Even on the Longest Night: God is with you

20170416_063438.jpgMy favorite service during advent is the Longest Night Service we have at Broadway United Methodist Church every year. We always hold it on or near the “Longest Night of the year” which is December 21st, the winter solstice. The purpose of this service is to remind us of the light that Jesus brings in the midst of grief, depression, uncertainty, loneliness, stress or anything else that we experience as “darkness.”

I feel that this service is the most authentic moment we have leading up to the season we call Christmas because sometimes this time of year can seem to hold a lot of darkness, not just because the days are shorter, and that winter has just settled in and spring seems so far away. Maybe the days seem longer because you are missing loved ones, or things have not been going the way you had hoped or expected. Maybe what you thought gave your life meaning –your activities, your achievements, things you considered important, and the meaning that you had given your life feels gone now.

This “dark night of the soul,” as it is sometimes called, can occur if something happens that you can’t explain away anymore, some disaster which seems to invalidate the meaning that your life had before.  Really what has collapsed then is the whole conceptual framework for your life, the meaning that your mind had given it. So what results is a dark place which in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression.

Against all the glitz and cheerful songs, we hear being played everywhere we go, our personal struggles can seem even darker during the Christmas season. In its place, we come face to face with how unwonderful life can be.

Distracted by all the glitz and glamor that we have missed is the true meaning and purpose of Christmas.

The true meaning of Christmas isn’t found in the quaint symbolic manger scenes with Mary and the baby Jesus surrounded by wise men, camels, shepherds, and cute fluffy lambs…

Instead, think back to when we first meet Mary and Joseph. When we are introduced to Mary and Joseph in the gospel story, they have just gotten engaged. According to Jewish tradition, they are essentially married- but not living together yet. A promise has been made. This promise may have been made by their parents for them, but it is binding.

I am sure Mary and Joseph, like most of us, had hopes and plans about what the future would look like, to dream about their life together.

But the dream gets interrupted.

Mary gets a visit from Gabriel and he tells her that she has been chosen to give birth to a baby that will bring salvation to the world. There is a snag to this revelation. She isn’t married yet. This circumstance Mary finds herself in is a bigger scandal than we can envision today.

Can you imagine the turmoil that Mary must have felt? There isn’t just the public humiliation she will have to endure, there is also Hebrew Law that she will have to face. A passage in Jewish scriptures says that if a woman is with child before she does go to live with her husband, she is guilty of adultery, and as a punishment for adultery she could be stoned to death.

So even if she survives having to tell Joseph of her situation, if Joseph decides to divorce her – she and the baby still might not survive.

To not have the support of a husband is a problem because when and where Mary lived, men were the ones who were allowed to make money. It was very difficult for women to make money on their own.

So, without someone who would have money and not being able to make her own money, it would be very difficult for Mary to obtain the things that she would need to raise her baby if she had to raise Jesus on her own.

I am sure that this was not part of the dreams Mary had as a young woman planning for her future.

The news that Mary brings of her pregnancy is a shock to Joseph as well.

Joseph does not want to expose her to public disgrace that would bring upon Mary the harshest religious penalty. He wrestles with what is the right thing to do. He doesn’t want harm to come to her so maybe a quiet divorce to legally break the engagement without any public fuss would be the best thing.

Imagine Joseph’s emotions when he goes to bed that night, as this whole horrible scenario comes crashing down around him. His plans have been pulled out from under him. His dream has been torn apart.

It is into this kind of darkness that our scripture for today declares its message. God speaks to Joseph in a dream using an angel to tell Joseph that he is to wed Mary and help her take care of and help raise Jesus.

The story doesn’t end here. It isn’t the happily ever after ending yet. We know that even though Mary and Joseph listen to and accepted God’s will for their life…. Things don’t get any easier.

There are more trials ahead… like having to travel to Bethlehem while Mary was so close to the birth of Jesus. And when her time came, there was no place for her to go, no family to gather around and support them. It seems as the story goes, they were barely able to have found a stable for shelter.

Even doing the right thing can leave you feeling frightened, alone with a sense of vulnerability.

You would have to agree, that this had to be a dark and desperate time for Mary and Joseph.

It is into this darkest point of the story that Jesus is born.

Scripture tells us that Joseph was told by the angel to call the baby, Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.”

This is the promise of Christmas.

We were never promised that if we have faith and believe in God then we will be protected from problems and hardships.

No, what we are promised is that in the trials of life, God will be with us.

And God IS with us, but we have to be looking for the signs. Mary encountered Gabriel, Joseph, and the Shepherds had an angel, the wise man saw a star…

God is indeed with us, but he comes to us at times, in ways and through people we might not expect.

As we prepare to celebrate again the first coming of Christ on that first Christmas morning 2000 years ago, we need to ask ourselves if we are being truly open to the signs that point out that God is with us through the trials we are facing.

Are we too afraid of what God may have to say to us to look for angels? Are we too frightened of the journey to follow a star?

Or are we blocking out the signs because we harbor grudges, resentment, bitterness or anger in our hearts?

Advent is the time we are reminded to watch and wait for Jesus, Emmanuel, “God with us.” We are to expect to see him.

What is Christmas?

For God so loved the world… he took on human flesh in the form of a helpless baby… so that he could be with us.

The one who has called goes with us. You are not alone.



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