joy

subversive joy

Rarely does a scripture reading in a worship service last longer than a couple of minutes.  When it’s completed, we usually say something along the lines of, “This is the word of the Lord.”  The response is something like, “Thanks be to God.”

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How about a scripture reading that goes on for six hours?  We see that in Nehemiah 8.  And then when it’s finished, could we have our proclamation, “This is the word of the Lord”?  And how should the people respond?”  “Thanks be to God?”  Well, they don’t; they are crying their eyes out!

(Hold that thought.  We’ll get into it in a few moments.)

For many people, Nehemiah may not be one of the better-known figures in the Bible.  He and Ezra (who might be a tad better known than Nehemiah) were contemporaries.  Both lived as exiles in the 400s B.C.  They both made the trip back to Jerusalem about a century after the first group the Babylonians forced into exile.  Nehemiah came from east of Babylon, from Persia.  He was a political figure, serving as a governor.  Ezra was a scribe, so he was a spiritual / religious figure.

Very quickly, they heard of the sorry state of the Jews who had returned in previous years.  The walls around Jerusalem lay in ruins.

Nehemiah oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall, despite the opposition of many enemies of other nationalities.  They didn’t like the idea of these Jews moving into the neighborhood and setting up shop.  It’s like when you have company, and they just keep hanging around.  It’s ten o’clock, then eleven o’clock.  You’re yawning and saying, “Well, it’s getting late.”  Midnight is approaching, and they still haven’t left.  Finally, you say, “Listen, I don’t want to be rude, but I need to go to bed.”

The enemies of the Jews were much more than rude.  They launched a campaign of intimidation—and some of it was violent.  However, their efforts failed.  Long story short, skipping a lot of events: the temple had been rebuilt a few decades earlier, though it seemed a pale shadow of the original one.  And yes, the walls also were rebuilt.

Some people see this chapter as the beginning of the faith we now call Judaism.  When the people were sent into exile, they couldn’t worship the way they had done for centuries.  There was no temple; they could no longer conduct temple worship.  What could they do?  They began to focus on the scriptures, the word of God.  Synagogues were formed, and they’re still around!  Gathering around the word in the synagogue was a forerunner to believers in Christ gathering in the church.  Christians would gather around the word, both written and living—and we’re still doing it today!

I mentioned listening to this six-hour scripture reading, but how about the ones doing the reading?  We skipped over the liturgists, folks like Mattithiah and Shema, and our old friends Bani and Akkub and all the rest of the boys!  They serve as translators from the Hebrew text to the Aramaic language, which everyone spoke.  (Aramaic lasted for centuries.  It was the language of Jesus.)  They also explain the meaning, so that everyone can see how it applies to them.

I also mentioned the people’s reaction.

Anathea E. Portier-Young has said, “Nehemiah 8 is one of the few places where Scripture talks about Scripture as such, showing us what happens when a community comes together to hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted.”[1]  I wonder what our reaction would be?

2 ne She continues, “When they hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted, people weep because they hear their sins spoken out loud and they know they are not innocent, but guilty.”  They know they have fallen short.  When they hear the word applied to their lives, no one feels like celebrating.  No one is shouting, “Glory hallelujah!”  They are not delighted; they are dejected.

I wonder, have I done my job if my sermon reduces everyone here to tears?  (I suppose there could be more than one reason for that!)

So there’s a dark cloud of gloom.  These people have been beaten down, and it looks like it’s their own fault.

What do their leaders say to them?  It’s something they weren’t expecting.  “This day is holy to the Lord your God.”  Okay, it is holy, but we’re not sure what that means.  Where are you going with this?  Are we in trouble?  Is God about to lower the boom on us?  Then comes the rest: “do not mourn or weep” (v. 9).

We don’t understand.  We thought this would be a call for wailing and fasting, a time of deep lamentation.

But the good news is just getting started.  “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (v. 10).  That’s a lot to take in.  I wonder if they’re not like the psalmist, who sang to the heavens, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (Ps 126:1).  We were like those who dream.  There might be those who are still crying, but now, these are tears of joy—tears of euphoria.  Far from being commanded to fast, the command is to have a party!

This is how they are to respond to the word that has been spoken—to the word that has been preached.  In our churches, we have our own response to the word, which could include reciting an affirmation of faith, receiving an offering, celebrating the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, even making a public renewal of faith or a request for healing.

Likewise, the people in our text are also given actions in response: go, eat, drink, send portions to those in need.  Why should they do this?  Here we go again.  “[F]or this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Dan Clendenin tells us, “As the Scriptures often do, the story…offers a counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and subversive piece of advice: do not yield to the spirit of despair.  Do not default to gloom and doom.  Instead, choose the radical option of genuine joy.  Yes, eat the fat and drink the sweet wine.”[2]

I like the way he describes our default setting: gloom and doom.  As a nation, we are too often expected, we are too often told, to adopt that as our baseline.  That’s our starting point, our initial frame of reference.  Our news networks (I say “news” tongue-in-cheek) enjoy pointing at each other, almost like mirror images.  We are bombarded with “breaking news” and ordered to cry out, “Where is the outrage?”  The pundits angrily, childishly, and self-righteously assert that the other side won’t be happy until America is a smoking pile of rubbish.

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

In the face of all that, how can we have the audacity to be joyful?  As Clendenin says, “The opposite of joy is not sadness or sorrow but anxiety.”  We are an anxious people.  We stir each other up, and we seek answers in a variety of ways.

