The Longest Night (Evening Sermon, 12/21/14)

longest night

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. – John 1:1-14

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If you’re here tonight, you know that this time of year, so filled with happiness and joy for so many people, isn’t so joyful to everyone. The odds are that you’ve suffered some loss, maybe this past year, maybe longer ago, that you’re still wrestling with. Maybe your loss occurred at this time of year, and its anniversary has brought it to the forefront of your mind again; or maybe the memory of that loss, or separation, or disconnect, or just plain loneliness, is just brought more sharply into focus during this time of family and friends and togetherness. For whatever reason, whatever the details, there’s an aching in your heart, something that just doesn’t correspond with the overriding emotion of the Christmas season. The Book of Proverbs warns us not to sing songs to a heavy heart, but in fact that’s exactly what you feel every time you turn on the television or radio, or see friends gathering together and laughing and having a good time, apparently without a care in the world. It can make us feel disjointed. If we aren’t acting happy like everyone else, we gradually get pushed to the side of all the festivities. We can start to feel like we and our pain don’t matter; not to the people around us, not even to God.

We aren’t alone in this. A lot of the Psalms are songs of lament –  outpourings of pain, sorrow, anger, even accusation against God. After laying out the pain in the psalmist’s heart, some of them turn around toward the end, conceding that God is really good and in control, and the psalmist is confident that everything is going to be alright. But some of them don’t do that. There isn’t any neat, tidy resolution to the problem like a TV sitcom where everything’s resolved by the end of the episode. There’s no acknowledgement of God’s goodness or compassion. There’s only the anger, the sadness, a sadness that’s hung in the air and in our ears for some 2,500 years.

I think it’s important that these Psalms are a part of our tradition. They show us a number of things, but tonight, they’re especially important because they show us that in our faith, we take pain and sorrow seriously. We don’t sweep it under the rug and try to act like it doesn’t exist. We don’t try to prescribe some quick-fix for it. All of those psalms of lament, and the other places throughout the scriptures that paint pictures for us of the sorrow and suffering of people, show us that we are not alone in our sadness. We’re in the company of all of these people from the past – and we’re in the company of each other here tonight as well. This evening, as we look around, we can see that we’re not alone in our feelings; there are many of us here who are experiencing the same thing And it isn’t unnatural, it’s perfectly normal, and we don’t have to apologize, or feel guilt or shame over the way we feel. Instead, we can honestly recognize and acknowledge our feelings, and we can honestly share them with God. This evening, we can look around us, and see faces of good friends who can offer us understanding and comfort for our feelings, because they know those feelings themselves. And as we look around, and we see those faces, we see people who we can offer that same kind of comfort and support too in return.

People coming together on this night, the night of the year that has the least amount of daylight and the most amount of darkness, looking forward to the coming of greater and greater light, is something that predates the Christian faith by thousands of years. As Christians, we’ve borrowed the same idea, through our observance of Advent, as we gradually light more and more candles, symbolically increasing the light until the arrival of Christmas – the birth of Jesus, and the entrance of the ultimate, true light into the world. And we continue to observe this service, as we ask that the light of Christ, the light of God, would increasingly break into our existence, and into our own heavy hearts.

As hard as it might be to believe while we’re in the midst of our grief, that really is possible. We can see that possibility when we think about God’s light breaking into the world through Jesus, in the weakest, humblest way possible – a man who knew near-constant sorrow and setback. He didn’t know any of the benefits of wealth or power or prestige, but all of the pain of rejection from family and friend alike. A man who seemingly never had any real security or stability in his life, and who eventually paid the ultimate price while being persecuted by his enemies. So even while we suffer, and mourn, we can know that God, through Jesus, knows and understands our loss and suffering. Jesus walked this same path. And he walks it together, with us, now.

Christmas is the time that we observe God’s light breaking into the world, to shine into its darkest places. In a little while, we’ll invite you to come forward to light a candle to remember and acknowledge your loss, your sadness, whatever it is. And when you do, imagine that you’re coming into the very presence of Christ, presenting your sadness to him, and asking him to heal you of its pain and to remove that burden from your shoulders. And after you’ve lit your candle, take it, and the candle holder, home with you. Put it somewhere in your home that you’ll see it often. And whenever you wrestle with your sorrow this coming year, light your candle again, as a reminder that Christ, the light of the world, is with you always – especially in the midst of your suffering. Christmas is a time of joy, certainly. But a big part of that joy is that God has come into the world to set the captives free – especially those who, like us, are held captive by the pain in our own hearts. Amen.

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