Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Good News for the Lonely” (Matthew 1:18-23)
December 18, 2016
Dave Johnson

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

I recently watched the classic 1946 Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life in which Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, who although married with kids, finds himself alone in a bar on Christmas Eve, completely overwhelmed by a crisis from his job—a financial crisis that will lead to scandal, unemployment, and imprisonment.  As he nurses a drink he prays the following prayer: “O God, O God…Dear Father in in heaven, I’m not a praying man but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way.  I’m at the end of my rope.  Show me the way, O God.”  Although in that moment George feels utterly alone, God answers his prayer by sending an angel named Clarence to show George that he is not alone.

George Bailey of course is not the only one who feels alone during the holidays.  For many people, in spite of all the church services, office parties and open houses, in spite of all the decorations, gifts and feasts, the holiday season is the loneliest season of the year.  In an article for Psychology Today Dr. Guy Winch observes:

Lonely people dread the holiday season more than any other time of year. Watching everyone around them connect to those they love makes their own feelings of emotional isolation even more profound. Indeed, the holidays can make loneliness feel especially excruciating. Loneliness is not an objective or qualitative measure of friendship or companionship but a qualitative one; a subjective feeling of deep emotional or social disconnection (or both)… Others might find themselves amidst large family gatherings yet still feel distant, unengaged, misunderstood, or unseen (December 4, 2013).

In his 1960 hit Roy Orbison sang: “Only the lonely know the way I feel tonight; Only the lonely know this feeling ain’t right”—and in their 1966 hit “Eleanor Rigby” The Beatles asked, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?  All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”  Perhaps some of you can relate.

The History channel has a hit show called Alone, in which contestants are dropped off utterly alone in a remote wilderness location with minimal supplies, to see who can survive the longest without tapping out.   In the first season of Alone, the contestants were left in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and the winner was a native of Blairsville, Georgia named Alan Kay, who lived on seaweed, fish, snails, and slugs during his fifty-six days alone in the wilderness.  He lost 60 pounds, and won the $500,000 prize.  (If you are looking for a fast and effective diet and financial plan, perhaps Alan could show you something).  Later Alan was asked by a fan of the show, “What was the loneliest moment you had there and how did you overcome it?”  Alan’s answer is very interesting:

In the woods I usually don’t feel too terribly alone.  You’ve got the animals; you’ve got yourself, your mind.  Honestly, I feel more alone when I’m with people and in society.  I’ve been in crowds of people or a room full of people and felt completely alone.  Everybody is so detached anyway.  Nobody’s looking at each other.  Nobody’s paying attention to each other.

Alan Kay is exactly right…and that is why the gospel is good news for the lonely.

One of the innumerable blessings of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is to assure all the George Bailey’s and Roy Orbison’s and Eleanor Rigby’s and Alan Kay’s of the world that they are in fact, not alone, as St. Matthew wrote in today’s gospel lesson:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us” (Matthew 1:18-23).

Emmanuel…“God is with us”…very good news for the lonely.  Matthew emphasizes that the words the angel of the Lord spoke to Joseph referred to the fulfillment of a prophecy made seven centuries by the prophet Isaiah about Jesus’ birth.  “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign,” Isaiah wrote, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name himself Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).  Jesus’ incarnation means that God is with us, all of us, especially “all the lonely people.”

Last summer I visited was Ivy Green, the birthplace and childhood home of Helen Keller in Tuscumbia, Alabama.  You can see next to the main house the little cottage in which she was born, the bedroom Helen shared with her teacher Anne Sullivan, and the well where Anne Sullivan taught seven-year old Helen Keller her first word, “water.”  As you may know, Helen Keller was not born blind and deaf; her condition resulted from a sickness she suffered as a toddler, as she describes in her autobiography entitled The Story of My Life:

In the dreary month of February came the illness which closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a newborn baby… The doctor thought I could not live.  Early one morning, however, the fever left me as suddenly and as mysteriously as it had come.  There was great rejoicing in my family that morning, but no one, not even the doctor knew that I should never see or hear again (4).

As you could imagine, losing her ability to see and hear left Helen feeling very alone.  But when Helen was six, nineteen-year old Anne Sullivan moved from Boston and for the next forty-nine years stayed with Helen Keller, teaching her, supporting her, encouraging her.  Helen describes the impact of Anne’s arrival this way: “I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been different, until she came—my teacher—who was to set my spirit free” (5).  With the arrival of Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller no longer felt alone.

Let me ask you a question similar to what Alan Kay was asked, “What was the loneliest moment of your life, and how did you overcome it?”  That is where the gospel comes in.  The gospel is good news for the lonely, even in the loneliest moment of your life, and especially for those who cannot overcome it.  In his loneliest moment George Bailey asked God for help, and God answered his prayer.

And the good news of the gospel is that God did much more than send an angel named Clarence to show that you are not alone; he sent his Son, Jesus.  And Jesus meets you exactly in the place where you feel the most alone, where you, like Helen Keller, have become so used to the silence and darkness that you have forgotten that things can ever be different.  Jesus is with you even when you feel “distant, unengaged, misunderstood, or unseen.”  Jesus is with you even when you feel like nobody’s looking at you or paying attention to you.  Jesus sets your spirit free.  Jesus reveals himself as Emmanuel, as “God with you.”

“All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”  They all belong in the church, where we are called to welcome all the George Bailey’s and Roy Orbison’s and Eleanor Rigby’s and Alan Kay’s out there…or in here, where we are called to be Anne Sullivan’s for one another, where like at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, we realize like George Bailey that we are actually not alone at all, but surrounded by people who love us.

In his profound book The Name of God is Mercy (2016) Pope Francis writes this:

By welcoming a marginalized person whose body is wounded and by welcoming the sinner whose soul is wounded, we put our credibility as Christians on the line.  Let us always remember the words of Saint John of the Cross: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone” (99).

In fact, on the final evening of Jesus’ earthly life at the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

And the very next day Jesus died on the cross for all the lonely people—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, “God with us.”  “Remember, I am with you always,” he said, “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

And that is why the gospel has always been, and will always be, very good news for the lonely.