“Finding Joy—Even at Christmas”

December 20, 2015

 

Zephaniah3:14-20

Luke 1:39-55

 

The prophet tells the people: “Sing aloud, …shout,…Rejoice and exult with all your heart.”

We encounter such exhortations throughout scripture—from Moses through the psalmists to the prophets; from Jesus to Paul, who told the early Christians in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always,” adding, just so there would be no misunderstanding, “Again, I say rejoice.”

In these days before Christmas we hear Mary living out this advice and announcing, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

In these days before Christmas we carol to one another: “Good Christian friends, rejoice/With heart and soul and voice.” Our songs proclaim that “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy.”

These days before Christmas call us to rejoice in the good news that God has come to us in Jesus, embracing our frail and fallible human life. So in these days—if at no other time—we do those things that echo that good news and, if we are fortunate, even bring about that joy: gathering in families, reconnecting with friends, joining parties, sharing special meals, giving and receiving gifts.

Rejoice.

Again, I would say rejoice.

And yet each year in these days before Christmas many also recognize that all is not right—all is neither calm nor bright.

Maybe this is especially so this year:

Even with the recent announcement of the international accord to deal with climate change, we know that the earth, our home, is in a precarious position caused by human action—and inaction.

Wars and violence continue and we have found a new repository for our fear in ISIS, a new justification for our belligerence. At the debate last week some of the strongest applause came in response to promises of “carpet bombing” and calls to threaten, harm, and kill the family members of those we would call our enemies.

The hatred of other—because of their race, because of their religion, because of their sexual orientation—seems on the rise in our nation and around the world.

We are at the end of a long year of horrific gun violence stretching from sea to shining sea, from Charleston to San Bernardino. And while what exactly was said is in dispute, here on a campus that has experienced gun deaths firsthand, the new president makes an off-hand comment about shooting someone.

In addition we know illness, brokenness, loss, and uncertainty in our own lives. As Sandy Lacina wrote to me last week, “December really is a dark month right now.” Others have told me, “Christmas is going to be different this year.” They express the feelings and forebodings of many.

In the face of all of this, we begin to see the wisdom—and the compassion—of some congregations that hold “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” worship services as the darkness around us increases. Such worship services have grown in popularity over the past twenty years or so. You might have heard about these.

Held on or near the December 21 winter solstice these are times to bring to God the sorrow and the loss that many feel this time of year. These are honest expressions of the hurt and sadness that is known in the midst of tinsel and sparkle, in the empty holly-jolly of these days.

Such worship services give people the chance to say: “This is not right. The world is not right. I am not right. I am neither as I should be nor as I want to be.” They allow us to recognize—in the loving presence of each other—that our Christmas expectations place a heavy burden on many men and women. This is worship that allows people to recognize the hardship of all our days and the grief that is fresh or still there after so many years. It lifts up to the God of compassion the worry and the fear that keep us up at night.

We need to give voice to all of this. And if we don’t do this in the darkness of the longest night but instead speak of such concerns on a Sunday morning, maybe it means that even more of us are able to stand with each other in the times of shadows and bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. If we do this on a Sunday morning, maybe it is out of a recognition that all of the days of Advent are a time of lament over what is as well as a time of looking forward in hope.

I’ve voiced before my thought that on any given Sunday, a good 50% of the people who come to worship are on the verge of tears. We walk through these doors bringing family problems, trouble at work, worry from school, concerns about illness and death. So if you feel some of that today, please know that you are not alone. If that does not describe you this morning, there is a good chance that your neighbor is worshipping with a weary heart, a burdened spirit.

Be kind. Be kind to one another.

People sit in these pews and cry. People come to my office and weep. People talk over coffee in Rockwood Hall and there are tears. This is not something to regret or try to change. There are few places left outside of the church where we can bring our weary souls and find some rest. There are few places left outside of the church where we can cry and know that our sorrow is accepted and honored.

Let me say this again: Be kind. Be kind to one another. You are. I know. But we need that kindness, especially in these days.

Yes, there is much in the Christian life that brings us joy—and I want to move on to that. Joy, however, is not to be confused with an artificial smile plastered on your face. As Emily Dickenson wrote: “I love a look of anguish/ because I know it’s true.”

Yet even in times of anguish we hear the call to rejoice. It is then that we might  discover what a joy that is as deep and true as any anguish that we feel.

