More Tiny Lights – a Christmas Eve sermon

I went to visit Meramec Caverns last summer with my kids. Which is a testament to how much I love my kids, because I am both claustrophobic and afraid of heights, and the walk through the cave there affords ample opportunities for being in closed in spaces and for walking across huge chasms. I was holding my son’s hand most of the way, ostensibly for his safety, but truth be told, it was more for my own comfort and grounding. Anyway, at the end of the tour, you are taken into the very farthest chamber of the cave, as deep and far away from the entrance as you can go. And there, they turn off the lights. It is the pitchest dark you can experience, darkness beyond darkness, so dark that you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face. Dark.

Darker than any moonless, starless night. Dark.

And you stand there, in the darkness, reaching for whatever hand you can grab, as your eyes stretch and dilate, desperate to find some small glimmer of light, yearning for any spark that might fill the void. And there is none. And then, just when you think you cannot stand it any longer, the tour guide lights a match. A single tiny match. And one tiny match never seemed so bright, it illuminates the entire cavern, so that you can see the cracks and bumps of the walls, the stalactites and stalagmites reaching for one another, and one tiny match is better somehow than any blazing bonfire, more powerful than any spotlight. It is amazing what one tiny spark can do when the darkness is that deep.

The world is a dark place, and this year has proven it. Advent is an exercise in patience, a season where we practice waiting, rehearse expectation, and remember that we are always standing in the tension between what we have received and what we are waiting for. And this year, it feels like Advent came early. Like maybe around January. For my family, and I suspect for yours. I know that many of you have spent this year in hushed expectation. Some of you have spent this year watching and waiting for a loved one to die; some of you are still holding that vigil. Those who have already lost someone are perhaps waiting still, waiting for a return of laughter and hope, waiting for a new vision for the future, waiting for a sense of normal to return, even if it has a void in it somehow. Some have spent the year waiting for healing, expecting a better quality of life, as the doctors and time do their job, and health returns, but it is ever so slow, and the waiting feels interminable. Some of you welcomed new life this year, and are in that waiting time of growth, as that new person learns something amazing each day, and the world becomes bigger and bigger with each moment. In my family, we are waiting for what seems impossible to ask for – for my father to receive a chance at a longer life, for him to receive the gift of an organ transplant, knowing that our relief will be someone else’s grief.

The world waits as well. We wait, not only as individuals and families, but as communities and nations. We wait for justice, we wait for peace, we wait for stability. We pray for security for our children, and argue about how to achieve it. We long for everyone to live in plenty, so that no one will go to bed hungry at night, and we debate about how to distribute it. We yearn for nations to extend the hand of fellowship, instead of launching arms at one another, and we quarrel about who is at fault instead of about solutions.

For all the time that we have spent in Advent this year, for as long as the waiting and the expectation and the longing have gone on, it would be easy to just give up on God. I am honestly surprised that more of us haven’t already. I don’t know, maybe some of you have, and you are just here because this is the one time of the year that you stop in to check and see if God has left you a message.

Well, yes. I believe so.

The message is in this story. Yes, it is the story of the Christ child, but it is more than that. It is the story of the shepherds. These shepherds are not cute little kids in bathrobes. They’re not the rightful heirs to King David’s legacy of shepherding. They’re not even honest hardworking laborers, as we might imagine. At least that’s not how their culture saw them. At the time when Jesus was born, at the time when the Gospel of Luke was written, shepherds were literally the dregs of society. They were the lowest of the low. The culture of the 1st century Middle East cast the stereotype of the shepherd as liars, degenerates, and thieves. If you had a case to bring to court, you could not bring your neighbor the shepherd to testify. His testimony was inadmissible as evidence. The religious authorities classified shepherds in the same category as tax collectors and prostitutes, because they could not observe the Sabbath properly and were therefore ritually unclean by virtue of their occupation. They lived dark and outcast lives, and if you have spent enough time being rejected by the religious authorities and the society at large, you begin to reject them back. You begin to give up on society. You begin to give up on religion. You begin to give up on God. Spend enough time in the dark, and you begin to believe that you do not deserve the light.

These shepherds watching their flocks by night were not just outsiders, they were those who had lived on the outside so long that they had given up on ever being drawn inside. And yet, it is to these men, it is to these outsiders, it is to precisely the ones for whom hope has fled, that the angel appears. And the angel tells them, “To you is born this day a Savior. This will be a sign for you.” To you. For you.

