To hear a recording of this sermon that I had the honor to share at HopeGateWay last week, click here. The sermon is approximated below as text:
In the Beginning
In the beginning, God was not alone. Three in one, God was and is. And the people of Israel passed down an origin fable of two archetypal first humans.
When God made humanity, God said of that first person: “It is not good for them to be alone.” The first thing that the God of all creation deems “not good” is the prospect of being alone. And so God, who was one and yet not alone, made humanity to be one and yet not alone.
And so it has been since the beginning: we have not been alone.
A Bad Listener
It is in “not being alone” that we find some of our deepest joy. And it is in “not being alone” that we find the most unbearable to be bearable. How many of us have picked up the phone to call someone or knocked on the door of a friend to say, “I just needed somebody to listen”? How many of us have ever said something like, “I’m not asking you to fix it; I’m just asking you to hear me”?
I used to be the worst listener when I was a kid, and the worst part of my being the worst listener was that I thought I was a good listener. I think this was my role model:
Someone would call me up with a problem, and immediately I’d ask, “Well did you try this? Can’t you do that? What if you do this instead?”
My friends would never come back to me with the same question, so I assumed that I’d done a great job helping them solve their problem. Now that I’m a little older, I realize that they may have just given up on me because I wasn’t what they needed or wanted. I was interested in fixing things, but not so much in listening and enabling people to solve the problems they were already capable of solving.
Now let’s read the words of the prophet Zephaniah from today’s lectionary:
Hurray! It’s time to sing, faithful daughter of Zion! It’s time to shout out loud, Israel! Be happy and celebrate with all your being, faithful children of Jerusalem! The Eternal has cancelled His judgments against you. He changed the course of your enemies. The True King of Israel, the Eternal One, is standing right here among you; you have no reason to be afraid ever again. On that day people will say to the faithful in Jerusalem, “Do not be afraid, Zion; hold your head and hands high, and take courage.” The Eternal your God is standing right here among you, and He is the champion who will rescue you. He will joyfully celebrate over you; He will rest in His love for you; He will joyfully sing because of you like a new husband.
Eternal One: Don’t be sad anymore about all the time you were away in exile, unable to keep the appointed feasts or worship Me in the appointed place. I will gather those who’ve shamed you, Zion. Keep watching! At the right time, I will deal with those who assaulted you. I will steady those who cannot walk and are about to fall; I will gather those who are outcasts and oppressed. Instead of being filled with shame as they always have been, I will fill them with praise and make them famous over all the world. On that day, I will gather all of you together for one big homecoming. I will make you famous, and all the world will sing your praises. Right before your eyes, I will restore to you all that you have lost, and your lives will be full again.
What I came to realize later in life is that people often don’t need you to fix things. Most of the time, even in our hardest times, we just want to be heard and known. We don’t want to be alone. We want a friend nearby.
And in the words of Zephaniah, we hear that God understands that. The Creator of the universe draws near. The one who made us, the one who fashioned life, is here. That is their source of joy. The incarnation – the tangent point where heaven and earth are united – represents the intimacy and closeness and the subsequent joy that God deeply wants to share with us. God so wanted to be near us that God became human, and God experienced all the triumphs and pain and longing that came with being human.
The reasons for the incarnation are, I believe, full of mystery and potential. I don’t believe there’s just one reason for why Jesus was and is. But there’s one reason we can be pretty sure about: Jesus – the incarnation of God as a human being just like us – means that we are not alone.
Jesus means that the God of the universe gets down in the dirt with us, lays on the floor with us when we’re crying, sits beside us when we’re ill, stands with us when our voice shakes. Jesus means that in this directionless miasma of good things and bad things and things gone right and things gone wrong, there is good news. There is a higher and all-throughout purpose. And there is reason for joy. And Jesus means that although humanity can be like Herod – the oppressive ruler who caused many like Mary and Joseph to flee his rule, humanity can also be like Christ.
It’s important for us to remember that the story of this season isn’t just a story about Mary and Joseph and wise people and innkeepers. It’s also a story about Herod.
