Joy in Darkness Overcomes the Blues
A sermon based on Luke 2:8-20
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 16, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott
The angel of the Lord in the very midst of the glory of the Lord famously declares in our reading today : “ Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” We tend to remember the declaration of great joy, but just before the part leading up to the joy and good news for ALL people the angel says “Do not be afraid.” Do. Not. Be. Afraid. Those words are spoken to shepherds watching their flocks by night.
Way back when Luke was written, shepherds were a hardened bunch, more akin to hard luck movie western outlaws or motorcycle gang members than the placid nomadic farmers we might imagine. As such, shepherds were tough outcasts not known for displays of fear. Their entanglement in the messiness of living is not so much the shepherds’ choosing, but their lot in life scrounging for grazing and watering holes on land that is not theirs for sheep they likely do not own, but tend to for their masters. A shepherd’s well-being was little desired or tended to by the Roman culture that oppressed and cast out such expendable people.
So when the text tells us they are watching their flocks by night we can imagine the shepherds in both real darkness of the night, and also in darkness of life living under the long shadow of oppression Caesar cast over them. In other words, when the angel of the Lord and the glory of the Lord show up the shepherds are in a dark time literally and figuratively. Things are so rough for them we might even say that they are having the world’s first blue Christmas. And that gets lost in the Holiday shuffle as so many of our visual symbols seem to mostly focus on uplifting parts. It is interesting, though, that if we stop and look, much of the holiday has a dark part to it, surrounding the light. In the spaces between the Christmas lights there is a lot of darkness, indeed without the darkness the lights pretty much get ignored.
I am not suggesting that theologically dark negative things are desirable in our lives or anyone else’s. I am suggesting that dark negative things are a big part of life and that the light of God, or to use the words from our lesson, “glory of the Lord” is often noticed better shining in the night. We NOT only see it best in the dark, but we appreciate it so much then. It gives us hope, even joy, to know it is there. And just as it is for the shepherds in their darkness, it is good news of great joy – as the angel– says for all the people.
And that all-ness is critical. It is not just the shepherds in the Nativity stories who are in darkness and who are offered joy in hope of the Light of the good news. There are so many negative happenings going on around Jesus’ birth stories that serve to highlight God’s Light in the darkness and blueness. Elizabeth and Zechariah cannot conceive; a divorce looms for Mary and Joseph; Mary is a pregnant out-of-wedlock teen in a culture hostile to teens and unmarried moms (she could even be criminally liable as an adulteress); there is a burdensome tax imposed on the poor; a couple expecting a child is forced by an uncaring government to walk a hundred miles; there is no decent healthcare or birthing place provided for a poor mom in labor or for her infant; as member of an oppressed race that infant’s mortality is otherwise at high risk; a government has such violent and oppressive politics it causes Mary and Joseph – with baby Jesus in tow– to seek refuge in another nation.
All of those negative events that I just named from the Nativity stories take place in a generally dark time in history when Rome considered its nation and its faith and its people superior to other “races” including the Jews in occupied Palestine, and Rome oppressed those of other races and the poor and anyone who rebelled against it. And Rome propped up vicious local henchmen like Herod and his cronies who did whatever they could to take out Rome’s political opponents. Even the Gentile Magi encountered lies and subterfuge and had to go home by a different way to avoid violence and oppression of Rome’s politics. So really the first Christmas in the Gospels can in many respects be understood not just as the first blue Christmas for the shepherds but as a blue Christmas for most every character in the story from a peasant infant to even the deranged king.
Modern people around the world also fit into the all-ness of those in darknesses. The blueness of Christmas continues for many today with reasons akin to negative things going on in the Nativity stories. Divorce. Lack of health care. Injustices. Prejudice. Oppression. Poverty. Racism. Refugee families. Unfair taxes. Corrupt and violent politics. Sadly many humans, including many of us, have real hurts and threats and messed up things that have happened or are happening– some of the things as heavy as those in the Nativity stories. Darkness in our lives may be different in form than in the Nativity stories but it is no less dark and no less real. And blueness often comes with that darkness and it lingers and that is natural.
I am sure it seems odd to have all of this darkness and blueness lifted up on the Advent day where we light the candle for Joy. But you know what? Church tradition put a day of Joy on the Advent calendar precisely to remind us that in the dark the Light of Christ shows up. As the coming of Jesus at Christmas approaches more candles are lit . . . more light is added. The candles are in a circular wreath of evergreen branches to symbolize that there is no end to God’s love, whom Christ represents on earth for Christians. On the third Sunday of Advent we celebrate the waiting in dark for the light of God incarnate. Tradition gives a rose colored candle to light. Rose is the liturgical color for joy! I like to think of it as reminding us in winter that spring will come and the rose will bloom. Just hang on. We can get through the darkness and find the Light. 1.
