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Sermon for December 21, 2008 -- Advent 3

Finding Joy in the Season
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

In an early October evening in 1843, Charles Dickens stepped from the brick-and-stone porch of his home near Regent’s Park in London. The cool air of dusk was a relief from the day’s unseasonal humidity as the author began his nightly walk. Dickens was deeply troubled. The 31-year-old father of four had thought he was at the peak of his career. The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby had all been successful novels. But now the celebrated writer faced serious financial problems. Sales of his the new novel were not what had been expected. It seemed his talent was being questioned. Dickens supported a large, extended family and his expenses were already nearly more than he could handle. His father and brothers were pleading for loans. His wife, Kate, was expecting their fifth child.

All summer long, Dickens worried about his mounting bills, especially the large mortgage that he owed on his house. He knew that he needed an idea that would earn him a large sum of money, and he needed the idea quickly. But in his depression, Dickens found it difficult to write. On one of his nightly walks, he ventured from his upscale neighborhood and neared the Thames River. Only the dull light from tenement windows illuminated the streets, now litter-strewn and lined with open sewers. The elegant ladies and well-dressed gentlemen of Dickens’s district were replaced by bawdy streetwalkers, pickpockets and beggars. The dismal scene reminded him of the nightmare that often troubled his sleep: A 12-year-old boy sits at a worktable piled high with pots of black boot paste. For 12 hours a day, six days a week, he attaches labels on the endless stream of pots to earn the six shillings that will keep him alive. The boy in the dream looks through the rotting warehouse floor into the cellar, where swarms of rats scurry about. Then he raises his eyes to the dirt-streaked window, dripping with condensation from London’s wintry weather. The light is fading now, along with the boy’s young hopes. His father is in debtors’ prison, and the youngster is receiving only an hour of school lessons during his dinner break at the warehouse. He feels helpless, abandoned. There may never be celebration, joy or hope again...

The nightmare was no scene from the author’s imagination. It was a memory from the impoverished days of his childhood. Fortunately, Dickens’s father had inherited some money, enabling him to pay off his debts and get out of prison -- and his young son escaped a dreary fate. Now the fear of being unable to pay his own debts haunted him. Wearily, he started home from his long walk. As he neared home, he felt the sudden flash of inspiration. What about a Christmas story! He would write one for the very people he passed on the black streets of London. People who lived and struggled with the same fears and longings he had known, people who hungered for a bit of cheer and hope.

But Christmas was less than three months away! How could he manage so great a task in so brief a time? The book would have to be short, certainly not a full novel. It would have to be finished by the end of November to be printed and distributed in time for Christmas sales. He would fill the story with the scenes and characters his readers loved. There would be a small, sickly child; his honest but ineffectual father; and, at the center of the piece, a selfish villain, an old man with a pointed nose and shriveled cheeks.

As the mild days of October gave way to a cool November, the manuscript grew page by page, and the story took life. The basic plot was simple enough for children to understand, but evoked themes that would define the meaning of Christmas for the next 150 years: After retiring alone to his cold, barren apartment on Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly London businessman, is visited by the spirit of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. Doomed by his greed and insensitivity to his fellow man when alive, Marley’s ghost wanders the world in chains forged of his own indifference. He warns Scrooge that he must change, or suffer the same fate. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come appear and show Scrooge poignant scenes from his life and what will occur if he doesn’t mend his ways. Filled with remorse, Scrooge renounces his former selfishness and becomes a kind, generous, loving person who has learned the true spirit of Christmas.

As he wrote, something surprising happened to Dickens. What had begun as a desperate, calculated plan to rescue himself from debt soon began to change the author. As he wrote about the kind of Christmas he loved, his depression lifted. A Christmas Carol captured his heart and soul. Dickens grew excited and impatient to begin the day’s work. “I was very much affected by the little book and was “reluctant to lay it aside for a moment,” he later wrote a newspaperman. Dickens told a professor in America how, when writing, he “wept, and laughed, and wept again.”

The first edition of 6000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve. Despite the book’s public acclaim, it did not turn into the immediate financial success that Dickens had hoped for, because of the low price he placed on the book. Nevertheless, he made enough money from it to scrape by and A Christmas Carol’s popularity revived his audience for subsequent novels, while giving a fresh, new direction to his life and career.