That is the Christmas message for you who may have given up on God.

This is for you.

When Jesus is born, he is born where he is most needed. When God shows up, God comes to those who are in the deepest darkness, and sometimes it seems small. Sometimes it is just a match, A tiny little spark, a bitty little insignificant baby, born to an unwed teenage mother, such an outcast that no one will find room for her to give birth, no one except the beasts of the fields. A tiny little insignificant no one, who is wrapped in dirty rags, whose first bed is a feeding trough, whose first visitors are the dregs of society, shepherds from the fields. And this tiny baby is born, for them, comes to them, those who need him most.

That is the God that we celebrate this night. It is the God who shows up. The God who breaks in. The God who reaches across boundaries, across social divides, across politics, across caste systems, the God who is being born, right now, into the darkest places, into the places where hope seems to have fled. If you want to experience the newborn Christ, go out, out into the world, to the fields where the shepherds watch their flocks by night, to the streets where homeless people find compassion in a stranger, to the border towns where refugees are given shelter from war, to the classrooms where teachers protect their children, to the schools where children receive their only meal and their only praise of the day, to the hospitals and hospices where the dying are given comfort and dignity, to prisons where convicts are given second chances,to Christmas tables where families find reconciliation and renewal, to hearts where a tiny spark of hope is rekindled by kindness, to this Table, where you are invited to receive the body and blood of Christ himself, where you are invited to hear and know, know, that you are God’s own, that you are important, that God knows you, and knowing you, God loves you, and loving you, God is breaking into the world, right now, for you.

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Let It Be, in Our Outdoor Voices

Over the last three weeks, during this season of Advent, Wednesday nights have included a prayer service. Each week, we have focused on a different kind of contemplative prayer, and we have taken the time for silence and prayer, together. Those who have attended these services have entered into them with surprising energy, sharing with others the longings of their hearts, the voice of God in their ears, and their prayers for one another. There were many, many different prayers uttered over the last three weeks, but as I look back on the various services, I heard a theme that recurred over and over, echoing out of the prayers of all the different people who shared this time together, rising up through our silent contemplation and quiet song: let it be.

I heard it in the prayer of the newly widowed, learning how to live in grief, in silent houses, in this different way of being in the world. Let it be.

I heard it in the prayer of a husband, who wants to learn how to be present for his wife without trying to fix her and her problems. Let it be.

I heard it in the prayer of a mother, who wants to stop running from thing to thing, to take the time to soak in the joy of her children, and find space to simply enjoy her family. Let it be.

It was even part of the prayer that closed our Blue Christmas service on Tuesday: What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be.

It is a theme that is echoed again in Mary’s song: Let it be. Let it be. Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me, according to your will.

It is a refrain that comes up in my own prayers all the time. And I suspect it comes up in yours as well. There are so many things that we feel obliged to do, so much busy-ness, so many problems to fix. Somehow we find ourselves going from one urgency to the next, rarely finding the time to simply be. And we need the reminder, that it is not all up to us, that the world will not stop turning if I am not pushing it along. But I think that it feels like giving up to simply say, Let it be. We feel like if we are not doing, then nothing is going to get done, and we look around the world, and we see that something needs to be done. Because things are not right as they stand, there are too many problems with the world, too many people suffering from injustice, too many children dying from violence and illness and poverty, too many families in our own neighborhoods who cannot afford winter coats or even laundry detergent, and how can I look at all of that and say “let it be?”

And the answer to that question came into our prayer service this Wednesday, too. As we were closing, at the end of our quiet, calm, contemplative time, as we were basking in the hush of reflection, my son Holden popped suddenly into the sanctuary, and in his outdoor voice (I’m not sure he has another voice), he piped up, “Hello!” And as it turns out, the outdoor voice is the answer. It is our outdoor voice that we are supposed to be using.

After Mary says Let it be, she hits the road and goes to visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth, maybe a cousin or an aunt or something. And when Elizabeth sees her, she exclaims with a loud cry, in the Greek she gives a mega shout with a loud exclamation, in other words, she uses her outdoor voice, she shouts really loud, “Look! Emmanuel! God is with us!” Well, those aren’t her exact words, but that’s the gist of it. She sees Mary, and somehow, filled by the Holy Spirit, she knows that this child that Mary is carrying is the fulfillment of all the hopes of her people – that the promises of God come true, that God is truly with us, preparing to be born into the world. And she cannot do anything but shout, exclaim, cry aloud, proclaim it at the top of her lungs. Using her outdoor voice.

