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December 19: Light in the Darkness

Zepheniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6

Matthew 1:18-25

It was April 6, 2015 – a Monday. It was the week after Easter, and I had rented a house with some friends – some colleagues, fellow Methodist pastors – we had decided to get away for a few days, leave behind work, family, home – and just spend a few days in a cabin in the woods, resting, recovering from all the hard work, the exhaustion and long hours, that is part of being a pastor during Lent and Holy Week and Easter weekend. It was a time of refreshment, laughter, good food, long hikes, and enjoying the goodness of life together.

It was also the day of the Men’s College Basketball National Championship, and Duke was playing Wisconsin. Among that group of friends there were two Duke fans – me and my friend Jonathan – and one die-hard UNC fan, my friend Matt. Jonathan and I were of course rooting for a Duke win – for another National title – and Matt was rooting for us to suffer, to see Duke lose, because that’s what UNC fans do.

For a while, it looked like Matt would get his wish – we were down big in the second half, and we looked like we were cooked. But, then, Coach K brought in Grayson Allen – a player who is almost universally despised, except by us Duke fans, who will always love him for what he did that night. Grayson brought energy off the bench, and, all of a sudden, we were back in the game – and then we were ahead. And, in the end, we won – Duke was at the top of the mountain again – and Jonathan and I exploded in celebration.

Well, Jonathan exploded. I was excited. I yelled, I maybe cried a little. But Jonathan… let’s just say that he’s a lot. He’s a little bit extra. Some might call him passionate. I think he’s kinda insane. And, his passion for his beloved sports teams is hard to measure. And, so, on that night, as I’m shouting for joy, all of a sudden I found myself sideways on the hardwood floor. Because Jonathan had tackled me. Like, full-on linebackered me. My shoulder was sore for weeks – every time I would try to lift my arm over my head, it hurt – but, also, it reminded me of Duke winning the title, so it was a pain that brought me joy. Anyway, in the moment, I didn’t even care. We were happy. We were celebrating. There was laughter, and singing – we may have woken up one of our friends who went to bed early by singing the Duke fight song at the top of our lungs outside the door to their room – there were poems composed in honor of Coach K and Grayson Allen. It was a good night.

Most of us have had nights like that – maybe without the joy-filled destructiveness of my friend Jonathan, but, you know, similar in many ways. Moments when something has gone right, when you are filled with joy and triumph, and it’s time to party. Maybe it’s a graduation party, or a wedding reception, or your test results came back the way you wanted, or the moment when you got the job, or found out you were expecting, or the adoption went through. Whatever it is, we’ve had those moments – moments when the joy pours out of us, spills over the brim, and we can’t help but celebrate.

The passages we read from the Old Testament this morning – from Zephaniah and Isaiah – are songs of celebration. They are poems full of hope, full of jubilation, with words of praise and trust for God. These prophets – Zephaniah and Isaiah – are celebrating, and calling their people to join them.

But, here’s the thing – what’s weird about these words of celebration, these words of hope, these words in praise of God – what’s weird is that these celebrations don’t come in the light of a freshly-won victory. When Zephaniah writes Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! the kingdom of Israel has been torn apart and the remainder of God’s people – in the smaller kingdom of Judah – are being crushed by powerful empires on either side of them – a process that will soon lead to the destruction of that kingdom as well. When Isaiah writes Thank the Lord; call on God’s name; proclaim God’s deeds among the peoples; declare that God’s name is exalted. Sing to the Lord, who has done glorious things; proclaim this throughout all the earth. the Kingdom of Judah has also fallen, and its leaders have been taken away into exile in a foreign land, the Temple – which was considered the location of God’s most intense presence on earth, the place where God spoke to and led the people – the Temple had been destroyed, their homeland was in ruins. And, yet, in the midst of uncertain times, Zephaniah sings praise to God, writing that The Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst; you will no longer fear evil. In a season of despair and defeat, Isaiah sings with joy and hope, proclaiming that God is indeed my salvation; I will trust and won’t be afraid. These prophets can see what others cannot – they know that in the midst of darkness, the true light still shines. In their darkest hour, the One who is the Light of the World, the God of Israel, the God who has always been with them – is still with them, and will never let them go.

How do you celebrate when there doesn’t seem to be anything worth celebrating? How do you sing a song of praise to God when your people have been taken captive in a foreign land? How do we hold onto hope when we feel hopeless? Last year, during one of the most intense seasons of pandemic-related lockdowns – with us working from home all the time, not going anywhere, with the kids home inside all the time, back before virtual school was even a thing – I found myself trying to host family dance parties every night. When our workday was done and we were able to shut down for the night, I’d turn on my Spotify party playlist and we’d dance. We’d laugh, we’d cry, we’d jump around, we’d look like fools. At some point, I’d inevitably put on a Christmas song to annoy the children, or maybe start something by Zac Brown Band and break out my really bad southern accent and sing along. But, through it all, we would dance. Why? Well, partly because we needed a way to mark the end of the day when, you know, none of us were going anywhere and we were all spending just about all day every day in the same room. But, also, I think, what I hoped for was that when we laughed, when we danced, we would remember that there was something bigger than the lockdowns, more lasting than the pandemic, bigger than all our fears and frustrations – I hoped that we would taste something deeper, a joy that could survive even our sadness, a faith that sustain us even in the midst of very real fear, a light that shone even in the dark. It was an act of resistance. It was an act of hope. It was celebration that didn’t make sense – and that we very much needed.

