The Rev. Ingrid Brown
The following sermon was preached as part of our all ages Candlelight Family Christmas Service.
It is December 1999. I’m a defiant teenager with some pretty serious problems and though I have a warm home to go to, my mother's house, I choose not to. I have nowhere to go, I tell myself, there is no place for me. The sun sets and the real chill begins. I’m ousted from several Hotel lobbies and find myself just walking the streets for hours, trying to stay warm. My body gets so tired. It is so cold. So painfully cold. No toque, gloves, or winter boots. The dampness of the day has given way to the slick and unforgiving ice of night. And I walk. And walk. Until I can’t walk any more. So, I sit and believe that I’ll surely die in this place, on this night.
I am in a literal and metaphorical dark night – I lie in the darkness with a heavy weight on my chest, waiting for a voice that doesn’t come.
This may be my story, but it’s also the story of the people who were living in the age Jesus was born into.
What we don’t hear in the story that was just demonstrated for us in loving, warm, tender playfulness, is it’s fearful frigid setting. They didn’t know then what we know now – they didn’t know how far and wide and long their story would be told.
These folks had been waiting. Waiting for the light. Waiting for their chain-breaker, liberator…Saviour. And their night of waiting was certainly longer than mine. Already in the book of Leviticus, more than a thousand years before Jesus’ story, is this promise, “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:12).
These are folks who have been living under oppressive rule as one tyrannical Empire gave way to another. A people who were not free, who had not been free for a long time. A people who had been abused, enslaved, occupied; who had been moved about, taxed, and subjugated at the whim of whoever was in power.
The cold and unforgiving night of waiting was long, seemingly endless. Hope was all but gone.
And in the midst of all of this, we have two very real people. These are not the Christmas card versions of Mary and Joseph. No pristine clothing, outlined in gold, smiling at their cheerful and bouncing babe laid in clean straw and surrounded by friendly animals. A pregnant teenager and her determined beloved. They’ve just travelled forty miles on foot through the hill country to a strange town where she goes into labour – something challenging in the best of circumstances – in a barn. And in the middle of the night, they are burst in upon by rough and dangerous shepherds smelling of woodsmoke and sweat, looking for their baby. The true Christmas story is a bit of a mess, and truth is, so are we. I can’t relate to a Christmas card. I can relate to mistakes burstings-in and rough journeys.
Like most of us, I’ve learned through pain. On that icy December night of my youth, I was lost, I was broken. I didn’t belong and I was sure I was alone. And then…
Light. Soft and gentle at first, the pink and purple and orange peeking out between the dull grey buildings. I lift my head and cannot help but gaze at its beauty. And then, oh that first sweet, warm ray of light peeks over the horizon and kisses my face. I smile in spite of myself. I survived the night.
The thaw I felt that night was not the end of my struggles – surely struggle is part of what it means to walk around in skin – but it was a turning point. The beginning of the softening of my heart to what God could do …would do…in my life.
Mary and Joseph’s next days were undoubtedly not easy ones. And this wouldn’t be the end of their sorrow. I wonder though, if looking into the wrinkled face of their little boy, they felt the warm rays of light the angels promised that his life would be. I wonder if they couldn’t help but gaze at his beauty. I wonder if they smiled a new sense of hope, in spite of themselves and in spite of the darkness that had been their reality for so long.
Now the truth is, the tremendous good news is, that ours is a God of both the darkness and the light; despair and joy. We celebrate a God who willingly enters the darkness in order to bring the light. In order to burst into light. In order to break down all barriers, all estrangements, all that separates us. But this chain-breaker, this liberator, this saviour does not enter the world as the mighty warrior that many had long expected. Not as the noble and high-born prince wrapped in luxurious soft purple. No, he came as a backwater, marginalized Jew swaddled in rough scraps of cloth and placed in a feeding trough.
I know that you can walk in these doors and see us happy people today, or on a Sunday morning; see our polished shiny faces, sharing a hug, a laugh, and think that we don't know what it is to live through darkness, through the most painful, sharp places of life. It might be easy to look at me or anyone here and think that we haven't struggled and we couldn't possibly relate to the suffering you feel.
But we have known hurt. We know loss and hopelessness. We know the war within that decimates peace. Our hearts often harden to squeeze out love. For many of us, that is what brought us through these doors – we were thirsty for a hope, a love, that we could not muster on our own.
And what we’ve come to know in this community, this place of broken people learning to walk in love and light together, what we’ve come to understand is that darkness, despair, is not the end of our story. Oh no. We’ve felt the unexpected rays of light and warmth pierce through the bone chilling night of isolation, addiction, disease, heart ache, and suffering.
Every year we recognize and reconnect with this cycle, except now we know that the shadow won't have the last word. And so, in the weeks that lead up to Christmas we sit in the dark and wait. Trusting in and expecting God's promises of hope, peace, joy, and love. And celebrating on this day that God always, always comes through, though rarely in the way we want or expect.
That’s why we can have these pageants of messy, discombobulated joy. Because we know the fullness of the meaning of this day. We know the love of God broke into the world in the midst of the animals and sorrow in a light that could not, would not, will not, ever go away. And we can know, absolutely know, absolutely trust, absolutely celebrate, even in our darkest of days – that we are held in tender compassionate love; surrounded by the womb of God. And that the light we never expected is ready to erupt into the world in a messy, vulnerable way that’ll surprise and challenge us.
And so on this night, I pray that we see this divine light with fresh eyes. That we might risk opening ourselves to the promise of this birth. Whether for the first time, hundredth time, or the first time in a long time. And that we – each one of us – experiences the surprising presence of the one who shatters expectations and is at work transforming us, and the world, in love. Amen.