The Longest Night

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Advent Midweek Service + December 21, 2016

A reading from the Gospel according to Luke:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2:25-35, NRSV)

Tonight is the longest night of the year. Despite our efforts to harness the sun through the great trick of Daylight Saving’s Time, the darkness of night has taken over more and more of the morning time, and the sun has been setting earlier and earlier in the evening. I’m sure many of you feel like you hardly get to experience the sunlight at all, and it’s an even stronger feeling when those few hours of sun are clouded over. If we didn’t know better – if we hadn’t been through this before – it could seem like the darkness was slowly overtaking the light.

We might have that same feeling at other times that have nothing to do with the length of daylight. Shadows fall with illness or injury, loneliness or over-exertion, bad news or brain chemistry, and life just seems so dark.

Maybe Simeon and the others who longed for the coming of the Messiah felt that kind of heavy darkness. The Messiah was the hope people clung to in the darkest times: the fire that would burn away evil and suffering; the “sun of righteousness”; the dawning of a new day; the light that would brighten the future.

A few weeks ago the Monday Evening Bible Study group talked via Skype with Lois Tverberg, the author of the book we’d been reading, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus. It’s a book that taught us to better understand Jesus by studying the Jewish culture that he lived and breathed. We asked Lois about what Jewish people believed — and still believe — about the Messiah: what were they hoping for? What were they expecting? It’s a complicated question to answer in a few minutes, but she gave us a general picture of the wide spectrum of beliefs about the longed-for Messiah.

You are probably familiar with one common belief: that the Messiah would come as a warrior-king, conquering in the name of God, striking down the wicked, lifting up the righteous, and establishing the Kingdom of Heaven. Another school of thought said that the Messiah would only come after the world became what God wanted it to be: we would have to perfect ourselves and repair our world first, and then the Messiah would arrive. You might say that for those believers striving for righteousness was a way of “preparing the way of the Lord.” On either end of the spectrum, the coming of the Messiah was a sign of the perfection of the world.

What tonight’s story, what Simeon’s song and his prophecy tell us about Jesus the Messiah is much messier than that. This is a messiah born in the midst of darkness and brokenness, with more on the horizon.

In the Gospel of Luke, it is already obvious that this infant Messiah was born into the midst of an imperfect world. He was born into the midst of the global constants of our brokenness: wars, disease, poverty, greed…And the hurt of our world also surrounded Jesus’s own birth in specific ways: his mother had been forced to travel while heavily pregnant so that she and her husband could be placed on the registry of a far-away Emperor; and when it came time to deliver her child, she and Joseph could find no shelter. The Bible doesn’t even mention a stable; for all we know, our savior was born in the streets.

And now, a few weeks later, Mary and Joseph present the baby Jesus at the Temple. But the words that Simeon speaks over this little baby do not paint visions of a King who will easily conquer the world; instead, Simeon’s words to the young parents are haunting: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

We, who know what happens in the rest of Jesus’s story, might hear in those words the foretelling of conflicts, ridicule, persecution, and crucifixion. And those things continue for Jesus’s disciples even after his resurrection.

And today, two-thousand years after the birth of the messiah, our world is still not perfect. In the midst of celebrating Christ’s birth, we are haunted by images from Aleppo; we are reminded of the hungry families in our own community; we mourn those who are not with us in our celebrations, and we grieve those we fear to lose. And so something about today, December 21, rings true: that in so many ways we are living in the longest night.

And yet we know that tomorrow – December 22 — there will be a little more light, and the next day a little more, and the next day, a little more.

And we know that a light shone in that manger 2,000 years ago. It was not the sudden, bright, light of a world made perfect; but it was the quiet light of a slow dawn: the gentler, humbler light of love — but with all the strength of divine love in action.

Because the message of the birth of the messiah —surprisingly — was not perfection. It was Emmanuel: God is with us. In the midst of our brokenness, our grief, our suffering, Emmanuel: God is with us. Even in the middle of our longest nights, Emmanuel: God is with us.

God cares for us — enough to take on flesh and dwell with us in this imperfect world. God grieves with us. God weeps with us. And God moves in us and around us to fight against that darkness and bring light into our world: God brings the light of love, through family and friends and even strangers sent to support us and help us to smile. God brings the light of joy through music and art that uplift us, through good memories, through the practice of thankfulness. God brings the light of hope for another dawn and a little more light. God brings the light of faith that Christ will come into our lives again, and again, and again — to “make our darkness bright.” We are not fighting the darkness alone. Emmanuel. God is with us.


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