Although Dickens would write many other well-received and financially profitable books, nothing would equal the soul-satisfying joy he derived from A Christmas Carol. Dickens popularized many aspects of the Christmas we celebrate today, including great family gatherings, seasonal drinks and dishes and gift giving. Even our language has been enriched by the tale. Who has not known a “Scrooge,” or uttered “Bah! Humbug!” when feeling irritated or disbelieving. And the phrase “Merry Christmas!” gained wider usage after the story appeared.

Dicken’s life story and his famous Christmas story have familiar plotlines. We hear it in most Christmas stories, including the original from the Bible. A person, poor in wealth or poor in spirit, desperate and hopeless, encounters the true meaning of Christmas, finds joy and is changed. How about you? Is this your story this Christmas? I mean – it’s Christmas, after all. We are supposed to be happy. This is the season when the themes of joy and happiness are trumpeted at their loudest. It is also a season of commercialism, greed and debt. This year people are losing jobs, losing homes, and unable to feed their families. For many, this is a season of fear, a season of sadness, a season filled with anxiety, a season of loneliness. How dare we trivialize their aches by offering joy as a cheap antidote!

However, maybe there’s something to be heard in those worn out plotlines of joy, peace on earth and good will to all. Instead of becoming indifferent to our pain and the hurting world around us, we take some time to gain perspective. Christmas is a time of joy, not because we receive and give gifts or because we get to eat our favorite foods, but because in it humankind's deepest yearnings are fulfilled. Advent is about the hopes and fears of all the years, the triumphs and tragedies of all the years, the joys and griefs of all the years and in all of our lives... coming into a healing focus in the person of God’s Messiah. The great images of Advent are of darkness giving way to light, grief to faith or even joy, the barrenness of a desert to the beauty of paradise - paradise restored, longing to hope and the arrival of God’s salvation - especially in the advent of the Messiah, Jesus our Lord, then and now.

It’s all here in our Isaiah text. Jerusalem had been leveled to the ground in 587 B.C. by the armies of Babylon. The victors marched the captive Israelites into exile where they lived for the next fifty to seventy years. When Cyrus of Persia came to power, he granted the opportunity for the people of Israel to return home. As the grown grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original exiles arrived at their homeland, the mood turned gloomy. They returned to a forsaken and abandoned city in ruins. With limited financial resources, meager food supplies and harsh weather conditions, the people found the task of rebuilding their homeland next to impossible. God felt distant. God promised a new beginning for the people and they believed it. Their new life fell far short of what the prophets had promised. Israel had no word from God and nowhere to go. Then comes the word of hope that they need.

God speaks a word of faith, reminding them that God has actually come into humanity’s situations of misery and pain and grief.

God speaks a word of justice for the oppressed and for captives -- ‘good news’ that those sold into slavery through war or debt can legally be freed, those with confiscated lands can have them back; a gift of hope that the future is as secure as God’s promises; that a covenant of justice will prevail between God and God’s people

God speaks a word of mercy -- God comes with tenderness to bind up the broken-hearted, comfort those who mourn, giving joy to God’s people like that of a bride on her wedding-day. We still rely on those promises today. Our message insists that Jesus sets us free, and when God sets us free, we can respond with joy. We could use to let some of that joy into our hearts at this time of year.

Try to imagine this picture. It is a photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who pioneered modern photography as an art form. He was known for photographs that left mysteries unexplained He shot one of his famous photographs in a poor section of Spain in the 1930s. Peering through a hole in a concrete barrier, we see a run-down alley surrounded by decaying walls, strewn with thick piles of rubble and riddled with bullet holes dotting gray walls. The setting evokes feelings of sadness and despair. But then the contradiction. Within the grim alley children are playing. They wear dirty and tattered clothes, as one might expect, but like playing children everywhere, they laugh with carefree joy. In the foreground, a tiny boy on crutches hobbles away from two other boys, his face lit up with a broad grin. One boy is laughing so hard he has to hold his side. Others lean on the cracked walls, beaming with delight. It is easy to spot the contrast -- and the point. Joy amidst the rubble of life. Laughter among its ruins. We cannot avoid pain, however hard we try. But we can avoid joy. We cannot escape hardship and trouble, but we can miss much of life’s joy and laughter.

If your heart aches this Advent season for any reason -- the loss of love in a marriage, the memory of someone you love who is now with God, concern about a child, concerns about your health, worries about money -- don’t let despair defeat you. Take a moment and really appreciate something this season . . . anything. Let it soak in. Breathe in, breathe out, be thankful. Let yourself laugh a little. I know it’s difficult. It may be hard to see any goodness around you. But there IS goodness all around you, I promise!

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