I understand medicine has its place.  I myself take anti-seizure medication.  Still, we go way overboard, and we spend a lot of money.  (Quick side point: some pharmaceutical companies have raked in billions of dollars during this past year and a half.)  Too often, we rely on drugs to give us an artificial sense of joy.  Maybe we can relate to the 1970s punk rock group the Ramones, who sang, “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

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[During a visit to Austin, Texas in April 1983, my friend Rich met the Ramones at a record store. When he asked Joey Ramone if he could pose with them for a photo, he replied, "I dunno."]

Joy is subversive.

Take the example of Jesus.  During his earthly life, his joy was something that could not be stripped from him.  He chose to not let it be taken.  Consider his exchange with Pontius Pilate, who told Jesus that his life was in his hands.  Jesus said in return that any power Pilate had was granted by his heavenly Father.  (See John 19:9-11.)

Those are not the words of an anxious man.

We see in the letter to the Hebrews that the cross, a method of execution reserved for the lowest of the low, was a sign of shame.  Jesus refused to wear the shame.  He disregarded it; he rejected it.  Even that horrific treatment could not tear away his joy.

How much less does it take for our joy to be snatched away?  The secret is found in the message to the people that “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

When I was in the Assemblies of God, we sometimes sang the worship chorus, “The Joy of the Lord is My Strength.”  There are many stanzas; each has one line sung three times and followed with “The joy of the Lord is my strength.”  You can just come up with your own lines.  One I remember in particular was, “If you want joy, you must ask for it,” or the more exuberant, “If you want joy, you must shout for it.”  Or, “If you want joy, clap your hands for it.”

I guess I don’t have to say we could sing about joy in ways a little less informal!

The point is, the joy of the Lord is very much a lifeline, a power source, a fountain of rejuvenating water.  But it’s more than something to request.

Portier-Young says, “The summons to joy is the great surprise of this passage and the summit toward which all its proclamation climbs.  This joy is so excessive its grammar refuses to contain it, for ‘the joy of the Lord’ can [truly] mean God’s own rejoicing over the people who have drawn near with attentive ear and heart.”

In other words, joy belongs to God’s very essence, aside from any request we might make for it.  The joy of the Lord as our strength is what gives us life.  We become immersed in joy.  We live in joy.

4 ne[photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash]

As suggested, there is much in our world today which desires to plunge us into anxiety, into dread, into constant nagging fears.  There are forces which employ shame and bullying.  Nonetheless, as he so frequently does in the scriptures, Jesus tells us, “Fear not.”

Likewise, when the congregation in Nehemiah hears the word of God, they are encouraged—they are ordered—to reject the shame, to reject the spirit of despair.  Their enemies are mighty.  There’s no question about that.  Still, they are to embrace a subversive joy.  We also are to do the same.  There is no room for the Holy Spirit and for the spirits of despair and anxiety to co-exist.  The joy of the Lord is our strength.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-nehemiah-81-3-5-6-8-10-2

[2] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070115JJ.shtml


mourning to morning

“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (vv. 5, 11).

These beautiful, elegant verses from Psalm 30 often adorn little knick-knacks and more serious pieces of art.  They are truly inspiring lines of poetry.

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"Angel of Grief" sculpted by William Wetmore Story (left), a happy woman (right)

“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?” (v. 9).  How about that one?  Is it poetry?  Sure it is, but how likely are we to see it on a coffee mug—or as a decoration on someone’s tee shirt?  Probably not so much!

What about the book of Lamentations?

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (vv. 22-23).  This is truly majestic stuff!  I imagine there are some people who don’t realize it comes from this book.  Of course, it’s the inspiration for one of the most beloved hymns of the church, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

There’s a worship chorus many of us have learned, those who are familiar with some of the music of the Maranatha Singers: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; / his mercies never come to an end. / They are new every morning, new every morning; / great is thy faithfulness, O Lord, / great is thy faithfulness.”

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!  How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (v. 1).

That’s how Lamentations begins.  I wonder, what are the chances of those lines embellishing a plaque mounted on a wall in your house?  Compared with “great is thy faithfulness,” what are the odds of that appearing on the welcome mat at your front door?  Probably not so much!

As you can see, celebration and lament often go together.  We’re good with the celebration, but how about the lament?  About 40 percent of the psalms are psalms of lament.  Lament is shot through the books of Job and of course, Lamentations.  Psalm 22 appears on the lips of Jesus on the cross.  (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)  Lament appears throughout the scriptures.

Given the weight the Bible puts on lament, it would seem our worship would include at least a tiny bit more of it.  Our hymns scarcely mention it.  Churches that do lament better are the traditionally black churches.  No doubt, they’ve experienced much more of it.

2 psHere’s a question I’ve asked myself: how can we include lament—how can we include it in song—without getting morbid?  Is there such a thing as a liturgical Debbie Downer?

Psalm 30 portrays the other side of the danger, of the misfortune.  It is used as one of the psalms in the Easter season.  It speaks of life from death.  Aside from the little goody we’ve already seen, “What profit is there in my death,” we have verse 3: “O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”

Sheol is the land of the grave.  It is the underworld.  It is the land of the dead; it’s like Hades in Greek thought.  Not much happens in Sheol.  It’s a gloomy, gray place.  All the restaurants are closed.  All the musical instruments have been confiscated.  There’s nothing to read, nothing to watch, no fun whatsoever.  And as we see in verse 9, addressed to the Lord, “Will the dust praise you?  Will it tell of your faithfulness?”  The worship of God is absent.

Sheol is the land of the grave.  As such, it can include death in many forms: whatever is destructive, whatever is harmful, whatever is shameful.  As for the psalmist, what is presented is recovery from a serious illness.  Indeed, it’s an illness that first appeared to be terminal.

It has been a long night.

