Sermon Transcript. 12.17.23 Advent in Plain Sight: Tears
We gather on this third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy. I don’t know about you, but for many of us feels more like this… (photo on screen). The winds have knocked over the J and the yard sign now says OY!
I read the news. I look at my to-do list. OY!
It can be overwhelming. I was planning to do this service on the theme of tears, actually this chapter is the second week of Advent in Duffield’s Advent in Plain Sight devotional and it's the chapter that really captured me and made me think: “okay, this is going to be my Advent sermon series clear back in early summer. I'd run across this book and had it penciled in. Ever since, I've just been wrestling with this chapter. It really came home to me last week at the end of the sermon. I was challenging myself. I was challenging us. I was talking about a rather difficult passage of scripture. Acts 3, where Peter appears to have the ability to heal. Oh it's the work of God through him, but it brings home what are we doing as the body of Christ? What are the limits on what we can do? I think we should take that seriously and think about how God is working through us - how we are enabling or letting God to work through us. And yet It's tricky theology, because… well, if we have the power to fix things, particularly if we have the power to heal those we love… I could just see some faces falling. Almost guilty. “I should have done more or that wouldn't have happened if I…” and that's not where I want us to go.
Jesus weeps. Jesus heals… but not everybody and there's no evidence that Lazarus, having been called back from paradise, is now Immortal. No he's still fully human. He will die…
Several times over the last month, I've been ready to take the trellises down that we've got the ribbons tied to that we did for All Saints Sunday and every time I get serious about taking them down, someone else tells me a story about adding a ribbon. People have still been adding ribbons. I've been adding ribbons. I learn about someone who passed and I add a ribbon. I don't want to take them down. I like that visible sign of this great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us… so what do we do with these conflicting emotions? These challenges to how we live?
What I've been doing through the series so far is I take a couple of Duffield's reflections - she usually has seven in a week, seven scriptures that are tied to the theme. They mention trees or gates or whatever else the theme is… and I've been taking about two of them and developing it and then telling some of my own stories instead of just quoting her stuff. But the more I wrestled with this chapter, I couldn't pick one or two… it flows so well, and her words are so insightful…so as I mentioned earlier, I don’t often manuscript but much of today’s sermon is her material that I’ll read directly.
So I want you to hear in addition to what we've already heard today these words from 2nd Timothy, the first chapter, they talk about longing and grief and joy. “I am grateful to God whom I worship with a clear conscience as my ancestors did when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I'm reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now I am sure lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of hands, for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather a spirit of power and love and self-discipline.”
We find joy in community. Duffield writes: “Longing marks this season. Nostalgia creeps around the corner and then all but wrestles me to the ground as I unwrap Christmas ornaments from years past and place them on the tree.” She tells stories of ornaments that are meaningful to her, things her kids made. things she was gifted. I'm sure your own are coming to mind even as I mentioned them. Duffield writes: “while I prepare for Jesus birth and Christ's coming looking ahead to the promised new thing that God is surely doing, I cannot help but look back often with tears - tears of joy and tears of loss. The decorations and music, the cards and church services overflow with memories and meaning. Tears of longing too, I miss those that I will not see face to face this year. Nonetheless I do not long so much to go back, but rather long to make sure I look forward in hope with thanksgiving, anticipating God present and coming. I yearn to make sure I appreciate the gift of this Advent with all its challenges and blessings, recalling all those of past years reminds me to relish this one. I am reminded of all the saints who shaped my life and my faith my grandparents and parents, children and friends all of whom envelop me in the spirit of love that brings with it tears.”
We heard a call to rekindle to acknowledge the fullness of our human emotions and to pour all of them into growing faith, growing community, growing trust in the Good Shepherd, in the Lamb, in the Light, in the coming of Christ that we celebrate in this season.
We heard the lament of Psalm 80. Duffield writes: “A diet of tears, salty tears that only heighten thirst, days of aching, seasons of longing, times when prayers feel more like groans than discernible words—everyone serves terms of intense suffering. How long, O Lord God, will you be angry with our prayers and seemingly refuse to hear and answer? Lament springs from the depths of our individual or collective pain and we call out to a God we doubt listens or even exists, and yet cry out we do. How long, O Lord God, will you let our loved one languish with dementia? How long, O Lord God, will my beloved reside in the valley of depression? How long, O Lord, will my difficulty paying the bills last?