Mary, too, is speaking in her outdoor voice. You probably know the words, but you’re used to thinking of them as Mary, meek and mild, saying them. But this is not Mary, meek and mild. This is Mary, speaking in her outdoor voice, saying “My soul magnifies the Lord!” Again that same Greek word, my soul mega-speaks the Lord, and my spirit rejoices, exults, can’t sit still, is overwhelmed with joy. These are outdoor voice words. This is Mary singing her song, not as a lullaby but as a rock song. As a rebel song. It is the song that we sing both to open and to close our worship service today – it is a song of God’s activity in the world, and God is not content to simply Let it be. God is busy, not with the kind of busy-ness that we tend toward, the kind that makes us feel important and necessary, busy hands to prove ourselves worthy, busy because idle hands are the devil’s workshop, busy because we feel so helpless and if we could do just one thing maybe we would feel more in control. No. God is busy doing God’s work – overturning the status quo, doing the unexpected, in unexpected ways. Startling us with God’s activity. This is the God of whom Hannah sang in 1 Samuel – who gives strength to the feeble, who fills the hungry, who gives life where there is none. This is the God the psalmist praised in psalm 113, who lifts the needy from the ash heap and sets them next to princes. This is the God of Israel, who led them from slavery and overturned tyrants, who delivered them from exile and restored their nation. This is a God who will not stand for the injustices that we create, who will not allow our darkness to cover the earth, who will not abandon us to our own helplessness. That is why Mary can sing this rebel song – the song about a God who turns the world on its head and can even overthrow death. The song of a world that is about to change.

And that puts her simple “let it be” into a new light, I think. Mary is not a meek and mild pawn in God’s game. She is not just a powerless girl, surrendering to the might of this deity, being used as women have so often been used, as a vessel for others’ strategies, as a transport for someone else’s plans, as the medium for someone else’s message. Mary is the message. She is a powerful woman, who has assented, yes, who says “let it be,” sure, but she is letting it be because she knows who this God is. She knows that she is being called to be a part of God’s plan, not just a passive pawn, but an active player, the one who will nourish and love and teach the very Son of God, the fulfillment of not just her own people’s hopes, but the hopes of all the world. This Mary is stepping forward with a defiant Let it Be! In her outdoor voice!

And that is the way that God works. God works for the good of all, but God works through each one of us. Sometimes we do need to simply step back and let it be. But far more often, what God is calling us to is a rousing Let it Be! Let is Be according to God’s will!

Let it Be!

For the sake of change!

Let it Be!

For the sake of the poor and the downtrodden, for the sake of the weak and the vulnerable, for the sake of the widows, the husbands, the mothers, the grieving. Let it Be!

For those who long for renewal, and reconciliation, and resurrection. For those who long for light in the darkness.

Let it Be! Because I am at work in this! Let it Be! Because God is with you, even when you cannot see it, cannot understand it, cannot imagine how God could break through darkness this deep. Let it Be! Because even now, God is breaking through. And we are called to proclaim – Let it Be! In our outdoor voices!

Recipe for an Apocalypse

Recipe for an apocalypse:

  • Take one part oppression
  • Suffer under a healthy scoop of affliction 
  • Set aside and allow to rise
  • Meanwhile, sift through several books of prophecy, selecting the ripest and choicest morsels
  • Fold in Judgment
  • Chop two cups of nuts and mix well
  • Turn out onto a world dusted with fear and trembling
  • Knead well
  • Sprinkle liberally with chaos

Place all ingredients in a pressure cooker and bring to a boil.
Serve garnished with victory.

The problem with some recipes is, you just don’t know what you’re getting. A lot of the time, something sounds like you just don’t want it, until you know what it is, and then you realize that it could be good. Like, for instance, borscht or goulash or lingonberries, or just about anything German. The names don’t sound particularly appetizing, but once you get a taste, they are good, you might even want more! That’s apocalypse. What is it?

Most of us don’t even know what an apocalypse is, much less whether it’s any good. I’m sure you’ve already got an idea of apocalypse in your head, likely influenced by popular interpretations of the Book of Revelation, often co-opted to scare people into following some agenda or other. You’ve probably heard of things like the Rapture Index (that’s at raptureready.com – it stands at 159 now – high chance of prophetic activity). Or of the Left Behind series, which portrays the trials and tribulations of the end times. Well, first, I want to say, in all humility, there is a chance that those people are right, and that this is what God has planned for us. It is entirely possible that we are close to the rapture. As Christians, we do confess a belief in the return of Christ. The question is, what will that look like? I do not want to pretend that I know the mind of God. I don’t. What I have is evidence. And the evidence that I see points to a few key things: First, God never does things the way we expect; second, God is always able to turn the human tendency to screw things up to God’s purposes; third, so much does God love us that Christ has already returned, and is here with us at every moment.

