Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas


Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;[a] lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,[b] lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.


Sermon Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas


Good morning. I was in Shop Rite the other day and the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” began to play on the sound system in the store. It stopped me dead in my tracks. It always does. There’s a mournful quality to the song, which I never heard as a young person. I was probably about 30, or so, when I first noticed how sad this song can be.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was originally written for the movie, Meet Me in St. Louis. It was released in 1944 and very quickly became a favorite among U.S. servicemen who were serving in Europe and the Pacific, separated from loved ones, not knowing if they would ever make it home or see those loved ones ever again. No doubt, they identified with the longing and sadness that’s expressed in the song.

Even though I’m an only child, I grew up as part of a big extended family. Both of my grandmothers played a huge role in my life. Christmas always included at least one grandmother, and often both. There were lots of great aunts and uncles to visit, there was always church on Christmas Eve, and, when I was little, there was always that big, huge production of unwrapping gifts on Christmas Day.

My parents separated after thirty-four years of marriage. It was probably that same year that I first noticed the mournful quality of the song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I was walking through a shopping mall when I heard the lines, “Through the years we all will be together / If the fates allow,” and I got more than a little choked up.

I thought of loved ones who had passed away. I thought of my elderly grandmothers, who probably weren’t going to be around much longer. I was reminded of the Christmases when we had all been together. I knew there wouldn’t be many more of those. So yeah, I got more than a little bit choked up as I realized that those lovely Christmases from my childhood were gone.

The song expresses a wish for joy and happiness; at the same time, it acknowledges that something has been lost. Separation, loss, and disconnection are major themes in our reading from Isaiah. As I mentioned last Sunday, the Book of Isaiah was likely composed by at least three different authors, over a span of a couple hundred years. Our reading today comes from the middle section of Isaiah, which was written during the period known as the Babylonian Captivity, or exile.

That period of exile lasted for some 60-80 years. During that time, members of the religious and political leadership of the Kingdom of Judah were taken from Jerusalem as prisoners. The deportations took place in three waves, over a span of about 15-20 years. Each time, they watched their own armies get defeated by the Babylonians. In the final wave of deportations, Jerusalem was sacked. The people of Judah saw the destruction of Solomon’s temple.

The people of Judah believed that God dwelled among them, that God was enthroned in Solomon’s temple—it was the seat of the Jewish religion. The temple was the only proper place to make sacrifices to God. It was the center of Jewish religious life.

They were the Jews, Israel, God’s chosen people.

They were defeated. Captured. Exiled.

God didn’t stop the invasion.

The temple where God dwelled was destroyed. The destruction of the temple may have been one of the last things that some of the exiles saw as they were taken away. They had to feel like God had abandoned them. That’s the context for these words from Isaiah.

It’s also how many of us are feeling now.

Most of us had small gatherings for Thanksgiving. Some folks spent the holiday alone.

A dear friend of mine lost her mother to COVID-19. She couldn’t be with her mother and hold her hand as she was dying.

We are all tired of wearing masks, social-distancing, Zoom meetings, and every other thing we’ve had to do to get through this pandemic. We want it to end. Now. Yes, there’s a vaccine, but we still have to wait.

No, our suffering is not as great as the exiles from Jerusalem. Our sense of loss and longing and grief does not rise to the levels of what the generations of exiles, born into captivity in Babylon, must have felt. But this year, more than ever before, we can relate to the reality of this text. We can feel a tiny bit of what the exiles felt. And we can feel a tiny bit of what the soldiers and sailors who served in Europe and the Pacific felt when they heard songs like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

In the midst of that darkness, in exile in Babylon, God speaks to the people through the prophet Isaiah. God speaks some of the most comforting words in all of scripture:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

God is telling the people to keep their faith; God is telling them that their period of punishment is over, the penalty has been paid. In fact, it’s almost like God is saying, “I guess I was a little too harsh; sorry about that.”

What’s more, God is telling the people to get ready for something new: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,’ and, ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.’” Then God reminds the people that God’s word will stand forever—it’s time to set aside their fears and move into the new reality that God has prepared for them.

Throughout this wonderful passage, we hear several variations on the message: Cry out! This is the way forward for us, too. And I can tell you, it works!

My dad died on November 3, 2013. I was in my final year in seminary. It was one of the darkest times in my life. I, too, can understand a little bit of what those exiles in Babylon felt.

My extended family was scattered, my grandmothers were long gone, my parents were divorced, and my dad was dead. My life as I knew it was gone. It felt like my mother was the only person in the world who truly knew me. I needed to be with her, but she was 300 miles away! I couldn’t wait for Christmas break.

Then, when things seemed like they couldn’t get any bleaker, I got sick. It was December 23rd and I was violently ill. On Christmas Eve, I was still too sick to go to church. Physically, I felt a lot better on Christmas Day, but I was too tired to drive across the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Emotionally, I was a mess. I was really hurting.

Normally, I keep this stuff to myself. But that year, I cried out—I posted my story on Facebook. In a matter of a few minutes, I had four invitations for Christmas dinner. Three were from members of my church family, the other was from one of my best friends. I had been feeling all alone, like an exile from my own past. But people reached out to me and invited me into their homes; they invited me into the here and now.

This morning’s reading from Isaiah offers visions of hope, while acknowledging pain at the same time, just like the song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Frank Sinatra recorded two different versions of this song, first in 1950, with the same lyrics that Judy Garland sang in the movie. Then in 1957, Sinatra recorded an album called A Jolly Christmas. Before recording that album, Sinatra asked the composer, Hugh Martin, to change the last verse. Sinatra didn’t like the line, “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Sinatra asked Martin, “Do you think you could jolly that line up for me?” The revised lyric is, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” He didn’t want the song to be a lament.

In 2013, my Christmas began with a lament. I was looking for people who were gone. But my friends heard me cry out and they adopted me into their families on that day. They recognized that we are all children of God.

I was looking for the Jerusalem of my past, but they reminded me to look to the present. And when I did, I saw that I was loved and that I was not alone. My church family invited me in and showed me God’s love. They reminded me that we can rewrite our stories, just as Sinatra asked the songwriter to change a lyric.

Beloved, I’m not the hero of this story. Neither are the folks who invited me in on Christmas Day. No, God is the hero of this story, for it is God who sent Christ’s Holy Spirit to all of us, and it is through His Spirit that we truly reach out to one another. So, if you are feeling isolated and alone in this season, reach out; let people know that you are hurting. Likewise, if you are feeling God’s love in this season, open your ears and your hearts! Listen for the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness. And as we reach out, in love, to those around us, we are reminded that we are all truly a part of God’s holy family. Let us live into that joyous, grace-filled reality. Thanks be to God. Amen.



Benediction

Beloved, as you go forth into the world, let go of your fears, embrace God’s peace, and prepare for something new! Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

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