Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sermon: "The Gospel According to Dave Matthews", Luke 1:46-55/1 Corinthians 13:4-13 (December 23, 2018)

12/23/18 (Advent IV)


While the Church at large dwells in Advent just a little longer, the secular world has been immersing itself in all things “Christmas” since at least Thanksgiving; in some cases (like in retail stores) the Christmas season seems to have started back in October. Now, as Christians, we’re used to holding things in tension—a savior who’s both divine and human, a God who’s both three and one, even our own identity as simultaneously sinners and saints—so unlike many pastors I know, I don’t have a problem enjoying the trappings of Christmas outside of worship during Advent. One of my favorite parts of the secular Christmas season is the moment Christmas music starts playing on the radio. I love hearing all the different versions of familiar songs, and I love hearing the new music that artists have created to celebrate this time of year.

Given the sheer amount of Christmas music that we hear each year, both old and new, it’s inevitable that we like some better than others. Almost everyone has a FAVORITE Christmas song: that one, when it comes on the radio or your playlist, that compels you to stop whatever you’re doing to listen. You can’t help it. The best songs are the ones that really connect to us on a deeper level than just having a catchy tune or clever words. When a particular song resonates with us, it helps us access certain truths more readily than we can through spoken word alone. Whether it speaks to a spiritual reality, a particular emotion, or the human experience in general, a really good song makes us stop and pay attention.

For a while, I had a different “favorite Christmas song” each year that really made me feel like I was connecting with the Christmas Spirit. One year, it was “Carol of the Bells”. Another year, it was the Bing Crosby/David Bowie version of “Little Drummer Boy”. Yet another year, it was a particularly upbeat version of “We Three Kings” (the only time I’ve really enjoyed that song, to be entirely honest). But for the last several years, the same song has spoken to my soul more than any other: one called “A Christmas Song”, by Dave Matthews Band.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there’s probably a fair amount of nostalgia at play here: I’m a millennial who came of age in the ‘90s and 2000s, so Dave Matthew’s voice has a special place in my heart. I’ll also admit that this isn’t the most theologically sound musical track I’ve ever heard. Jesus refers to God as “Daddy-o,” among other things that might be considered…let’s say, non-canonical, so if you listen to it after this and find yourself offended, please remember that I’m not endorsing it as an authoritative theological discourse in any way. But, as I said before, a favorite song doesn’t always have to do with the perfect content; it’s more often about how it connects with you in some deeper way. And that what this song does for me.

In spite of its title, though, and unlike most other holiday songs, only the first verse of this one (out of 5 or so) is actually about the events of Jesus’ birth. The rest of the song recounts later parts of Jesus’ life, including his associating with people of ill repute, his impending arrest, the Last Supper, and, in a roundabout way, his prayer in Gethsemane. This puzzled and bothered me for a long time. It seems like “A Holy Week Song,” or even just “A Jesus Song” might have been a more accurate title.

And yet, for some reason, I kept it on my Christmas playlist. I dwelt in this tension between what I thought a Christmas song should be and what this one was, until one day, I stopped to notice which lines were affecting me most deeply. When I paid closer attention, I realized that I had a visceral reaction EVERY TIME I heard the part of the song where Jesus prays, “Father up above, why in all this hatred do you fill me up with love?” Love! When I made this connection, I did a little math, and realized that the word “love” occurs 41 times in this song, which makes up 12% of it—almost 1/8. No other word even comes close to that frequency.

I think Dave Matthews is trying to tell me something. I think the reason “A Christmas Song” resonates with me is that it forces me to take a step back this time of year. It reminds me that my narrow understanding of “The Christmas Story”—the manger, the angels, the shepherds, the magi—isn’t what Christmas is about. It’s not just the specific events that happened over the course of a few weeks more than 2000 years ago. Christmas is bigger than that—it’s about remembering how fiercely and perfectly God insists on loving us in spite of ourselves. And to really and truly understand that, we need to look beyond Jesus’ infancy. By telling the whole story, this song helps remind me of the true meaning of Christmas.