It’s Also the Story of Herod
Herod ruled over Judea, but he was supposed to rule in the interest of the Roman Empire. The Roman emperor at the time wanted someone who would represent his interests to the Jewish people. He chose Herod.
But Herod was oppressive and erratic. And on top of that, Herod heard that a threat to his reign was to be born – the Messiah – and that it would be a Jewish boy. He therefore ordered the murder of all infant boys who lived in or near Bethlehem.
The first Advent – those last weeks of Mary’s pregnancy – were not a time of peace. And that holy night – before the incarnation of God as a human – was not a silent night. The first Advent was a time of national concern – a time when a Jewish boy could not be born in the land of his captors for fear of his and his family’s safety. And that holy night was a night like how all beautiful things are brought into this world: through great effort, through pain, and through hope.
God was with Pedro and Erick
This Advent season, we again enter into a time of deep turmoil – of national concern for many marginalized peoples. We’ve heard a few sermons now relating to the asylum seekers at our southern border who’ve made the heartbreaking choice to travel thousands of miles to plead their case for themselves and their families. And it’s possible that some of us may be thinking, “Do we really have to talk about this again?”
But I think the Holy Spirit is saying to us during this season while we’re recounting the journey of Mary and Joseph, “Don’t look away. Watch.” In the midst of this journey of expectation for those in the migrant caravan, there is excruciating pain and suffering. Now, there is also death and violence. And yet there is also rejoicing.
One of my favorite moments of rejoicing came from a few weeks ago.
A group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer migrants went ahead of the rest of the caravan. They traveled together in a group of about 80 for protection, for community, and for love. When they arrived at Tijuana, a border town in Mexico near California, eight LGBTQ couples got married. LGBTQ migrants have been fleeing their homes in Central America for years, mostly due to the disproportionate violence they face at home. The first of the couples was Pedro Nehemias and Erick Dubon.
In Guatemala, Pedro was kicked out of his home at 15 before he was forced into prostitution. Erick, from Honduras, was assaulted by a gang that smashed four of his teeth with a rock. Neither of their families accept their identities, and Pedro still dreads telling his family about the wedding.
Three ministers from Northern California traveled to Tijuana to perform the mass ceremony in an LGBTQ-friendly space in Tijuana where same-sex marriage is legal. “This is an act of justice,” said Hugo Córdoba, one of the three officiants. “The dream of marrying was an illusion for most of them. We are helping them make this a reality.”
This day of eight weddings was a respite to honor and express the joy that was in the journey. The joy, despite the hardship, of hoping for life anew. And they chose to rejoice through communing, worshiping, and telling.
When speaking to a reporter, Pedro said about his new husband: “We’ve made a new life for ourselves, and I need him. I wake up, and he’s there. I go to bed, and I can say good night. He’s made life bearable, and I really cannot imagine them sending one of us back or splitting us up.”
Another couple getting married met on the journey. Sandy, says she fell in love during the journey with a woman from Honduras.
Folks woke up early that morning to make themselves look lovely for the special day. The couples promised to be faithful and to support each other and to be loving. When each couple said their vows, the crowd shouted, “Kiss! Kiss!”
I’m particularly moved by this simple photo of a volunteer arriving with a handful of silver rings in different sizes so that the couples can pick ones that fit.
In their presence, in their communion, God was near. Soon, they had to disband. They’d received threats of violence, and they’d have to move on. But in their rejoicing, they were together, and the Spirit of God was with them on that sacred day, and it was very good.
Jesus, the Migrant God
In our own lives, there are plenty of things that weigh heavily on us: circumstances, habits, ourselves. And we are seeking comfort. The nearness of God who would wrap us into her heavenly arms and say, “I’m here.”
For all of us, whether we have fled violence or not, there is a truth in the big story of God drawing near.
The story of seeking a new life and a new home is one that is all-too-human. We are currently witnessing this seeking by Central American asylum seekers, by LGBTQ Tanzanians fleeing a government crackdown on them for their identities, by displaced persons from the California Camp Fire, and more. Jesus is the migrant God, the king of those who are nationless, the savior alike of those who have suffered oppression and tyranny and those who have not but have known hardship nonetheless by the mere fact of being human.