I’m sure we can relate to this in a literal way.  There are those nights that seem to never end.  Maybe we’ve even looked to the east, wondering when the sky would begin to show signs of light.  Perhaps we’ve been sick in body.  Perhaps we’ve been sick in heart.

Finally, here comes the dawn.  Maybe we’re still sick, but a sense of relief takes hold.  We’ve made it through the night!  Hallelujah.

“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”

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It’s been a hard road, as verses 6 and 7 tell us.  “As for me,” according to our poet, “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.”

I like the way the New Jerusalem Bible puts it.  “Carefree, I used to think, ‘Nothing can ever shake me!’  Your favour, Yahweh, set me on impregnable heights, but you turned away your face and I was terrified.”  In Biblical thought, when God’s face is turned away, favor, special privilege, is suspended—if not canceled altogether.  Who can say what that would mean for any single person?  For that matter, who can say what that would mean for any single group?

The other night, while we were talking about the virus, Banu wondered about the next thing we’re supposed to be afraid of!

We must admit that for many, favor and special privilege are too often absent.

In 1996, Pastor Soong-Chan Rah and his wife Sue started a church in inner-city Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It is the Central Square neighborhood, positioned between Harvard and MIT.  The students called it “Central Scare.”  That is, “the scary urban neighborhood into which you dare not venture.”[1]

After the church had been going for a little while, Rah was planning a sermon series, but he wondered, “What should I use?”  He considered the gospel of Mark, Paul’s letter to the Romans, or even Revelation, with God’s vision of the heavenly city.  Eventually, he decided to go with the book of Lamentations.  It’s safe to say the church growth gurus rarely suggest that one!

He felt the need to meet the people where they were.  Instead of glossing over their suffering, he wanted to address it.  He wanted to give them the language for it.  He didn’t want the “rah-rah,” exuberance to be the only word that was heard.

The status quo—the way things are now—isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration.  In many ways, the status quo is a cause for mourning, a cause for grief.

In his book, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, Rah comments, “Christian communities arising from celebration do not want their lives changed, because their lives are in a good place.  Tax rates should remain low.  Home prices and stocks should continue to rise unabated, while interest rates should remain low to borrow more money to feed a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.”[2]

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The book of Lamentations pictures a city and temple that have been destroyed and a people who have been forcibly relocated by a mighty empire.  Jerusalem, who “was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal” (v. 1).  She’s had to exchange her fine garments for a burlap sack.

“Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations and finds no resting place” (v. 3).  They have no place to call their own.

There is something we already incorporate into our worship that has a resemblance to lament.  It’s when we join in our prayer of confession.  When we confess our sin, we admit the wrong in our action and in our inaction.  We do this at the corporate and at the personal levels, that is, as a body and as individuals.  One would presume—one would hope—that at least a smidgen of lamentation goes with it!

As for lament itself, it also is expressed for all of us and for each of us.  Are we to take responsibility, to follow up on lament?  Is it enough to simply “feel bad” when it’s within our power to act?  I would suggest that St. James’ maxim of “faith without works is dead” would apply (2:14-26).

How about when we have little or no control over the situation?

Rev. Rah describes the book of Lamentations in several ways, including that of a funeral dirge.  Already in chapter 1 we see references to widowhood (v. 1), young girls grieving (v. 4), priests and elders perishing (v. 19), and a note that “in the house it is like death” (v. 20).

“Lamentations 1 depicts the reality of death and suffering that leads to the appropriate response of lament.  The city of Jerusalem has died, and Lamentations 1 initiates a funeral dirge in response.”[3]  Jerusalem is a dead body.  It must be acknowledged and mourned.  It must be honored.  “The funeral dirge is a reality check for those who witness suffering and allows mourning that is essential for dealing with death.”[4]

When we mourn, we remember.  Christopher Wright says, “Part of the horror of human suffering is to be unheard, forgotten, and nameless.  Lamentations is a summons to remember.”[5]  It “forces us to listen to every mood that the deepest suffering causes, whether we approve or not.  We are called not to judge, but to witness.  Not to speak, but to listen.”[6]

When Job’s friends heard of his misfortune, they traveled great distances to be with him.  They were true friends, being with him in his pain.  They were witnesses.  Of course, when he began venting his “every mood that the deepest suffering causes,” they began to judge!

Earlier, I expressed the concern about being morbid, being a Debbie Downer.  With that in mind, can we see the power of lament?  Can we see how it helps us to be real?  Can we see how it enables us to honor and care for each other?  Can we see how, through a meandering, circuitous route, lament leads to joy?

Clearly, not everyone has experienced the same degree of sorrow; not everyone has had the same amount of misfortune.  However, I think there’s something we all have in common—something we’ve all gone through.  And that is, the pain of growing up.  The feelings of rejection, of awkwardness, of embarrassment—that’s all part of the package.

For those who are still kids, I can tell you, “Hang on; you will get through it.  It might not seem like it, but you will make it.”  Of course, even as adults we still deal with that stuff, but one hopes we become better able to handle it and learn the lessons it provides.

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[photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash]

The remembrance and witness that come with mourning and lament do indeed impart power.  They lead us in the path of Jesus, a man acquainted with sorrows.  He walks with us through those never-ending nights.  And finally, here comes the dawn.  Our mourning gives way to morning.

 

[1] Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), Kindle edition, Introduction, section 1, paragraph 1.

[2] Rah, Introduction.1.13.

[3] Rah, Epilogue.2.1.

[4] Rah, 2.1.6.

[5] Christopher J. H. Wright, “Lamentations: A Book for Today,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39:2 (Apr 2015), 59.

