Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 Longest Night Thoughts

Here are the thoughts I shared during my Longest Night of the Year Service last Sunday, the 21st. This is one of my favorite services of the year. It is similar to the "memory tree service" I preached at earlier in the month, so if this sounds like something you've already read on this blog, that could be why...

“When the Silence is Ended”
Longest Night of the Year Service 2014
Luke 1:5-25, 67-79

I wonder what it was like for Zechariah, those long months when he couldn't speak. I kind of think he got a bum rep. I mean, he probably never really expected to meet a messenger from the Lord when he went into the Lord’s sanctuary. We may not want to admit it, but I bet we can relate to that: if nothing too disruptive happens during worship and we get through it all, then it’s just fine (our Pentecostal friends would probably disagree with us on that!).
So there he was, just doing his job—and doing the dangerous part of it, I might add! And poof, the last thing he ever expected in the world happened—an angel of the Lord appeared. Who wouldn't have been a bit skeptical? How many years had Zechariah been doing this? Not only had he never seen an angel before, but maybe he also wondered if God had ever heard his prayers at all. He sure never had a child to show for all those years of praying and waiting for one!
Anyway, I wonder what went through his mind during all those months of silence, imposed on him by the God he had spent his life serving. Doesn't it just seem unfair? Wouldn't we all have had a few questions for any angel of the Lord that showed up in front of us?
There’s a lot that seems unfair to us. In fact, there are a lot of things about this life that leave me speechless. You may not believe it, but I have found myself silenced, in the face of terribly tragedy. When children are mowed down by gunfire in their classrooms, when Christians and others are beheaded in cold blood and the video posted online for all to see, when people destroy others’ lives in senseless acts of violence, when disease and disaster ravage families and countries, I feel silenced by the horror of it all. When I think of all the families I’ve grieved with this year, sometimes I feel silenced by the loss. It is too much to believe, sometimes.
On this, the longest night of the year, I feel that we may be silenced by much. Most of the time, what silences us is not good and surprising news, like Zechariah experienced, though we may be overjoyed into speechlessness at times, too. Life rarely goes how we expect it to. This time of year, emotions seem to run high, memories and feelings are all too close to the surface, and we can find all the “seasonal cheer” just a bit hard to take. If nothing else, ironically, I know I would like to be able to sit in silence for just a minute, right now!
But sometimes, the silence presses in on us, along with the long, dark night. Sometimes, it feels like we are kept from voicing all that we feel. We’re not supposed to talk about loneliness, sadness, loss, and hurt, this time of year. No one wants a “Debbie Downer” at Christmas dinner! So what do we do? We feel bound by silence, as we wait for something good, or better, at least, to happen.
That’s why I’ve been thinking about Zechariah. I wonder what he really wanted to say to God when he was finally able to speak again. I wonder how much frustration he experienced. I wonder if he lost out on work because he couldn’t speak, or if he felt his relationships were in jeopardy because he was unable to communicate as usual, or if he wondered if things would ever be “normal” again! (And let’s be honest, once he had a child, things never would be “normal” again, anyway!)
But scripture doesn’t share any of Zechariah’s frustration with us, if there was any. Scripture tells us that when Zechariah was able to speak again—after he got the message across that his son’s name was to be John (a crazy idea to all of them because no one else in the family had been named John)—he used his words to rejoice, to praise God, and to prophesy about his son and about the other who was to come.
            Now, I think he was entitled to at least one remark about how irritating the whole experience had been! But that’s not at all what he said, at least as Luke tells us. When the silence was ended, Zechariah broke out in praise because he was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Of course, while Zechariah was dealing with a lot, he may not have been facing the difficult feelings we have this time of year. His surprise and wonder may not have been tainted by loss or hurt or worry. We may not have the resilience to prophesy like he was able to, once the silence was lifted.
Sure, there are a lot of things we don’t have in common with Zechariah. We do have one thing in common, though—we know that we, too, have the Holy Spirit with us, even when times are most difficult. We, too, know how the story will go, not because we’re given the gift to prophesy about it but because we have about 2,000 years of advantage on Zechariah! Though it can be tempting to get lost in the silence that this season brings us, when we might rather voice such “unpopular” feelings as sadness and anxiety and loneliness, we do still know that there is hope because we know the story, even before we hear it all read. We know the story of light for the people in darkness that Isaiah foretold long ago. We know the story of a child come to be king, to turn the world upside down, and to save people from their sins. Even when life seems least joyful, we do know that there is reason to rejoice, as difficult as it is. The silence does not need to last forever. The hard feelings are real, but we believe that we will again praise God, like Zechariah does. The silence will be ended. We will have reason to sing for joy again.
So, let’s look forward to that time when the silence is ended, even if that is not right now. Now may be a time for silence. Now may be a time for grief. But the silence will be ended. The darkness will be overcome with light. Joy will come again. As Zechariah says,
78Because of our God’s deep compassion,
    the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
79     to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
        to guide us on the path of peace.”
We are waiting for that light to dawn, for that silence to be broken. And we have hope that it will be so, even as we wait. God will come—God has come: God-with-us. The silence will be ended, and we will rejoice once more. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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