Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Bountiful Grace and Mercy” (Isaiah 61:1)
December 17, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This time of year Christmas music is ubiquitous.  Everywhere you go you hear classic Christmas carols or recent Christmas hits—some are beautiful, some are schmaltzy, some so annoying you may find yourself reacting like the Grinch and thinking, “Make it stop!”  There is one Christmas song that was released sixty years ago, in 1957, a song by the legendary Elvis Presley that articulates something many people experience during the holiday season, a broken heart:

I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear
If you’re not here with me
(From “Blue Christmas”)

Beneath the surface, and sometimes not so beneath the surface, the holiday season can be very challenging for the brokenhearted.  Along these lines The Huffington Post recently had an online article entitled “This Is What Happens to Your Body When You Suffer a Broken Heart.”  Listen to this:

Heartbreak takes a physical toll on your body.  Unfortunately, that’s often overlooked, said Ronald A. Alexander, a psychotherapist.  “You’re not alone if you take to your bed and feel withdrawn from the world,” Alexander said.  “A broken heart can leave one feeling as if they have lost their rudder to the ship of their self.  Crying and sobbing is common, as well as feelings of melancholy, but there are physical symptoms, too.”  Broken heart syndrome ― or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, as it was first described in Japanese medical literature in the 1990s―is a temporary heart condition that looks and feels like a heart attack and is often brought on by stressful situations, like the death of a loved one or a breakup (Brittany Wong, December 12, 2017).

During the holiday season, such broken heart syndrome may feel anything but temporary.  Several years before their massive success with the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees had a hit about a very simple but important question, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”?  See if you can relate to these lyrics

How can you mend a broken heart?
How can you stop the rain from falling down?
How can you stop the sun from shining?

What makes the world go round?
How can you mend this broken man?
How can a loser ever win?
Please help me mend my broken heart                                                                                          (From their 1971 album Trafalgar)

If that connects with you at all, I have very good news for you today because the gospel is good news for the broken hearted.

The gospel is also good news for those who, as we prayed in the collect for today, who are “sorely hindered by our sins” (The Book of Common Prayer 212)—which of course includes all of us.  There are sins in our lives from which we need to be set free.  In Charles Dickens’ classic novella A Christmas Carol there is a sobering image of what this looks like.  Ebenezer Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, who even after his death remains “sorely hindered” by the sins of his life:

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling.  “Tell me why?”  “I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost.  “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.  Is its pattern strange to you?”  Scrooge trembled more and more.

Then it gets worse for Scrooge as the ghost of Jacob Marley turns the focus to Scrooge’s chains, chains Scrooge is completely unaware he has:

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?  It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago.  You have labored on it since.  It is a ponderous chain!” (Signet Classics edition 16).

Like Scrooge, each of us has our own ponderous chain that we too have made “link by link and yard by yard,” a ponderous chain that leaves us “sorely hindered by our sins” and in need of help from beyond ourselves.  If that connects with you at all, you are in the right place this morning.

In the first verse from today’s Old Testament passage the prophet Isaiah proclaims good news for the broken hearted…and good news for those “sorely hindered by their sins”—“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me…to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Isaiah 61:1).

This prophecy was fulfilled at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry as he returned to Galilee after his baptism in the Jordan River and subsequent temptation in the wilderness.  In the synagogue Jesus stood up and read today’s passage from Isaiah—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because…he hath sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives” (Luke 4:18, KJV)—and then proclaimed, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:21).

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus healed the broken hearted.  Mary Magdalene had been objectified her whole life but was treated differently by Jesus—and she was so grateful she took the most expensive possession she had, very expensive perfume, and poured it on Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair (John 12:1-8).  Jairus was brokenhearted because his young daughter had died—and Jesus raised her from the dead and healed his broken heart (Mark 5:21-23 and 35-42).

The Risen Jesus healed the broken heart of Peter, who had denied Jesus three times in Jesus’ darkest hour.  Jesus cooked Peter breakfast, and in front of the other disciples, reaffirmed his call as an apostle to feed Jesus’ sheep—and in so doing healed Peter’s broken heart (John 21:12-17).

And throughout his earthly ministry Jesus also delivered those “sorely hindered” by their sins.  To a paralytic whose friends had lowered through a roof Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2)—and he healed him too.  To a woman caught in adultery Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you—go and sin no more” (John 8:11).  To the penitent thief who was being executed next to him on Calvary, Jesus, said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Throughout his ministry Jesus healed the brokenhearted and set free those sorely hindered by their sins—just as Isaiah had prophesied seven centuries earlier and just as Jesus himself had read in the synagogue.  And as he suffered on the cross on Good Friday Jesus’ suffered broken heart syndrome on a cosmic scale as he took the chains of the world’s sin, and your sin, upon himself in order to set you free from your sins and heal your broken heart.

Think about your life for a moment.  Has something broken your heart and made the holiday season especially difficult for you?  Or are you somehow sorely hindered by your sins, making your own “ponderous chain” link by link and yard by yard?  The good news of the gospel is that the same Jesus who was anointed to heal the brokenhearted and deliver the captives still does.  How?  Again, as we prayed in the collect for today, through his “bountiful grace and mercy.”

Episcopal priest and scholar Fleming Rutledge describes this in her powerful 2015 book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ:

God’s grace comes unsuspected, invading our circumscribed sphere in which we contrive fruitlessly to exonerate ourselves.  The knowledge that we are imprisoned by Sin is not a prior condition for restoration.  Such knowledge arises out of, and is therefore overcome by, the joyful tidings of redemption and release.  In the glad certainty of new life, the people of God go to their knees to acknowledge their need for a deliverance from Sin that they have already received (204).

What does this look like?  Back to Ebenezer Scrooge for a moment…during his visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past Scrooge was reminded of how he had been abandoned at a boarding school by his father, and how as a young man he had chosen money over love and in so doing lost his fiancé, the love of his life.  In other words, there was a direct connection between Scrooge’s “ponderous chain” and his own broken heart.  But on Christmas morning Scrooge awakens a new man and cries out to Jacob Marley again: “Oh Jacob Marley!  Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this!  I say it on my knees, old Jacob; on my knees!”  Dickens continues:

He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call.  He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears…“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath… “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy.  I am as giddy as a drunken man.  A Merry Christmas to everybody!  A Happy New Year to all the world!” (79-80).

Why was Ebenezer so happy?  Because he had finally been set free from his ponderous chain…and his broken heart had finally been healed.  And he spends the rest of his life sharing the “bountiful grace and mercy” he had received with others.  No more Blue Christmases for Ebenezer Scrooge.

So if in anyway you have a ponderous chain or a broken heart today, may the Lord pour out anew his bountiful grace and mercy.