So, let’s figure out what’s cooking. Apocalypse, contrary to the popular notion of death, war, famine, and pestilence, simply means “unveiling.” It means to disclose a future reality, to demonstrate the trustworthiness of a present hope. Apocalyptic literature in the Bible includes several texts. There’s a few Old Testament passages, especially the Book of Daniel. Then there are the New Testament passages, especially the final book, The Revelation of John. And those like today’s passage, where Jesus gives a speech that sounds pretty apocalyptic. It sounds like talk of some nasty times, when there will be war and famine and plague – it’s the standard recipe, for sure. There’s no doubt that this is frightening.

The thing is, when wasn’t this going on? Can anyone name a time when there were not nations against nations, kingdoms against kingdoms, great earthquakes, famines, plagues? There have always been these things, just as there are now. That’s why 4800 years ago, the Assyrians thought the world was coming to an end. Jesus doesn’t mention it here, of course, but then as now, bribery and corruption were common. In fact, just two chapters ago, he was cleansing the temple, saying “my temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” Obviously Jesus saw the same thing then that the Assyrians saw before him, and that Barry McGuire saw in 1965 –  the whole crazy world is just too frustratin’! So, if we’re looking for the signs of the apocalypse, we just have to look around us, no matter where and, more importantly, no matter when we live.

This genre of apocalyptic literature, books such as the book of Revelation, were written by and for those who were smack dab in the middle of these things. When Jesus spoke, he and the Hebrew people were under the thumb of the Roman Empire. When Luke wrote the Gospel, the temple in Jerusalem had just been destroyed. Everything that the Hebrew people knew about how to be in relationship to God and one another had just gone up in smoke. Jews and Christians were being persecuted for trying to live out their faith in spite of the destruction of its institutions. For those of us who live in the richest country in the history of the world, for those of us who are in the wealthiest, healthiest, best educated 1% of the world, it is difficult to really get ahold of the mentality in which and to which this was written. Most of us have never lived through the destruction of a civilization or the kind of oppression that brings daily fear. At least not on a societal level.

But I bet there are those here who have been through a personal experience of this. We have all come to our own personal endings, those moments when we don’t know what is to come next. The Day family has reached just about rock-bottom. The elder daughter, Janice, having struggled with drugs for years, finally OD-ed in September. She was found by her 13 year old daughter, unconscious, unresponsive. The younger sister, Rose, flew home to help take care of the children, who were staying with Janice and Rose’s parents. After Janice got out of the hospital, she showed up at her parents’ home to pick up the kids. She was drunk. Her father refused to allow her to drive anywhere, with or without the children. Janice got belligerent, then violent. She punched Rose in the eye, and kicked her father so hard that he was knocked unconscious. The police came and arrested Janice, in front of her children. She is now appealing her sentence, and in the meantime, her children are continuing to stay with their grandparents. Things look very bleak for the whole family. No one knows what the future holds. What they do know is that Janice is oppressed by something – she is not able to get out from under it. She is giving herself up to destruction. What is going on inside her we can’t know, because she is so trapped by her destructive ways that we cannot trust her words. This is a family on the edge of apocalypse. It would be very easy to let go of hope, to turn away from the possibility of a future at all. That would be a victory for the powers of evil, a victory for death, and that is absolutely not what God promises us. The world is full of families like the Days, of women and men like Janice, and of much worse. We only have to look at the headlines on CNN.com. Every time I read them, I want to grab my kids and climb under the covers and never come out. I am afraid. So what is it that gets me out from under the covers? What is it that keeps the Days going, seeking some sort of future for their family? It’s apocalypse. It’s hope. It’s the hope for a future in which God does what God promises. That may not be the way that we normally phrase it, but that’s what is at work when we push fear aside and step out into the hope of a better future. It’s apocalypse.