To a city mired in corruption, to a people threatened by enemies within and outside, the prophet, Zephaniah, spoke first a word of judgment. Only as the words of doom echoed in the ears of the God’s people was he able to be heard as he said:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;

shout O Israel!

Rejoice and exult with all your heart.

Joy has very little to do with being happy—maybe nothing at all. It has little to do with our good fortune. It’s an energy that comes most often when things are grim or painful. Joy comes uninvited and at the most unexpected times.

Rejoicing. Exulting. Taking delight in something. Call it what you want. It’s one way that people find the energy to move toward compassion and sharing and beating swords into plowshares. Joy is one of the ways that we move into new life.

We learn a lot from our experiences that are painful. We learn from our hurt and brokenness and sorrow. Many people are used to seeing pain as an opportunity to learn. And, yes, the understanding of the potential productivity of pain is a major insight. Pain is not all waste and loss. No one is born knowing this and the excitement of realizing it is so strong that people tend to stay with it.

This can be limiting, however. Since we expect and even trust pain we begin to look for it.

But we also learn through joy. We can collect joyous experiences as learning and energy. We can learn by the careful observation of our own delight—and you will find that this delight, this joy has the capacity to energize.

There is a joy that is deeper than the good times and bad times that life hands out, stronger than our best attempts and worst failings—a joy that lifts us when we cannot lift ourselves, a peace that grasps us and returns us renewed.

Even in the worst of times, God is giving birth to a new possibility—the reconciliation of God and humankind. This creative birth, like all births, can be long and difficult. Catching a glimpse of this new possibility, however, Mary, most likely an unwed, pregnant teenager, sings: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

In Luke’s gospel, we hear Mary tell of the world as it might be, the new creation to which God is giving birth. Her song speaks of the deep human hope—and perhaps of deep human fear:

God has shown strength…[and] scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

God has brought down the powerful…and lifted up the lowly;

God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Christmas is not for children alone. It also comes to the often weary and jaded adults that we have become. We hear the good news that God is still at work in the world, so that the world that is more and more becomes the world as it might be.

In the days ahead, we draw closer to the heart of the meaning of this season. God moves toward humankind in Jesus Christ, reconciling a waiting world, redeeming all creation.

Nothing stays the same. The weak become strong; the hungry are filled with good things. What seems absolutely impossible is presented to the world as a sign of God's love.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote: “We are all asked to do more than we can do.[i]” Over and over we discover this in the stories of scripture. Over and over we discover it in our own lives. At some point we come to the limit of our abilities. Just at that point, something—life or circumstances, desire or God—something calls us beyond those limits. Our inability becomes an opportunity for greater achievement. Our disability becomes the opportunity for even greater action. Our sorrow becomes a channel for joy.

Friends, this is the good news of these days—and really of all days. God is with us.

We will not get through the rough places of this season, we will not get through the rough places of our lives by simply smiling and trying to be of good cheer. We won’t get through the dangerous and distressing parts of this world by telling ourselves next year all our troubles will be out of sight.

We will move forward in the faith and the hope that even in all our troubles, the God of love whose incarnation we announce—with joy—the God of love is with us. And nothing can separate us from that love. Once again this week we announce that God still enters into the silent and lonely and fearful nights of our lives, our world, sharing our sorrow, comforting us with joy.

Even now with all of the struggles of living, we recognize that we move from despair to joy, from passivity to action, from sickness to health, from death to life. The eyes of faith help us to see the light shining in the darkness, speaking gently to us that the darkness does not overcome the light, telling us even as the candles are lit on Christmas Eve that we are Easter people. We live with the empowering awareness that in Christ God has conquered death and the sin that separates us from God, from one another, and from the best in ourselves.

Let us in the days ahead, once more tune our voices to sing of joy and faith.

Let us train our lives to show love and mercy.

Let us shape our world into a place of justice and peace.

Let us look again with wonder as God incarnate in Jesus recreates our lives and makes the world as it might be.

In the coming year, let us allow God to work among us in surprising and unexpected ways.

In the coming year, let us allow ourselves to prosper so that we might learn what it means to be generous.

In the coming year, let us allow God to transform what is weak within you and me into new strength.

Rejoice. Along with all of creation, you are loved by God, whose mercy is great, whose compassion is eternal.



[i] Madeleine L’Engle, Miracle on 10th Street, pg. 71.