Well, we are finding ourselves in the midst of everything Christmas; well, except for the warm, sunny afternoons without a snowflake in sight. The Salvation Army kettles are out, the neighbors have decorated their yards with lights and lawn inflatables, marketing ads are popping up all over our email inboxes – Santa making a list and checking it twice has nothing on those bots that detect your internet searches and instantly send you “special” offers! Christmas – or should I say, holiday songs - blare on speakers in public places and folks are wishing each other a Merry Christmas. Holiday gatherings are resuming. There is a sense of joy and anticipation in the air as we look forward to the biggest holiday of the year.
But for many, this season leading up to Christmas is anything but merry, even for us in the church. Despair doesn’t disappear with the coming of the Lord at Advent, nor does it disappear at the holidays. On the contrary, the festive atmosphere intensifies many people’s grief and depression. There are those who find themselves alone and lonely during the holiday. Those who dread the holiday gatherings with challenging family members. Memories of painful past celebrations. Others are experiencing the first Christmas without a loved one; remembering Christmases past and mourning the absence of a Christmas present devoid of the person so beloved. Indeed, for many, Christmas is a time of disappointment and disenchantment.
Our ancestors in the faith were also well acquainted with grief, and not just during their high holy days. So many of the Psalms fit into the genre of lament, as the people of Israel voiced their fears and sorrows and struggles in their worship of God. These psalms remind us that tears, the visible symbol of our griefs, are not antithetical to our faith, but part of the human journey we honor throughout Advent and all year-round. While this season offers a hopeful word, we must be careful not to minimize painful feelings or too quickly make the move Psalm 126 describes, turning tears to joy and weeping to shouting, but offer the assurance that God is faithful throughout our pain.
In this season when joy is magnified around us, and likewise the sorrow that comes when we cannot share that happiness, so many come to God in personal pain and sorrow. Nostalgia for what was in the past and cannot be again. Or pain in the present day. The loss or betrayal of a loved one. The loss of income. The loss of personal worth. The loss of relationship. Our physical or emotional suffering. Terminal illness. Life becoming more than we can bear. When nothing seems to make sense. Our laments spring from the depths of our individual pain, as one offering the lament calls out to a God who we doubt listens or even exists. But cry out we do. Yet, we find our comfort in the hope that God sees our tears and mourns with us.
Jesus saw the tears of those who cried out to a God who they thought had long ignored them. Jesus was constantly reaching out to those in despair, those who have long experienced pain and suffering. The demoniac tethered to a grave. The leper excommunicated from society. The woman chronically ill for eighteen years. The tax collector despised by his 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. Jesus looked upon them, saw their tears and mourned with them. He was filled with compassion for them. And so, Jesus made them whole, not just in body, but in their souls, just as he is also able make us whole in our sorrow and suffering.
Yet tears, and the grief from which they spring, have the ability to be redemptive in God’s economy. Jill Duffield, for whom I owe much of the content of this sermon series, speaks of a leader in her church whose counsel and presence never failed to encourage. This woman exhibited a compassion towards everyone that a pastor could only hope to emulate. When a word of hopeful faith was needed, this is who the pastor called. This model of compassion, as a young mother, had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, not given good odds of survival, and told to prepare for brutal treatment which might or might not save her life. She endured rounds of chemotherapies, multiple surgeries, radiation and all the pain that accompanied it, all while attempting to attend to her preschool-age children. When the author came to know her, those children were grown and having children of their own. Miraculously, she survived and remained cancer-free. Her tears had sown in her a great joy for life and given her a humility and gentleness through which she saw the world as a result. Having gotten to the other side of a near death experience, she praised God for every moment, no matter how mundane. The same might be said of some recovering addicts and others; those who have struggled and suffered, but ultimately triumphed; of any who have suffered and wept and yet, prevailed.
There are times, and not just in Advent, that we weep tears for others. Tears that come as a result of seeing those whom Jesus loves – and we love – acting in self-destructive ways. We observe institutions and leaders encouraging attitudes and behaviors that are contrary to the ways of God and Christ Jesus. We weep when we see the wrong prevail; when greed, disharmony, anger and immorality seem to win out in public opinion. This is when we have the hope of Advent; not only at the second coming, but in our lives today. Hope that we can be moved by our tears to make a change; to advocate for a better way.
We hope. That is the message of Advent. We hope because we know how the story will end. Brian Blount, now president of one of my alma maters, talks about the power in knowing how the story turns out, knowing that ultimately God’s justice and love prevails. No matter the challenges and travails, we followers of Jesus Christ persist in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with the God whose home is among mortals, the God who becomes mortal, the God who will wipe every tear from the eyes of those who have known great suffering. The description of heavenly worship in our reading from Revelation paints a picture that inspires us to strive for God’s kingdom, so near and yet so far away on earth.
I can’t help but wonder, what if we began each day by reading these words from Revelation, envisioning the holy promise, bringing God’s future into our present in ways big and small? What if we made that vision in the here and now, and not just a hope for the sweet bye and bye?
To paraphrase Jill Duffield, “If we who prepare for Jesus’ birth and anticipate Christ’s return know the end of the story, of God’s promise to wipe away every tear, alleviate hunger and thirst, gather together people from the north, south, east and west, what will we do make this happen, as we pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven?
And so, as we journey through this Advent season, bombarded by worldly headlines of division, violence, upheaval and suffering, can we remember that Jesus is coming again, not to condemn the world (even if it seems worthy of condemnation), but to save it? Can we remember that the Messiah comes that we might have life and have it in abundance, as we participate in this life-living, God-vision? Knowing that God will wipe away every tear from every eye, will we get a head start on that intimate, loving, unquestionably present comfort now? If we know God’s promised future, can we who follow the Incarnate Lord help embody it in the present, no matter what the cost or risk of counterculture living requires?
Let us pray:
To the one on the throne, we worship you. Lost in wonder and praise, we gather to give thanks for your steadfast love, your providential care, our commitment to making your home among us. When our tears flow in the face of earthly suffering, we remember your promised future when crying will be no more and all will be safe, together, valued, and whole. May that sure ending compel us in faith to bring your future into our present. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.