Okay, so what are the ingredients of apocalypse? Let’s check our recipe. Okay, we’ve  already got some oppression, in all its different forms. Affliction seems to travel with oppression, so that’s already mixed together. Let’s set that aside for a few minutes while it’s rising. Next thing – “prophecy,” alright. There’s another often mis-used term, one that can lend itself very nicely to a misunderstanding of apocalypse. What is prophecy? And do we have any of it handy for our recipe? Well, first of all, prophecy is not so much about predicting the future, as it is a warning about the present. Usually we talk of prophecy in terms of something that has been written down and is certain to come about –That’s how it always appears on Buffy the Vampire Slayer – there’s a prophecy, they have no choice but to live into their destiny – their only hope is to supplement the prophecy a little bit with some kind of extras that allow them to circumvent the final doom of it. Like at the end of season one, when there’s a prophecy that Buffy will die, and she does, but then Xander gives her CPR and revives her? it’s a fatalistic perspective: there’s nothing we can do to prevent or bring about a prophecy – it’s just what’s going to happen. But that’s not what the Bible means when it talks about prophecy. Biblical prophecy is the act of speaking truth to power. It’s the act of calling the people back to God, reminding them that what God wants is for them to pay attention to God’s ways. Usually it is reminding them to take care of the poor, the widowed and the immigrant, in other words to take care of those that society would rather forget. Prophecy in the Bible usually looks like somebody standing up to the expectations of the world and saying, “this is not God’s way, and we had better do something about it.” And so Jesus says in today’s passage: “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” For those who are willing and able, Jesus promises words of prophecy.

“So what does the prophet talk about?”  you might ask. Let’s take a look at our recipe….oh, dear, the next ingredient answers that question. Judgment.

What the prophet talks about, what God’s Word promises us, is judgment. Yikes! That doesn’t sound too good, does it? Judgment is another one of those words that makes us shut down. But this is not judgment the way humans do it. We get enough of that as it is. This is God’s judgment. This is a whole different thing. Throughout most of the Bible, when God’s worst judgment on the people is God’s turning away from them and leaving them to their own devices, and worst of all, leaving them to lie in the bed they’ve made. Honestly, I cannot imagine a worse fate for humanity – we are doing a darn fine job of screwing things up as it is, and without God’s attention we will just keep right at it. But God does not leave us to that. God always comes back, God always brings God’s judgment on us. And what that looks like it this: God sends us prophets, to point out how we are taking the world down the toilet. It might be someone who reminds us that the resources of the earth are finite and ours to steward; it might someone sharing his or her dreams for equality and peace for all people; it might be something as personal as a daughter who tells you that you hurt her feelings when you snapped at her. All of these things remind us of the way that God wants us to live (that would be God’s law), and how we are not living up to that. But God does not just leave us hanging in that. God’s judgment is always aimed at reconciliation (that would be God’s gospel). God does not judge us to shame us – that’s what we do to each other. God judges us to help us find ways to do better. God judges us out of God’s love for us, and out of God’s desire to be with us, and out of God’s desire to have us living in right relationship, with God and with one another. The good news is that God’s worst and best judgment of us is in the cross of Christ. In Christ’s death on the cross, God is showing God’s hand completely. God is showing that reconciliation is the most important thing for God. So important that God was willing to come here to earth, to take on human form, and to then die on the cross, so that we could be reconciled.

And God did not stop there. One of the next ingredients in the recipe is chaos. That is, destruction and death –that is, endings. But the evidence is that God is not the God of destruction. God is the God of creation.  Remember last week’s passage? Remember how we were reminded that our God is not the God of death, but of life? We have a God whose primary activity in the world is creation. Starting with the story in the beginning of Genesis, we have stories of God bringing creation out of chaos, bringing life where all we can see is destruction. When I read “the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep,” what I picture is chaos. There was nothing there, or whatever was there had been destroyed. And God pulls creation out of that chaos. That is what God promises for apocalypse. Creation out of chaos. If God could do it once, God can do it again. And has done. See, once again, the best evidence we have for God’s definition of apocalypse is in Jesus himself. For Jesus’ followers, there was no darker moment than the day that he died on the cross. All that they hoped for, the Messiah that they believed they had found, the one who would free Israel from its oppression, the one who would bring victory and fulfill God’s promises, was dead. All their hopes were gone. They were despairing. Like the hymn we sang a few minutes ago – “do not despair, o little flock.” How could they not despair?  It sure seemed as if Satan, hell, and all their crew were standing against God’s power. Scorn and contempt were on everyone’s lips there at the foot of the cross, as they mocked Jesus hanging on the cross. Despair probably seemed like the most sensible course of action, as it so often does in the midst of destruction. And for three days, despair was their modus operandi.

