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The Most Difficult Time of the Year


O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence - as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil - to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

ISAIAH 64:1-9

Sermon By The Rev. Dr. Maryann Amor

It was Christmas Eve 2014. I was in Edinburgh, Scotland, a few months into my PhD, spending time in a wonderful city, hanging out with friends. That Christmas I was looking forward to going to midnight mass at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, and as I waited for my friend to pick me up, my mum suddenly called from BC…’your dad isn’t doing so well, we don’t think he is going to make it.’ My dad had been sick for a while, we had had scares before, but nothing had ever happened. So, I didn’t think too much of it…in the back of my mind I was worried, but I assured myself that he would be ok. About an hour or so later, when I got home after worship, feeling the buzz of Christmas, I did what most people my age do, I immediately went on social media, planning to call my mum once I had changed out of my church clothes…but there on my Facebook feed I saw a post from my cousin, RIP Uncle Leonard. My dad had died, while I was celebrating Christmas Eve, my dad had died…and as I sat alone, more than 3000 miles away from my family, my experience of Christmas changed forever.

At this time of the year, the world is bombarding us with images of Christmas joy. Commercials with multiple generations gathered around a table, all laughing and sharing a huge meal…mothers and children out shopping, no tantrums…we might think back to classic 90s TV sitcoms where Christmas episodes always end, within the prescribed 30 minute time slot, with everything turning out, wishes fulfilled, serene music playing as everyone hugs and gathers around a perfect Christmas tree, presents overflowing. And so we are set up to believe that right now, as we prepare for Christmas, we should all be feeling happy, things should be wonderful, life should be perfect…because that’s what Christmas is. A time when families come together, in pure, warm, and fuzzy joy.

But the reality of life doesn’t match these Christmas expectations. While my story of losing my dad is unique to me, what it did to my experience of Christmas is something that I think many of us can relate to. Because the truth is that for so many of us the moments of darkness, sorrow, and loss are more than the moments of joy in our lives…and they inevitably impact Christmas…turning it from being the most wonderful time of the year, to the saddest time of the year. For so many people, Christmas is just not what we see on TV, it is a painful, difficult time when we are reminded of what we don’t have, we are reminded of our losses, we are reminded of how much pain there is in our lives.

And it is when this happens that we might do what many people of faith do, cry out to God…ask God to be with us, to help us find joy in the darkness. So we speak as our ancestors have for many many generations, voicing laments in sadness, seeking God where God seems unable to be found. Asking God to turn our lives around, infuse some happiness into our sorrow.

Our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah gives us an example of people of the past, seeking God in their own moment of darkness, thus, making it particularly relevant for many of us who are in darkness now. The Israelites had just returned to their land after being sent off to exile in Babylon. They hoped that they could rebuild what they had lost, recapture the joy of the past…however, it quickly became clear that this would never happen. That what they once had was gone forever and there was nothing they could do to bring it back.

So Isaiah speaks for them…in their experience of loss, they think God has hidden Godself from them. They feel burdened by sin, as if God is punishing them for their transgressions by taking away the joy they once had…they describe themselves as being like a faded leaf, blown away by the wind. They are hopeless, they feel dried up.

So they call out to God, asking God to tear open the heavens and come down…they beg God not to be angry with them, not to remember their sins, but to come and touch their lives. They cry out for God to remember them, bring some light into their darkness.

And with their cries hanging in the air, Isaiah does not tell us how God responds, but leaves us to fill this gap today. As we look to our story, as we look forward to birth of Jesus, we are reminded that as the people of Israel cried to God, as we cry to God…God hears and God breaks into our lives. That in the most dreadful, awful, saddest moments, God enters in. That in abject poverty, oppression, filth, in the worst imaginable conditions, a baby is born shining God’s light into the darkness. Our first reading is calling us to remember that when we, like the people of Israel, experience loss of hope, joy, light, we need to remember that God hears, God responds, and God brings new life where it seems like it will never be found. It is God’s presence in the most difficult of situations that is the truth of Christmas, more than the perfection we see in the media.

So this Christmas, when you, like me, like so many other people in our lives, our community, our world experience sorrow, not the joy that the world is bombarding us with…remember that when you are in these deepest pits of despair, when you, like the Israelites call out to God, feel like God has hidden Godself from you…God hears you, God sends light, God brings hope. I can tell you that despite all the sadness of Christmas for me, glimmers of God have and continue to appear…children born, new beginnings, friends, love, warmth. This doesn’t make the pain magically go away, but it is light amidst it…there are just so many tiny moments, many of which we might miss, that remind us that God is with us, even if our Christmases might not feel super warm and joyful. Hold onto this. Hold onto Emmanuel, God with us, here, now, breaking into the darkness of our lives. Amen.

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