Now, “the true meaning of Christmas” is a somewhat loaded term. There’s really no consensus, and people are really opinionated about it. Some say, “The true meaning of Christmas is being with family.” That’s lovely, but tangential at best. “It’s about the spirit of giving,” others say. Well, yes, but aren’t we supposed to do that all the time—and not just with gifts, and not just to our family and friends? “Christmas is about the magic of childhood!” Sorry, but no. Honestly, I even cringe a little bit when people say, “Jesus is the reason for the season!” Because, yes, technically, we celebrate Christmas because of Jesus, and he’s absolutely crucial. But Jesus didn’t become incarnate for his own sake. Jesus wasn’t born because God wanted more attention. We don’t celebrate just because God deigned to hang out with us, as if Jesus were a celebrity making an appearance at a local charity event. It’s much, much bigger than that. The reason, the motivation, the POINT of Christmas is that God SO LOVED THE WORLD that God gave God’s only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.[1]

This tangible demonstration of God’s unfathomable love for us is why we have reason to celebrate this time of year. We celebrate a love so persistent that it gives absolutely everything for a world that rejects it. The events of Christmas are only one piece of the puzzle, and we can’t possibly understand all of it until we’re willing to look beyond the bright lights and fuzzy feelings to see the real, divine offering of love that Christmas represents.

If we stop to think about it, we already know that love is rarely the rose-tinted thing that Hallmark movies and holiday ads make it out to be. Genuine love is sometimes painful, because it doesn’t care if it’s returned or recognized. Love IS, for its own sake. As Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians, “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends,”[2] even when the act of loving causes heartache. Dave Matthews imagines Jesus crying out, “Father up above, why in all this hatred do you fill me up with love?” because loving is most difficult when it’s unconditional—when it’s denied or scorned, but “neither death, nor life …nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation”[3] can stop it. THAT’S the way God loves us. And THAT’S the true meaning of Christmas.

The Christmas story is still important, though. Aside from telling us about the moment that God came to dwell among us, it’s also one of the greatest illustrations of this sort of love. Every character, every moment, every choice in the narrative reflects the type of love that God has for us—and how we, in turn, ought to reflect and respond to it. For just one example, consider Mary. Long before that silent night in Bethlehem, she encountered God’s love through an angel telling her that she would give birth to the Son of God. Having been raised on stories of the coming Messiah, she doubtless understood the enormous significance of God’s promise being fulfilled in her lifetime—and through her, no less! But she also would have known the immense sacrifice that this would require of her, a young, unmarried girl. And yet, she responded to God’s love with love herself: although her life would become complicated beyond imagination, she replied, “Let it be with me according to your word.”[4] Her love for God and her people was so great that she was willing to give of herself whatever was necessary. THAT’S what Christmas is about, right there.

Mary also shares the meaning of Christmas in another way though her “Magnificat”, the song of praise that she offers to God during her pregnancy. Mary sings not of family and cookies and eggnog and brightly wrapped packages, but of God’s strength and mercy towards God’s people. She sings of God turning the world upside down so that the lowly are lifted up and the hungry filled with good things. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is. God’s faithfulness to God’s people throughout the generations, in spite of their own doubts and faithlessness: THAT’S what Christmas is about.

We can see the meaning of Christmas in the self-offering of a young girl, the loyalty of her husband, the vulnerability of a baby. Christmas looks like God choosing humility and self-sacrifice in order to draw us closer. It’s our own sinfulness having absolutely no power to stop God’s love for us. These aren’t necessarily the first things we think about when we consider Christmas, but they’re the things that God has done and is doing still. And this is why we celebrate: because Jesus is coming to show us, beyond any doubt, exactly how much God loves us.

So now that we better understand what Christmas is really about, how will we follow Mary’s example? How will you give of yourself in response to the miraculous outpouring of God’s love? Maybe you’ll finally say “yes” to something God’s been asking of you, even though it’ll be hard. Maybe you’ll figure out a new way to give back to others in need, in spite of your busy schedule. Maybe you’ll become more vocal about an issue that’s close to God’s heart, even if it earns you criticism. There are so many opportunities for us to participate in the Christmas love that God pours out on humankind in all times and places; we just have to choose ours.

So I think I’ll keep “A Christmas Song” on my Christmas playlist, even though it doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy, because it reminds me that Christmas is about more than just feeling good. God’s love is too big and too profound to be contained in a single story on a single day. It’s hard for us to comprehend the true magnitude of such love when we fixate on a small part of it, but God desperately wants us to understand—desperately enough to come down and show us in person. Paul says that “…we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.”[5] Christmas is coming for this very reason: so that we might no longer be limited in our understanding, but begin to know the enormity, the tenacity, the intensity of divine love. Only then will we be willing to respond to this gift in the way that it deserves, by giving enough of ourselves that all humankind can know God’s incredible love. As we finish the preparation of Advent and begin the celebration of Christmas, let’s remember that the manger is only the beginning. There’s so much more to be understood, so much more to be done, and so, SO much more love to be shown: thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] John 3:16, NRSV.
[2] 1 Corinthians 13:7-8a, NRSV.
[3] Romans 8:38-39, NRSV.
[4] Luke 1:38, NRSV.
[5] 1 Corinthians 13:9-10, NRSV.

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