But God creates out of chaos. Jesus told his disciples, “Do not be afraid, for these things must take place first…but not a hair on your head will perish” God brings victory from the midst of despair. So three days later, Christ rose. Christ defeated death, Christ brought salvation out of despair, right relationship out of the human sinfulness that killed him in the first place. God turned the judgment of humanity into the judgment of God – that is, God brought reconciliation, and sent chaos packing. That is why, in the Psalm, all the world is making a joyful noise! I love the imagery: the floods clap their hands, the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, who will judge the world! God will judge the world, not with the shame and scorn of humans, but with righteousness and equity. And for God, as we see in Christ, that means reconciliation.

So, imagine what might happen if, as our recipe instructs, we turn that out onto a world dusted, as ours is, with fear and trembling. If, as the prophets do, we remind the world of God’s righteousness, of God’s desire for reconciliation. What if we speak the truth to power that the world so desperately needs to hear. It would be easy to sink into cynicism. It would even be easy to placate ourselves with shallow optimism. But what if we really, honestly speak about God’s reconciling love for us, borne out of God’s judgment and God’s victory? The result would truly be apocalypse. Apocalypse of the most amazing and wondrous kind. Apocalypse as the Scriptures really teach it – that is, the coming of God’s kingdom. As we stand on the verge of the Advent season, we are getting ready to spend a month thinking about the cute little baby Jesus, lying in the manger. And we sing lots of songs inviting Jesus to be here with us. But what is most amazing to me about this season is the reminder that God’s Kingdom is already breaking in on us. Yes we are inviting the baby Jesus in, and yes we speak of the second coming. But what is most astonishing to me is that God’s Kingdom is here, already, and daily, lives are changed by Christ. Sometimes it is something profound and earth-shattering, sometimes it is subtle and bittersweet. I am not trying to be polyanna or facile. God’s in-breaking is never as easy as we’d like it to be. The pictures of the sweet little baby in the manger never show Mary in the midst of labor, cursing at everyone around her, scared to death because childbirth is scary and dangerous and messy. There’s never a depiction of the exhaustion she feels afterwards and the desire to sleep for a year, but there’s this baby who keeps waking up demanding food. But that is probably a better description of what it is like when God breaks in. God turns everything on its head, just like a new baby does for her parents. Chaos comes first, but out of that chaos comes victory, new life, new joy, a new person who will change the world around her. And daily, families like the Days are shown God’s in-breaking love and care, through the neighbors who show up with help, through the prayers of loved ones, through the strength that they continue to discover at unknown depths of their own selves, and they step out in hope. Every day, on every street, in every place in the world, people are reaching end points. And God is at work, finding ways to create out of their chaos. God is at work finding ways to bring victory over despair. God is at work, turning endings to God’s purposes, bringing reconciliation in the face of discord. Apocalypse is constant, endings coming at every moment, and the world starts again, new at every moment. In Christ, chaos become creation, judgment turns to reconciliation, and fear gives way to hope. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine!

Tiny Lights – A Blue Christmas sermon

I went to visit Meramec Caverns last summer with my kids. Which is a testament to how much I love my kids, because I am both claustrophobic and afraid of heights, and the walk through the cave there affords ample opportunities for being in closed in spaces and for walking across huge chasms. I was holding my son’s hand most of the way, ostensibly for his safety, but truth be told, it was more for my own comfort and grounding. Anyway, at the end of the tour, you are taken into the very farthest chamber of the cave, as deep and far away from the entrance as you can go. And there, they turn off the lights. It is the pitchest dark you can experience, darkness beyond darkness, so dark that you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face. Dark. Darker than any moonless, starless night. Dark. And you stand there, in the darkness, reaching for whatever hand you can grab, as your eyes stretch and dilate, desperate to find some small glimmer of light, yearning for any spark that might fill the void. And there is none. And then, just when you think you cannot stand it any longer, the tour guide lights a match. A single tiny match. And one tiny match never seemed so bright, it illuminates the entire cavern, so that you can see the cracks and bumps of the walls, the stalactites and stalagmites reaching for one another, and one tiny match is better somehow than any blazing bonfire, more powerful than any spotlight. It is amazing what one tiny spark can do when the darkness is that deep.

