24 morning

December 2023

SERMON: How Still We See Thee Lie

In the Dark Night, we gaze in silence. We hope for a new light. And show up the next morning. We explore possible feelings of Joseph and Mary on the night before our saviors birth.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we continue on our journey toward Bethlehem. We walk alongside Mary, the teenaged mother, Joseph, the faithful partner, and we know that the shepherds are in the field minding their flocks. And, of course, there are the beasts of the story:

“I said the donkey shaggy and brown, I carried His mother up hill and down. I carried her safely to Bethlehem town; I, said the donkey, shaggy and brown.” “I said the cow, all white and red. I gave Him my manger for his head, I, said the cow all white and red.” “I, said the dove from rafters high, cooed him to sleep, my mate and I, we cooed him to sleep, my mate and I, said the dove from the rafters high.” (Jules Supervielle)

Both Mary and Joseph have experienced the emotional darkness of their night journey. We can only imagine the loneliness Mary must have felt after becoming pregnant with Jesus. She contained the biggest news the world had ever known, and she couldn’t tell anyone. Who would believe her anyway? No one—surely not her family or friends. She was utterly alone. The pressure must have been overwhelming, but God was with Mary and did not leave her in that loneliness.

And what about Joseph? He had to feel alone too after learning of Mary’s pregnancy and believing that she had been unfaithful to him. His decision to take Mary as his wife was likely to have been met with shock and scorn from his family and neighbors. But he had Mary, Mary had him, and together they had God….a God who would never leave them.

It is in the winter solstice that we continue our journey. The night is black without light, reflected in our beloved hymn:

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter
Long ago.

In the darkness we feel bonds break, security falling apart, people dying. In the bleak winter, memories flood our hearts. We find that those we love the most sometimes hurt us. We find that it is impossible to stick unerringly to yesterday’s script, and that the only way to keep things together is to let them go. We learn that it is impossible to love without pain. But then we crack open the darkness so love can emerge. It is our human tendency to want to smooth over the rough edges of our story. We want to eliminate all of the confusion and pain. But what if the pain and confusion of the dark night are only
new ways we can see the beauty and experience the good? What if we understood that love and light can break through the cracks of our human experience?

We find that there is still joy. We do not dwell in darkness forever. Endings are beginnings. Love can always override its pain. We learn that everything and everyone that goes away stays with us in our hearts, because we are so much more than just ourselves. We are radically connected. We learn that we really do have it in our power to make the world anew—even when, especially when, it feels like the world we’re living in is ending.

As we continue our journey in the darkest night, awaiting the light, and being flooded with memories, we realize that dreaming forward requires contagious hope. We put one foot in front of the other, walking toward Bethlehem, waiting for the babe to be born. We experience the pregnant hours of anticipation, of hope, of faith.

What kind of light do we envision? What kind of light are we expecting, and what might it mean? We sing that the hopes and fears of all the years are in the manger in Bethlehem.

We put one foot in front of the other. We wait, we wander, we wonder. In the darkness we ask God, “Do you see what I see?” Do you see the hungry? Do you see the poor? Do you see those who are being torn apart by war? Do you see the pretentious, the pious, the foolish? Do you see Black Mountain United Church of Christ?” God is with us as we journey in the darkness of the solstice.

We sit in silence with Bethlehem sitting in stillness in the distance. If faith comes from listening, we must allow silence for God’s word to reach us in the darkness. We must quietly bow and lend an ear to the still small voice that announces the birth of the Light.

Our beloved hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written by Phillips Brooks who was born in Boston in 1835. Brooks was a giant of a man with an equally big heart. He became an Episcopal priest in 1859, and served in a church in Philadelphia. He was a fervent supporter of the Union and the abolition of slavery and gained national recognition for sermons he gave during the Civil War.

In the war’s aftermath, Brooks found himself in need of rest, and he embarked on a year-long sabbatical traveling through Europe and the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve in 1865, he mounted a horse and rode from Jerusalem to the small village of Bethlehem. After Brooks returned to Philadelphia, the memory of his experiences in Bethlehem stayed with him and provided him with the backdrop for one of the most cherished Christmas carols of all time.

Besides penning our beloved Christmas carol, Phillips Brooks wrote: “It is while you are patiently toiling at the little tasks of life that the meaning and shape of the great whole of life dawns on you.” And so it is with the little town of Bethlehem. When Brooks visited the city, it was still a small village, slightly larger than it was at the birth of Jesus… not the bustling city it is today.

And this morning we walk in the darkness of the solstice, putting one foot in front of the other as we journey to Bethlehem. We are waiting for light to crack through the darkness. But what if we are to be the light…each one of us? What if we are to bring peace into our world? What if we are to become the feet and heart of the Good News? What if we are called to break out of the darkness into the light?

And so we honor both the darkness and the light. We enter a time to be open and receptive. We welcome new light into the recesses of our private pain and fears. We welcome new light into a world of hunger, homelessness, poverty and war. May we let this light empower us to pursue justice. May we shed new light on greed and senseless power. May we know inspiration, intelligence, understanding, hope, and courage. May we lean closer to the realization of peace. The darkest night of the year always yields to the light when the sun rises again in the morning. And so we continue our journey into the darkness. We gaze toward Bethlehem where the promise of light is to appear. We approach the world with gentleness, and worship the God of peace.

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