[6] Wright, 60.


we dreamed, and it was joy

Sometimes I will try to go to sleep.  Please note, I said “try.”  This might be taking a nap or going to bed at night.  There are those times with an in-between level of awareness in which you’re not sure if you slept or not.  At least, I have found that to be true with myself.  Did I really make the plunge, or did I remain up in the waking world?  If I have memory of a dream, then I know I was actually asleep.

Dreams themselves can be funny things.  They can be crazy things, as I’m sure you all know.  Throughout history, people have interpreted dreams in all manner of ways.  People have derived messages and gained insights from them.  That goes for me, too.  I know I’m not alone in this, but I have had dreams which provided answers to some problems I had been mulling over.  More than once, I have had ideas for a sermon come to me in the night, sometimes entire paragraphs.

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The greatest dreams, in my opinion, are the ones impossible to put into words.  They don’t demean themselves into petty things like solving problems.  They’re too good for that.  They’re too sublime.  They’re too majestic.  They fire the imagination.  They are works of art.

Psalm 126 is one of those works of art.  It is one of my favorite psalms—and I love a lot of the psalms.

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (v. 1).  That first part can also read, “When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion.”  What an awesome image.  “We were like those who dream.”  It had to be a dream!  These were people who had been exiled to Babylon.  They had been forcibly removed from their homes and sent marching on that long trail of tears.  The world as they knew it had ended.  And yet…

I love the Hebrew word for “dream”: חָלַם, chalam.  It’s dreaming while asleep (last night, I dreamed I had the face of a horse).  It’s dreaming for something in life (I’ve always dreamed of going to Alaska).  It’s dreaming as a prophet (thus says the Lord).

I should add that prophets are not fortune tellers.  Nine times out of ten (maybe more than that) their prophetic dreams are about the current situation the people face, rather than predicting the future.  Having said that, we benefit from the messages they have given.  We need them!  And there are indeed foreshadowings of the Messiah.  The New Testament has one or two, here and there.

The word chalam has another definition.  It also means to be strong, to be robust.  It refers to infants and livestock if they’re fat and plump.  Poor bony creatures do not qualify as chalam.  The Revised English Bible captures this nuance of “those who dream,” by saying “we were like people renewed in health.”  Is it safe to say those who dream are healthy?  Those who do not dream are unhealthy?  They are not strong?  They are not robust?

According to the psalmist, they need not worry about that, as we see in verse 2.  “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”  They can’t control themselves.  Their amazing reversal of fortunes demands response.  “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

2 ps[Here is a joyful person!]

The word for “shouts of joy” is רׅנָּה, rinnah.  It also appears in verses 5 and 6.  It can also mean “singing” and “rejoicing.”  What is their response to what the Lord has done for them?  What is their response to be like those who dream?  It’s singing; it’s joyful singing!

The Jews who have returned from exile can only ask, “How can we keep from singing?”  It’s like the hymn which poses the question, “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock, I’m clinging / Since love prevails in heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?”[1]

The psalmist does something interesting.  It is affirmed, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”  And then there’s a transition.  Acknowledging what’s been done, a request is added, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb” (vv. 3-4).  (That’s the desert in southern Israel.)  We’re moving from the past to looking to the future.

Lord, we ask you to make the streams flow in the desert.  This isn’t the time to let us down!  Don’t let our dreams turn to dust.  We just got our singing voices warmed up!  We were making beautiful music.

Still, maybe the psalmist understands the score.  “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy” (v. 5).

What’s the deal with introducing this language of sowing and reaping?  Maybe there is an understanding that joy must be grounded.  Joy can’t simply be “just a dream.”  It should be noted joy is not a mere emotion.  It is a deep spiritual reality, even when we don’t feel elated.  Quite clearly, there’s no guarantee that sowing the seeds will produce a good crop.  Maybe the ground will not be receptive.  Is it rocky?  Is it sandy?  Is it scorched by the sun, dry as a bone?

The image of sowing and reaping is a universal one, common to people throughout time.  Jesus tells a story which begins, “Listen!  A sower went out to sow” (Mk 4:1).  How receptive are we to receiving that seed which is the word?  Is our ground barren, rocky, filled with thorns?  Do we need to benefit from that fresh water in the desert?

Or will our efforts end in tears?

Henri Nouwen speaks of the joy that emerges from sorrow.[2]  “Joys are hidden in sorrows!  I know this from my own times of depression.  I know it from living with people with mental handicaps.”  He refers to his time after leaving his position as professor at Harvard Divinity School to live with the folks at L’Arche Daybreak in Ontario, a community for adults with intellectual disabilities.

“I know it from looking into the eyes of patients, and from being with the poorest of the poor.  We keep forgetting this truth and become overwhelmed by our own darkness.  We easily lose sight of our joys and speak of our sorrows as the only reality there is.”

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[Some friendly folks at L'Arche Daybreak]

It really is too easy to focus on the negative.  One way I notice this is when we take prayer requests.  I think you will agree with me in saying the concerns usually outweigh the joys.  We too readily overlook the blessings and celebrations in life.  Please understand me.  In absolutely no way am I suggesting we overlook or dismiss the very real struggles and sorrows among us.  We all have burdens to bear, some much more than others.

I have a copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  There is a section devoted to Evening Prayer.  There’s one in particular I frequently visit before going to sleep.  (Yes, we’re back to sleep!)

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.” (page 124)

I especially appreciate the request to “shield the joyous.”  I find depths of meaning in that.  Is it a plea for protection, lest the joyous too easily fall?  Does it refer to the prayer’s concern for the sorrows immediately preceding the joy?  Is it a shelter for the joyous prophetic dream of justice and peace?  I imagine it is those and many other levels of awareness.

