Jorge Acevedo ~ Advent Classic: A Blue Christmas

When I was a kid growing up, one of my heroes was Clint Eastwood. He stood alongside John Wayne as one of the baddest dudes on the planet in my book. From “Dirty Harry” to “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” Clint Eastwood seemed to always play the quiet but intense characters. But by far, my most favorite Clint Eastwood movie was “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Clint played “Blondie” who was the good guy. “Angel Eyes” was the bad guy and “the Rat” was the ugly guy. The iconic scene is the Mexican standoff at the end of the movie between these three.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Sounds a lot like life to me. It is possible to categorize most of life into one of these three categories. Think about this with me. Much of life is very good. Think about the many good things in your life or as the old hymn says, “Count your blessings. Name them one by one. And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”

In my life, I’d include on my “good” list, first and foremost Jesus. Thirty-eight years ago, lost in a world of addiction, I finally noticed the One who had noticed me since my first breath. Jesus is on my “good” list. My wife Cheryl and I have enjoyed 38 years of marriage. We deeply love and respect each other. My sons and grandkids, siblings, and parents, countless friends, all make the list. Being one of the pastors at Grace Church for more than 20 years is on my list. And the list goes on and on. So what’s on yours?

When you came in, you were handed a treasure chest. These were hand painted by the children of JCE Elementary School, the school in Suncoast that we have adopted. If you open it you’ll see three small sheets of paper. Please take out one and grab a pen from the seat back in front of you and write out a handful of the “good” of your life. “Count your blessings. Name them one by one. And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” Take just a few moments to do this right now.

It would be spectacular if all of life was “good,” but we know that is not so. Jesus even said, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows.” (John 16:33b NLT). As we say around here often, life has a big “if” in the middle of it. Life is “iffy.” That’s why we don’t just have a “good” list, but we also have a “bad” one. For most of us here tonight, what drove us to the Blue Christmas service was some kind of pain, some kind of heartache, and some kind of grief. Life is a contact sport. Someone we deeply love dies. A relationship is severed. A job is lost. A diagnosis is given. A dream becomes a nightmare. Life dings us. Sometimes it dings us bad. The wound in our soul is tender and we wonder whether it will ever heal.

On my “bad” list for 2016 is a very painful trial and sorrow. On the morning of October 17th, our precious 17-month-old granddaughter Zoe was hit by a car and airlifted to Tampa General Hospital. I was speaking at a conference in remote northern Alabama when I received word of the accident via email. We had no cellphone reception where I was and so I sped to the Atlanta Airport. For 30 minutes I did not know if Zoe was alive or dead. It was agonizing leaving me with PTSD-type symptoms and bringing our family and friends to their knees. This accident took the breath out of us. So let me ask you, what’s on your “bad” list tonight?

Inside your treasure chest is a brown sheet of paper. Would you please take it out? How about you jot down the “bad” of your life right now? Put words to your “many trials and sorrows” experience.

So, what does the “ugly” of our life look like? I would describe the “ugly” of our lives as those parts of our lives we are ashamed or embarrassed about. They are the hurts, habits, and hang-ups of our lives that because of the “bad” in our lives, we turn to so we can cope.

It’s the overworked and underappreciated mom, who diligently works a full-time job, faithfully cares for her family, humbly serves in her church and quietly but destructively manages her too full life with alcohol. It’s the stressed-out businessman who is juggling too many responsibilities and rages on the people he loves the most. It’s the lonely young adult who secretly views pornography and lives racked with self-hate and self-condemnation. Everybody has something on his or her “ugly” list. What’s on yours?

During this holiday season, I’ve seen some of the “ugly” of my life peek out. I only know to call it uncontrolled anger and sadly it’s been directed towards Cheryl, my wife. Now I have a few good reasons to be a bit angry yet I know as a follower of Jesus that uncontrolled anger is not God’s best for my life. This is some of my real-time, Christmas 2016 “ugly.” What’s yours?

One last time, would you please take out your treasure chest and find the tattered piece of paper and jot down your “ugly” tonight. Maybe you just need to put a symbol or some initials. This is just between you and God.

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” We all have something on each list. Tonight, I want to remind you that life is a complex mixture of all three kinds of experiences…good to celebrate, bad to grieve, and ugly to heal. Tonight, our treasure chests hold all three. Go with me now to the nativity scene. The shepherds have come and gone and now wise men or magi arrive. These, the most intellectual and astute philosophers of their day come to the manger. Matthew tells us what happened:

“They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” – Matthew 2:11 (NLT)

They opened their treasure chests in the presence of Jesus.

I want to invite you to do the same thing. Would you open up yours? I want to invite you to close your eyes now. In your treasure chest is the good, the bad and the ugly of your life. Imagine with me that you are approaching the manger and there you bow down with your chest and you lay it at Jesus’ feet. You thank him for the good things in your life. You ask him to heal the bad things in your life and you surrender to him the ugly things of your life. Let’s pray.

One last thing! A few weeks ago, I was privileged to attend a pre-screening of the new Will Smith movie “Collateral Beauty.” I highly recommend it. In the movie, Will Smith plays a highly successful marketing executive whose young daughter dies. It’s the journey of his healing and recovery from this unthinkable tragedy. The one line that rocked me was when a mysterious woman in a hospital tells the mother whose daughter is dying this word:

Make sure you notice the collateral beauty.

Think about that with me. Make sure you notice the collateral beauty. What did this mysterious woman mean? She means that when we walk the lonesome valley of pain and suffering, there are glimpses of God’s grace along the path.

Many of us know the famous shepherd’s psalm, Psalm 23. I do not believe I have ever officiated at a funeral that I did not read these words of hope and comfort. After declaring that the Lord was his Shepherd who takes him to still waters and green pastures, the tone of the psalm shifts. You know it:

“Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.” – Psalm 23:4 (NLT)

What you might not know is the Valley of the Shadow of Death is an actual place in Israel. When Pastor Wes took a crew of folks from Grace Church to Israel this winter, Jimmy Nammour, their guide took them to this place. But here’s what you need to notice my precious friend. At the deepest depths of this valley are a waterfall and a freshwater spring. There is collateral beauty even in the valley of the shadow of death.

Remember that I told you about my granddaughter Zoe’s accident. Let me share with you one example of the collateral beauty as we walked this valley as a family. During the days following the accident, my email, text and messaging boxes filled up with precious friends and acquaintances from all over who prayed for Zoe and our family. One of the messages I received was from Jimmy Nammour, our guide in Israel. Jimmy was in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity where many believe the manger Jesus was born in stood in the 1st century. Here Jimmy and several other followers of Jesus gathered to offer healing prayers for our Zoe. In the midst of this dark night, we saw a glimpse of God’s amazing grace as Arabic-speaking followers of Jesus gathered at the birthplace of Jesus to pray for her and us.

Tonight, you do not have to travel to Bethlehem. The Jesus of Bethlehem’s manger is here. At this table, you can meet him as we remember the collateral beauty of Jesus’ life and death on the cross and experience the hope and healing of his glorious resurrection.

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