Longest Night Service
Luke 2:8-20 & John 20:24-29
“On the Outside, Looking In”
I stopped at the local CVS last week and stood in line while “Joy to the World” played itself out over the speakers of the store. The guy behind me in line began whistling the tune of what sounded suspiciously like “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” Perhaps that was his subtle protest against the aggressive sentimentality and cheeriness present everywhere you go this time of year.
The next store I stopped in, I found myself humming along to the soundtrack of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
I was on my way to meet friends for lunch at a restaurant where we were serenaded by “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” during which drinks and appetizers arrived. Then, “The Little Drummer Boy” rum-tum-tummed his way through the main course, and a Celtic sounding “What Child is This?” accompanied our dessert-sharing.
This weekend, lots of people are singing, humming, and whistling their way through countless carols and Christmas songs while shopping for last-minute gifts, and exchanging Merry Christmases and Happy Holidays with store clerks.
Yet, here we all are tonight, gathered in this humble space on the “Longest Night “of the year, eager for the light to overcome our darkness.
As the hustle and bustle and giddiness of the season continue to run their courses OUT THERE, in here we sing quieter tunes and sit for a time in welcome snatches of silent stillness.
In here we are safe from the frowns of friends who just don’t understand why we can’t just shake off the gloom and take on the cheer, or those who become uncomfortable sitting with our sadness.
As we gather this night, we hear the traditional recorded history of the first Christmas from Luke’s gospel. Angel voices fill the air in the story. “Glory to God in highest heaven” the heavenly host sing out. Shepherds head over to witness the idyllic, sweet scene surrounding the Holy family.
But we also get this gospel of the doubting Thomas. Thomas, who missed the first visitation of the resurrected Jesus, and was deprived of the greeting Jesus gave to his disciples, “Peace be with you” Thomas, who, deep in his grief, couldn’t quite believe what he hadn’t seen with his own eyes. Like us, Thomas remains on the outside, not sharing in the joy of the other disciples, for the wonder of the resurrected Jesus doesn’t belong to him – not yet. Like us, Thomas has other feelings and realities crowding his mind and his heart – sadness, loss, grief – but not peace. As we might sometimes feel when confronted with the joviality of the season, Thomas is still on the outside, looking in.
Like the ancients who may have wondered, “is this the time when darkness will finally overcome the light?” we might wonder if we will ever experience the beauty of the light in all its fullness again.
We gather here tonight to acknowledge and name the darkness of our hearts and the iron grip of grief, even as we search for the joy of promised mercy and love to take hold deep inside us once again.
Each of us have our own reasons for the sadness and Thomas -like doubt that are all too familiar right now; doubt that we will ever feel “normal” again, or will ever fully appreciate and celebrate life; or that Jesus can truly heal our grief and pain, creasing and penetrating the armor of our darkness.
Whether your season of discontent comes from grief over the death of a loved one, or family relationships that are a mess, or loneliness imposed by geographic distance from friends and family, or your struggle with depression or the memory of traumatic events that scar your perception of this time of year, Jesus is here for you.
The fact is, Jesus didn’t come for the have-it-all together and the perpetually joyful. Jesus came to reconcile the world to God and to gift us with unending light to dispel the darkness that exists for each of us.
In a world where you might feel like you don’t fit in, don’t belong, or are on the outside looking in, Jesus came, God incarnate, for you, and for all the hurting ones.
While gatherings, celebrations and joy surround you but feel terribly out of reach and you may find yourself in a river of memory-induced tears, know that the peace of Christ is for you, too – especially for you.
Like Thomas, perhaps you long to know what THEY know, to experience what THEY experience, or to believe that this weight, this pain, will ever be lifted. On this longest night of the year, Jesus stands here among us, despite the sometimes-locked door of our broken hearts. “Peace be with you,” he says in greeting. And with these words Jesus makes it possible for us to begin to have just a sliver of hope that truly, this is not all that there is for us.
Isaiah wrote that “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.” But that light began as a sliver of brightness that slowly grew until it became a beacon of hope and promise.
We come together tonight acknowledging that we need God’s light to shine in our darkness and scatter the hold of our doubt and fear. The losses that bring us here are many and varied but the thing they have in common is that they render us “on the outside looking in.”
But here is the thing: God never promised freedom from worry, pain and fear as we traverse this broken world. What God does promise is to meet us here. Whether this Christmas is “blue” because of a recent loss or a constellation of struggles, whether the season of being on the outside looking in is new for you or all-too familiar, wherever you are in your “dark night of the soul,” this – whatever you are experiencing right now – is where God’s light shines the brightest, the strongest, and the most piercing.
We come together tonight because despite our personal situations, there is one who has the answer for us – who is the answer to our situation – and his peace is a light that shines beautifully in humble trust and quiet joy. The light is Christ – the one of whom the angels sing, “glory!”
Jesus is God’s light for all the suffering of the world, and in grace, mercy and love, God never tires of shining that light for you.
Jesus is God’s response to our pain and our doubt. He is the answer of the ages, the one that assures us that nothing – not even our doubt – will separate us from God’s love. Jesus is the one whose own death and resurrection assures us that the losses of life will not overwhelm us.
Christmas is good news for you, even – and especially – if you feel like you are on the outside looking in. In divine love and mercy, in real flesh-and-bone presence, Jesus is the answer to all our suffering, our doubt, our longing, because God embraces us in our fear and our courage. God is with us eternally, in our life and in our death.
Therefore, with confidence, tonight we dare to remember those and that which we are missing. With his light, Jesus dares us to hope for and believe in the eternal reunion we will one day experience with all our loved ones. The cross of Christ dares us to believe that all that shadows our lives and burdens our spirits are healed in his presence, and to trust that in and through Jesus we are no longer on the outside looking in. The infinite reach and strength of God’s love and mercy surrounds, embraces, and saves us all.
In Jesus Christ there is healing and hope. So, it’s okay to be blue when everyone else is green or red; to be sad in the midst of merriment; to be joyful even as we grieve or feel sadness; to celebrate even in the midst of hard times; to share laughter even in the reality of loss.
Because of Jesus we are no longer on the outside looking in. Beloved of God, Jesus is our hope, and our heart’s delight. To him we belong. Amen.