The psalmist concludes, “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (v. 6).  That’s the story of bringing in the sheaves.[3]  “Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, / Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; / When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, / We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

How has our harvest been?  How have our crops fared?  Is our livestock chalam?   Can we carry our sheaves with joy?

The psalmist would have us be dreamers.  During this Advent, I think we are especially called to be dreamers.  Howard Wallace reminds us that, in our call to be dreamers, we would be like “those whose lives are shaped not by the limits of our experiences but by the hidden reality of what God has already declared will be.  It also leaves us with a tremendous sense of joy in ‘coming home’ as the Lord comes to us in the midst of the tears of this earthly experience.”[4]

It’s not hard to see us in our own exile, of sorts.  We might be weeping for a season.  And yet…  God gives us the promise of the advent, the coming, of our Lord Jesus Christ, who leads us through the desert of our journey.

We dreamed, and it was joy.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=VLPP3XmYxXg

[2] henrinouwen.org/meditation/joys-are-hidden-in-sorrows

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7yMUIezLSE

[4] hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/AdventB/Advent3BIsa61Ps126.html


crossing the bridge from anger to elation

There’s a cartoon which has been on the air since 1989, The Simpsons.  Maybe you’ve heard of it?  If not (I guess it’s somehow possible), here’s a quick look at the Simpson family.  The father is Homer, an overweight, bald, not-very-intelligent fellow who just happens to be a safety inspector at the nuclear power plant.  He loves beer and donuts, and his signature expression of alarm is “D’oh!”

His wife is Marge, a stay-at-home mom noted for a beehive style of blue hair.  Their son is Bart, a ten-year-old whose name, it’s been observed, is a fitting anagram for “brat.”  Lisa, their older daughter, is a socially conscious eight-year-old dreamer, artist, and saxophone player.  Then there’s little Maggie, who never speaks and usually has a pacifier stuck in her mouth.

There’s one episode in particular I want to mention, “Homer the Heretic.”  In Mark Pinksy’s book, The Gospel According to the Simpsons, this is one of the episodes he focuses on.

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On a bitterly cold Sunday morning, while the Simpsons are getting ready for church, Homer splits his pants and decides to stay at home.  So while the rest of the family deals with ice and snow, Homer takes a long, hot shower.  As it turns out, the church furnace is broken, so the congregation is shivering while the pastor, Rev. Lovejoy, preaches about the fires of hell, an image that brings a smile to Bart’s face.

By the time the service is over, the doors to the church have frozen shut.  So while Marge and the kids are stuck in a frigid building, Homer’s in a warm house, dancing in his underwear, watching a football game, and using the waffle iron to cook his own fattening recipes.

Finally, when the family gets home, icy and irritated, Homer concludes that he’s possibly had the best day of his life, so it must be a sign that he should never go to church again.  Homer defends his reasoning to Marge by saying, “What if we picked the wrong religion?  Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”[1]  In the end, Homer does return to church, assuming his usual posture on the front row, snoring during Rev. Lovejoy’s sermon.

I picked that episode because, aside from its being hilarious, was Homer’s conclusion regarding God’s mounting anger.  There is the feeling that God can get really ticked off.

I want to include this theme as part of the sermon because the lectionary reading of Isaiah 12 omits verse 1.  (I again trot out my usual complaint about, let’s say, uncomfortable verses being left out.  We can see them—they’re right there—so why not deal with them?)

Here’s what is considered uncomfortable or troublesome: “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.”  Though you were angry with me, your anger turned away.

Here’s what might be considered an uncomfortable or troublesome question.  Has anyone ever felt like God was mad at you?  Or maybe at least irritated?  Or maybe at least disappointed?  Perhaps anything we might think of as negative?

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I will confess a bias in not believing that a God who is the definition of love itself could feel anger at us, even the desire to destroy us, the “very good” creation, as Genesis describes us (1:31).  I can accept God feeling sadness, feeling urgency, relentlessly pursuing us as “the hound of heaven.”  Still, I will admit it is a bit difficult to explain away terms like “the wrath of God,” which appears in both the Old and New Testaments.

I’m going to hurl some stuff out, which is a probably a combination of reasons and excuses.  I know there will be some of that stuff you do not agree with, to a greater or lesser extent.  (Frankly, I would be a bit disappointed—actually, more than a bit—if all of you agreed with everything I say.  Still, I don’t think we’re in danger of that!  And by the way, I find it quite distasteful when people tell you what to think.)

I want to say that belief in the anger, the wrath, of God is one point along a spectrum of a growing awareness in human development, in human consciousness.

I want to say we should be mindful of ages past when we felt like we needed to offer sacrifices to a deity that was mad at us—or at least one we had to appease to guarantee a fruitful harvest or peace from our enemies.

I want to say that we have projected parts of our internal makeup that we hate, fear, or are embarrassed about.  Some people call it our “shadow side.”  It’s almost like a God we create in our own image.

3 isI want to say that we are evolving past that, and acknowledging that, is still a faithful way of reading the Bible.

I want to say that, and more, but I also hear what Richard Nysse says about “the dark side of God.”[2]  And he’s hardly alone in warning about the danger in too easily dismissing or explaining away the qualities of God that give us trouble.  To be honest, I would be lying if I said I don’t feel conflicted about the positions I just outlined.  (Are we evolving or de-evolving?)

Nysse says Isaiah and the other prophets “were able to let the hard questions linger in the air until God answered.  ‘Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?’  Quickly shutting down that question is likely to provide little more than cheap grace.”[3]  He goes further, saying we must “tremble a bit when [we] speak the gospel.”

