My wife’s father died after a long and difficult struggle with cancer. Her mom had died a few years earlier under similar circumstances. We had a funeral for each of them, but they both chose to be cremated, so we didn’t process to cemetery and instead waited some time to bury the ashes ourselves in a family plot in the little town cemetery where they lived for many years. So, four months after the funeral, on his birthday, my wife and kids and I took her father’s ashes the nearly two hours to Crumstown Cemetery. It was gray and rainy as we drove, sleeting part of the time, or rain with chunks in it, as my wife says. We didn’t say a lot as we drove, but I know all of us were praying that the rain would let up before we got there. And it did. The wind still whipped across the little open ground cemetery, making us wish we had reclaimed the winter coats, but at least it was dry.
We had the little vault that would hold his ashes, but we were also searching for mom’s ashes, which were just in the black box and buried there almost six years ago. We wanted to put them together in the same vault and then re-bury it all together there in front of the stone that had been newly carved with Don’s date of death. My wife’s brother dug in the rocky ground, and we tried to remember how far down the first box was placed. After a couple of attempts and nearly giving up and burying them separately, we found her, a little deeper than we remembered, a little closer to the headstone than we thought. But we put them together and squeezed the little tube of epoxy that the funeral home gave us to seal the vault; and then we set it in the hole.
Shivering, we pushed the dirt over the top and then re-laid the sod, stomping it down as best we could. When it was done, we stood, shivering in the wind for a moment, unsure what to say or do next. Until my wife, ever the practical one, looked at me and said “Well, say a prayer and let’s get in the cars where it is warm.”
We all laughed at that, and I obediently prayed. With tears in our eyes from the cold air and the months old grief, we said goodbye on a gray and windy day. We hustled to our cars, shrugged into our inadequate coats, ready for warmth and another drive home. But, we lingered, as though unwilling to release the moment. We stood on the grassy gravel of the drive and talked about our lives since last we were together. My wife had some business with her brother, farm business. I watched her walk over to his truck with papers in hand. Things have not been good between them since their father died. Differences of opinion on how to proceed, how to honor the past and prepare for the future. Anger and hurt, threats even; it is sad. It happens in families, I must have seen it a thousand times, but it is hard to watch from this vantage point.
I don’t know what the business was, or what they needed to talk about, but I watched them every moment, in case. In case of what, I don’t know, but just in case. After a few moments, I saw her laugh at something. It seemed genuine and true, as if the clouds had parted for a moment and the sun had peeked through. I relaxed, just a little bit.
Jeremiah had a tough job. It was a cold and windy period in the history of God’s people. There were enemies without and disagreements within. And as is so often the case when the prophets were called to speak, the people seemed to have forgotten who they were.
Or maybe not who they were, but whose they were. They had released their grip on the vision that had brought them through a wilderness; they had settled back from the hard work of living in the community that had given them an identity. They had abandoned the law that was handed them and chose to live by the law of convenience or circumstance, the law of every man for himself, the law of expediency and profit, of power and getting even. The law that felt good when feelings were raw.
So, Jeremiah was charged with poking them in those raw feelings, correcting them when they didn’t feel like they were doing anything wrong, or not doing anything that anybody else wasn’t doing. He had to point out their flawed logic, their self-centered motives. He had to remind them of their failings as members of a covenant community.
Worse than that, he had to point out the consequences. You keep doing that, he would say, sounding a lot like their mothers, then here’s what is going to happen. The rot at the center of their thinking would take them over, eating away at them until they were nothing but shells, empty and hurting and not understanding why. They would turn on one another, eating away at whatever dignity they thought they could cling to.
Who would want to listen to that? He was hated, to put it mildly. Tossed in prison, thrown in pits, ignored by most, jeered at by others. His name has become descriptive of a rant of negativity – a jeremiad is “a woeful, wrathful bad-news bearing message or messenger,” says one commentator.
Hardly a source for a sermon on the “Light of Home,” you’re thinking by now. At least I hope you are thinking that. But it makes perfect sense to get a hopeful, joy-filled message from Jeremiah, if you know where to look. We are in the “Little Book of Consolation”; chapters 30 through 33 in Jeremiah take on a completely different tone from the rest of the book. It is as if God knew that Jeremiah was wearing out and needed a respite, or the people were languishing under the bad news and needed to hear something else, so these chapters were tucked in here as an oasis to keep us going in the dry and thirsty desert. Our reading for this week comes from that little book of consolation and sounds just the right note.
