Sermon for Christmas Eve 2020
In 1942 Bing Crosby recorded a single album of a song that was featured in one of his recent films. He didn’t think much of it at the time and he had no reason to. As songs go it didn’t seem very special to him. The lyrics weren’t profound or clever. The melody was sweet, humable, but not really remarkable.
It became the best-selling single album of all time, and it set a record that to this day has never been broken, and no one has even come close. That one little song has sold over 50 million copies. 50 million copies.
The song was White Christmas by Irving Berlin. Maybe you already knew that. It is still the best-selling single of all time.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the tree tops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow,
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white
This is a secular Christmas song. It mentions Christmas over and over, but doesn’t actually talk about the birth of Christ. The lyrics are simple; they might even feel saccharine or overly sentimental to you, but try to imagine the song for a moment in the context of those that first heard it:
It is 1942 and all across the world families are separated and the future seems very uncertain. For several years Europe has been in the midst of a cataclysmic war and now America is coming to the end of its first-year fighting in that war and there is no end in sight, not yet. Thousands and thousands of troops know that they won’t be with their families for Christmas, and many of them probably know that there is a chance they will never be with them again. And in the midst of all that fear and uncertainty and longing, deep longing, a voice comes across the radio inviting them to dream of a happier, simpler time.
It hit a nerve, because in that moment when the future seemed so uncertain, this little song was offering people a moment of connection. A moment of connection with the past; and a moment of connection with all those that the listeners longed to be with, but couldn’t. I think this song hit a nerve, because it is a song about deep longing; and deep, deep longing, is really at the heart of what Christmas is all about.
We long to feel connected. We long for peace and happiness and stability. We long for our world to be other than the way it is. These emotions aren’t new to us in 2020. They weren’t new to the troops in 1942 either. Where does all of this longing lead us? Well longing to feel connected; longing for hope, joy and peace can lead people in all sorts of different directions, sometimes down very dangerous paths, but the Christian answer, and the story we tell tonight, is that the longing leads us here: to a simple birth in the backcountry of a Roman province 2000 years ago. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight, O little town of Bethlehem.
Here at the stable we find the connection we have been longing for. Here is our past and here is our future. Here we gather with loved ones near and far. Here, the departed gather with those that are yet to be born. Here we find the hope and courage to face an uncertain future. The answer to all of our longing is a holy child, Jesus, and he, in truth offers us more than a warm and fuzzy feeling. He offers us a new life, and a new world. Jesus offers us a connection, a communion, that is the answer to all of our longings.
Later in his life, one of Bing’s nephews asked him what was the most difficult thing he ever had to do in his career. He said in December 1944 he was doing a USO tour with Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters and at the end of the show one night, in snowy Northern France, he had to stand on stage and sing White Christmas while 100,000 troops stared back at him with tears streaming down their faces. Bing said that getting through that song without breaking down was the hardest thing he ever had to do.
The notorious Battle of the Bulge was just a few days later.
Those troops weren’t wishing for snow, they had that in abundance. That isn’t really what that song is about, not really. So many of the things we associate with Christmas, things like sleigh bells, and snow and Christmas cards, aren’t really the point of Christmas at all; they are just symbols that point us to something greater. They point us to this longing that we all share: the longing to be connected. Connected to the past, connected to the future, connected to each other and connected to God. It is the longing for connection that led those troops to sing alone with Bing through their tears. It is the longing for connection that draws us together tonight.
May you find the answer to all that longing in the same place a few shepherds did 2,000 years ago: wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.