Maybe that’s the point.  I want to say that God’s wrath is not like our wrath.  When God withdraws, when God turns away, we experience that as pain almost too much to bear.  As the psalmist says, “By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed” (30:7).

So Isaiah trembles, but he is saved from his trembling: “though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.”  “You comforted me.”  That serves as a bridge to the rest of the psalm.  This actually is a psalm, even though it’s not in the book of Psalms.  Another one is Habakkuk 3.

The word for “comfort” (נׇחַם, nacham) has the root meaning of “sigh” or “breathe strongly.”  So it follows that “one allows a person who has a severe spiritual or external burden to breathe again, thus removing what has caused him [or her] distress.”[4]  The prophet has felt like an elephant was sitting on his chest, but now… …he can breathe.  (I just called it a bridge, but it’s hard to move on from anything if you can’t catch your breath!)

Okay, we’re crossing the bridge, but what’s on the other side?  Verse 2: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”  That seems fitting for a guy named Isaiah, whose name means “Yahweh is salvation,” or “Yahweh has saved.”[5]  That’s not a bad name to have!

From where does this salvation come?  How can it be found?  Verse 3 is the heart of the psalm.  “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  I’ll come back to this, but what are the people to do in response?  Are they supposed to come together and say, “Let’s keep quiet about this.  There’s not enough to go around!”?  No, they’re called to shout it out, to go tell it on the mountain.

Verses 4 to 6 call them to “Give thanks to the Lord…  make known his deeds…  proclaim…  Sing praises to the Lord…  let this be known in all the earth…  Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”  They can’t sit on this—and neither can we.

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There was a festival among the Jews, the Water-Drawing Festival, which pointed to verse 3.  Very briefly, here’s what would happen: “The priests would go down to the pool of Siloam in the City of David (just south of where the Western Wall is today) and they would fill a golden vessel with the water there.  They would go up to the temple, through the Water Gate, accompanied by the sound of the shofar, and then they would pour the water so that it flowed over the altar, along with wine from another bowl.  This would begin the prayers for rain in earnest, and there was much rejoicing at this ceremony.”[6]

It was said, “Anyone who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never seen rejoicing.”  You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  It must have been quite a party!

And it seems appropriate.  “With joy you will draw water,” not because you have to in order to stay alive.  You’re not drawing water because someone has commanded you to do so.  You’re definitely not drawing water so that you can sell it and make money off it!

This is a rich image—drawing water from a life-giving well.  Here are just a couple of examples elsewhere in the scriptures.  In Jeremiah 2, the prophet says that “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (v. 13).

In the New Testament, in the gospel of John, we see more about it.  In chapter 4, Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well.  He says to her about the well, “‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’” (vv. 13-14).

In John 7, something happens at the Water-Drawing Festival we just looked at: something unexpected, something offensive that has some people wanting to arrest Jesus.  “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (vv. 37-38).

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

I don’t think I’m reading too much into it to say drinking water from those wells can be seen as drinking in the Spirit—or as breathing in the Spirit, to go back to the words of the prophet.

I mentioned my reluctance, my unwillingness, to believe in a God of anger, in a God of hatred, even though we see it splashed like blood throughout much of the Bible.  Again, you need not feel the way I do.  But perhaps we can at least acknowledge times of torment, of suffering, of grief.  “God, why are you punishing me?  What did I do wrong?”  I’ve actually heard the question uttered, “God, why do you hate me?”

At the intellectual level, we might say, “I really don’t believe that.”  But it can be there deep within our psyche, rumbling around like a monster in the basement!

5 isStill, the awesome, wonderful news is there is a well from which we draw the water of life.  The monster is slain.

Yahweh is indeed salvation.  In the eyes of his foes, he becomes the monster to be slain on the cross.  His risen life fills us now and satisfies our thirst.  As the priests poured the water on the altar, so we pour out ourselves, so that the river of the Spirit continues to flow.

Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.

 

[1] Mark Pinsky, The Gospel According to the Simpsons (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 18.

[2] Richard Nysse, “The Dark Side of God: Considerations for Preaching and Teaching,” Word and World 17:4 (Fall 1997)

[3] Nysse, 442.

[4] Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 271.

[5] יְשַׁעְיׇה, yesha`yah

[6] www.oneforisrael.org/bible-based-teaching-from-israel/yeshua-and-the-sukkot-water-drawing-festival


God, are you with us?

Make a joyful noise.  I often say that to people who claim they can’t sing.  In the Psalms, we’re told several times to make a joyful noise.  Here’s a good example: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (98:4).  I like to sing, and I’m definitely on the side of making that joyful noise.

1 xmas eveSinging is a big part of today’s Old Testament and gospel readings.  We might say it carries the tune in a measured call and response.  But before we sing the praises of our scriptural poets, allow me to refrain, promising we will return to their melodic message.

“Melodic” is not a bad way to describe Isaiah 52.  “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (v. 7).  We need to look at the background to see what kind of message this is.

This part of the book is talking about the exiles who were sent to Babylon.  They are now returning, in what’s been called “the second exodus.”  And just in case it’s not clear, the word “exile” does not mean going on vacation.  You do not consult a travel agent when forced relocation is in store.  These people have known more than their share of violence and war.

But the tide has turned.  There has been a reversal of fortunes.  The prophet proclaims, “Listen!  Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion” (v. 8).  Their Lord is leading the way; their Lord is the vanguard.  And they need the Lord to go before them.  They need the strength and courage of the Lord, because they’re coming home to a real mess.  When the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, they went hog wild.  They tore up the place, and worst of all, they destroyed the temple.  The folks who later moved into the city have no interest in rebuilding it.

