As we near Christmas I’d like to begin this morning with some actual “Dear Santa” letters I came across last week. Some were hilarious, for example:
Dear Santa, I have been a good girl this year. Please bring me a cat, dog, and pig. Thank you! From Nikki
Dear Santa, Please give me a big fat bank account and a slim body. And please don’t mix those two up like you did last year. Thanks.
Dear Santa, You are a very nice man. How was your year? Is my friend Carter on the nice list? Did you stick the gifts in the basement because there was no room in the sleigh? Your friend, Cullen. PS: How tall is the average elf?
Others hit me a little too close to home:
Dear Santa, My name is Mia, and I am trying my best to be good, but I can’t, because it is too hard. Can you give me advice?
Dear Santa, I can’t wait for Christmas! More or less to see you. Also, I’m very sorry about my bad ups and downs. Please forgive me. Love, Emma
In this morning’s gospel reading, Matthew tells us that the birth of Jesus fulfilled a prophecy given about seven centuries earlier by the prophet Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
God is with us.
As ironic as it may sound, during the holiday season—in spite of all the parties and open houses and visits with families and friends—many people actually feel quite lonely.
Of course, for some people being around so many others actually gives them a desire to be alone, as is the case with 8-year-old Kevin McCallister (played by Macaulay Culkin) in the hilarious 1990 Christmas movie, Home Alone. Toward the beginning of the movie he is so exasperated with his large family that he begins frenetically pacing up and down the hallway, arms flailing—and although no one in his family is paying him any attention, he yells at them anyway, “This house is so full of people it makes me sick. When I grow up and get married, I’m living alone. Did you hear me?” And then he starts jumping up and down and continues yelling, “I’m living alone! I’m living alone!”
For some people the prospect of grandma getting run over by a reindeer isn’t necessarily a bad one—or if you connect with the darkness of French existentialism, perhaps you resonate with what Jean Paul Sartre wrote in his 1944 play, No Exit—“Hell is other people.”
But although, when it comes to being alone, we may at times we feel like Kevin McCallister or Jean Paul Sartre, often loneliness is not something we desire.
There have been many popular songs through the years that articulate the deep sense of loneliness that we sometimes feel.
In his 1971 song “I Am, I Said,” Neil Diamond sings:
I got an emptiness deep inside
And I’ve tried but it won’t let me go
And I’m not a man who likes to swear
But I’ve never cared for the sound of being alone
I am, I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair
In their 1978 song, “So Lonely,” The Police sing about the pain of the break-up of a romantic relationship, and in the chorus they simply sing: “So lonely, so lonely, so lonely, so lonely” (from 1978 album Outlandos d’Amour).
Much more recently the rock band Green Day (yes, Neil Diamond and Green Day in the same sermon ☺) sang about loneliness in their Grammy-winning song, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”:
I walk a lonely road
The only one that I have ever known
Don’t know where it goes
But it’s home to me and I walk alone…
I walk this empty street
On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Where the city sleeps
And I’m the only one and I walk alone, I walk alone, I walk alone
(from 2004 album American Idiot)
Perhaps Paul McCartney put it best in the classic Beatles song, “Eleanor Rigby”:
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
(from their 1966 album Revolver)
When I was a seventeen-year old junior in high school, I attended a charismatic Episcopal church in Fairfax, Virginia. Our church joined with many other churches in sponsoring and volunteering for a Billy Graham Crusade. I actually completed training to serve as a “counselor” for people who would come forward at the altar call during the singing of the beautiful hymn “Just As I Am.” I had my pen and response cards, and was ready to go.
But on the humid May night of the crusade, I was unexpectedly blown away by the sermon of the then 67-year old Billy Graham. Do you know what he preached about? Loneliness. It went straight to my heart and I could feel the love of God reassuring me. So instead of serving as a counselor I ended up being one of the many people who went forward myself to accept or recommit their lives to Christ—of course I made sure to avoid going to another trained “counselor” who would recognize me ☺. I’ve never forgotten that sermon.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is Emmanuel—that “God is with us.”
We see this theme throughout Matthew’s account of the gospel.
At his baptism, Jesus fully identified himself as the Friend of Sinners and Sufferers, and throughout his earthly ministry he spent time with notorious sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes and adulterers, and notorious sufferers like lepers and paralytics and demoniacs.
For the loneliest people, those whom no one else wanted to be around, Jesus was indeed Emmanuel, “God with us.”
In fact, Matthew is the only one of the four gospel writers who recorded Jesus’ words about the final judgment in which he identified himself among the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the prisoner. Referring to caring for such people he stated, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40).
One of my favorite Christmas movies is the 1966 cartoon How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which I still see as a powerful anecdote to the epidemic of consumerism that often surrounds this time of year. I love it when Boris Karloff sings about the evil Mr. Grinch:
You’re a monster, Mr. Grinch
Your heart’s an empty hole
Your brain is full of spiders
You’ve got garlic in your soul
Mr. Grinch, I wouldn’t touch you with a
Thirty-nine and a half foot pole…
You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch
You’re a nasty wasty skunk
Your heart is full of unwashed socks
Your soul is full of gunk
Mr. Grinch, the three best words that best describe you,
Are as follows, and I quote, “Stink! Stank! Stunk!”
Of course Mr. Grinch is the loneliest character in the story—he lives alone except for his poor dog Max. And yet if you’re anything like me, there may be times when you may feel like “your heart’s an empty hole” or “your soul is full of gunk.”
But even if you’re like Mr. Grinch, Jesus is still your Emmanuel, “God with us.”
And on Good Friday, Jesus walked alone down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams and died with those deemed worthy of capital punishment.
And on the cross, Jesus died for all those who never cared for the sound of being alone—for all whose who are so lonely, so lonely, so lonely—for all the lonely people—especially notorious sinners and sufferers.
And after his death and resurrection, in the very last verse of Matthew’s account of the gospel, Jesus reassured the disciples that he is indeed Emmanuel—“remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
One more illustration… This year one of my favorite Christian writers, Brennan Manning, died. In his 1986 book, Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus, he told the following story about a lonely and blind ten-year old boy:
One of the many documented miracles that have occurred in Lourdes, France, took place in 1957. A French father took his ten-year-old son, blind from birth, on a pilgrimage from Brittany to Lourdes. At the shrine, the child begged his father to pray for him. His dad prayed aloud, “Lord, give my boy his sight.” Instantly, the boy could see. He looked around. He saw flowers, trees, green grass, the open sky. Then he looked into his father’s eyes, the eyes that went with the only voice he had known during ten long years of darkness and loneliness. When he saw his father, do you know what he said? “Oh boy. Everybody’s here!” (pp. 140-141).
And that is the hope of Advent, that even though we may often feel alone, the good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ is our Emmanuel, that indeed “God is with us”—that all the lonely people belong to God—and that just like that little boy, one day we will see him face to face.
- Matthew 1:23