December 20, 2015 // Making Room: Heartroom // Sara Wolbrecht // Luke 1:57-86
T-minus 4 shopping days until Christmas, people. Does this make you want to cheer or groan? Or a little bit of both? For me, in this final week of Advent, in the midst of the to-dos and the twinkly lights, the shopping, the menu planning, the lighting of candles and humming of Christmas tunes, the cookie decorating, the going to bed too late exhausted and still not with everything done – I have also been gathering stories in a way. I’ve been reflecting on the many things folks in my life and in our Salt House community have been facing even as we draw near to the joy of Christmas morning.
So many of us are facing complicated issues in our lives – the hard stuff, emotional stuff. Like, I’ve been remembering our experience of naming our grief on All Saints’ Sunday (remember doing that?) at the beginning of November. We all carry grief of all kinds – over the loss of dreams, hopes, jobs, health. And yes, the grief of losing someone we love. So many of us have lost family and friends and whether they left our lives recently or years ago – we face Christmas without them.
I’ve been thinking of those in our community who are in the midst of caring for parents with significant health issues.
Those in our community who are out of work or looking for new work and living in that place of tension and trust that there will be enough, and wondering what’s next.
Those of us with complicated relationships – in our families, recent breakups, troubles within our friendships – those complications are heightened at Christmas, right?
Those who are living with physical pain, almost constantly, in our community. And the physical and emotional burden it is to carry that.
Those with loved ones serving in the military.
Those whose families are affected by addiction, depression, an inability to get pregnant, illness and cancer, financial difficulty, even the tender sadness that strikes us as we remember Christmas’ past or long for a different future. All those blips of emotion that come up in the midst of the twinkly lights and joy.
These are the stories I have been reflecting on – and I wonder: is this your story or someone you know? For all of us who answer YES – we name: that it is ok that the holidays are complicated and we name that it’s all a part of the journey. That’s life: the goods and the uglies. We live in the tension of all of it. People often think that Christianity is this sugar-coated, everything is always ok, kind of way of walking through life. When actually, Jesus invites us into an authentic life. Feeling all the things, and facing the very real heartache of this world. And so, tonight we explore how our faith and God and Advent all intersect with this reality that we face hard times in our lives. Even at Chirstmas.
And it comes at us through Elizabeth’s story tonight. You ready to talk about pain and suffering? Because nothing says Christmas, like that. What we’ll actually discover are beautiful realities about the character of God – and the life possible for us. Let’s do it.
We’ve already walked through most of Luke chapter one – as has been our journey for these four weeks of Advent. We began with Zechariah and Elizabeth – as we talked about wonder, and noticing the extraordinary things in the ordinary things. Then hearing of the angel visiting Mary – we named how we can say yes to God, which actually begins by saying NO to many things. And last week Mary visited with Elizabeth – and we named how we can make room for celebration in our lives – partying when God is doing good things. And now, for our final week, we’re back to hear more about Zechariah and Elizabeth, finishing their story and ours in Advent.
Remember, Elizabeth is miraculously pregnant in her old age, and her husband the priest Zechariah can’t speak for the duration of the pregnancy because he asked the a ngel for a sign and here is his sign - silence. And so here we go – with the birth of their son, John the Baptist. We’ll hear – like last week – another spontaneous song of celebration – this time from Zechariah. Imagine these things as they unfold…
Luke 1:57-80: Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
There are so many good and beautiful things in this text. But we’re really going to dial in on Elizabeth’s story. I want to frame tonight through hearing Elizabeth’s story in another way. For Elizabeth to tell it herself – we have her live via satellite – ok, not really, but we do have a video. An interpretation of what it would be like for her to reflect on all that has happened. Let’s watch, together.
I have probably watched this video 20 times and I still just want to weep when I see it. Because it hits us deeply as true.
There’s a line in the video about God that just grabs me. She says: God seems to delight in making life out of barren places. Did that just grab you? I’m not a fan of the use of the word “barren” when it comes to describing a couple who can’t get pregnant. But in this instance and for our purposes it is a helpful word. It means “bleak and lifeless.”
And Elizabeth here, taps us into something. You see, this Advent at Salt House we’ve been practicing ways to make room in ourselves for God’s arrival. Naming that there is work to be done and what we can do is make room in ourselves, open ourselves up to the wild possibilities of God. Creating room so we can receive God. And this is not only an Advent, let’s get ready for Christmas kind of practice. But a practice for us who want to live an intentional life in the image of Jesus. We need space, we need barren places in us for God to bring life.