Even so, anticipation and joy begin to appear.  “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (v. 9).

Episcopal priest David Grant Smith says, “Even the ruins themselves are singing about this new day being heralded by their return!”[1]  Even destruction and chaos are transformed by God into something wonderful and beautiful—into a work of art.

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Dirk Lange speaks of death being overcome by song.  “This joy [and] singing arises out of great anxiety—a battle has been engaged, death is confronted.”[2]  And looking to this time of year, he adds, “as we enter the twelve days of Christmas we are immediately reminded of death on the day after Christmas and the martyrdom of Stephen and then, a few days, the remembrance of the Holy Innocents, the murder of children [ordered by Herod].  It is in the midst of death that a song arises, rejoicing in a promise.”

We can see the Babylonian exile as a time of God leaving the people, so to speak.  The exiles would say God is not “with us” or “for us.”  God is not Immanuel.  God is far away.  Now, everything has changed.  Immanuel, “God with us,” “God for us,” has arrived.  That’s what the joyful ruckus in Luke 2 is all about.

Having said that, those shepherds probably wouldn’t use the word “joyful” when the angel appears.  “Scared out of their minds” might be a better description.  So it’s no doubt for the best when after announcing the arrival of the Messiah, the angel and celestial companions get things going.  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”—or “those of good will” (v. 14).

After our sheep-keeping colleagues have been properly reassured, they take off for Bethlehem to see what the angels were so excited about.  Upon seeing the holy family, with the promised one lying in a trough for barnyard animals, they are overcome with awe.  And then they leave, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (v. 20).

Still, I wonder, what’s the deal with all this singing?

Karl Barth, one of the 20th century’s most noted theologians, weighed in on this.  And he was no nonsense!

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“The church which does not sing is not the church.” (Karl Barth)

“The Christian church sings.  It is not a choral society.  Its singing is not a concert.  But from inner, material necessity it sings.  Singing is the highest form of human expression.”[3]  The Christian church sings.  And that applies to all kinds of singing.

As the old hymn goes: “My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation / I hear the sweet though far off hymn that hails a new creation: / Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing; / It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?”

But Barth isn’t through, yet.  “What we can and must say quite confidently is that the church which does not sing is not the church.  And where...it does not really sing but sighs and mumbles spasmodically, shamefacedly and with an ill grace, it can be at best only a troubled community which is not sure of its cause and of whose ministry and witness there can be no great expectation.”

How can we keep from singing?

Last week’s sermon was based on the epistle reading in 1 Thessalonians, which begins, “Rejoice always” (5:16).  I invited the singing with me of Andy Williams’ “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  I don’t think he was referring to the time of year when we’re sleepwalking through the stores, or maybe fighting our way through the stores.  (I’m not sure how often it gets to the point of people literally throwing punches or whacking each other on the head with televisions.)

No, it’s the time of year in which, more than ever, we ask, “God, are you with us?”  Are you for us?  Have you brought Immanuel?

Christmas is indeed a time of elation, but as we saw with Stephen and the Holy Innocents, the twelve days of Christmas also have had built into them agony.

Our friend David asks, “What devastation in our own lives is God inviting to sing?”  Remember the ruins of Jerusalem.  How on earth can we plumb the depths of our sorrow and shame and bring that to God, so that something wonderful can emerge and even be celebrated?

“What aspects of ourselves have been long in exile and are now being brought back home where we belong?”  What aspects of ourselves have been banished by others to a far country?  What aspects of ourselves have we rejected and said, “I never want to see you again”?

If God is able to take human form as the babe of Bethlehem, how much easier is it for God to reclaim what we have lost?  Be it from ruins or renewal, we can ask, “God, are you with us?”  And we hear the reply, “Make a joyful noise!”

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[1] processandfaith.org/lectionary-commentary/christmas-eve-christmas-day-2017

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1530

[3] www.rca.org/resources/theology-and-place-music-worship


rejoice always

I’ve noticed an annual occurrence in the days after Thanksgiving.  (Sometimes in the days after Halloween!)  A certain song begins to be heard in stores, to appear in TV commercials.  In the holly jolly verse of Andy Williams, here’s how it begins: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year / With the kids jingle belling / And everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer’ / It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

1 rejoiceHe goes on to reinforce his case: “It’s the hap- happiest season of all / With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings / When friends come to call / It’s the hap- happiest season of all.”

We are currently in the midst of those days that our friend Andy referred to as “the most wonderful time of the year.”  However, I don’t think he was singing about Advent.  And I’m quite certain that the last thing those commercials want to encourage is a sense of awareness, a sense of expectancy, a sense of watchfulness.  No, those commercials want us to sleepwalk through the stores—or maybe fight our way through the stores—and buy everything in sight.

A line from the song I find especially interesting is, “And everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer.’”  It sounds like a state of being that can be commanded.  Just flip a switch, and lo and behold, you’re cheerful!  I order you to be happy.

Today’s epistle reading begins, “Rejoice always” (v. 16).  It might be argued St. Paul is doing the same thing.  Even if you’re sick as a dog—even if your heart is heavy—even if you’re dying from embarrassment and want to hide from the world, let’s put a smile on that face!

The passage comes at the end of 1 Thessalonians.  It is a series of final instructions.  “Rejoice always” is followed by Paul’s direction to “pray without ceasing, [and to] give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (vv. 17-18).

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Always rejoice; always pray; always give thanks.  Just like that!  Some might say the apostle is being dismissive of people’s everyday reality.

If it is a matter of emotion, following the example of our song, being “of good cheer” in “the hap- happiest season of all,” then maybe he is being dismissive.  Maybe he is emotionally tone deaf.  And maybe we also do that, if we (ever so slightly) criticize people for having certain feelings—feelings we don’t think they should have, or we don’t want to deal with.

