Rejoicing amid the Darkness

Sermon for 3rd Sun. of Advent  14Dec14
1Thes5:16-24; John1:6-8,19-28; Isaiah61:1-4,8-11; Psalm126
Two words to start our 2nd reading which may seem like an impossibility. Two words from 1st Thessalonians: “Rejoice. Always.” So we should check it out, see if the Bible off-base.

With that, two things that have been on my mind to get us going. I read an interview this week of Eve Ensler, a feminist writer and activist. She says she witnesses in society both rage and joy, and for change “there’s no moving forward without joy.” That also makes me think of the new movie Interstellar. The plot is that earth is no longer sustaining humans; huge monoculture crops are failing and people will starve, so they’re looking for a new home planet in outer space. A line from the poet Dylan Thomas becomes a refrain in the movie: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” So, joy and rage.

Well, rage seems plenty easy and obvious. We’ve got frustrations and grumpiness and upset and complaining, frankly, down pat. It takes no genius to notice life isn’t as it should be and to be angry about it. It may be the place of women in society. It may be the persistent racism of police forces. It may be waste and greed. It may be against criminals or immigrants or Muslims or Israelis or political parties or football coaches.
Rage we’ve got. Raging and yelling ad nauseum against growing darkness is prevalent in our media, in our culture, in our lives. But we also know that the rage focusing on the dying light doesn’t get us where we want to be.

The movie Interstellar was a disappointment to me that way. It was beautiful in the cosmic universe, in pressing our understanding of physics and Einstein’s theories of what happens near black holes and all that. But it was devoid of life, of light, of joy. The humans rage, raged a lot. They raged about leaving earth. They raged that their farming practices weren’t working. They raged that relationships with siblings and with parents and with coworkers weren’t what they should be. They raged about sickness and death. They raged about time being too short and lives too fragile. They raged at what we don’t know, that our human brains cannot comprehend it all.

Interstellar-Movie

They raged, and failed to rejoice, to find the good of life, to see value in our planet besides as a place for endless acres of corn. It was blind even to see other creatures with us—no dogs or flowers or woodpeckers. It raged against dying light, but it failed to find much joy in the face of the darkness.

I bring all that up precisely because that is what we are able to do here. That is what our faith is. Rejoicing amid the darkness is why we are here, where it is proclaimed that darkness has been overcome, where with God’s Word even dried leaves will become evergreen.

To comprehend that faith, we should pause. See, when it says, “Rejoice always” that has potential to sound stupid. It can be a ridiculous notion. We simply can’t be happy all the time. Rejoice always? People hunger, so we rejoice? We’re at a funeral, and rejoice? We don’t know our purpose and feel like life is pointless, and we’re supposed to rejoice about it? We’re busy and stressed, and holidays can’t fulfill our expectations, and there’s too much injustice, and our whole world is falling apart, so we rejoice and throw a whoop-de-do party? We know there are times we won’t much feel very merry.

Even at our best, there’s disappointment. When we try our hardest, we could’ve done more. Our greatest successes are no final achievement, but merely pressure that says you need more. If we think we can find perfect satisfaction by trying to cross all the gifts off our list or have the right family gathering or be the most serene, the season simply cannot bear that burden of seeking contentment in those places. Our striving is bound to include lackluster or dark moments.

So if you don’t like trying to pretend everything is hunky-dory, there’s another way people take the imperative statement to “rejoice always”—as an instruction to stay positive and focus on the bright spots.

Sometimes that is worthwhile. A funeral may be a time not just to mourn loss but to recollect life. A bad diagnosis may allow you to put life in perspective. A flat tire may make you pause and breathe and notice the sky and find some gratitude. You may realize you’re not changing the world or solving all the problems, but you can care for where you are. There may be value in staying positive and looking on the bright side…unless it becomes an excuse to ignore or gloss over hard spots and troubling moments, an idea that all should be blissfully, rose-colored, to pretend the darkness is OK.

We have to realize that is not the fullness of our faith, and is certainly not the heart of what God is trying to say to you. You know, people are liable to call illness or tragedy or problems a message from God. But is God causing death, spreading diseases, popping tires, creating despair just to have a conversation with you? If that’s what it would take, I don’t like that shape of your life. It means that instead of listening when you’re in church you’re guessing after the light, after God, looking for evidence where you’re more likely to find absence or distraction.

The point of what I mean comes from our Gospel reading today. We meet John the Baptist, here known more as John the Testifier. It says he came to testify to the Light. Notice he does that by pointing away from himself. Most of this reading is John saying what he is not. “I am not the Messiah. I am not the Christ. I am not Elijah. I am not a prophet. I am not worthy.” I am not the Light.

This negativity is more remarkable because of who John is. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus says that nobody ever born is greater than John. In this Gospel he is the very first human mentioned. The gospel starts with that beautiful prologue at the very start of creation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. 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 has not overcome it.” And then verse 6 says there was a man sent from God, this John the testifier. Since the start of creation, he is the first person named.

So John could say, “You know, I’m kind of a big deal.” He could point to his outstanding references, since most of us don’t get to list Jesus on job applications. He could highlight his achievements, that last week Mark said he’s baptized all the people in Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside. At the end of his life, he’d be able to say he reprimanded the king, called Herod to repent and live by a better moral standard. He could even say he suffered, was thrown in prison, and beheaded for his sense of justice and resilience in trying to serve God.

Yet John says, I am not. I am not. I am not. Instead, he points away from himself. He testifies to life. He illustrates the Light, says the dawn is increasing. It’s not time to rage at dying he says, but rejoice at coming. He names Jesus. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he says in the verse after this reading.

That is what we sing as we gather at this table. Here is the Lamb of God, who becomes for us what we may believe in, who connects us to God. In the darkness or gloominess or even in the hyper-electrified fluorescent twinkly sparkly glow of our days, here is the true Light. What comes into being in him is life. There is “no moving forward without joy,” and Jesus is the certain place for your confidence, on whom your hope may rest secure, who fills you with life and God’s promise, from baptism to this table to tomorrow morning to eternity.

The point, then, is neither optimism nor pessimism. It is not to look on the bright side, nor to disparage your achievements as worthless. It’s not to question your happiness or to ignore the bleakness or hardness of our world. The heart of this is not in pointing at what you have done, nor at what you have failed to do and how terrible things are. It doesn’t need to be all about you, but who is for you.

This is the good news. Through it all, we point to Jesus. I am not, but he is the great I AM. As we heard in passages last Lent, Jesus says I AM the bread of life. I AM the good shepherd. I AM the truth. I AM the vine. I AM your resurrection. I AM the light of the world.

“The true Light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” He doesn’t flee from but comes into the midst of the darkness, making it brighter for all. As you come to receive this Lamb of God, notice those around you, that he is shepherd for them and for all the hurting, scattered flock, for all creation. In him is life.

In him, you know that God has come to be with you, to dwell with you, to sustain and nourish you, to have life squeezed out for you, to give you new life, to renew heaven and earth. In him, even as there’s so much else that disappoints or leaves you with rage, still in Jesus you may confidently hope eternally and even—in spite of it all, or through it all—in him you may rejoice always.

SED_wall_1920x1200Hymn: Creator of the Stars of Night (ELW #245)

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