CHRISTMAS CLASSICS SERMON SERIES
DECEMBER 14, 1997
Most of us will be at home for Christmas. Now at first glance it looks like we are anything but alone in the midst of family and friends during this festive time. But if the reality is truly revealed, a lot of us are home alone. In other words, we are dealing with large levels of loneliness. Now a few of you, after hearing my opening statements, are saying, “Me, lonely? In the midst of friends and family during this festive time of year, don’t even go there. You have got the wrong person, Jack.” But, if the truth were known, more of us are dealing with large levels of loneliness than we care to admit. Loneliness. It is real, it is deep and it hurts.
This loneliness is not some conjured up, Hollywood-manufactured, McCauley Caulkin active state. It is the real thing. I have been in a series of talks called “Christmas Classics”. We have been dealing with some of the issues that most of us will face during the holidays. Last week the topic was forgiveness. Today it is loneliness.
This week I was thinking about my life and my experiences with loneliness. I guess my first look at true loneliness occurred when I was in the fifth grade. My family and I lived in Taylor, SC, tiny Taylor. I attended Taylor Elementary School. That school was a pristine, clean, higher institution of learning that one would desire for one’s children to attend. It would be a school that Keith Partridge or Jan Brady would have attended. During the midst of my fifth grade year my family moved from tiny Taylor, SC to Columbia, SC. I transferred from Taylor Elementary School to Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary School. Jumping from Taylor to Lonnie B. was the equivalent of moving from a playpen to the state pen. The students at Lonnie B. Nelson were out of control. It was a rough school with characters you would not believe. Over the next two of three decades as I pastor this church I am sure that I will describe many of those characters for you. This morning, however, I want to talk to you about loneliness.
I will never forget that time when my parents escorted me, during the middle of the school year, during the middle of the school day to Mrs. Blackwell’s class. Mrs. Blackwell looked like Olive Oil. She pretty much survived on caffeine and nicotine. She said, “Welcome to the class, Edwin.” I said, “That’s Ed.” I saw behind her that people were going nuts. She introduced me to the class as a new member by the name of Edwin, from Taylor, SC. She pointed out my desk and I tentatively walked over and put my books down. When Mrs. Blackwell turned her back to write something on the blackboard a kid walked up to me, took my books and threw them against the wall. He said, “What are you doing in my desk?” When Mrs. Blackwell heard that, being the true disciplinarian, she said, “John, don’t treat Edwin like that on his first day.”
I was praying and counting the moments for the recess bell to ring. Finally it did and I hit the playground expecting to meet new friends and establish new 5th grade relationships. I walked up to a group of guys playing marbles. I had never really seen people play marbles before. I watched them for awhile until a big kid stood up and cussed me out. He threatened to mess me up if I didn’t stop hanging around. At the end of the year I beat the guy’s head in, but that is another story. I had to learn how to fight. Some are saying to themselves that that sounds so violent. But attending a school like Lonnie B. Nelson, if you didn’t fight, it was over! Anyway, I am kind of like Michael Jackson. I am a lover, not a fighter. So, I left the marble interaction and began to walk around the perimeter of the playground, around and around by myself crying and wondering why my parents had ever moved to such an awful place. I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was alone and I missed my home. Loneliness. It is real, it is deep and it hurts.
The poet Milton called loneliness the first thing that God named as not good. Billy Graham described it as man’s greatest problem. Mother Theresa said that it is easier to fill a hungry stomach than to heal a lonely and empty heart. Just ask a service man or woman in Bosnia about loneliness. Ask the divorced lady and mother of three as she spends her first Christmas alone. Ask the husband who recently buried his wife. Ask the parents whose arms still ache because of their missing child.
Most all of us are dealing with large levels of loneliness. You wouldn’t suspect that when we are surrounded by family and friends during this festive time of year, but we are. How do we deal with it? Is there any help out there? Has anyone cracked the code on loneliness? Well, I have got some great news for you and for me. I want to show you how we can live with loneliness.
First, we have to realize that Christ left His home in heaven so we wouldn’t have to be alone. Christ left His home in heaven to be born in a home on earth. He lived a sinless life. He died a sacrificial death. He rose again because He did not want us to experience loneliness. He did it because of His love, because we matter to Him. Isaiah 59:2 “Our iniquities have separated us from God and our sins have hidden our face from Him.”