And Elizabeth taps us into something, something else at play too – this reality that stuff happens. Stuff happens to us that we don’t want. The unwelcome, unplanned, sucky realities we face – and these things will make room in us whether or not we want them to. Those times become the bleak times. All that complicated stuff we’re all living through – there is this stuff that happens in our lives – the breakups, deaths, illness, grief, job uncertainties, betrayal, depression – that become barren places in us for a while. They clear us out. They make room in us and part of us feels bleak and lifeless as we live through those times.
And do you know what we can do to stop those things from happening? Nothing. And you know what? That sucks. It just does. We know that nothing can stop the hard stuff from happening in our lives.
And yet. Though we cannot stop it from happening, there is still hope. Because Elizabeth is a living testimony to what we know to be true about God, that yes, when we face those barren times, God absolutely delights in bringing life in bleak, lifeless places.
In Elizabeth’s story, we are reminded that our God is a God who not only brings life into those careful ways in which we have lived spiritually, and done the right things, and made room. God also brings life in those places that feel like death. Barren, lifeless, bleak. Because our God is unafraid of the darkness. In fact, our God delights in bringing life out of barren places, because our God is the God of death and resurrection.
The bleak times in our lives become the birthplace of life. Of possibility. That is what Elizabeth’s story shows us.
The word we can use to capture all of this is: Heartroom. We need room in our hearts, our lives – God shows up there. That when space is made in our hearts, God brings life into that open space. Yes, through wonder, and saying yes, and celebrating – as we have named these passed three weeks. Yet also and especially when the space has been carved out of us by something hard and unwanted, unfamiliar and uncomfortable. At those bleak times our God is the God who goes deep into the darkness to shine a light into all the shadows. That is such good news.
And oh how this also holds true not only for ourselves but also for the longing we feel on behalf of others – loved ones who are struggling, or the struggle of so many in our wider world. I know for me, this particular Advent, this December, as we look around at what’s happening in the world, this has been the most "Advent-y" Advent we've known. Have you noticed that? For Advent is about hoping and darkness and waiting and longing. I’m driving down the street seeing Christmas lights while listening to NPR report yet another mass shooting. Bleak times. We hear a Presidential candidate use dangerous rhetoric of hate and fear for our Islamic brothers and sisters – and even more disturbing are the people who cheer him on. Bleak times. There’s the fleeing, suffering, and dying of refugees from Syria – half of which are children – and our country and so many others hesitate to offer refuge. Bleak times. And our weather – it has been reported that this is actually the darkest December we’ve had – as in so little sun is coming through those clouds that it is actually darker during the day – tomorrow, of course, December 21st being the shortest, darkest day of the year. This is the most Adventy Advent, right? We don’t have to look hard to find darkness, longing, waiting, and hoping – our own, yet also we feel it for those in our country and world who are oppressed, miserable, suffering.
And also in the midst of this Adventy Advent, I am so thankful for our decision as a community at Salt House in how we are going to use our barren basement. That we have said a yes together to house a day-shelter for homeless families. We get to be part of making room for God’s life to show up in the barren places of those families who long for a home. And I know that we will in turn be the people who discover that this will actually fill our own barrenness in ways that we can only imagine. And I am thrilled for it.
And in all the ways we see the bleakness in the world and ourselves – that’s why we lift up Elizabeth’s story tonight – we are people who see the bleakness
…And so I wonder – where are those places for you? What is your darkness, where you long for light and life? In yourself, in a relationship, in the struggles of our wider world? Where do you have Heartroom now?
The thing about God – that you may have noticed – is that God does not necessarily work on the same time frame that we do. Which is quite obvious in Elizabeth’s case – she longed her whole life for a child – and finally, finally that life came to her. And so it is for us – that we, too, will live through bleak times and the life that God brings in those barren places may not come when we plan on it, according to our schedule, and it may not come in the form we thought it should. And yet – we look for the life that will come – as people of Advent, as God’s people, as people who wait and hope, together.
And in the words that Zechariah sang – did you notice the song that he sang in our text? (I know the Bible can sound foreign and wordy at times, but hopefully you were able to hear it). Zechariah’s song closes with one of my favorite passages of scripture. And we close our time now with this word from God, these words of hope for our dark world, these words of promise that God will bring life in the barren places:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Did you hear that? Dawn will come, the darkness will cease – for dawn from on high will break upon us. That is the promise of God. I invite you to close your eyes, to place your hands in front of you palms up, and take a deep breath. As we make room to receive this promise from God again – hear these words again, for your own Heartroom, in whatever ways you feel barren. As we watch, as we wait, as we pray together as people of Advent…
Thank you God, that you are the God who enters into the barren places in our lives. That you do not stay far off, but you are the God who is with us, our Immanuel. In these moments as we listen and sing now, we pray that you would meet us, with that promise of peace, with the bit of hope we need for today, with your amazing love and light that draws us out of the darkness. We sing, we wait, we hope – together, with you.