These prophets who called for celebration in the face of despair, they did it – and they could do it confidently – because they trusted God, because they knew God would not abandon them. And, how could they know that? Well, as Isaiah puts it, the Lord has done glorious things. In other words, how do we know that God will be with us in the future? How can we trust that God will get us through this? How can we believe that God will triumph over even the worst things that this world has to offer – well, just look at what God has already done! God has liberated us from slavery in Egypt. God has spoken to us, has kept faith with us, has poured out love for us over and over again – and therefore we can trust that God will do it again.

We Christians, like Isaiah and Zephaniah, are a people who are defined by hope. And our hope, like theirs, does not depend on whether or not things are going well for us right now, in the present moment. The Good News of Jesus does not depend on whether or not you are able to get into the Christmas spirit, whether or not you are feeling holly-jolly about decking the halls. This time of year, every year, we Christians remind ourselves to hope, to trust, to praise God for the amazing gift of Jesus, born to save us. Every Advent we are reminded that God’s light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness cannot overcome it. Each year we are reminded – as Zephaniah and Isaiah reminded the people of Israel – that whatever we face, in the end, the worst things will not get the last word. In the end, justice will defeat injustice, love will conquer hate, Christ will shatter oppression, light will shine in the darkness, life will triumph over death. In the end, God will triumph. And, how can we know this – how can we be confident in what will happen in the future? Because it has already happened. Because God has already won the final victory. Christ has already been born among us. God has already come to us – born on the margins, born to frightened teenage parents, born to set us free, born in a stable, born into poverty, born on the run from the law – Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, God with us, and he has lived, loved, taught, founded a community of welcome – and he has also suffered, died, and been raised from the dead – all for our sake. In Jesus Christ, we have seen God win the ultimate victory. Hear that. Remember that. God has already won. And so, when we face the future, we can sing songs of joy, we can live in trust and praise, no matter what we face, because we already know how the story ends – we already know that God has done it and will do it again. God wins. Spoiler alert.

This is the gift God gives us, it is the gift we celebrate each Christmas – the promise, the confidence, that no matter what we face, God is with us; no matter what comes our way, we can live in joy and celebrate in the face of despair, because we know that, in the end, God wins. That’s the gift God gives, but, of course, God’s gifts to us tend to be a little bit complicated – they are free gifts, given to us even though we couldn’t possibly earn them, even though there’s nothing we could ever do to deserve them – God’s gifts to us are gracious and overflowing with love, but they aren’t always easy to receive. Look at Joseph, in the story we read today. He received the gift of getting to help usher salvation into the world. He gets to help raise the Son of God, to help light find its way in the darkness. But, also, you know, the news this angel brings turns his life upside down. He must have wondered, at least once, in one of his darker moments – maybe when he and his wife and their toddler were refugees, running for their life from a king who wanted to kill them, hiding out in Egypt, far from their homeland – he must have thought “God, thanks for sending your Son to save us, but, you know, couldn’t you have sent him to someone else? This gift you gave me is too much for me to handle.”

God’s gifts are complicated. They bring challenges. They call us to join God in the work of making all things new – they call us to join in the same work of transformation, boundary-shattering inclusion, and world-transforming renewal that got Jesus killed. It’s not always easy. But the gift, the gift we celebrate this time of year, is that we are able to celebrate, we are able to hope, we are able to hold onto the light, even when faced with darkness, because God is with us, because God has entered into the story and changed it, transformed it – because the child born of Mary, the child angels foretold to her and to Joseph – that child has come to save us, has drawn God’s circle wider, has magnified God’s pattern of welcoming the outsider and loving the unloved and included the excluded and calling all the people of the world to join in God’s story of love – a story written in Mary’s womb, in Joseph’s heart, in bread and wine, in God’s own flesh and blood.

This gift, the gift of Jesus, the gift of salvation, the gift of God’s own love, the gift of God with us, is a gift that God offers us even when we resist it – as God does for Israel in the Old Testament, as God does for the disciples when they run away from Jesus and fail to be faithful over and over again, as God does for the church throughout history, as God has done over and over again for us throughout our lives. When we stubbornly resist God, run away from God – but God is even more stubborn than we are, stubbornly faithful to us even when we are stubbornly faith-less. God will not allow our stubborn sin to defeat God’s own stubborn love.

The song these prophets sing is a song that celebrates a hope-filled future, even when the people are sitting in darkness and destruction. Each Advent, we are invited to sing along with them, to cling to hope, to trust in God, no matter what we face. Can we do it? Can we sing God’s song, can we cry out in celebration, even when the world is falling apart? Joseph held onto God’s promises, trusted in God, even when this news from the angel destroyed his best-laid plans. We are invited to do the same – to trust in God like Joseph, like Isaiah, like Zephaniah, no matter what comes our way.

Here’s the Good News: we know how the story ends. Jesus has been born to save us. God has already won the final victory. Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, God with us – which means that we are never alone. And, therefore, we can trust in God, no matter what. We can celebrate no matter what. We can live in stubborn hope – no matter what comes our way – because we know how the story ends. God wins. And so, we will celebrate.

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