“I will give them gladness for sorrow.” Gladness isn’t just relief; it isn’t just a grim smile in a difficult moment. Gladness is about joy abounding. In the Bible, the word “gladness” is usually used to talk about weddings. And for the people of Israel, there was no better party than a wedding party. Gladness appears seven times in the book of Jeremiah, and four of them are about the end of gladness. It is taken away; it is ended; it is no more, because of the hard-headedness of the people. But three times (all of them in the little book of consolation) it is a promise and a hope.
The sweetest joy comes in the midst of sorrow. The deepest laughter comes bordered by tears. Or perhaps the most healing laughter, the most transforming joy comes in the midst of struggle and brokenness. It is about trusting with more than resignation and the burden of slogging our way through our own lives, but with the lightness of heart that allows there to be laughter in the cemetery. I will give them gladness for sorrow. It is a promise we can live with.
We’re wrapping up our series about coming home for Christmas this week. Part of what we realize is that home isn’t always easy. Whether it is the homes we grew up in or the home we long for through our faith, we must admit that there are as many tears as there are laughs. But at the heart of any home can be that source of light and love and joy that is Jesus the Christ.
And who is this Jesus? What is this light from which we light our lives and our homes? He is the awaited one, the God with us one, the incarnated one, the one we have been singing about all season long. But how do we sum up this one?
We could read the creeds, those attempts to define this one. While useful, they are hardly adequate to give us this sense of light and joy that we are seeking this Christmastide. Their words seem heavy.
“And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
Or even more dense: We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
They wanted to try and define him; they wanted to comprehend him; they wanted to nail him down. But they should have learned from the first attempt to nail him down. This Jesus who defies definition. This Jesus who is beyond our comprehension. He defies our attempts to categorize him, simply because once we have him figured out, then we wouldn’t need him anymore. This Jesus would become one more thing that we have conquered, one more thing that we have figured out and then left to the side as we move on to other puzzles to solve or other mountains to climb.
So, what is left? We need some handles, don’t we? We need some way of grasping, of clinging, even if we don’t have full comprehension. Without a place to grab onto, then Jesus becomes another of those incomprehensible realities like black holes and quantum physics that wrinkle our brows but don’t really impact our lives.
What’s left is poetry. At least that is John’s response. When explanation fails, go for poetry. Or for music. Our Gospel text for this week is a song of praise to the nature of Christ. It is a theological doxology. Well, what would you call it?
We could, of course, analyze these words to wring out every thought. That would be a way of approaching understanding. But in the end, it is the power of the words that speak most profoundly. Or if not power, then beauty. There is something here that catches our breath when we gaze at it. There is something that makes our hearts pound and tears come to our eyes. It may be unexplainable, but it speaks clearly to the deepest longings of our soul.
In this hymn that John has written we discover that it is about us as much as it is about Jesus. Yes, it adds a layer of eternity to the man from Nazareth. And it wrestles with that thorny doctrine called Trinity. (Is He Son or is He God, separate or the same – or somehow both?)
But when the song begins to include us, we move to the edge of our seats. When John sings of the life that is the light of all people, we hold our breath because we have both seen and touched it and have wept for the lack of it. We lean forward toward that light, like a plant seeking sustenance from the sun. We have beheld that glory. And we have known him not. We are both—acceptors and deniers—often at the same time. “Too good to be true,” we find ourselves saying. Too good not to be true, we hope.
We have tasted, we have received grace upon grace, and sometimes it is enough. Other times, we wrestle with the world, with our doubts, with our sin. We do lose our grip from time to time. And we wonder what it is all about. We wonder if it is worth the struggle, the misunderstanding. Don’t we all believe the same thing in the end? Wouldn’t the world be better if we just stopped worrying about what it is that we believe?
This Jesus, according to John, is nothing less than life itself. Life in all its fulness. Life in all its depth and meaning. Life as we long to live it. We can’t be who we are, or who we long to be without him. He is, he told us, the light of the world. But in this moment, what we need to acknowledge is that he is the light of home, our home, where we live and breathe and have our being. He is our light.
 Apostles’ Creed, see https://www.umc.org/en/content/apostles-creed-traditional-ecumenical.
 Nicene Creed, see https://www.umc.org/en/content/glossary-nicene-creed.