My friend, Reverend Laura Cheifetz, is a gay woman and Asian American activist who wrote these words in a sermon a week after 50 LGBTQ people, mostly Latino men, were murdered by a man with a gun in 2016.
We proclaim because life has been hard. Not all of us have been banished to live among the dead, bound with chains, possessed. Not all of us have struggled with mental illness, with living under a repressive colonial government. But all of us, as individuals, as families, as a church, have had our hearts broken open over and over again. We have seen suffering. We have lived suffering.
And it is this suffering from which emerges the deepest joy. Not because suffering is good. Not because I think God uses suffering. Not because we are made stronger or because we are unbreakable. No. Those of us who have been reduced to cowering on the ground in grief and torment and terror, if we make it out, we know what it is to go from naked to clothed, possessed to in our right minds, from chaos and disorder to going out to share the good news of what has been done for us. We know how good news can be difficult to believe, hard to hear, not exactly what we want, but usually what we need.
That first Advent was not a time of peace. It was the time of Herod. It was a time of oppression and fear. But it was also the dusk of that time, for all humanity was about to receive a divine reminder that God is near. God has always been near.
Even in our most tormented times, even in our deepest pain and most palpable loneliness, God the Parent holds us, God the Spirit guides us, and God the child reminds us: there is joy, even in the time of Herod.
Joy is the dance of a candle in the nighttime. Joy is the first lush dark spot of earth under the melting snow. It’s the first songbird that’s come back from winter sounding brave and silly when everything else is silent. Joy is considering the facts and giving thanks anyway. Joy is putting in the legwork for gratitude and expectation. Joy is seeing abundance in where we’ve been and seeing possibility in where we’re headed.
Joy is an insult to evil. Joy is an act of daring in the face of oppression. Joy is countercultural in the time of Herod. Joy is rebellion against despair. Joy is a warning to death and destruction: God is near: beware! And joy is a clarion call to the downtrodden and despairing: God is near: look up.
O Come, Emmanuel
This morning, we finally got to sing one of my favorite songs of the season: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. In the soaring refrain, you hear the command: Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
I’m sure you’ve heard it said before that joy isn’t just a feeling. It’s a posture or a choice. Neither, then, can we limit rejoicing to a feeling. Rejoicing is the action, the outpouring, of joy.
Like the LGBTQ asylum seekers who went ahead of the migrant caravan, we rejoice by communing, by worshiping, and by telling.
We rejoice by communing with others – by being for others the presence of the Spirit of God. And we commune because the Spirit of God is with us where we are gathered. When we’re with others, we are no longer lone voices, and our voices shake less when we sing and when we speak out. Rejoicing isn’t just a nice thing we can do when we feel good; sometimes, it’s the very life-giving thing that we need to do in our times of need, when we live in the time of Herod.
We rejoice by worshiping – by giving our gifts or resources or time as an offering of gratitude to God.
And we rejoice by telling – by recalling how God has been near to us in the past. We rejoice when we do not let the truth fade or be forgotten. We rejoice when we tell the Advent story being told through our time and our lives today.
We don’t rejoice because things have been easy. We don’t rejoice because everything’s fine. In the time of Herod, it is not a recommendation to be joyful – to rejoice. It’s a necessity.
And let it be clear that we live now in the time of Herod – a time that can feel lean and sparse in happiness, heavy and oppressive with fear. But rejoicing is how we survive – by communing, by worshiping, and by telling. And we rejoice because God is near – because our Creator has come to kiss the tops of our heads and hold us close. Because Emmanuel has come to thee – to us.
Rev. Laura Cheifetz puts it this way:
Being a Christian is not living in some fantasy world of butterflies and unicorns. Demons do not simply disappear. Being a Christian, struggling with our faith, struggling to find the will to be part of a community that can be exasperating, is to see a world full of demons, to know these demons better than we would like to, and know exactly what we are up against. It is to stare death, chaos, and disorder in the face and proclaim the gift of life, God’s presence, the power of community, in the same breath.
Featured image from itv.com