Never Out of Season
Texts: Luke 2:8-10; Matthew 2:9-12
We were a NBC Nightly News family. Every weeknight after an always early dinner, we would sit in front of our one household TV. Then promptly at 7 p.m., we would listen to Chet Huntley and David Brinkley lead us through the major news stories of the day. This was long before the Internet, the 24-hour news cycle, and long before 900 cable channels.
In the TV news of my childhood, it seemed to matter less which channel you watched to hear the news. For, whatever network you viewed in the 1960s, there were certain stories that would not go away. Almost nightly, there would be footage of the so-called “Conflict” in Vietnam. Occasionally, you would hear the eloquent cadence of Dr. King. At times, you would even hear the strident cadence of Malcolm X. There was almost never a night without images of local and global violence and the piercing sounds of hatred on fire.
As a youth, my favorite musicians were Simon and Garfunkel. I listened to their third album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme until the grooves were worn out on the record and you would hear more scratches than music.
A song from that album haunted me as a youth and in many ways, years later, still does. It is called “7 O’ Clock News/Silent Night.” The song begins with the melodic, peaceful voices of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel singing the quiet, meditative carol, “Silent Night.” It is not long into the carol before their soft, melodic voices are nearly drowned out by a cacophony of disturbing sounds from the 7 O’ Clock News broadcast, news of an escalation of troops in Vietnam, the death of the comedian, Lenny Bruce, potential riots upon the upcoming visit of Martin Luther King, Jr. By the end of the carol, it is almost impossible to hear the good news of great joy for the incessant drumbeat of disturbing news.
It still is. Whether you and I sing “Silent Night” on September 8 or on December 24, it is not long before our singing is drowned out by the news of the day, be it the latest weekly mass shooting, the devastating scenes of a hurricane unleashed on the most vulnerable in the Bahamas, the reports of families torn apart on the border in the name of justice and security, the manipulated fear of the other that keeps our alerts on high. Whether it is watched on the fuzzy Black and White TV of my childhood or in the colorful High Definition screens of today, there is a world of pain out there and in here that will not be silenced no matter how much we would love to sing “Silent Night” in peace and quiet.
I can only imagine that if there had been network news in 4 B.C., they would have reported on exploits from the latest Roman imperial incursion, uprisings throughout the empire, internal strife within Palestine. I suspect the night that Jesus was born was not all that silent either.
By this point in the sermon, I imagine some of you are thinking, “Hey Gary, this is the second Sunday in September; it is not Christmas Eve. Why are we are talking about the birth of Jesus and singing Christmas carols in September? That is worse than Shopping Malls flying reindeer and hiring Santa Claus to start work before Halloween!”
It is true that we are reading biblical stories and singing music today that is typically sung in December. I am doing so because I have found that we often can hear familiar biblical stories better when they are read in unfamiliar times. Maybe portions from the Christmas stories in Luke and Matthew, for example, are just waiting for our end-of-the-summer-ready-for-school-busy-with-everything-starting up ears to hear. Maybe a few Christmas carols are exactly what our souls needs to sing.
As Luke tells the story of the birth of Jesus, it is dark. Probably pitch black. Maybe there is a lingering fire for warmth, but step a few feet away and it is total darkness. Then suddenly, into the darkness, a bunch of shepherds are nearly blinded by a single angel who speaks with standard angelic instructions, “Fear not.”
“Right. Nice thought, angel. Not going to happen.”
Then, words are spoken that are even harder to hear, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
It is not long before the angel is no longer singing solo; there is a choir of angels and the song is filled with more joy than can be contained in any human heart. As Matthew will share, it is not long before the world tries to drown out that Christmas joy. Herod is on the hunt for a “new born King” and soon Joseph, Mary, and the young babe are immigrants fleeing for their lives. How can shepherds in Luke and Magi in Matthew sing a song of great joy when the world surrounds them with such deep darkness?
Luke and Matthew would answer that question with ease, because these two Gospel writers knew that great joy is never out of season. Joy is a daily gift from God, like morning manna in the wilderness, like an angel singing in the dark, like a hated Samaritan teaching us how to love. In every case, we are reminded that there is no news that can finally silence the joy announced centuries ago, that unto us a child, a child of promise, a child of love, a child of forgiveness, a child of peace has been born.
Ours is the great joy of knowing that God’s peace will have the last word, that hatred in every guise will eventually wilt in the sun of God’s relentless love, and that hope will find a home in us even when we are battered and stumbling about in the dark. It is great joy that led the Magi to ignore Herod and to bring gifts to the child in the manger; it is great joy that led the angels to sing even in the dark.
In a new book by former Mississippi Klansman and White Nationalist, Thomas Tarrants, he tells the story of how his hatred toward blacks and Jews led him to become a domestic terrorist at a young age and land in prison where his hatred only increased. After some years in the deep darkness of prison, even Death Row, Tarrants finally heard the voice of the angels’ chorus in Bethlehem. It pierced his heart and gave him the ladder to climb out of the abyss of hatred and violence. He was still locked up for 24 hours a day in a six-by-nine-foot cell, but Tarrants writes: “Gone was the hopelessness, and joy had come in its place” (Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love, p. 125).
Joy is not some fleeting emotion like happiness; it is a marvelous, inexplicable gift from God with staying power, a gift not only for us, but even for the like of Herod, even for the likes of Tom Tarrants. Joy often comes to us in the dark, in the night as it did to the shepherds and it invites us to leave behind our rage, our anger, our hatred and to lean into joy with utter abandon. What Tarrants started to learn in his prison cell is that joy is never out of season.
Some years ago, in another church I served, a well-to-do new member asked for an appointment to meet with me. He and his family had recently joined the church, but they had not been a part of any church since childhood and then only occasionally. He walked into my office and being a very successful, get-to-the-point businessperson, he asked, “Gary, what does it cost to belong to this church?” Trying to be as clear and concise in my answer as he was in his question, I responded, “Absolutely nothing and absolutely everything.” “What kind of answer is that?” he asked. I said, “What you give to support the ministry of the church is between you and God, but I pray that whatever you decide to give and whenever you give it, it will be given with great joy.”
Friends, darkness is not going away in our lifetimes and the evening, morning, and afternoon news will always reveal that you and I live in a land of deep darkness. I am confident, though, as John says in his Christmas story, that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Cling to that joy in early September, on Christmas Eve, on the darkest day of winter, and the hottest day of summer. Cling to that joy every day, for joy is never out of season.