Did you catch that? Our iniquities, our sins, our moral failures, our foul-ups have separated us from God. You see, God is holy. He is pure. He is infallible. We are fallible. We are sin-ridden. We are depraved. Our sinfulness has caused this cosmic chasm between ourselves and God. It is our loneliness that leads us to a personal relationship with the Lord. God could have said, “Well, I see this dilemma. I see this cosmic chasm. I am not going to mess with human beings.” And He could have gone on to do other things. But God didn’t. Because He didn’t want us to experience large levels of loneliness, He sent Jesus Christ to pay the price on a tree for your sins and mine. Christ bridged the gap. If we walk over His shoulders, we will get to God. You see, there is a hole in our heart that is shaped like a cross and it can only be filled by Jesus Himself. So when we talk about loneliness, we have a sympathetic Savior. We have a God who has been there.
The Bible says in Matthew 27 when Christ was paying for your sins and mine on the cross, that God, the Father, couldn’t even wink at sin, couldn’t look at it, so He had to turn His back on His precious Son. Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me? Why have You turned your back on me? Why this loneliness?” He experienced loneliness like we will never, ever experience it. My words cannot describe to you the loneliness He felt. Yet He did it so that we would not have to experience true loneliness. He did it for you and for me. But a lot of us here have this hole in our heart that is shaped like a cross.
My most memorable Christmas occurred when I was in Junior High School. My brothers and I were tearing open presents in our living room and my parents said in unison, “Ed, look outside.” They drew back the living room curtains and there on the front lawn was the ultimate Christmas gift – a 14 foot, Kmart, aluminum john boat. If you hang around here very much you know that I love to fish. I grew up about a 9 iron from a 25 acre lake. This gift meant that I could paddle around and fish where I wanted to fish. No more fishing from the bank. It was big time for me and I loved it. And every day, well almost every day since my parents didn’t want me to fish too much on Sunday, I would come home, throw down my books, pick up my rod and reel and run down to the bank, shove in the boat, paddle around and fish, fish, fish. One day, though, I jumped in my boat and to my horror the drain plug was gone. It just wasn’t there. I said, “Oh, no, I know the fish are biting. How will I get this boat out there?” I decided to talk to my Mom about it. I ran home and told her that the drain plug was missing and begged her to find another in the next day or two. My poor Mom searched for two weeks, every tackle shop, every bait store, every sporting goods outlet. She could not find the proper drain plug for this 14-foot, KMart special, aluminum john boat. In the meantime, do you think that that stopped me from fishing, from using that boat? No way. I took styrofoam and tried to jam it in the hole. I took Hubba Bubba gum and tried it. I stole Playdough from my younger three-year-old brother to use. I tried sticks and socks. Let me tell you what happened. I would start to paddle out. Then the boat would take on water and I would begin to sink. I would have to turn the boat around and paddle back, dump it out and start again. One glorious and grand day my Mom made this announcement. “Ed, I just bought a drain plug for the boat.” I ran to her, kissed her and grabbed the drain plug. When I put it in, it fit perfectly.
We have a hole in our craft in the shape of a cross yet we try to plug it up with money, with a new home, with a new car, with clothes, with a corner office. We paddle out for awhile and we take on water and begin to sink. We decide that something is wrong so we paddle right back and dump the water out and put something else in. A lot of you are paddling and sinking. No one around you knows that, not even someone really close to you. But you are sinking. There is only one thing that will fill the hole in your heart. That is Jesus Christ. He is the only one who will fill your deepest level of loneliness. I have got to ask you. Have you made a commitment to Him? Have you bowed the knee to Him? Have you told Jesus to have His way in your life? Have you admitted that you are a sinner, a lonely sinner, in need of a Savior and invited Him to come into your life? Have you done that? Have you made your heart Christ’s home? This is where it all starts. Realize that Jesus left His home in heaven so you would not have to be alone.
Secondly, we have got to constantly pursue the presence of Christ. Now some of us who are going through loneliness are saying, “I want somebody with flesh on their bones. Pursuing the presence of Christ is fine and dandy, but I want someone that I can see, touch and go out to eat with. We will talk about that in just a second. But we have got to practice and pursue the presence of Christ.
