Sermon for Christmas Day, December 25, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Isaiah 62:6-12+Psalm 97+Titus 3:4-7+Luke 2:8-20

I have more than once confessed to my love of the Christmas shows of my childhood and a number of classics from my own children’s childhoods. One particular favorite from that era which we watched over and over again as 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds are wont to do is Muppet Family Christmas. It’s a silly story that mashes up all of the Muppet genres – Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock Muppet Babies, and Muppets. The show ends with a long caroling session during which those crotchety old theater critics (and critics of just about everything) Statler and Waldorf, sing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It’s a very brief and uncharacteristically sentimental moment for these two old friends.

There is actually a reason for sentimentality in this carol. It’s based on the poem Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.[1] In 1861, Longfellow’s wife died after her dress caught fire and she suffered severe burns. Longfellow tried to extinguish the flames and suffered serious facial burns. His familiar beard was grown in an effort to cover up the scars so as not to frighten people.

Two years after his wife’s death, his eldest son Charley traveled to Washington to enlist in the Union army. Before that year was out, Charley was gravely injured at the Battle of the Mine Run Campaign in Orange County, Virginia, and was precariously close to being paralyzed. When he received word, Longfellow and his second son Ernest traveled to Washington where Charley had been transported, avoiding paralysis by about an inch as a bullet had passed so near his spine.

The 57-year old Longfellow, a grieving widower and father of six children sat by his son’s bedside on Christmas morning in 1863, and as he sat there, he heard the church bells ringing. Amidst his own sorrow, his worry for his son, and the bloody and destructive Civil War, there might not have been much room for hope. Yet, although dim, hope is there, even if you have to strain to hear it.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

What are the bells saying to you this Christmas Day? Can you hear them? Are they ringing joy in the midst of sorrow? Hope in the midst of despair? The prophet Isaiah wrote:

The Lord has proclaimed
to the end of the earth:

Say to daughter Zion,
“See, your salvation comes… (Isaiah 62:11)

 Do you see it? Do you hear it?

Those shepherds did. Sitting out on a hillside under a canopy of stars, sipping from a wineskin to ward off the cold, keeping an eye on an unruly flock of sheep. Imagine, just imagine if that was you. I don’t know about you, but I’m not accustomed to angels appearing out of nowhere and telling me that a baby is going to save the world. In the retelling across the centuries, this story has lost its ability to shock us, but it is a stunning revelation of God to these rejects from society, these outcasts. Angels appeared to them, not to kings and princes and Wall Street financiers. To shepherds.

This is the Good News of the incarnation, of God come as one of us: no matter who we are or what the state of our life, God comes…to us.

In the sorrows so deep there seems no way out, God comes. In the distant ringing of bells. In the unexpected call from an old friend. In a kind word at just the right time.

In addition to old Christmas specials, I am also a fan of The Moth Radio Hour. If you aren’t familiar with it, The Moth is a radio show where people tell stories. That’s it. Just people talking about themselves or telling a story, and it is sometimes funny, sometimes breathtakingly sad. A couple of years ago, a woman from Cleveland named Auburn Sandstrom who teaches college writing at Akron University, told one of those breathtaking stories. Here is, in part, what she said (and I encourage you to listen to her telling[2]):

I’m curled up in a fetal position on a filthy carpet in a cluttered apartment. I’m in horrible withdrawal from a drug that I’ve been addicted to for several years now.

In my hand I have a little piece of paper. It’s dilapidated because I’ve been folding it and unfolding it to the point that it’s almost falling apart. But you can still make out the phone number on it.

I am in a state of bald terror. If you’ve ever had an anxiety attack, that’s what this felt like. My husband is out running the streets, trying to get ahold of some of the stuff that we needed.

And if I could, I would jump out of my own skin and run screaming into the streets to get what I need. But right behind me, sleeping in the bedroom, is my baby boy.

Now, I wasn’t going to get a Mother of the Year award. In fact, at the age of 29, I was failing at a lot of things.