How long, O Lord God, will inequity persist and the arc of history resist the bend of justice? How long must we attempt to sustain ourselves on a diet of tears? As twinkling lights populate yards and jaunty holiday music plays in every store and the secular message is one of sentimental happiness, the psalmist’s talk of eating and drinking tears feels inappropriate or even disrespectful and rude.
However, the message of Advent is not one of superficial optimism, but rather one of tenacious hope. Jesus becomes incarnate not because the world overflows with peace, joy, kindness, patience, and justice. Jesus comes to earth in order to bring light to those who sit in deep darkness.
The birth of Jesus, the colliding of the mystery of divinity with the finitude of humanity, means that nothing, no feeling, no experience, no question, no doubt, no pain, are off-limits to God’s redemptive power and saving grace. Jesus himself knows the diet of tear-filled bread and water, his mother, Mary, does too. Do not be ashamed of screaming, “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?” That groan from the dark night of the soul reverberates through history and all the way up to heaven. That cry is answered by Immanuel, God with us, no matter what.”
We heard from Ecclesiastes, a book of wisdom that I cherish and find filled with hope but it is often regarded as depressive. I think maybe it speaks to me because I spent so much of my life being a pessimist and yet sometimes it's a bit much even for me.
The chapter we read from begins with the soaring words that almost everybody knows “there's a time for every thing under heaven, a time for peace, a time for war.” Dven people that aren't scripture readings know that because Pete Seeger took those words and made them the lyrics to his song “Turn, Turn, Turn” that was popularized by the birds. It's a wonderful passage. It brings comfort in times of hurt. It gives outlet for joy. It helps us to understand the times and seasons of our life, but later in that chapter he's lamenting that his time is filled with injustice - those who are oppressed cry tears that no one is there to witness, that no one can fix. At least in that chapter, Ecclesiastes is not sure in the words of Job, that “a redeemer lives.” He's giving in to depression.
We heard from another prophet, Jeremiah. We've quoted him several times lately. Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet. He carried a tremendously heavy burden. He brought news to his neighbors that they did not want to hear, news of disaster looming news that called for repentance and change of their own behaviors, news that called for Hope and restoration of those they despised.
I invite you to hear these words Jeremiah cries out: “Hear and give ear; do not be haughty, for the Lord has spoken. Give glory to the Lord your God before he brings darkness, and before your feet stumble on the mountains at twilight; while you look for light, he turns it into gloom and makes it deep darkness. But if you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive.”
Jeremiah 2 is on the verge of giving up. It's too much. He can't do it. All he can do is weep. Calling out sins and failings of one's own tribe rarely, if ever, engenders respect or affection from one's siblings. Nonetheless, Jeremiah attempts to instruct the people to listen to what he hears God saying, or else endure the consequences of their refusal to be what God has called them to be. Bitter tears come as a result of seeing those one love act in self-destructive ways. Some of our own congregation is weeping those bitter tears this day. Bitter tears flow when one cannot prevent those one loves from hurting themselves and others. No wonder Jeremiah weeps bitter and copious tears. What could be worse than watching a preventable disaster of their own making befall one's own people. What could be more difficult than being chosen to be the prophet to speak the harsh words to those for whom someone cares deeply. “Some situations warrant bitter and prolonged tears. Sometimes a culture’s behavior is so egregious and counter to God’s will that only stark words of judgment and a naming of inevitable consequences will do. As we journey toward Bethlehem, we must remember that Advent also calls us to remember that the Risen Christ will return, and when he does he will separate the sheep and the goats based on how our culture treated the least of these. Jeremiah’s bitter tears, painful as the impending exile that prompts them is, are ignored at our peril. While we do not like to think about God’s judgment, we must if we are to cut through layers of apathy, repent and repair those circumstances in our time that cause not only the prophet to cry bitter tears, but Jesus to weep too.”
