had worked an hour, you all got the same. We hear Jesus tell this and we can get upset. But, of course, we only get upset if we assume we were at the front of the line in the first place. You are not the gold medal winner. And I am not the silver medal winner. We have all received the bronze at Christmas, let into the family who did not have to take us in.
Don’t let nostalgia have it’s way this Christmas. A little of it is nice if our memories bring us comfort. But too much of it and we will spend the season thinking of what might have been or of what perhaps once was. Christmas is not the season of nostalgia. It is the season of faith based in gratitude. What might have been does not matter one bit in the face of what is. For, I tell you, God is able to raise up new children, is able to expand his family. And he did. And he has. And we are all winners for it. Amen.