A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, January 14, 2018
1 Kings 19:9-13 GNT; Wendell Berry Poem 2011, III
Today’s sermon is part personal testimony or confession and, hopefully, part theological reflection. I guess at the conclusion you can decide if I accomplished both – or either.
First, the personal testimony or confession: The month of December proved to be pretty much of a blur for me. It seemed no time at all between the first Sunday of Advent and New Year’s Eve. But for some years now, that is just the way Decembers have been. For various reasons, the two weeks just before Christmas are the two busiest weeks of the year for me, and pretty much for the church office staff as well. In addition to all the extra Advent and Christmas activities and services to prepare for, we had three memorial services and gatherings in December.
And then there are all the personal responsibilities of December – decorating, gift shopping and wrapping, grocery shopping and meal planning for holiday guests, house cleaning for holiday guests, and so on. I spent one full afternoon and evening marathon gift wrapping. Now, hear what I am saying: I am not complaining or whining, just stating the fact that December is always busy, hectic, and at times stressful. That is just the way it is. Maybe you can relate. Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I loved all the Sundays of Advent, and I enjoy all the extra, special activities throughout the month.
But in recent years, I have begun to look forward to the months of January and February, what I have come to refer to as the “In Between Season” – the season in between Christmas and New Year’s and the season of Lent leading up to Easter. Yes, I have come to relish the days of January that hold the promise of a little bit of reprieve before we have to jump into spring and summer activities.
But it was not always so. When I was a child, December was my favorite month of the year, of course, and Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were the two most important days of the year. For weeks we looked forward to, longed for, dreamed of Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. And then December 26 and the days after were a big letdown. Christmas, with all its excitement, wonder, hope, and mystique, was over. All we had to look forward to in the coming weeks were empty, grey days and cold weather. That is the way I thought and felt as a child.
But now as an adult, I find blessing in January days, and I am quite happy when New Year’s Day is over and past and the calendar says January 2. January 2 through February 13 – these are the days of this year’s “in between season” in which I find much joy and satisfaction.
For these winter days, you see, have become for me a more relaxed, less-stressful time of the year. I now appreciate the cold, snowy days when I can retreat to my favorite reading spot and cover up with one of my handmade quilts and read a few pages from one of the many books I am working my way through. I relish being able to look out our kitchen window on cold winter days and watch the birds congregate at my feeders. I love the frosty mornings when the trees and fields are covered in a glossy coat of ice that shines in the early morning sunshine. I love the less hectic days when I can actually think more deeply about scripture passages or poetry or books I am reading, and don’t have to churn out sermons quickly because I have too many other busywork projects demanding my time. The days of January and early February have become days of reflection and rejuvenation which I look forward to more and more as each year passes. I concur with the authors of The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons when they state, “there is much to wonder and be amazed at in the world of winter. It is less busy and more reflective, offering space to snuggle close to loved ones, read a good book, engage in a favorite indoor activity, or relax by a fireplace in the long evenings of darkness.”1
Maybe I feel such a way because I am one who has a reflective, contemplative personality. I really need such quiet, reflective times, and when I am not able to have them, my life seems to get out of balance. You know what happens when your washing machine gets out of balance with heavy laundry, how it starts thumping and vibrating uncontrollably? It is unnatural. Well, I don’t start vibrating uncontrollably, but my life begins to feel out of balance when I don’t have opportunity for quiet, reflective times.
I was happy to run across this past week that poem by Wendell Berry I read to you where he, too, extols the importance of “Quiet.” He uses the word “quiet” four times in this short poem, linking it with stillness and peace. And he concludes the poem by saying, “Give thanks to the quiet.”
These in between, quiet, reflective, contemplative times of January and February can be moments of the Sacred, times of inspiration, openings for the “Light of the Holy,” if you will, to break through. The in between days of January for me are like the rays of the full, winter moon that slip through the crack in your bedroom window curtains to illuminate the darkness of the night. It is in these quiet, cold, reflective, contemplative days of January when, if I listen just carefully enough, that I may hear – as did the prophet Elijah – the “still small voice,” or the “soft whisper” voice of the Sacred.
Speaking of Elijah, many of us have heard this story about Elijah’s cave epiphany a dozen times or more. It is one of the most interesting and more pivotal stories in the Hebrew Scriptures. Elijah was listening for the voice of God to speak to him. But Elijah didn’t hear the voice of God where he expected to – in the windstorm that split the trees and rocks, in the earthquake that shook the ground, or in the fire that burned up the landscape. Elijah heard the “still small voice of God” in a “soft whisper.” Not in the sensational, extra-ordinary, or majestic, but in the in between soft whisper.
When I visited Israel and Jordan, our tour guides took us to visit some 60 “holy sites.” One of the things I found interesting about that trip was the “holy sites” where I expected to be spiritually uplifted or moved, I wasn’t moved at all. I am thinking specifically of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (which commemorates the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth), and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which commemorates the tomb where Jesus was buried). Now, I don’t intend to be irreverent in any way. But so much commercialism and controversy have been built up around both of these places, it is hard to get yourself in a spiritual, reflective, contemplative mood. The word that comes to mind to describe the interior of the Church of the Nativity is gaudiness. And when we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a public argument broke out between clerics of the different denominations that occupy space there. It didn’t prove to be much of a reflective experience; for me personally, anyway.
But oddly enough, the two places where I was most moved spiritually were quiet places: the Garden of Gethsemane with its hundreds years old olive trees and big limestone rock where Jesus is reported to have prayed on the night of his betrayal and arrest; and on a small boat on the Sea of Galilee on Sunday morning at sunrise. Those two quiet places were where I felt moved and spoken to. So the famous holy sites where one would think he would be moved didn’t prove to be so. It was at those “in between” places, the quiet, meditative, reflective places where I was moved and felt the presence of the Sacred.
It just may be that we are inspired, encounter the Sacred, or “hear God’s voice” in the celebrated Christmas services and activities that we have grown so accustomed to. I have been, and I didn’t intend to imply otherwise earlier. I actually enjoyed the four Sundays of Advent more this year than ever before. And I’ve had others say the same thing.
But we may also be inspired, encounter the Sacred, and be spiritually uplifted in those ordinary, quiet, reflective, contemplative days of January when we can really focus and be open to the Sacred whispers that may come our way. After all, we are in the season of Epiphany. So perhaps if we are open to them, we might also experience some little epiphanies of our own during this season in those in between, quiet spaces of our lives.
So, I am enjoying these January days, this in between time, as I open myself to the blessings this season has to offer. I hope to find myself quietly listening for the “still small voice,” the “soft whisper” of the Sacred. I hope you will avail yourself of the opportunity to do so as well. Amen.
1Joyce Rupp & Macrina Wiederkehr, The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons. Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2009. P. 228.