Nostalgia ("White Christmas")(Exodus 16:1-3)
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Nostalgia (“White Christmas”)
(One Lord: So Great a Salvation)
December 2nd, 2018
I. “White Christmas”
Ready for a Christmas 'factoid'? “White Christmas” (written by Irving Berlin and made famous by Bing Crosby) is the best-selling Christmas song of all time. But that's not all: “White Christmas” is, in fact, the best-selling single of all time, regardless of genre. The song has sold more than 50 million copies since its release in 1942. Who knew?
Now that's a pretty interesting bit of trivia, and “White Christmas” is an enjoyable song (esp. for only 54 words). But why in the world are we talking about it in the middle of a worship service? That's secular, not sacred music. Who cares about “White Christmas”? Well, to start, the 50 million people who bought that single. And the people who play it on the radio, and listen to it on the radio. And the people, like you and me, who sing along when it comes on the radio or when you're listening to your favorite Christmas playlist.
Almost ten years ago, I did a teaching series called, “Behind the Music”. In that series, we explored the history of some of the most famous Christmas carols, and then allowed those songs to point us back to God's word. Well, did you know the most famous secular Christmas songs can do the same thing? Why? How? Because so many of those songs express deep longings that resonate with all of us. AND, God's word speaks about and to those longings.
So my hope in looking together at some of these songs is that we won't be able to hear them again without thinking back to God's word... without thinking back to Jesus.
So think, for example, about the opening line of “White Christmas”: I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know. Those words are driven by a deep longing, by something we'd call nostalgia, right? What is nostalgia? Nostalgia is a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past. Such a desire to 'go back' may be connected to a person, or a place, or a happy experience. For many people, though not all, Christmastime, especially for children, involves many of these people, places, and experiences. That's why so many songs, in addition to “White Christmas”, include similar talk about “tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago”.
So how does “White Christmas” and this longing we call nostalgia, how do these point us back to God's word? Well open up your Bibles if you would to Exodus 16.
II. The Passage: "In the Land of Egypt" (16:1-3)
Now Exodus 16 never has been and probably never will be considered a Christmas passage. But let me read through it, and as I do, think about the connection between these verses and a song like “White Christmas”. Exodus 16, verse 1...
They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.  And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness,  and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
So how should we think about this passage? Well, let me suggest that there are three ideas that both the text and the context want us to think about. First of all, if we look at the end of verse 1, we see a reminder that...
1. Something Wonderful Had Happened (v. 1)
After the writer gives us some geographical information at the beginning of verse 1, he goes on to give us some chronological information as well. We read that the Hebrews, the descendants of Israel (Jacob), arrived in the desert of Sin, “on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt.” That's not just a reminder about their timeline. That's a reminder of their liberation!
Departing from the land of Egypt was no easy task, was it? They were slaves, and it took God's intervention to win their liberation. Indeed, something wonderful had happened; something astonishing. From the ten plagues to the parting of the Red Sea, God displayed his power in amazing ways, and not even Egypt, the current superpower of that region, could resist his will. And everyone mentioned in these verses, everyone presently trudging into the desert, had witnessed God's might.
Of course, as we learn here, that was only weeks earlier. That's why it's somewhat surprising when we discover in verses 2 and 3 that the people believed...
2. Something Awful was Going to Happen (vs. 2, 3)
As is clear from the end of verse 3, the people believed they were going to starve to death out in the desert. They were running out of food, and recognized that the desert is generally not the best place to find things to eat. And so... (v.2)... they grumbled. They lifted up their voices and complained.
Now this is not the first time they complained. Back in 15:24, they grumbled about their need for water and finding only bitter water. But after that, they did find a decent campsite. Look at 15:27... “Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water.” So now, as they travel to deeper into this desert, they're probably wondering why they ever left Elim.
And it doesn't take long for that low, discontented rumbling to turn into widespread grumbling. But what's remarkable here is not simply that the people who had witnessed God's astonishing power are now doubtful about his power to provide. What is maybe more remarkable is that their worries about the future begin to warp their view of the past.
So something wonderful had happened: God brought them out of Egypt and out of slavery. But now they believed something awful was going to happen: that God brought them out so they would die of hunger in the desert. So we could say, in verse 3, we also discover...
3. Something Strange was Happening (v. 3)
Listen again to how the people describe their time as slaves in Egypt:
...and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
Clearly, they are regretting their decision to leave Egypt. It seems what they're telling Moses and Aaron is, they would rather die as well-fed slaves in Egypt than free men and women facing hunger in the desert. But guess what? It gets worse. By the time we get to the book of Numbers, this is how the people are responding to perceived problems with the food situation:
Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.  But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (11:4–6)
Did you notice how the “meat pots” and “bread” of Exodus 16 eventually became “the fish...the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” of Numbers 11? And in that chapter, the issue is not starvation. The God who had provided them with freedom also had provided them with bread from heaven. That's exactly what happens in the rest of Exodus 16: God supernaturally feeds them with manna.
But remember, they doubted that God could and/or would provide for them. And when He did, they eventually became dissatisfied. They wanted more. And strangely, this doubt and dissatisfaction expressed itself in a bizarre kind of sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past. Sound familiar? In times like this, strangely, they would become nostalgic for their days as slaves in Egypt. No, they weren't dreaming of a white Christmas? Amazingly, they were dreaming of dinner by the Nile.
III. Right Now is a Gift
So what is God's word teaching us about this very common human longing? What is God saying to us about nostalgia? I think we could sum up some of the lessons here by saying...
The danger of nostalgia is not in looking to the past, but in longing for the past; because so often, our discontent with the present drives us to desire a distorted past.
Let me real briefly break down the different parts of that statement. First of all, “the danger of nostalgia is not in looking to the past”. God's word call us to remember, over and over again. Remembering is a spiritual discipline. The Jews were called to remember through things like the Passover and other holy days. And we've been called to remember via the Lord's Table.
Looking back is important in so many ways. Not only do we learn from the past, but we can and should celebrate the past; we can and should cherish the past; we can and should give thanks to God for what he has done; for what he has given; for his wondrous works.
Christmas is an important time to look back. We can reminisce about Christmas memories. We can look back and revive Christmas traditions. And best of all, we can look back to the first Christmas, to that astonishing moment in history when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
But that being said, second, there is a potential danger when it comes to nostalgia, and that danger is “in longing for the past”.
Remembering is important. But wanting to replace the present with the past is not always a good idea. Why? Because the ways things are is always better than the ways things were? No. Trying to replace the present with the past is so often a problem because, so often, we are prone to distort the past.
Ever notice how we as human being have a tendency to idealize, to romanticize, to revise the past? Isn't that exactly what we saw in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11 with the nostalgia of the Israelites? Somehow they remembered the bread, but not the bondage. Somehow they spoke of fish that cost them nothing, but couldn't remember that, in fact, it cost them their freedom.
Many of us have fond memories of Christmas, especially from childhood. But those are not things we can ever reclaim. And those fond memories tend to highlight the good and downplay the difficult. We do this at Christmas, and we do this throughout the year. Think about politically. Typically, conservatives struggle with this, with idealizing, with romanticizing, and ultimately revising the past; the “good old days”; the “glory days”; those “simpler times”. Of course, liberals or progressives have the same problem, only with romanticizing the future instead of the past; with visions of a social utopia.
We know, in light of what God's word teaches us about human sinfulness, that the past, even our past, was tainted by sin, just as our present is tainted by sin. There is no escaping that reality. So why then do we struggle with this tendency to idealize the past? Well, that bring us back to our main statement about the potential danger of nostalgia.
So we could say finally, third, what often drives us to long for the past, even a distorted past, is “our discontent with the present”.
Remember the Israelites. At first they were anxious about the food they needed. Then they were dissatisfied with the food God provided. And so what did they do? They grumbled. And that discontent with their present experiences led them to distort their past experiences.
Think about that. Now think about your present, about today. Are you content? Are you content with the ways things are? If not, how does your discontent with the present affect your view of the past? Does difficulty, does pain, does disappointment in terms of what is, drive you back to what once was? Do you look for relief from the present in trying to resurrect the past?
Brothers, sisters, friends, someone once said, “Yesterday's the past, tomorrow's the future, but today is a gift. That's why it's called the present.” (good Christmas quote, right?)
So if we struggle in the same way the Israelites struggled, how can God's word help us? How can this passage from Exodus help us? Well as we talked about earlier, the problem was not that the Israelites were looking back. The problem was with what they were looking back to. They were looking back to their dinners, when they should have been looking back to their deliverance.
Looking to God's deliverance in the past should bring the present into focus, not in terms of what we're missing, but in terms of what we've gained. And what we've gained, brothers and sisters, is Jesus. And in gaining Jesus, by God's grace, through faith, we've gained a wonderful reassurance that the God who delivered us then is the same God who will deliver us now; reassurance that the God who worked out his purposes yesterday is the same God who is working out his purposes today.
Today is a gift, not because it is free of pain and suffering, but because we are free in Christ; because we've departed from the Egypt of sin and self; because God brought us out... not to hurt us, but to help us... not to leave us, but to lead us... not to give you what you want, but to give you what you need. Today is a gift because God is at work today, even if you can't see how. Even if it doesn't feel like it.
Brothers and sisters, friends, don't miss what God is doing in your present by fixating on a romanticized past. Let what God has done in your past reorient you and reassure you about what God is doing in your present. God has given us promises in Christ about that very thing.
Is there a problem with “dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know; where the treetops glisten, and children listen, to hear sleigh bells in the snow”? No, not necessarily. But if my “dreaming” distracts me from this Christmas, and the unique things the God of Christmas is doing, the unique gifts he wants to give me, even through adversity, then I need to wake up.
Paul wrote this in Romans 15:4...For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
Did you hear that? Past, present, and future, in right balance because of Christ. The experiences of God's people in the past are meant to instruct us in the present, to inspire endurance in us today, that we might have hope in what God will do according to his promises.
The man who wrote “White Christmas”, Irving Berlin, was a Jew. Well before he composed the song, on Christmas Day of 1928, he and his wife lost their three-week-old son. So every Christmas day, they would visit their baby's grave. And so the longing mentioned in the song may reflect some of that painful reality.
But no matter what you've been through, no matter what painful realities you've experienced, there is hope this morning. And that hope is found in another Jewish baby, not one who left our world, but one who came into our world on Christmas; not one who died, but one who would die, for His people, for their sins... Jesus, our Passover lamb. May the reality of his redemption give us clear eyes to see the fullness of his grace in our past, present, and future.
Let's pray together for those eyes.
More in Pop Christmas
December 23, 2018Satisfaction ('All I Want for Christmas is You')(Psalm 73:23-26)
December 16, 2018Belonging ("I'll Be Home for Christmas")(John 14:1-3, 18-23)
December 9, 2018Happiness ("It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year")(Nehemiah 8:1-12)