Sunday, December 16, 2012

In Our Midst--a sermon for Advent 3, and for my last day at RCLPC

Rev. Teri Peterson
In Our Midst 
RCLPC (last day)
Luke 1.46-55, Zephaniah 3.14-20 (selected)
16 December 2012, Advent 3C

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 
 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
 Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
 and holy is his name. 
His mercy is for those who fear him
 from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm;
 he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
 and lifted up the lowly; 

 he has filled the hungry with good things,
 and sent the rich away empty. 
He has helped his servant Israel,
 in remembrance of his mercy, 
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
 to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’ 

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
 shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
 O daughter Jerusalem! 
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
 a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
 he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing 
 as on a day of festival.
I will save the lame and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 
At that time I will bring you home,
 at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
 among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
 before your eyes, says the Lord. 

Just a few minutes ago we sang these words:
We sing in exultation, but admit our hesitation
When we see a world in pain and despair.
Yet even amid sorrow is a promise for tomorrow:
The God of joy is moving us to care. 
 That pretty well sums it up, doesn’t it? I was already having trouble deciding how to preach today—Joy Sunday and also my last Sunday with you. And then on Friday a young man walked into a school and shot 20 first graders. I don’t even know what to say about that—it’s so horrific. And in the 48 hours since then, just in the city of Chicago, 20 more people have been shot. Every day there is violence and pain and grief beyond comprehension. And somehow I’m supposed to talk about joy? How can these things be? The darkness of a world in pain and despair is overwhelming.

 And into that pain comes a voice that has known pain—the voice of a prophet, speaking to a people who have lost everything: Sing and Rejoice!

 How? How can we sing in this land of loss?

 In our grieving silence speaks the voice of a teenager who has known terror, a peasant in an occupied land, a young woman who knows the anticipation mingled with fear that comes with the unknown, a mother who will soon flee the swords that will steal the lives of many children: My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices!

 But how can we sing?

In our anxiety and uncertainty about what the future holds, our hesitant singing is rooted both in the world’s pain and despair and our own community’s reality—that a new thing is coming, and we don’t know what it will look like. It’s hard to imagine being joyful when we say goodbyes.

How can we sing when tears are so close to the surface?

Perhaps because this joy has little to do with our feelings of happiness. The joy to which these prophets call us comes from one realization: That God is in our midst.

In pain and despair, God is in our midst. In uncertainty and anxiety, God is in our midst. Not out playing golf on another planet, not sitting in some heavenly throne, not punishing us from afar, but right here, in the middle of our life with all its sadness and hope and love and wonder and grief and relationships. Incarnate—in flesh, body and blood. Immanuel—God with us. And not just with us, but active, a verb. Zephaniah and Mary tell us of a God who keeps promises, who exults and saves and lifts up and fills and gathers. Nothing there about giving us cheerfulness or solving all our problems or protecting us from ourselves, sadly. Nothing about shielding us from the hard moments of life. But a promise of companionship, of persistence, and of calling together a community.

I can hear you thinking about how all of my sermons are really about community. It’s true, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that we are a highly fractured and individualized culture, and I believe the gospel calls us to a different way. While the world is telling us to look out for ourselves, to trust in the safety we believe we can create through our own means, to get ahead by ignoring the needs of others, God calls us to love and to serve, to offer grace and peace. We care for each other, through good and bad, through hellos and goodbyes. In God’s beloved community, we learn and we practice. We experience God’s abundance so we are prepared to offer it to others. We come together and find that there might just be some light in the darkness after all, because “even amid sorrow is a promise for tomorrow: the God of joy is moving us to care.”

 Another reason all my sermons are about community is because one candle in the darkness is bright, but a hundred candles can light up the room. These prophets are one voice calling out in the wilderness, so imagine when we join our voices to that angel chorus. How can we sing and rejoice in the face of tragedy? How can we not? The voices of hate and horror cannot be allowed to have the last word. And so we sing as an act of defiance, as a protest against the darkness and despair that clamor for our attention. We raise our collective voice as a witness to the hope and joy that God holds for us when we cannot hold it ourselves. 

And so we come together to bring light into the darkness—whether our own or that being lived by others. Each small act of compassion, each comforting word, each silent prayer, each phone call or casserole or voice lifted on behalf of another, is a part of the mosaic of light that God is making out of the broken pieces of our world. So I invite you to come forward and place a piece into that bigger picture.

 … (O Come O Come Emmanuel)
 O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer

Our spirits by Thine advent here;

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! 
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.  
 O come, Thou Key of David, come,

And open wide our heavenly home;

Make safe the way that leads on high,

And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

 The beauty of a project like this is that it reminds us that each one of us has a part to play in the unfolding of God’s kingdom. We may not be able to see how our small piece works in the grand scheme, we may feel that we are too broken to be of value, we may wonder what difference it makes anyway. But every piece matters—otherwise there are gaping holes where we ought to be! We may think we know what the picture will be, or we may be certain that it can’t possibly turn out right—or that there’s no way we can finish on time! But God is always doing a new thing, right here in our midst.

I don’t know what new thing God is doing here at RCLPC, but I believe that God is moving in this place and in all of you. I won’t be here to see this finished mosaic, or the next act of the great play God is writing here, but I know that between you and God it will be something incredible. I do know that there is a lot of darkness and despair in this world, and that when this community comes together with the Spirit, God’s promised love will break through and the light that shines can never be overcome. I know that you will continue to lift up your hearts and voices to share God’s good news in a world that desperately needs it. God is and will ever be in our midst, so let’s lift our voices and witness to the power and glory of the story that God is writing here.

 May it be so. Amen.

(after the sermon we sang these new advent verses of O Come All Ye Faithful, which I wrote just for this day...not knowing how appropriate they would turn out to be.)

O sing and rejoice, shout with all your heart,
even the darkness cannot put out God’s light.
Love will break through, our faithful God has promised!
O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord!

True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,

Counselor, Comforter, Prince of Peace!
God-with-us, Word of God incarnate:

O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord!

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation;
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!

Glory to God, all glory in the highest;

O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord!


  1. Oh Teri. So much love in this sermon, so much. I hope now you can rest, deep rest.

  2. What a wonderful, fabulous, you-good-bye!