they smile, faithfully believing everything will turn out alright by Christmas. and it Does.
an epiphany found in Jeremiah 31:7-14
and every Hallmark Christmas Movies ever made.
The late Ram Das spoke about a Rabbi who, after reading the holy scriptures, would instruct his students to place those words on their hearts.
One day a student asked, “Rabbi why do say to put these words on my heart and not in it?”
“Because” said the Rabbi, “only God can put things in your heart. We put them on our hearts so when God cracks us open, they will fall inside.”
Last year did it’s best to crack us. For many it did more than that. So today we gather with the new year and with a new chance to fill those cracks with the goodness of the Lord who is renewing us from within; transforming our hearts and minds so that we might go and transform our world.
He writes “We build something beautiful in our minds or with our hands, and we hope our work endures. Then the tide comes in and rolls over us. Trial after trial, set back after set back, we build and rebuild. It’s what we do. It’s what God does.”
Last year, the waves came crashing down on us. But God was there, rebuilding us and making something new out of great love for us. It’s a story that is repeated time and time again in the bible. One of which we read about here, from the young prophet Jeremiah.
READ JEREMIAH 31:7-14
What a perfect reading for a new year. It reminds us of why our faith is so important to how we move through life. Like I’ve always said, faith is less about getting into heaven when we die and more about living in heaven right now. Jeremiah gives us a great picture of what that living looks like – people gathered from every corner of the earth to shout praises and raise their glasses to toast God. There’s singing and dancing and celebrating the goodness of life.
Today, in these last days of the Christmas season, churches around the world are celebrating Epiphany, when God revealed God’s self to the world. It’s often accompanied by the story of the Magi coming to visit Jesus. But today, I want to talk about the epiphany I had while binge watching Hallmark Christmas movies this past week.
In every story there’s a cynical person from the big city who for some reason has to go to a small town where they discover, or rediscover, the magic of Christmas. And fall in love with hot cocoa. No matter where this small town is located, it’s always within driving distance to Manhattan. And there’s always snow. Lots of snow.
There’s also a certain mystique and mystery about Hallmark Christmas movies that draws you in and makes you want to watch more. It isn’t the predictable outcome, boy meets girl and falls in love.
Nor is it the fact that everyone is obsessed with Christmas or that every square inch of their home or business has been professionally decorated by magical elves with an endless supply of ornaments.
It’s more subtle than that. After watching three movies back to back, I began to notice that in every scene, people are smiling. And for some strange reason it makes me want to watch more Hallmark Christmas movies. I guess that the old saying is true - smiling is contagious.
Sadly, this doesn’t happen enough in the real world. Not even at Disney, and that’s the happiest place on earth. The real world is full of cynicism, and real pain and deep suffering. These days it seems to lack that joy and goodness that makes us want to smile.
But not in towns like Holiday Falls or Hope Junction. There everyone smiles. All the time. No matter how bleak or dire the situation becomes, they smile – faithfully believing that everything will turn out alright by Christmas. And you know what...it does. They smile because they have hope.
The previous chapters in Jeremiah are dedicated to warning God’s people that a time will come when their world will come crashing down. In today’s reading, the prophet reminds them not to lose hope. Instead, keep smiling because God is always smiling upon you.
But here’s the thing, you don’t have to live in a world where a cup of cocoa can solve all our problems, to produce a smile. You just need a small glimmer of hope. Long before that first Christmas Day, the incarnation was already unfolding.
Jeremiah’s words remind us that God is always one step ahead of us, leading us to whence we came. We can have hope in God, knowing that what we’re dealing with today is preparing us for what is to come tomorrow.
This should be good news for all of us who survived 2020. Christmas is our reminder that life is pregnant with hope, always giving birth to God’s grace and glory. Knowing that God has included us in that story ought to bring a smile to everyone’s face.
Now another characteristic of every Hallmark Christmas movie is the fact that someone or something needs to be rescued – like the annual Christmas pageant or a small family business. But that rescue is usually the precursor to the main characters being redeemed from his or her past.
For forty years Jeremiah warned the people that something bad was about to unfold. If they didn’t repent and return to God, then they too will fall like the many nations that had conquered them in the past. Eventually his prophecy would come true. And God’s people would be scattered and stuck in places they don’t want to be. As they were being humbled, all they had to hold onto was the hope of God’s promise that Jeremiah spoke about.
This is what makes this passage important for us as we start the new year. There are places we find ourselves that we don’t want to be in. Dark places of addiction, anger, jealousy, or resentment. Places that steal our joy and cause us to lose hope in God’s word.
Like these silly movies show us, we are all in need Christmas - God’s final word on salvation. In Christ, God came to save us from ourselves by showing us how to live rightly in God’s promise. It’s in this way of living, God transforms us to be who God created us to be - kind, loving, peacemakers seeking justice and equality for all people.
In Hallmark Christmas Land, this transformation is obvious. With a renewed heart, the redeemed character always decides the big city life just isn’t where they belong anymore. So they buy the failing bookstore or crumbling hotel and start over. They give themselves a second chance at life.
Hope and restoration. That is the hallmark of Christmas.
This is exactly the Christmas gift God is offering you in Christ Jesus. This is the great Epiphany - that God came to be with us, to rescue us, by becoming one of us. On Christmas, God's grace became incarnate and transformed the world; restoring us and returning us to place where our hearts have always belonged – at home in God’s heart.
This doesn’t mean we won’t have more days like we experienced in 2020. There will be suffering and sorrow, and hard times that will challenge us.
But out of pain comes healing, out of darkness comes light. God’s mercy and grace that is given to us in Christ Jesus is just what we need to help us through difficult situations. Like Jeremiah points out when the hard times end, we will be closer to God than we were before.
Which takes me to one last thing about Hallmark Christmas movies. This is the obvious one. Every movie ends with true love being found. Which makes total sense, because Christmas is the greatest love story ever told. Christ is proof of God’s unconditional, transformative love. A love that is real and everlasting, and always catches us off guard.
It’s the kind of love that cracks our heart wide open and allows God to be where God wants to be the most. In you - singing, dancing, celebrating and of course sipping endless amounts of hot cocoa.
As the new year begins, I hope that you will always remember that in Christ God has given us a chance to renew our faith and to place our hope in the great heart that leads us home just in time for Christmas.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.