You are perhaps not a stranger to darkness. It comes in so many forms. Grief, loss, depression. Maybe you have lost someone dear to you, and you cannot see the world properly because that was the person whose light illuminated the world for you, who made everything clear. Grief is a powerful darkness. Maybe you suffer from depression, and no matter how much you struggle to dig out of your hole, the darkness seems to push you down farther. Depression can drape darkness over you like a veil. Maybe you have had too many losses to count – financial, emotional, relational – and darkness seeps in and threatens to overwhelm you. Maybe you have watched too much of the news, too many reports of violence and death and war, and you simply cannot understand how any light could stand up to such hatred and evil. Maybe you are just sick of the cold, the hardness of winter that works its way into your bones and you can’t drive it out with hot cocoa or warm baths or layers of sweaters and fleece. We each experience our own darkness, some of us can name it, some of us cannot, but it is there, and here at the darkest time of the year, it feels darker, as it stands in contrast to the holiday lights, the festivities, the yuletide cheer. It is indeed the longest night.

In the book of Luke, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, that is sown in the ground and grows to become a tree where the birds of the air make their nests. I want to take that image and just tweak it a little bit, and compare the mustard seed to hope. Hope is a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. But when sown, hope can grow, it can take root in your soul and grow, maybe slowly, maybe quickly, but it does grow. And as it grows, it can become the host for more life, the birds of the air, nesting in its branches, making homes, bringing new life, renewal and reconciliation, new relationships, new dreams, new visions for the future. What is your mustard seed this year? For Christians, what we are celebrating at Christmas is that tiny spark, that little baby, born in a backwater town, at the edge of an empire, an insignificant nothing, who grew to become the light of all nations, the light of the world, the tiny spark that came to illuminate the darkness of the world. What is your mustard seed? What hope will you cling to through these dark days, what hope will you plant and allow to take root in your soul, to grow into new life as the year turns? Is it a family member, a friend? Is it a promise or an expectation, like the knowledge that the earth will tilt, and the sun will warm, and green shoots will again break through the cold, hard ground? Maybe it is this gathering, the knowledge that these people gathered here are praying, for you, holding you in their hearts, and praying warmth and light and hope toward you. Whatever it is, I have a gift for you, a decoration. It is a mustard seed, for you to place somewhere in your home, to remind you of the gift of the mustard seed, and to rekindle that tiny spark of hope for you when you need it. It is my prayer for you, that you will recognize light when you see it, that it will warm you with God’s light, that it will remind you of the Christmas message – that God is here, even when we struggle to see God’s light, God is with us, our Emmanuel.

Proclaiming Joy from Under the Desk

We’ve been working our way through the Narrative Lectionary since September. In those three months, we have read from Genesis through Exodus, the history of Israel in Samuel and Kings, and the words of several prophets: Jonah, Jeremiah, Joel, Daniel, and now Isaiah. All Old Testament texts. In other words, for the last three months, we have not read a single scriptural passage about Jesus. I’ve talked about Jesus in my sermons, but everything that we’ve read in Scripture has been Old Testament texts, all from the years B.C. A colleague of mine talked about using the Narrative Lectionary last year. And long about December, a member of her congregation came up to her and said, “Pastor, I miss Jesus! When are we going to hear about Jesus?” And her pastor said, “Welcome to Advent.”

The book of Isaiah is an Advent book. It is a book that we Christians read Jesus back into when we read it. Written over the course of several hundred years, the various prophets who contributed to what we call Isaiah preached to the people of Israel through their darkest days. The first 39 chapters, including the portion we read together as our psalm today, were written in the years leading up to the Babylonian exile. Invading armies threatened, the people suffered, and kings and leaders filled their own coffers at the expense of the widow and orphan. The prophet called on them to change their ways, and warned of the days to come. And was ignored. The Babylonians invaded. The Israelites suffered. The Temple was destroyed. The land and the people were ravaged. Innocents were killed. And thousands upon thousands were driven from their homes.

The second portion of Isaiah was written during this time of exile. Generations were forced to live in another country, away from the land that God had given them, away from their holy Jerusalem. One of the most famous passages from Isaiah, a passage we hear in Handel’s Messiah, comes from this time period. “Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term.” We will sing these words as one of our Communion hymns today. These are words of encouragement, words of longing, words of hope. Delivered into the darkest days of exile.