The heart of Jesus’ Way, the center of his teachings, has this great Light to it, that we are all of us, loved. Our invocation, Psalm 136 notes that God’s love is steadfast and endures forever. That means no matter what, in darkness and in light, in sickness and in health, in sinfulness and goodness, God loves us unshakably. So even if we are unhappy in the difficult negatives of life – and the blueness that they bring– our soul can find it’s way to rejoice. There is reason for great joy for ALL the people.
We can experience joy because in whatever – and I do mean whatever– darkness we find ourselves in, the good news is that the bright shining light of God’s love is with us. ALWAYS. And there is joy in that ALWAYS waiting for us to unwrap. While that may seem to some like looking through too much of a rose colored-lens in the face of the reality of darkness and the blues, it is– please hear me– Truth, a glorious Truth that once uncovered leads us to Light in any darkness. That Truth, knowing we are surrounded by the great light of God’s love in the depths of despair, sorrow, fear and even the shadows death or he darkness of our own poor choices, can lead to joy just knowing that Light’s there. In any, ANY negative there is always God’s love for us no matter what.
In the reading the darkness the shepherds are in is overwhelmed by God’s presence through the angel of the Lord and the glory of the Lord. The dark of the night and the dark of the shepherds’ lives still exist, the difference is that they are aware that the Light of God is in it with them. At first that scares them, not just because it’s a spooky sight, but because it is a transformation, and the unknowns of transformative times especially as trouble looms around us, puts us on our guard. We fear more trouble. So the angel of the Lord can also be heard to calm that fear of transformation telling the shepherds (and us!) it’s okay, there is good news to give joy to everyone.
And once the shepherds calm down and appreciate the good news it causes them to go as the angel instructed to “Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord [had] made known to [them].” After they experience Jesus in the dark, the experiences of pure love in his being causes them to spread the good news that the angel revealed. They are joyful. Then “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” They returned to the dark fields still expendable and oppressed under Rome, but now knowing they are beloved and matter to a bigger much more important force, God. And that made all the difference in sending the blueness of the darkness away!
This Advent Sunday is about joy precisely because Jesus’ Way is about light in the dark, warmth in the winter. It is about the hope and the peace and the promise of love coloring the lens of our blueness, rose. We may not be able to see it through rose colored lenses right away, it might even scare us to face the transformation, but we too can rest assure and not be afraid. We can be joyful even in darkness because of the cosmic Truth that love is out there. God’s light is out there, it is here. It surrounds all the people all the time steadfastly and forever. We are beloved and matter.
The famous 20th Century theologian Henri Nouwen noted that being happy is conditioned on external happenings, but that joy is
the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away. 2
That’s the good news that brings great joy for all the people. To put it in another way, more commonly heard at Easter, out of the dark ashes of life the phoenix rises. The phoenix is love.
The last two Sundays we discussed peace and hope. The very idea of the hope of peace alone can give rise to a joyous response. But when we add into the mix love, we get the full joy-full experience that can get us through any darkness. Love is the light that can help us through any night. WE respond with joy when we are able to finally grasp the truth that we do not need to be afraid, . that there is good news. And that news is of great joy for us for sure, but also for everyone else.
And next week our Advent Sunday is named with a one word summary of the good news, Love. The bright light for the oppressed outcast shepherds is the good news that they are loved . . . that ALL are loved. That very same message is what brings light to the darkness of Elizabeth and Zechariah, God through creation including each other and others cares for them – and desires their well being. Mary and Joseph get that same light in all their dark troubles, God through creation including each other and others, cares for them and their baby – and desires their well being. God speaks to them. They stay together, an inn keeper finds them some shelter, Magi and the shepherds honor Jesus’ birth, the Magi even help protect him. Then Joseph and Mary flee Palestine and are aided by a Gentile foreign nation whose border they cross over seeking and obtaining refuge until the threat is gone.
The many troubles in the Nativity stories symbolize the broad range of troubles humans have encountered throughout history – encounter still today. The darkness does not all go away on the first Christmas day, nor does it all go away for us. Everyone in this world has darkness in life, we have negative messes at one time or another. Life is hard, there is blueness out there. Everyone experiences it. The Nativity stories show that was true for the people in Bible times. In the dark, in the blue, the Light of God shone for them.
And it is also true today that in the dark, in the blue times of our lives , the Light of God shines for us, for all the people everyone. Even if we do not see it right now, the light of love, the Glory of God. is there waiting for us to look up like the shepherds and notice and go experience it, and share that good news. The Nativity stories are meant to point us to that light to help us to look up and see that God’s love is steadfast and endures for ever for everyone. So do not be afraid, that good news of great joy is for all the people . . . . including you.
1. Some of the ideas and information about Advent candles came from this site: https://www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/the-advent-wreath-tradition-meaning/
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2018 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED