When Elizabeth got pregnant, her husband, Zechariah, didn’t even believe it, so the angel Gabriel made it so Zechariah could not speak until Elizabeth gave birth to John. Once she did, Zechariah took a long look at his baby. Once he named the baby John, Zechariah’s speech returned. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to prophesy:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them…
As [God] spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets… that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus [God] has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors and he remembered his holy covenant…” (Luke 1:68, 70-72).
Zechariah’s song continues; it gives glory to God and blessing to his baby John. In this, Zechariah reminds us of the promise we keep hearing: God comes into the world bringing comfort to those who mourn, bringing salvation to the people. God answers oppression with liberation. He answers violence with compassion, and what if this is the justice of the LORD our God…
Beloved in Christ, we are a little more than halfway through Advent, right about at the mid-point of December. I invite you to consider, how are you doing…
For many of us, this season is painful. The songs and Hallmark movies announce that family is what matters most. That could be true, but that’s not easy to hear if you don’t have a family or if your family is reeling from conflict. At church, we focus on the miracle of motherhood, how our salvation was brought about by a baby with his little baby gurgles and his darling baby toes. That’s true, but that’s not easy to hear if you’ve wanted a baby and couldn’t have one, or if you had a baby who died.
If you have loved anyone who has died, this season makes the grieving rise up within us. For many of us in this room, Christmas will be different this year because we miss him so deeply. Because we can’t hear Silent Night without remembering her; now it won’t ever be the same again.
The earth knows. Here in the north, the days are growing shorter; the darkness is longer; the air feels colder. The truth is, joy and mourning share the same course. Follow one long enough, it will spill into the other. So as much as Christmas is the season of joy, it is also the season of mourning. That’s not even the worst part.
The worst part is the glittering snowman telling you to come on, and cheer up, and get in the Christmas spirit, why don’t you! As though if you are noticing the presence of pain in your soul, you are doing Christmas wrong. It’s not just that we feel bad. It’s that we feel bad for feeling bad. We blame ourselves for being locked up, or sitting in the dark, or feeling depressed.
What I need to tell you is that even when we blame ourselves, God does not. Feeling the sharp edge of sorrow, that does not mean you are failing at Christmas. It does not mean you’re the Grinch. It does not mean you are Scrooge. Feeling grief when you’re grieving means you are human. And when it comes to being human, God gets it. God absolutely gets it.
Today our scripture comes from Second Isaiah. This is the portion of Isaiah that speaks to the Jewish people in the middle of the exile. Here they have been displaced from their homeland and separated from each other. They are wondering whether God is powerful enough to save them and whether God wants to save them. As with anyone in crisis, they’re experiencing the diminishing of possibility. What’s on the line is their capacity to imagine something better. They lose that, then what’s left? These are the people God noticed and spoke to through the prophet.
Our scripture begins with God promising to send a servant: “I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” The strange part is, his method of bringing justice is pretty much the opposite of what we’d expect. Remember when God flooded the earth? Remember when Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the sea?
Well, this time, the servant brings justice to the world without raising his voice. “A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” This chosen servant of God comes with quiet, gentle, determination.
Now I know, as Christians, there’s no way for us to hear this prophecy and not think of Jesus. We know Jesus is the one in whom God’s soul delights. However, the Hebrew indicates that the word for servant was not referring to an individual. Instead, the servant is the nation of Israel, the people of God. This means their best hope might not be a king or a superhero; their best hope might be them, the divine all y’all. The servant people will bring about the promise of God, and the servant people were them. Or us.
It is God who gives breath to the people and spirit to those who walk on the earth. “I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant, a light to the nations.”
And here’s the work: Open the eyes of the blind. Bring out the prisoners from the dungeon. Behold the turning. The past is gone; new things are coming. You have seen your joy turn into mourning; know that mourning will turn into joy.
This is different from the flood that destroyed the earth. This is different from the sea rising up to drown Pharaoh’s army. This is: Notice the turning— the turning from oppression into liberation, from racism into repentance, from violence into healing —see there’s nothing swift or sudden. This kind of turning takes generations. It takes gentleness. Which might explain why the servant people do not yell, or break reeds, or quench wicks, or charge in with explosives and tear gas.
And what if, it’s not just that the servant employs this approach of tenderness in order to bring about God’s justice. What if the justice of God is tender compassion…
If I’m onto something here, this means God does not come into the world in order to curse the darkness. Or shame those who are imprisoned. Or blame those who are crying. If God is coming into the world to execute compassion, what she’s doing first is noticing our pain, then saying it is not our fault. “Scoot over, I’m sitting down next to you,” says the LORD.
Holy are your tears. Blessed is your grieving.
In recent years, in Sunderland, England, the Wearmouth Bridge has become the site of multiple suicides. Paige Hunter is a young woman who came close to taking her own life. Like so many others, she went to the bridge, but she did not jump. She said, “That feeling you get when you are debating whether to live is absolutely terrifying and you feel alone in it all. So when things started getting… better for me I wanted to help those who felt the same way as I did.”1https://www.babble.com/parenting/paige-hunter-teen-bridge-notes-suicide-support/
What Paige did was write hundreds of handwritten notes of encouragement, which she laminated and then tied along the rail of the bridge. The notes say things like:
“You are loved.”
“ It will get better. Please hold on.”
“The world is much better with you in it.”
“Take a step back. You’re worth it.”
“When I felt like you did, I called for help. It has to be worth a try, yeah?”
Now I know how this might sound. When a community is experiencing a rash of suicides, a comprehensive solution is needed, not some teenager’s notes on a bridge. People who are considering suicide need professional support. Nobody’s life problems are solved by finding a heart-decorated note that says: “You have a purpose.”
And okay, I hear that.
But here’s the thing. At least six people have come forward saying they were planning to suicide, but reading the notes stopped them. These individuals give Paige credit for saving their lives, so it’s worth considering why —because nobody thinks her cheerful quips solved their problems or healed their illness! I think it’s something else.
I think it’s the fact that the notes were posted on the bridge in precisely the spot where the people were in danger. Now when someone found herself alone, in the dark, entirely out of options, she was confronted by words that acknowledge her pain.
Paige’s notes are blessing the pain. They’re what Anthony calls a rope of hope. They’re noticing someone’s pain, then blessing the pain —not to fix it— but to show up bringing the tenderness of God into the dark. The good news is that this tenderness is what we have to offer each other. And I really believe, if this is all we have to offer each other, it is more than enough.
That’s the good news. The better news is that blessing the pain makes it start to lose its power. I can’t tell you how this works. All I know is when you go and sit down next to someone in the dark, it changes the dark. Show up and sit with someone who is grieving, that doesn’t fix their grieving, but your blessing might cause it to crack. As Leonard Cohen reminds us, “There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
Holy are the tears. Blessed is the mourning, but the mourning will not last.
Behold the tender turning when the prisoners get processed out and come home, when those who grieve —even at Christmas—hear their own Hallelujahs. When a teenage girl ties a note to a bridge so a man goes home instead, and a teenage girl holds her newborn whose birth summons all the angels and the sheep. When a man whose voice was silenced then begins to sing: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in the darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”