But I think there’s more to it than that.  I don’t think the apostle Paul is quite that shallow.

I’ll start by asking, “What does it mean to rejoice?”  Are we simply talking about an emotion?  Are we talking about a matter of feeling good, even feeling wonderful?  It’s safe to say rejoicing includes feelings, but we can’t ignore how verse 18 ends.  After telling the Thessalonians to always rejoice, always pray, and always give thanks, Paul adds “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  He doesn’t leave it at the level of emotion.  There’s something more.

Eugene Peterson, who I’ve mentioned before, is a retired Presbyterian minister who has written tons of books and has produced the paraphrase of the Bible called The MessageHe tells a story of joy (some would say, the lack thereof), during a worship service at a church he was visiting.[1]

He begins, “There was a couple in front of us with two bratty kids.  Two pews behind us there was another couple with their two bratty kids making a lot of noise.  This is mostly an older congregation.  So these people are set in their ways.  Their kids have been gone a long time.  And so it wasn’t a very nice service; it was just not very good worship.  But afterwards I saw half a dozen of these elderly people come up and put their arms around the mother, touch the kids, sympathize with her.  They could have been irritated.

“Now why do people go to a church like that when they can go to a church that has a nursery, is air conditioned, and all the rest?  Well, because they’re Lutherans.  They don’t mind being miserable!  Norwegian Lutherans!”

3 rejoiceHe continues, “And this same church recently welcomed a young woman with a baby and a three-year-old boy.  The children were baptized a few weeks ago.  But there was no man with her.  [She has] never married; each of the kids has a different father.  She shows up at church and wants her children baptized.  She’s a Christian and wants to follow in the Christian way.  So a couple from the church acted as godparents.  Now there are three or four couples in the church who every Sunday try to get together with her.

“Now, where is the ‘joy’ in that church?  These are dour Norwegians!  But there’s a lot of joy.  There’s an abundant life going, but it’s not abundant in the way a non-Christian would think.  I think there’s a lot more going on in churches like this; they’re just totally anticultural.  They’re full of joy and faithfulness and obedience and care.  But you sure wouldn’t know it by reading the literature of church growth.”

We’re dealing with stuff that has real depth; it isn’t superficial or trivial.  Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” is in the same category.

One of the hallmarks of Reformed theology is that life is to be led coram Deo.  In Latin, that means “before God.”  It speaks to the awareness of being in the presence of God—of being before the face of God.  As R. C. Sproul says, “To live all of life coram Deo is to live a life of integrity.  It is a life of wholeness that finds its unity and coherency in the majesty of God.”[2]

That is a life of praying without ceasing.  It’s not a question of repeatedly saying or thinking prayers.  When I went to the Assemblies of God college in Florida, I knew a guy who it seemed finished every other sentence by murmuring, “Praise God.”  Maybe that was how he interpreted “praying without ceasing.”  I thought there was something wrong with him mentally.

4 rejoiceA fourth-century hermit, one of the desert Christians, used to say, “Ceaseless prayer soon heals the mind.”[3]  Far from being the sign of a nervous tic, a twitch, praying without ceasing brings life and health.  It opens one up to a life of gratitude, which is third on Paul’s list.

He continues in rapid-fire succession with his instructions, which I’ll briefly skim.  Verse 19 says, “Do not quench the Spirit.”  That covers a lot.  Do not extinguish the inner flame.  “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (vv. 20-22).  Listen to those who speak the word from God, but also test it.  Don’t be foolish; don’t just fall for anything.

Right in the center of our scripture reading are verses 23 and 24.  “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

“The God of peace”: why use that description?  There are plenty of other names of God to choose from.  And why pray that the God of peace will “sanctify you entirely”?

Paul’s prayer is that his hearers be purified through and through.  When we are made holy—when we are made whole—in spirit and soul and body, then we are at peace.  But remember, this isn’t just about emotions!  And in the same way, this isn’t just about us as individuals.  Paul is speaking to the community.  This Word of God is for the community.

Sometimes people chant, “No justice, no peace!”  If there’s no justice, there can be no peace.  Here’s another one: “No justice, no joy!”

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  There’s some more Latin for you!  It means “rejoice.”  Today’s epistle reading begins with “Rejoice.”  The pink candle, which represents joy, comes from seeing Advent as a season of penitent reflection, preparing ourselves for the Lord.  The third Sunday means we’re almost there; let’s have a joyful pause.

Let’s go back to the question I asked earlier.  What does it mean to rejoice?  What if we don’t feel like rejoicing?  Remember, Paul and his friends had plenty of hardships.  Remember those stern Norwegians!  There’s a sense in which insisting on joy means holy and loving defiance.

It’s not about emotion; it’s about choice.  Verse 25 is well taken: “Beloved, pray for us.”  Pray for us!

How can we stay on that path of joy, prayer, and gratitude?  It happens by the grace of God through Christ in the Spirit of a loving, caring community.  (Or should I say: a rejoicing, praying, grateful community?)  Christian life, by definition, cannot be lived alone.

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We rejoice when we embrace.  We rejoice when we laugh together.  We rejoice when we weep. We rejoice when we come to the table.  We rejoice when, in holy and loving defiance, we proclaim God’s peaceable kingdom in the midst of an anxious and fearful world.  Rejoice in the Lord.  Rejoice always.

 

[1] bccisbroken.blogspot.com/2006/12/spirituality-for-all-wrong-reasons.html

[2] www.ligonier.org/blog/what-does-coram-deo-mean

[3] www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/92504.pdf