Christmas does not always feel like a joyful time. The good news of Jesus’ birth does not come to a world unbroken. God comes to us in Jesus and brings the light, and in the light we can rejoice.
Vicar Meagan McLaughlin
The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Day
texts: Isaiah 52: 7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1: 1-12, John 1: 1-14
Joy and peace to you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Since my youngest brother Kevin moved out of state many years ago, we have a tradition of talking on the phone every Christmas Day if he is not in town, and we always start out by singing to each other, as we did here this morning . . . “Joy to the world, the Lord is come . . .” If Advent is about waiting, expectation, hope, Christmas is about joy. Jesus has come, God is with us, Emmanuel! Isaiah cries out to the people describing the beauty of the very feet of the messenger who announces peace and the fulfillment of salvation, and the sentinels sing in joy at the news. God reigns, the promise has been fulfilled! And it is good news. Joy to the world, indeed!
The truth is, however, that Christmas does not always feel like a joyful time. Joy as we experience it in this world is fleeting, dependent on external circumstances, and it is not easy to feel joyful in times of struggle. We live in a broken world, and we are painfully aware, especially as we take seriously the voices calling for justice in our communities, of our own sin and need for forgiveness and healing. And meanwhile, the ebb and flow of life continues around us. There are people in this community today grieving the death of loved ones, walking through a loved one’s final days of life, experiencing serious medical crises, poverty, and homelessness, and facing many other very real challenges. Grief, fear, and anger are present around us. In the midst of these realities, the invitation—the command—to “be joyful” can sound like a directive to ignore the dark side of the truth and pretend everything is fine, or it can sound like an impossible task that quickly becomes evidence of our failure, weak faith.
We live in a world that tells us, and we often tell ourselves, “I could be happy if . . .” and “All will be well, when . . .” Fill in the blank. Spoken or unspoken, we all have our conditions. If I complete this project perfectly. When I lose 10 pounds. If I get the right job. When I am completely healthy. These messages set us up for disappointment and failure on so many levels. And the worst part is, when we hold on to these conditions, we are captive to the mistaken belief that rejoicing is only possible when the problems of this world, and our own lives, have been resolved, everything is in order, even perfect. This is an expectation that we, and life itself, are never going to meet. Our country is torn apart by violence, racism, to the point where at times it can seem so dark as to be beyond all hope, and it can even feel that we must have been abandoned by God for such sorrow, or pain, or devastation, to exist.
Thanks be to God, the good news of Jesus’ birth does not come to a world unbroken. The promise in John is not that there is no darkness, but that the darkness has not overcome the light. Isaiah’s cry is not to a people living in wholeness, success, and comfort. Isaiah calls to a people living in exile, experiencing the reality of the destruction of the temple which they saw as the house of God. As far as the people were concerned, God had been cast out and had abandoned the people with the tearing down of the temple, many had died, Israel was scattered. Isaiah’s song goes out not to a people united and free, with a temple standing in glory, but to the ruins and the wastelands. And as they stand in the ruins, the people are called to sing and praise, trusting in the comfort of a God who promises restoration. They may not have been feeling joy, but they were called to rejoice.
We are, in many ways, living as much in the ruins and wastelands as the people of Israel were in the time of Isaiah. As we hear Isaiah’s cry, and John’s promise, for ourselves, the darkness, the sin, the grief, the pain of this life we live are not swept aside or discounted, but assumed. And the promise to us is the same as it has been from the beginning. No matter how dark the world we live in, and how hard it may be at times to feel joy, the light of God shines in the darkness, and will never be overcome.
This Christmas Day, we come together as people of the light. We know the darkness—it is all around us. God came to this broken world in Jesus so that we also know the light. We know that God is always with us, right in the midst of our very human experience, not only in the joys but also in the sorrows. We know the extravagant love that brought our God to us, and God’s promise to heal and transform us and this broken world. We know the faithfulness of the people of God in the stories handed down for generations and generations. And we know the faithfulness of our God, who comes to us as light in the darkness.
We are called every day, but especially on this day of rejoicing in God’s coming to us in Jesus, to be the presence of God in this world. We rejoiced in the light of God this week when we opened Mount Olive’s doors and the hungry among our members and the hungry among our neighbors shared food and fellowship at the Community Meal. We rejoiced when we came together to provide gifts for children whose parents are struggling to cover basic needs. We rejoiced as we decorated this sacred space, and rehearsed music, and prepared to celebrate liturgies together, claiming the promise of God alive in our midst.
We are called to continue to rejoice as we offer love and comfort to those in this community and in our families who are particularly burdened with the darkness of this life, letting them know that they are not alone and that the God of light stands with them. We are called to rejoice as we stand with those crying for justice, and become willing to change so that justice is possible. And, we are called to rejoice as we celebrate with those experiencing life, healing, and love. All around us are opportunities to witness to the light that the darkness will not overcome. How will you rejoice today? To whom will you carry the light?
If Advent is about waiting and watching and hoping, Christmas is about rejoicing, regardless of our circumstances. Jesus, Emanuel, God with us, has come to be a light in the midst of our darkness. A single candle in a dark room can bring light for the one who carries it, and for those who stand near them. And from the light of just one candle, countless candles can be lit, and the light grows. The darkness will never overcome it. God comes to us in Jesus and brings the light, and in the light we can rejoice!
Thanks be to God!