Hebrews 13:5 says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” In Isaiah 7:14, Christ is called Emmanuel which means God with us. The companionship of Christ is what separates Christianity from all the other world religions. You don’t hear Buddhists talk about the companionship of Buddha or those of the Islam persuasion talk about the companionship of Mohammed. But the Bible says that the companionship of Christ is available to anyone. We can have dialogue with Him. We can talk to Him, cry to Him, express our deepest longings to Him. Are you doing that? It is kind of paradoxical because our cure for loneliness is to be alone. I have got to be alone to cure my loneliness. I have got to be alone to really communicate and connect with God.
Now turn to your neighbor and say this, “Neighbor, I am putting too much pressure on relationships in my life.” OK. Here is what we do. Some of us know intellectually that we are to constantly pursue the presence of Christ but in reality we don’t do it. We think that relationships will do it. Singles especially fall into this category. They think if they get hooked up with that special someone, it will solve the loneliness issue. Then they go on a spouse hunt believing that once married they will never have to deal with a deep level of loneliness. After the marriage, just fast forward the tape about two years. He or she wakes up, looks at the spouse, and, while acknowledging a good marriage, realizes there is still loneliness. Constantly pursue the presence of Christ. There are enormous benefits when people are dealing with loneliness.
Now get alone and talk to God in prayer. Prayer is conversation with God. The Bible also says that we are to read and feed on scripture. The Bible is compared to food. We are to consume it, we are to eat it.
We just got a dog a couple of months ago. He is a bull mastiff. He is 8 months old and weighs 107 pounds. Who knows how big he will get. Anyway, Apollo is an interesting canine. He loves newspapers. The newspapers are delivered to the end of our driveway. He will walk down and pick it up. Some of you may already be saying he is a brilliant dog. You can imagine me standing in my bathrobe and slippers with a cup of hot cocoa saying, “Come on boy, bring the paper. Thank you very much.” Not so. Apollo will take the paper, go into his little house and eat it. I don’t mean just chew it. I mean eat it. So, I got smart. I got up earlier and earlier and reached the newspaper before he could get to it. Well that didn’t slow him down. This bull mastiff trots down our street and picks up paper after paper. He will have four or five in his mouth. He will drop them and eat them. Well he got kind of sick and finally, after the neighbors complained, we were able to teach him not to do that.
Now, we are called to digest the word. Apollo consumes more words than anybody I know. We are called to consume the word. I am not talking about eating it literally. I am talking about letting it infiltrate our lives. I am talking about letting it soak into the pores of our relationship with God, into our reality in the marketplace and our relationships. It will help in the loneliness quotient that we all face and deal with. Are you constantly pursuing the presence of Christ?
Thirdly, we have got to seek and cultivate authentic community with others. Now before I describe community with others, let me ask you to write down in your bulletin, A, B and C. If you don’t have a pen or pencil, that’s cool. A is a level of loneliness that can only be met by God himself. We talked about that already. B is a level of loneliness that can be met by human beings and we will talk about that in this next point. C is a level of loneliness that we cannot meet. You could go to seminary and study Greek and Hebrew, hang out with the most spiritual and Christ-centered men and women in the world and you still wouldn’t fill level C loneliness. Level C loneliness can only be quenched when we get to heaven. I want to say that up front before we go on.
Let’s talk about seeking and cultivating authentic community. Let’s look at the book of Genesis. Let’s talk about God creating. God is a creative creator. God created the plants and the animals. He created the trees, grass, the flowers. After every creative act here is what God said. “It is good.” He stepped back from His creative work and declared it good. Then God took the initiative to make someone in His image. He made and fashioned man. You know what God said then? “It is very good.” And Adam and God had the level A working. Adam’s A level of loneliness was satisfied through a relationship with God. But God saw something that troubled Him. God saw a B level of loneliness. It inspired Him to do something. In fact let me tell you what the Bible says about it. This is the first time that we have God saying that something is not good. Genesis 2:18. “It is not good, Adam, for you to be alone.” Now God does not go into denial about it. He doesn’t try to explain it away. What did God do? God creates woman, someone that man could seek and cultivate authentic community with. After that came children and families. Our loneliness mattered so much to God that it caused Him to take this initiative. Every time I seek out a relationship, every time you cultivate authentic community, we are simply reflecting the fact that we are made in the image of a relational God.
We all have this relational radar in our brains, don’t we? It starts when we are very young. Our three-year-old twins, Laurie and Landra, had a friend stay with them Thursday night. Their friend’s name is Emily. It put them on cloud nine just to be there with Emily. They were already getting authentic three-year-old community. They were fired up.
Yesterday morning I walked into Target. To my left I saw a little snack shop. I saw five men in their 70s nestling cups of coffee, laughing and having the time of their lives. A radar for relationships and community from 3 to 73, we have it. It is God-given. Do you have it? We are designed to live in relationship with God, level A, and also to have a deep and dynamic relationship with a few others which will meet our level B needs. Do you have that?
The Bible says that we are to take the initiative, we are to seek it out. Why? We are to connect with people because of compatibility. A lot of us, if we don’t connect with people, we begin to fall into the pit of self-pity. You know what I am talking about, don’t you? Self-pity has a running buddy named bitterness. When we get bitter, we begin to get angry. We might say, “All men are jerks.” “All women are neurotic.” We might get angry at God, angry at the church, angry because we don’t really have community with others. Community is knowing and being known. It is loving and being loved. Do you have a desire for people to really know you. I do. I want to be known by some others. Yet most of the time we don’t want that because of fear. Down deep we desire it, but we really don’t want it on the surface because of fear. We think that if they saw our portfolio of failures, if they had the key to our lockbox, they might think we are kind of weird or strange. We will go out to eat with people, play golf with people, travel with people, yet we know in our heart of hearts that we are not really known. We have so many things in this church that are just for relationships. One of the most exciting ministries we have is called Home Teams. Home Teams are clusters of singles and married adults which meet together regularly outside the walls of the church for cultivating authentic community. It is Bible study in a casual way, a getting to know others. That is where life-changing ministry takes place. We are commanded to worship together in a big place. Just read the book of Acts. Yet, after we worship in a big place, we are to meet together house to house to house. That is the New Testament model of a Biblically functioning community and that is our model here.
One of the biggest frustrations for our pastoral management team and the hundreds of lay leaders in our Home Team ministry is that we can only do so much. We can only make the Home Teams available. I cannot as a Pastor jump down and drag you to a Home Team. We have all got to take the initiative. We have to seek and cultivate community. In a couple of moments, after we end this service, you can fill out the Welcome to FLC portion of the bulletin and if you check that you want information on Home Teams, we will get back to you this very week. If we could see what God has in store for us relationally speaking we would be overwhelmed.
I will never forget a conversation that I had with a lady a couple of years ago. She told me she had been coming to the Fellowship of Las Colinas for two years and still had no friends. I told her I was so sorry to hear that. I asked her about her involvement, if she was in a Home Team. She replied that she wasn’t in one. I asked if she had gotten involved in the Women’s Ministry. She said no. Bible Alive. No. I asked if she had volunteered for Children’s Church, greeting or hospitality or gone on a mission trip with Pastor Goff to Mexico. She replied no. I felt sorry for her. She didn’t understand that she had to take the risk, that she had to make the call, take the initiative and sign up to have community. I beg you, plead with you to do this. It will serve you well and change your life. God has some people for you right here with whom you can have true community. He really, really does.
So connect to get companionship. Also connect before the crisis. We will go through difficult times. The Christian life is not some simple thing. We are all going to deal with loneliness now and then. We will all have tragedies occur, people getting sick, loved ones passing away. What do we do when our world caves in? What do we do when the crisis kicks us? What do we do?
I talked to a lady in her 60s three weeks ago. She was broken. She was going through a horrible season of tragedy. She asked me what she should do and my heart ached for her because she had no support group. She had no one to step in with meals, no one to take care of her home, no one to see about her grandchildren, no one. Connect before the crisis.
So where are you today? In the midst of family and friends during this festive time of year, are you home alone? Are you dealing with large levels of loneliness? I challenge you one more time to realize that Christ left His home so that you wouldn’t be alone. I challenge you to pursue the presence of Christ. And I challenge you to cultivate authentic community with others. When you do so, you will never be truly home alone again.