Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Longest Night of the Year

Today, December 21st, is the winter solstice, and the "longest night of the year." For some churches, it is customary to have a service on this night, acknowledging the dark parts of our lives, even during this season of light. Bethel Church hosts that service at 7:00 tonight, with dinner in the Fellowship Hall beforehand, at 6:00 p.m. Though I don't want to ruin the "surprise," I want to share here the meditation I will share there. For those of us who find reason to grieve this season, I pray God wraps us in peace beyond our understanding, so we can also experience the joy of the Christ Child, who is so much more than we ever expected...

“Not What We Expected”—Luke 1:26-38
When the angel came to Mary and told her what was going to happen, Mary responded, “But how?” This was not what she expected. This didn’t sound like an easy way for God to do things. This sounded like a very unlikely story. But Mary listened to all the angel had to say, and when he was done, she remembered: this was the same God she’d known all along, and from what she knew of God, God wasn’t always what she expected.

Mary’s response of obedience and praise, her running off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, an older woman who was also amazingly, surprisingly, with child, is not necessarily what we’d expect. Except for asking, “But how?” Mary asks nothing else. She puts her whole trust in the angel’s announcement, lock, stock, and barrel. She doesn’t check any facts. She doesn’t ask anyone’s permission. She doesn’t even argue that this is not the right way to do this, that this plan will bring hardship for herself and Joseph. Her response is one of obedience, though maybe not of perfect understanding, and it’s not what I think we expect.

So much of life is not what we expected. Perhaps you’ve heard the old adage, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” What we plan and what we expect are so seldom what we receive. Even in this season of merry-making, of happy times and happy memories, of high expectations, we find that what happens is not exactly what we expected. Loved ones get sick, travel plans change, inclement weather grounds us. Perhaps we stop just long enough to realize the aching in our hearts, that familiar feeling of something—someone—missing, that we’ve tried so hard to put behind us, and then we move on quickly, thinking there’s no time for grieving, this time of year. Maybe our loss is a broken relationship, a job we no longer have, a health crisis, or the realization that somewhere along the way, in the midst of the chaos of everyday life, we’ve lost just a bit too much of ourselves. Jobs are demanding. Families take time and energy. Caring for children or parents drains us. Where did those past days go, when we were sure of who we were, of what we were doing, of where we were going? No, this is certainly not what we expected.

Our own stories may not seem much like Mary’s. We most likely face no unexpected pregnancy, no long and arduous journey to an unfamiliar city, no disgrace to our family, perhaps. But maybe the secret to dealing with life, when it’s not what we expected—or a secret to dealing with it, at least—is in how Mary responds. It’s OK for us to ask, “But how?” along with Mary. It’s OK for us to wonder how it will all work out, maybe to be frustrated, afraid, or even angry along the way. Perhaps Mary even wondered what God was up to, if God could have really made the right choice in choosing her. As the popular song “Breath of Heaven” suggests, Mary may have been frightened, worried about the responsibility, the questions, all that went along with this story. And yet, she said “yes” to the angel. She had faith that God was at work, working things out for the best, though it was not at all what she expected.

The brokenness and dark spots of our lives are not what we expected. It’s easy to get drawn into them, to find ourselves trapped in our own grief, or to keep from feeling anything, in case it’s too much. But just like Mary, we can know that God is at work, in our lives, in the world, no matter what sort of tragedy befalls us. It doesn’t always mean things will have the happiest of endings. It doesn’t always mean that the “right” path will be easy. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we will move forward without other experiences of grief. But when life is not what we expected, we know God is with us. God is at work. Our salvation is sure, through the one who chose a lowly peasant girl to give birth to the Savior of the world. It’s not what we expected. But maybe that’s OK. We may grieve for this night, may wonder what will become of us, but we know that joy comes with the morning. And we wait with hope, even when it seems darkest, knowing that light will break through again. That’s the only thing we can expect—that the light will shine on us again, and the darkness will not ever overcome it. And we can rejoice with Mary, knowing that God is taking care of us, too. The dawn will come, and the joy of the Lord with it.

Thank you, Great God, for holding little us close to you, for shining your light on us, for leading us on, even when it’s not what we expected. Amen.

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