This Sunday, our service was led by the children of the meeting. They provided a Christmas skit, multiple pieces of music, and offered Scripture readings and prayers. Our pastor offered this sermonette, worked out ahead of time with the organist, Phillip.
Today’s theme, on this Sunday before Christmas, is Rejoice! Today we’re rejoicing in music, in silence, in prayers, in sharing, in fellowship and in God’s presence.
That’s what the story of Christmas is about, after all. Christmas is the story of God’s insistence that the divine presence will dwell with us, that God’s spirit will take flesh among us in the most unlikely ways, that things may seem grim but the darkness will never overwhelm the light.
This is a love story. This is a story of peace. So when we’re reminded of it directly – when the kids act out the story for us – or indirectly – when we see evergreen boughs and red holly berries and bearded jolly men passing out gifts – our hearts fill with the peculiar kind of cheer that we can only call the Christmas spirit.
This is a good thing. This is to be celebrated.
Paul gives us a two-part piece of advice, though, in the book of Romans- Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.
Someday, as the story goes, we’ll live in a world where there’s nothing but rejoicing. Christmas, I think, is part of that promise. But in this broken world, the two have to go together. We have to rejoice, and we have to mourn. One without the other feels incomplete.
Aidan and Ty read us two passages from the first chapter of Luke, the one right before the iconic passage that Linus reads in the Peanuts Christmas special. Each of them read an ancient song of joy, one from Mary the mother of Jesus and one from Zechariah the father of John the Baptist.
There’s a lot of peace and glory and light and rejoicing in those two songs, but the light is made visible in a sense because they’re also willing to speak about the darkness. They’re not just rejoicing. They’re mourning the brokenness that they can see, and rejoicing at the salvation they find in God’s presence with them.
How are you going to rejoice in the Light, Friends, if you haven’t really mourned the darkness? And, conversely, how many of us haven’t noticed the odd truth that those who have suffered the most seem sometimes to be the most open to the possibilities of joy?
I know I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating: cultivating joy in a world on fire is an act of rebellion. Practicing joy amid the suffering of life is the most powerful way we have of saying that suffering is not the final word.
Mary’s song of joy is also a song of defiance. She lived under Roman occupation, and without getting into the historical particulars too much, let me sum it up in three words: fierce, brutal, and efficient. When the angel Gabriel tells Mary that God is coming to town, though, she responds by singing that God is going to bring the mighty down from their thrones and send the rich away hungry, but the humble will be lifted up and the hungry will be filled.
You don’t sing a song like that unless you’ve been pressed down and hungry. You don’t sing a song like that unless you’ve had reason to mourn. And, at the same time, you don’t sing a song like that in the darkness unless you’ve had a real experience with the light.
And, likewise, the song we sing this Christmas can’t be just joy. That kind of joy is brittle- it’s trying to have the tinsel and the lights and the baubles without also reckoning with the darkness. Our joy at Christmas isn’t joy for its own sake, but joy because we see in the faces of our family and friends and Christ among us the promise that we are not alone. We’re joyful, here in this darkest time of the year, because we defy the darkness to remain.
We’re joyful because we see the darkness but we believe – but we know – that the light is coming.
So what, you might ask, does the Christmas Gospel sound like?
Okay, so you know the song O Come, O Come Emmanuel, but just to get its minor key sound into your head, I’m going to ask Phillip to play a few lines from it:
*Phillip: plays first two lines*
So, that’s in a minor key. A minor chord sounds sad…
*Phillip: plays minor key arpeggio*
And a major chord sounds happy…
*Phillip: plays major key arpeggio*
We often think of Christmas as a major key season- it’s a time to be happy! And that’s true, to some extent, but the theology we’ve inherited in the music of the season doesn’t let us pretend that we can only be happy.
*Phillip: plays first line of O Come, O Come Emmanuel*
And listen to what happens, Friends, when we try to make that into a happy song! It sounds like creepy circus music.
*Phillip: plays O Come, O Come Emmanuel in a major key, a little too fast and rhythmically*
That’s not what the Gospel sounds like, Friends! It’s not trying to force ourselves to be happy, for a season, because it’s Christmas and Christmas means that we should be happy. It’s not a matter of pretending that the darkness is light.
Rather, the Gospel sounds like a musical term called the Picardy Third. Let Phillip demonstrate this for you:
*Phillip: plays the chorus of O Come, O Come Emmanuel, raising the third at the end.*
Hear how it got happy, right there in the end? That’s what the joy of the Gospel sounds like, Friends. That’s Christmas joy. It’s the sound of Emmanuel coming to be God with us when we thought we were left alone. It’s the sound of light suddenly shining in the darkness.
As we settle into waiting worship, this morning, may this be the harmony that rings in your heart. Not just the sadness of the broken world we live in:
*Phillip: plays the first line of O Come*
We can’t live with just that sadness, with just that longing! As Christians, we believe that our longings will be fulfilled, that the light will come to illuminate our darkness. But we also can’t fall into the trap of a forced cheerfulness!…
*Phillip: plays the first line of O Come in a major key*
That’s just wrong. It doesn’t reflect the reality of the hearts that we bring to this Christmas morning. So, instead, let the song in your heart this Christmas be the Picardy Third: the sound of light arriving in the darkness.
*Phillip: plays the chorus of O Come, O Come Emmanuel once, ending on a major chord*