We recall that in Luke 4, Jesus’ earthly ministry begins with a visit to his home faith community and subsequent rejection by his own people. Jesus, who presents himself to us as the gate, as the one whose voice the flock knows, is rejected by his own hometown. Jesus, who weeps at the death of Lazarus, Jesus who weeps over Jerusalem and yet he persists. As he approaches Jerusalem in Luke 19… “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’
Jesus weeps the tears of lament of a prophet and yet Jesus knows that the flock has not been taken captive irredeemably. Jesus knows that there is a Shepherd. Jesus knows how the story will end, and yet there is still room for weeping. Psalm 126 proclaims how the story ends. A celebration that the tears have borne good fruit, that those who sowed with tears reap with songs of joy! Revelation also tells us bow it ends - the peoples of the world coming together, every nation, race, and tribe and language. In chapter 7, the prophet John of Patmos has given the vision “
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing andglory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’ Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
That is how it ends. That is the promise that our Good Shepherd brings. That is the promise of incarnation and Christmas. That is the promise that suffering and death do not have the final word, the story of Easter. That is our call to be like those that are planted by streams of living water, to let living water flow from us, for the healing of the nations. Duffield writes: “This Jesus on whom we wait this Advent season brings good news of great joy for all people and this means that the tears of the oppressed will not go unseen, unheard, uncomforted. The One who comes to proclaim release to the captives will no doubt anger the people who benefit from the captivity. Good news for the poor entails a redistribution of wealth and power, and this kind of justice does not come without great resistance. The question those of us anticipating Immanuel must ask ourselves is this: Are we willing to participate in the good news of great joy for all people, even if it costs us something? If we are those in power, will we for the sake of our Lord join our cries with those of the oppressed and work for the justice that rolls like a roaring water, washing away the tears of our siblings too long left without comfort? We must not forget that the infant for whom we wait is the Messiah who brings good news to the poor, the ascended Lord who judges between those who cared for the least of these, or not, and the returning Risen Christ who comforts the oppressed.
Jesus seems to seek out those who know what it means to sow long seasons of tears. He goes to the demoniac tethered to the grave, the lepers excommunicated from society, the woman chronically ill for eighteen years, the tax collectors despised by their own people, the woman about to be stoned for adultery. Those humbled by circumstances, some out of their control and some of their own making, provide soil fertilized by tears and subsequently ripe for receiving the seeds of the gospel that brings forth shouts of relieved, resurrected joy.”
When I showed the bulletin to Robin as I was twisting her arm to be liturgist today, she said “why do you have crying babies? That's not Joy?” Well, this photo went viral in 2012 and catapulted the photographer to prominence, it’s funny. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? It's still actually the lead photo on her professional photography website. Jamila Jean photography. The story does have a happy ending, they did get good photos that day as a family and the other shots show the oldest daughter, there in the middle is acting. There's actually a wonderful photo in the series of her making silly faces through the Om, trying to get her brothers on task and they are not having it. We've been there haven't we? and “they're ruining everything!”... or… we can have fun. With it we can acknowledge that something has upset them and in their little world it is the end of the world! It's awful! and now I'm sure in that family, this is from several years ago, I'm sure they are equally embarrassed and laugh about this picture. They undoubtedly do not remember what they were throwing a tantrum about - except they weren't getting what they wanted right then. And so the family and the photographyer, they had fun with it They transformed what could have been a ruined photo shoot, they took tears and found joy and memories. We are called to do that. That is what Advent is about. Our gospel story this day is about a woman filled with tears - with sorrow and repentance - but also joy and release! She has found her savior. She knows who Jesus is. She knows her redeemer lives! The religious authorities, the Pharisees, the powerful… they don't know him yet. They invite him to dinner, but they don't know who he is. They haven't opened their hearts and minds. They haven’t engaged in repentence and don’t see the wonder, mystery and hope. She has and she gives everything she can, her whole self, her tears of heartbreak and of healing, to worship, to follow, to celebrate, to repent. Those tears of release, of anointing, of humility, of celebration are powerful! Jesus sees her. Jesus lifts her up through the ages as an example of what we are to be - and it means we must embrace both our deepest sorrows, that which we must repent from, ,and our greatest joys - knowing that God sees us and is with us. That is the hope of Advent. Can you imagine the story ends? With her being forgiven. Can you imagine her joy? Have you experienced that kind of release? Have you been a part of creating a moment for someone else, where they experience forgiveness and release? Where their burdens are lifted. Where their debts are forgiven? Where their isolation is broken? That is the joy that springs forth from the sowing of tears. That is the sign that we are looking for when we know that the Lord is as near, as near as the gates. When we're called to open our hearts and minds to be transformed. Our Shepherd is near. Our Shepherd calls us. Our Shepherd sends us forth and let us cry tears, let us share laughter, let us pass light, let us be joy for the world. That's what I believe thanks be to God. Amen!