The third portion of Isaiah includes the main reading that we heard today, Isaiah 61. This was written in the period just after the return from exile. The people of Israel returned from Babylon, and tried to start over. Only to find that things in Zion were not as good as they had expected. They had pinned all their hopes on this return – had expected that just getting back to Jerusalem would solve all their problems. And when they arrived, it turned out that there was work to be done, and that they were still not happy. They were still grieving. They were still broken. They were still in need of God. What they thought they needed was the land, the place. But Isaiah reminds them, in the words of today’s reading, that it is not the land that will heal them. It is not the land that gives them hope. It is not the land that will bind their wounds and mend their broken hearts. It is only God who can do that.

We do not need Isaiah to remind us of how dark the world is. We do not even need the early setting of the winter sun, the bare branches scraping the sky, the cold, frozen ground greeting us with frost on late lighting mornings. We know that this is a dark place, and that the darkness is within as well as without. We know that darkness so well that it becomes5958847-bare-tree-branches-against-glowing-sky almost a comfort to us, something that we draw around us to block out the world, something that we dwell in, an excuse that we use, that we blame for the state of things. The world is broken, we say, it is a dark place. I can’t change that. We breathe the darkness in and it becomes our own, and we are tempted by despair. We are tempted by nihilism. We are tempted by the belief that this darkness is God’s doing, is God’s will for us, for the world. We make darkness our god.

Believe me, I was tempted by this darkness on Friday. One article on the satire website The Onion that got at what I felt: “sources confirmed it is totally fine to spend the rest of today curled up in the fetal position underneath your desk.” That is what I felt like. As I sat there trying to contemplate writing a sermon, a sermon that would be appropriate for the third Sunday in Advent, a Sunday traditionally dedicated to Joy, I wanted nothing more than to chuck it. To crawl under my desk, preferably with my kids, and just stay there. To embrace the darkness. So I turned to the web, and looked for help. adv-3And I saw the same impulse there. Aside from the recriminations and the already-begun blame game, I came across the following suggestion: leave the third candle unlit. Don’t light the third candle on the Advent wreath, because Joy is not to be celebrated today.

But here’s the thing. The world did not become a darker place on Friday. We just noticed it. The world was already that dark, and we just had the darkness brought home to us. But there are people in the world, people in our community, people in this room, for whom the world was already that dark. People who have lost loved ones, who have lost children, who are despairing. There are people who are waiting, for a diagnosis, for a job, for a reunion, for forgiveness. Would we have left the Joy candle dark for them in their darkness? For the darkness of war? Of poverty? Of domestic abuse? Of depression?

No. No. That is not us. We are a community in Christ, we are the Body of Christ, and Christ is the light of all nations. If we leave that candle blank, then the darkness wins. If we leave any candles unlit, then the darkness wins. And we know better. We may be an Advent people, living in the darkness, and waiting for the light, but we are also a people who walk in darkness and have seen the great light, we are a people who have been delivered from the exile, and seen the promise that God has given, the Word made flesh, the light that shines in the darkness. And the darkness. Will. Not. Overcome. It.

This passage from Isaiah 61 is the passage that Jesus spoke to the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, a story that we will hear in just a few weeks. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” It is the passage that President Obama quoted as he addressed the nation on Friday. “Heal the brokenhearted, and bind up their wounds.” It is God’s promise to be with us. In the deepest moment of our darkness. God is with us. God seeks us out in the moments that we are tempted to despair. In the moments when the darkness threatens to overwhelm us. In the moments when we cannot imagine lighting a candle for ourselves. We speak the words each week as we recite the Apostles’ Creed. He descended into hell. What else do we mean but that? God comes to us in the darkest moments that we humans can create, even into the depths of the hells that we create here on earth.

Our job is to proclaim it. Isaiah reminds the people of Israel, and Isaiah reminds us, “you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of God.” Our job is to proclaim. To proclaim joy, even when we are surrounded by despair. To shout praises, and to sing songs, and to light candles, and to remind all the world that the light is coming! That Christ will be here, soon! That God has recognized the darkness of the world, the darkness that we have made, and God has decided that what we need is light. What we need is life. What we need is reconciliation, and redemption, and renewal. What we need is hope. A reminder that death cannot win, that despair is not an option, that God shows up. What we need is God’s own Son, God’s Word made flesh, born into the darkness, coming into the world at the darkest time of the year, in the darkest moments of our lives, and shining God’s warmth and love and light. What we need is Christmas. And Christmas is coming. That is what we are called and sent to proclaim. That is why we are empowered, and not only empowered, but compelled, to light the candles. To speak the words. To sing the songs. We, like Isaiah, are called to sing light into the darkness. To sing “Joy.” To proclaim God with us. Emmanuel.