I had started out fairly auspiciously. I was that girl who had the opera lessons, spoke fluent French, and had her college paid for. I was that person who, when my checking account ran out, would say something to my parents and $200 would magically appear.

But I came to the conclusion that the thing I needed to do with all that comfort was to destroy it. And you know, every time I’ve come to a major faulty conclusion in life, the man comes right after who will help me live it out.

I was 24 then, he was 40, and I was smitten, in love. And it was beautiful for a while, until he introduced me to one of his old friends, who introduced us to the drug I was now addicted to.

So curled up on my apartment floor, I decided to get clean. I was leading the life that was going to lead to me losing the most precious thing I’d ever had in my life, which was that baby boy. I was so desperate at that moment that I became willing to punch the numbers into the phone.

The phone number was something my mother had sent me. Now, mind you, I hadn’t been speaking to my parents or anybody else for three, four, five years.

But she’d managed to get this number to me by mail, and she said, “Look, this is a Christian counselor, and since you can’t talk to anybody else, maybe sometime you could call this person.”

I was emaciated, covered in bruises. I was anxious and desperate.

I punched in the numbers. I heard a man say, “Hello.”

And I said, “Hi, I got this number from my mother. Uh, do you think you could maybe talk to me?”

I heard him shuffling around in the bed. You could tell he was pulling some sheets around himself and sitting up. I heard a little radio in the background, and he snapped it off, and he became very present.

He said, “Yes, yes, yes. What’s going on?”

I hadn’t told anybody, including myself, the truth for a long, long time. And I told him I wasn’t feeling so good, and that I was scared, and that things had gotten pretty bad in my marriage.

Before long, I started telling him other truths, like I might have a drug problem.

And this man didn’t judge me. He just sat with me and listened and had such a kindness and a gentleness.

“Tell me more … Oh, that must hurt … Oh.”

I’d made that call at two in the morning. And he stayed up with me the whole night, just talking, just listening, just being there until the sun rose.

By then I was feeling calm. The raw panic had passed. I was feeling OK.

I was feeling like, I can splash my face with water today, and I can probably do this day.

I wouldn’t have cared if the guy was a Hare Krishna or a Buddhist—it didn’t matter to me what his faith was.

I was very grateful to him, and so I said, “Hey, you know, I really appreciate you and what you’ve done for me tonight. Aren’t you supposed to be telling me to read some Bible verses or something? Because that’d be cool. I’ll do it, you know. It’s all right.”

He laughed and said, “Well, I’m glad this was helpful to you.”

And we talked some more, and I brought it up again.

I said, “No, really. You’re very, very good at this. I mean, you’ve seriously done a big thing for me. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”

There’s a long pause. I hear him shifting. “Auburn, please don’t hang up,” he says. “I’ve been trying not to bring this up.”

“What?” I ask.

“You won’t hang up?”

“No.”

“I’m so afraid to tell you this. But the number you called …” He pauses again. “You got the wrong number.”

I didn’t hang up on him, but I never would get his name or call him back.

But the next day I felt this kind of joy, like I was shining. I had gotten to see that there was this completely random love in the universe. That it could be unconditional. And that some of it was for me.

I can’t tell you that I got my life totally together that day. But it became possible to get some help and get the hell out. And it also became possible as a teetotaling, semi-sane single parent to raise up that precious baby boy into a magnificent young scholar and athlete, who graduated from university in 2013 with honors.

This is what I know. In the deepest, blackest night of despair, if you can get just one pinhole of light … all of grace rushes in.[3]

This is what incarnation is like. We dial a wrong number, but God answers anyway. We undergo trials and tribulations of all sorts, and still the Christmas bells ring. Grace rushes in.

Blessings to you and yours this Christmastide.


[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/the-story-of-pain-and-hope-behind-i-heard-the-bells-on-christmas-day/

[2] https://themoth.org/storytellers/auburn-sandstrom

[3] https://www.thehealthy.com/addiction/drugs-alcohol/drug-addiction-phone-call/

ASEPSermon for Christmas Day, December 25, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas