Prayer as Lament – Advent sermon series 3

Traditionally, the Third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, a command to rejoice! Be joyful!

In all the furtive busy-ness of getting ready for the big day, in all the running around and striving to check off everything on the ‘to do’ list before Christmas, carrying all the pressure and responsibility …

The church says: don’t take yourselves too seriously on this journey. There are times when we need to not just listen up, but lighten up. Gaudete!

Yes, we are on the path of transformation. And this path requires us to be intentional and disciplined. After all, Christmas is coming; there is much to prepare! It was Ignatius of Loyola, a contemporary of Martin Luther in the 16thcentury, who urged the church to “pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on us.”[1]

Not bad advice. Except we won’t survive this journey if we don’t also take the foot off the gas pedal from time to time. Can we let things be as they are? Can we accept ourselves and rejoice even at the imperfection of our lives – the cracks in who we are? Or, have we deluded ourselves into thinking that only when everything is perfect, and finished, and just the way it ought to be, then, and only then, can we rejoice?

How can we be authentically joyful, especially when things aren’t the way they are supposed to be in our lives and in the world?

In our ordinary lives as much as in our worship and prayer, we have to make room for lament. Lament? It seems odd to suggest that on Gaudete Sunday of all days – the Sunday during Advent when we are called to rejoice – we offer our laments to God in prayer.

I’d like to suggest this is the path to expressing true joy. Lament as a necessary step on the path to true acceptance, hope and joy. So that our rejoicing isn’t just an extension of our culture’s surface ‘good cheer’ which often only masks deeper needs.

The Psalms, which are the primary prayer book for the ancient Israelites and Jews of Jesus’ day, are filled with laments. We read one together this morning.[2]Even Jesus, after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, expressed his disappointment and sorrow over Jerusalem[3]. And then in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he died, Jesus prayed to God if only his cup of suffering could be taken away.[4]Jesus wept for the death of his friend Lazarus[5], and on the cross he cried out, “O God, why have you forsaken me!”[6]quoting a Psalm. Jesus was familiar with, and used often, the prayers of lament on his journey to new life.

Perhaps we are afraid that if we do take the foot off the gas pedal during this season of rush-rush, we might not very much like what comes to the surface. In that moment when we are not driven by our compulsions and distractions, what scary thing might emerge?

This season can be difficult for those, for example, who grieve the loss of loved ones especially when it is the first Christmas celebrated without them. We are supposed to feel happy, but we are burdened by a deep sadness of loss. And all those messages that declare we are to be ‘joyful’ only serve to deepen our sorrow. How, then, can we be joyful?

In the Academy Award winning movie, “Inside Out”, eleven-year-old Riley has moved to San Francisco, leaving behind her life in Minnesota. She and her five core emotions, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Joy struggle to cope with her new life.

In the movie, each of these emotions is a separate character in the control room of Riley’s mind. Until the big move, it was always Joy who was in the driver’s seat. Joy determined how Riley processed events and situations in her life. Even if Riley, who loved to play hockey on the family pond, missed a shot on goal, Joy would step in and emphasize the bright, positive side of the situation. Sadness would always stand nearby, trying to be more influential in defining Riley’s experiences. But, until the move to San Francisco, Joy always won out.

When big events in our lives happen – events that are happy or sad – these change us and the way we look upon life. By Joy insisting on dominating, even when Riley experienced significant challenges at school and at home after the move, she became worse and worse, shutting out her parents and isolating herself.

It was only when Joy let Sadness take control, did Riley turn the corner. Riley became better in her new life when no emotion was denied, but given its rightful place given the circumstance. The emotions – especially Joy and Sadness – discovered that both have to take turns in the driver’s seat from time to time. Both/And. Not Either/Or.

Christianity did not combine opposites into some kind of favourable blend. Neither does having faith exclude, deny nor avoid one in favour of the other. Rather, our faith holds all dimensions of the human, and all the dimensions of the divine in vibrant and furious tension.[7]Like, the tension of becoming truly joyful when we can also offer our lament. When we can let sadness take the driver’s seat for a bit of that journey especially when it seems it’s supposed to be all about being happy all of the time.

In the Advent study group on prayer, we reviewed the various characteristics of a lament by looking at some Psalms. One characteristic will often escape our notice, maybe because it doesn’t fit our expectations of what lamenting is. You know, we think it’s all tears and gnashing of teeth and breast-beating and woe-is-me kind of stuff.

But a lament is not a lament unless it also carries the one who is praying into a place of confidence and trust in God. Maybe that’s why Jesus lamented so much. Because he was so faithful to Abba. Trusting in God his Father. Besides the obvious grievances and plea for help expressed in the Psalm, did you not also hear and feel joy born out of confidence and trust from the Psalmist’s words this morning?

“Restore us, O God; let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved. You have brought a vine out of Egypt; you cast out the nations and planted it … Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted … Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one you have made so strong for yourself. And so will we never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your name. Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.”[8]

Prayer as growth. Prayer as Listening. Prayer as Lament. On the road to Christmas.

[1]Cited in Patrick J. Howell, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.65-66.

[2]Psalm 80; see also Psalms 74, 79, 85, 90.

[3]Matthew 22:37; Luke 13:34

[4]Matthew 26:39

[5]John 11:33-35

[6]Matthew 27:46, citing Psalm 22:1

[7]Howell, ibid., p.64

[8]Psalm 80:7-8,14-15,17-19

The God who forgets

The prophet Jeremiah describes a remarkable characteristic of God. He says God will “remember no more”[1]Israel’s sins. In other words, God forgets things. Now, I’m not sure we are accustomed to perceiving God in this way. In fact, I would wager many of us will be unsettled, even disturbed, by this notion.

If God is God Almighty, all-knowing, all-everything – then how is it God will intentionally forget something about us? It’s hard to believe that God is telling the truth, here. In fact, I’m not sure we would get excited by believing in a God who isn’t all-powerful and all-knowing.

The other night was a good sports night for me. On the same night Toronto FC won their do-or-die game against New York to advance to the Eastern Conference Final in Major League Soccer. The same night, the Ottawa Senators won their second hockey game of the year! Winning is not easy for that team these days, so that win was huge. It’s a good feeling to win!

It’s invigorating and stimulating to compete, especially when you win. Indeed, we live in a world of winners and losers. And all the hype on the fields of play mirrors the values with which we live day to day.

To be better than the other. To be more beautiful than the other. To be more skilled, have more luck, be more privileged than the other. And life becomes this rat-race to establish yourself ‘over and against’ the other – to beat out your biggest competition for a position on the team, to nail that audition and get that role in the play instead of someone else.

Often climbing to the top means climbing over someone else. It’s the zero-sum game of life. We say, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, where it’s survival of the fittest. Whether or not we like it, we take it as normative even defensible. We shrug our shoulders and say, “that’s the way it is.”

God, however, does not compete. This is the remarkable thing about the biblical witness of God in light of the Gospel. God does not fight for space in this world. God does not need it. There is this self-withdrawing feel to God’s presence. Here, we would affirm the central paradox in Christianity: In God’s absence we find God’s presence; or, in death there is life.

God will remember their sins no more. Because if God was to remember their sins, God would still be in the game. The game of tit-for-tat, the game of revenge, retribution and punishment for sin. The game of reward for good works. The game of earning and deserving God’s favour.

But no. There is a new game in town. And it’s not really a game anymore – at least not one with winners and losers. It’s a new covenant and a new promise from God. Where everyone and everything in creation is a winner.

God will make us all winners. How? Almighty God will release a grip on the tug-of-war rope. God will let go of the imposing forces of the battle ground. God will forget. God will not compete for space in our lives. God will not compete for space in this world. God will forgive. God will ease our anxiety about all the harsh lines in our world.

The dividing walls between people, nations and teams will no longer carry weight. In God’s giving-up, they become largely irrelevant. The dividing walls in our hearts collapse into the total-immersion love of God. These dividing walls dissolve in the self-giving of a God who ‘emptied himself’ of all pretense to glory. And, taking the form of absolute humility – ‘being born in human likeness’ and ‘obedient’ even to the point of ‘death on a cross’[2]– God gives us abundant life.

In this vision, austerity is not the path because nothing is scarce. Self-denial is no longer needed. We don’t operate in a transactional reality where God is concerned. Because God is in all of life – even in the places we thought God could not be. There is so much to see. There is so much abundance everywhere!

Therefore God is in the glories of physical and mental achievement just as much as God is in the depression and defeat of Alzheimer’s disease. God is in the accomplishment and success of youthful enterprise as much as God is in the tears of failure. God in the beauty of creation as much as in the ugly storms. God is in the cyberworld of Tik Tok and Snap Chat as much as God is in the dusty pages of books long left on a shelf. God is in the nicest neighbourhoods and ivory towers as much as in the ghettos of poverty.

In the world of faith, too! God is among the Roman Catholics as much as God is among the Lutherans. God is among the Muslims and the Hindus as much as God is among Jews and Christians. Lutherans have a prayer schedule where we pray for a different Anglican congregation in the area every Sunday. Did you know that on their prayer list, today – Reformation Sunday—Anglican parishes in Ottawa are praying for Lutherans?

Will we see God everywhere in our lives? Will we rejoice and be glad because God is the God of the Cross and Empty Tomb? Will we seek to work towards a world in which all people can see the face of God in each other?

Today is Reformation Sunday. In the Lutheran tradition a big deal. One of the hallmark sayings of Reformation is that we are a church ‘ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda’ – the church reformed, always reforming. We have seen how, since 1517 when Luther nailed those 95 arguments for reform on the Wittenberg Church door, the church has changed over five hundred years. Always reforming, always growing, always deepening in the love of God for all people.

Let’s continue in that tradition. Let’s continue in God’s word!

 

[1]Jeremiah 31:34

[2]Philippians 2:5-11

Summertime home

It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches (Matthew 13:32; Mark 4:32; Luke 13:19).

Jesus tells a story, paints a mental picture, that reveals God’s imagination. First, it is something that is almost missed, that goes unnoticed, appears inconsequential, the smallest of all the seeds.

It is this thing we almost dismiss that grows into the complete opposite: the most important thing in our lives! It is great, central, the top priority for all, the greatest of shrubs.

Finally, this incredible dynamic of truth—what is the smallest becomes the greatest—has a purpose, a mission: to provide shelter and home.

These are summertime images and stories from the Gospel that can spark our imagination, too. Those ordinary, seemingly unimportant aspects of our life—daily routines, budgets, mundane decisions, recreation, preoccupations, feelings, thoughts—these become the crucibles within which God decides to inhabit and transform for a great and significant purpose.

As we notice the joy of God’s creation this summer, experience in fair weather its comfort and in storms its distress, what is God nudging in us? How is God using what is the smallest in us and our world to work for the benefit of all?

May our lives become the garden of God’s transformative love—to feed and house the world. And to display God’s beauty and goodness for all! Happy Canada Day!

Have a great summer!

What brings you delight?

The story is told of three-year-old Morgan and her mother Sarah driving in the car one day. Morgan is a little butterfly of a girl. She loves to talk—she chatters constantly—especially when she’s in her car seat. She’s always telling her mom, Sarah, to look at things. And Sarah will often respond rather absent-mindedly, “Yes, honey, I see!” or “Wow, Morgan, that’s great!”

One morning while Sarah was driving Morgan to pre-school, Morgan said, “Look, Mommy! Look what I have in my lap!” Without turning around Sarah replied, “Yes, honey, I see! That’s great!” Little Morgan didn’t miss a beat. “Mommy,” she said sternly, “we do not look with our mouths! Turn around and see me with your eyes!”[1]

Often we struggle to ‘see’ God in our lives. Especially during the dark moments when things aren’t going well, when we confront some significant challenge, or suffer pain and loss. In those experiences, we might simply give God ‘lip service’—we say we believe, but deep down, if we’re honest, we really doubt God’s interest or involvement in our lives.

Or, we might downright reject the notion that God is present. And we’re not afraid to say it. In fact, I suspect most people will not see God, will not hear God, and therefore will not believe in God. ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ is a very powerful mantra in our society—even among those who may say, “I believe!”

In this text assigned from Proverbs for Holy Trinity Sunday, a main character who speaks here is Wisdom. And she is described in Christian tradition as the third member of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit. “Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth … then I was beside the Lord, like a master worker; and I was daily the Lord’s delight, rejoicing before the Lord always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”[2]

When you hear the word ‘wisdom’, what first comes to your mind? Like me, you might first imagine a stern, tight-lipped person, a killjoy, or a solemn judge in black robe. But that is not the picture of the Holy Spirit described here in the scripture. God is not dour drudgery. God is not about excessive seriousness. We do not worship a stingy God who grudgingly gives gifts and who grants forgiveness as a divine grump.

God, in the Holy Spirit, is joyous laughter, dance, and play. “When there were no depths I was brought forth …” The Hebrew word for ‘brought forth’ may also be translated as ‘whirl’ or ‘dance’. That’s why the Eastern Orthodox tradition emphasizes the Trinity in the word, ‘perichoresis’, which literally means “dancing around”.[4]The triune God is a joyous, dancing God who pours out overflowing gifts to humanity with gladness.

God’s invitation to walk, laugh, play and dance comes to us all in the light of each new day. To see is to pay attention to what brings delight to your heart. To see this is to pay attention to what rejoices in your spirit. Not all the answers to the deepest, important questions of our lives, not all the solutions to our biggest problems and challenges, are found in the act of furrowed brows, stern language and intense conversations.

When Jesus says to look at the children as a witness to following in the way of Christ,[3]I believe he does so because it is the delightful, freeing, playfulness that opens the heart to seeing God. The blocking—the unseeing—resides in our grown-up expectations, our stifled adult imagination, our narrowing vision.

God is right behind us, telling us to ‘Look what I have here!’ And we have to do more than say, ‘Yeah, I see’ and carry on in our serious, self-consumed busyness. We actually have to give that playful word validation and significance. And, we have to turn around to see it, and engage that playfulness.

Here’s a personalized version of Proverbs 8, a story of seeing and meeting God in everyday life:

“I was out shopping yesterday, and whom did I run into? Wisdom. Yeah, there she was. She called me over and we began talking. Wisdom and I. Then, I went down to the courthouse, and there she was again, making a plea for justice in some dingy courtroom where somebody had been unjustly accused. After that, I dropped by the school, and she had gotten there before me, calling for students and teachers alike always to seek truth. Then, I went for a walk in the woods, moving along the trail in quiet meditation. Wisdom snuck up on me and said …

“’Now that we are alone, I have something I want to share with you, a present I want you to enjoy. You know, I have been around a long time, really before the beginning of time. I have been whirling and dancing with God all along. I am God’s delight, laughing and playing. I want you to know the lightness of spirit and gladness that come when you welcome me. Will you set aside those thoughts, words, and deeds that make life heavy and sad for you and others? Will you come and laugh and play with me? Will you come and dance with me? Will you?’”[5]

The Spirit of the living God is everywhere. The goodness of God is right before our eyes if we are willing to see it. In Roland Bainton’s classic biography of Martin Luther, Bainton relays the story of a large bough of cherries which hung above the table in Luther’s busy and active household. The reason given was to remind everyone of the beauty and delight of the Lord.

Martin Luther responds, “All you need to do is to look down and around the table at all the children running about – and you will learn from them more than from a cherry bough about the delight of the Lord.”

May we learn to set our sights on what is right there before us, to see God.

 

[1]Sharon Garlough Brown, Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey (Illinois: IVP Books, 2013), p.51

[2]Proverbs 8:25, 30-31

[3]Mark 10:13-16

[4]Jeff Paschal in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 3 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.27-31

[5]Paschal, ibid.

Invasion of abundant grace

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a playoff team. They have been for a while now. In fact, they’ve occupied the third seed in the Atlantic Division for months. And, lately, regardless of how many games they’d lose or win, it wouldn’t change their place in the standings for the playoffs, which begin this coming week.

The Leafs’ success has a lot to do with the stellar play of their number one goaltender, Frederik Andersen. At least how he played early in the season when he was sporting an impressive .923 goals against average (that’s very good). He was, some argue, the main reason the Leafs were able to climb in the standings and secure their playoff destiny. That is, until recently.

As some of you may know, he’s been kind of faltering a bit in the last month — letting in just a little too many goals, and losing just a bit too many games. As of last week, the Leafs had lost five of their last seven games—two of them here in Ottawa against the Sens. His lackluster performance has been enough to cause some to wonder whether Freddy will be able to hold up during the playoffs, especially against their arch rivals in the first round: the Boston Bruins.

An article in the Toronto Star recently caught my eye about this funk Andersen is in, and what he’s doing about it.[1]

Anderson speaks of dealing with all the downward-spiraling statistics — an embarrasing .890 goals against average (that’s bad) — all the anxiety-producing pressures to perform and succeed and chalk up more wins than losses — all the negative, worrisome scenarios that might play out for his whole team if he doesn’t stop more shots on net. Dashed playoff hopes. Disappointed fans. Negative publicity in the media. Downward career trajectories. Worry. Worry. Worry.

Indeed having success doesn’t mean being in a good head space. True, when the stakes are high, when it’s all on the line, when the vice grips of life’s important events tighten—it’s very difficult, maybe feels like it’s impossible, to keep calm, walk lightly, and breathe deeply through it all.

That’s the measure, that’s the key. Not when there’s nothing on the line. When you have little or no investment in the outcome. When it doesn’t matter and you don’t really care.

Rather, when what you are passionate about, what you care about, what you believe in, your most sacred values—when those things are on the line, when the stakes are high, how do you respond?

In the Lent book study, “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande[2], we have been exploring many questions about the last chapter of one’s life. We’ve been talking about how to navigate the medical culture and what we want when time is short. You could say, the end of life conversations and thoughts are the ultimate ‘high stakes’ decisions:

How do you want the last ten years of your life to look like? What do you want for yourself? What trade-offs are you willing to make in order to achieve your final wishes? Whom do you need to include in conveying those decisions? Are those closest to you aware of your thoughts? Why or why not?

Most of us avoid having these conversations. We dread not only those situations but those conversations. We don’t want to think too far ahead. We don’t want to think about next year. ‘It’s too depressing’ we say. ‘I just want to think about next week, or just tomorrow, or just today.’

As Atul Gawande writes in his book, “It’s the route people the world over take, and that is understandable. But,” he continues, “it tends to backfire. Eventually, the crisis [you] dreaded arrives.”[3]And then what?

When the stakes are high, what does Mary do? Oh, and if you think the stakes aren’t high, let’s take another look: Why does Mary spill on Jesus’ feet a year’s worth of wages in perfume made from pure nard?[4]There are two uses in ancient Israel for pouring expensive oil on someone: First, in a coronation of a king; and, second, for the burial of that person.[5]

This was a costly oil with a sweet smell, imported from northern India. Scholars estimate that the “pound” referred to was nearly 12 ounces, or 324 grams. Many typical flasks of anointing oil would contain only a single ounce. So, Mary has a lot of this stuff, and pours it all out on Jesus’ feet!

“Money going down the drain!” eh?

Yet, Mary was anoints Jesus, the true King, and Jesus who will soon die. This extravagant act of love and adoration conveys Jesus’ purpose, publicly for all to see and read for all time to come. While everyone else around Jesus does not want to talk about it even though they might feel it, Mary does everything but avoid, deny and shove under the carpet what is obvious. What needed to be done.

It’s not a measly drop, offered in secret. It’s a whole flask, and the aroma fills the entire house!

Jesus and to an extent Mary know what is going to soon happen. The writing is on the wall, certainly since Jesus recently raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead. From that point on, the religious leaders began plotting Jesus’ death.[6]The way to the cross is becoming clearer and clearer. There is no turning back. There is no avoiding this outcome if Jesus chooses to continue in his mission and divine purpose.

It is worth it, even though the stakes are high.

How do we find the courage to rise above our tendency to avoid and deny reality when the stakes are high? Can it have something to do with our purpose and mission? When you know what it is you are all about in life? Maybe, then, good things can happen.

In his book, Gawande mentions an experiment which compared two nursing homes. After the study, in one the number of prescriptions required per resident fell to half, psychotropic drugs for agitation decreased, total drug costs fells to just 38% of the comparison facility; and deaths fell by 15 %.[7]

What made the difference? In the test facility, residents began to “wake up and come to life” when animals and birds were brought into their environment. Not just one or two creatures. But a whole bunch of them. They experienced a “glorious chaos” at the beginning of the experiment.

Because no one knew what they were doing, everyone—staff and residents included—had to drop their guard and pitch in, to help. Residents forgot themselves and were immersed in an environment that gave them purpose and meaning. In the process they started having a little bit of fun. There was lots of laughter and frivolity reported in response to the invasion of all the animals and birds.[8]

This is just one small example of how connecting to a meaning and purpose in life, however trivial, and at whatever stage of life—can do miracles.

For goalie Frederik Andersen, it means no longer obsessing about the data and numbers, good and bad. He has to trust his teammates and play as part of a team rather than an individual obsessed with personal stats. He has to free himself from micro-managing his technique because he realizes his primary challenge is not his ability or capacity to do great things in the net, but the mental, emotional and yes, spiritual, part of his game.

In short, he simply needs to find joy in playing again. That’s spiritual!

As the playoffs begin, Fredrik Andersen is on a journey to reconnect with the purpose of what he was about on the ice. He is looking to discover ‘fun’ in his game, and enjoy every minute he has the privilege of playing it at that level.

We, too, are on a journey in Lent. Mary’s action in the Gospel reminds us that on this journey, there are times God calls us simply to be extravagant in our giving born of devotion and thanksgiving to God. Mary’s action reminds us that sometimes God calls us to breathe deeply and savor life’s good things.

As we ourselves work on the important question of the church’s mission and ministry, and how that again can take expression in the here and now, let’s remember in the midst of all that, to take the time, to give ourselves the permission, to lavish upon God our love, our attention, to rest in God’s presence.

And, in that holy act of devotion and love, be renewed for life and joy.

 

[1]
https://www.thestar.com/sports/leafs/opinion/2019/03/28/the-joy-of-hockey-could-save-andersen-and-the-leafs-season.html

[2]Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and what matters in the End (Anchor Canada: Penguin Books, 2014/2017).

[3]Ibid., p.57

[4]John 12:1-8, Gospel text for the Fifth Sunday in Lent according to the Revised Common Lectionary, RCL, Year C

[5]Lindsey Trozzo comments on the Gospel reading (John 12:1-8) at http://www.workingpreacher.org

[6]John 11:45-53

[7]Gawande, ibid., p.123.

[8]Ibid., p.120-121.

Behold, I bring you joy!

The Gospel — good news — of God comes to us, as it did two thousand years ago, not on a bright, sunny day. Not as the sun’s rays stream down from a cloudless sky.  The word, both spoken and the Word made flesh, came into the world at night. God’s love became incarnate right in the darkest of times. This message was conveyed by a heavenly host in the dark: “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy …”[1]

Today, in the season of Advent at literally the darkest time of year, we observe the Sunday of Joy: Gaudete Sunday, traditionally called. With the shepherds who keep watch at night, on this long, dark journey of waiting, and preparing and watching—the message of joy pierces our longing, our yearning and even our despair.

Joy is a consistent theme among new Testament characters:

“Rejoice!” is the angel’s greeting to Mary.[2]In her song of praise, Mary proclaims: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.[3]When Jesus begins his ministry, John the Baptist cries out: “For this reason, my joy has been fulfilled.”[4]To his disciples Jesus’ message brings joy: “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”[5]And, Jesus promises: “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”[6]Even amid persecution his disciples continued to be “filled with joy.”[7]

The New Testament abounds with the language of joy.

Shortly after his election, Pope Francis challenged the church, “Why should wenot also enter into this great stream of joy?”[8]

How do you respond to such an invitation for your life to reflect this joy?

You may react as do I. On the surface, such a juxtaposition seems unnatural, even offensive. For, how can we feel joy in the midst of sadness? How can we feel joy when we have such a long way to go, still? How can we “Rejoice! Again I say rejoice!”[9]when confronting the darkest night of our soul—where we are most vulnerable and where it hurts the most? We may object to the phony feel of this call to be joyful, dismissing it as a fake and artificial expression that denies the hard realities of life.

We are not alone on this journey. We join the followers of Christ from the beginning who in their own ways traversed this uncertain territory that somehow brought them from suffering to a place of true joy. What did they do? How did they do it?

An early Christian theologian, Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, explained Christian faith and believers in this way; listen to his words:

“We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies …”

What accounted for this radical change in the life of first centuries Christians? Even Emperor Julian—who was the last non-Christian ruler of the Roman Empire and against Christianity—wrote:

“Christianity has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care of the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar and that the godless Galileans (Christians) care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render them.”[10]

Clearly, the early Christians were known as people who cared for the stranger in need. And not at a time when Christianity was privileged in society. Not at a bright, glorious time in Christian history when Christianity was growing around the globe in leaps and bounds. Not when Christianity occupied throne-rooms and halls of power in governments. Not in the world’s measures of success.

Rather, this care for the other was given when Christians were persecuted and driven underground. Their greatest witness to the living Lord came at the darkest time for Christians.

Maybe those early Christians understood a truth about the Christian path: That our most vulnerable prayer is the path to our deepest relationship with God.[11]When we cry out simply, yet from the heart: “Help!”; when our tears soak the pillow and we can’t see a way through but know that somehow God is somewhere in this; when poverty, violence and death continue to populate the media and the world around us, we lament and shake our fist in anger towards the heavens. Why, God?

Pay attention in this darkness. Keep watch. For, our most vulnerable prayer is the path to our deepest relationship with God.

“Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy …”

For a week in April 2015 Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited the Dalai Lama in India. Their dialogue and interactions became “The Book of Joy”. In it, they write: “Suffering is inevitable. But how we respond to that suffering is our choice. Not even oppression or occupation can take away this freedom to choose our response.”

In “The Book of Joy” they outline the four qualities of the heart that lead to joy: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. At the end of the book, they offer this blessing:

“God, who is forever pouring out God’s whole being from all eternity, wants you to flourish. God wants you to be filled with joy and excitement and ever longing to be able to find what is so beautiful in God’s creation: the compassion of so many, the caring, the sharing.

“And God says, Please, my child, help me. Help me to spread love and laughter and joy and compassion. And you know what, my child? As you do this—hey, presto—you discover joy. Joy, which you had not sought, comes as the gift, as almost the reward for this non-self-regarding caring for others.”[12]

Perhaps, then, there is a way in and through the darkness.

“Behold, joy!”

 

[1][1]Luke 2:8-10

[2]Luke 1:28

[3]Luke 1:47

[4]John 3:29

[5]John 15:11

[6]John 16:22

[7]Acts 13:52

[8]Cited in Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation (Center of Action & Contemplation, 25 Nov 2018) http://www.cac.org

[9]Philippians 4:4

[10]Cited by the Rev. Riitta Hepomaki inThe Eastern Synod Lutheran (Kitchener: Eastern Synod ELCIC, Volume 44, September 25, 2015), p.1

[11]@lutherans.connect, “Faith in the Night”, DAY 1, Advent 2018

[12]Cited in Richard Rohr, ibid., 29 November 2018

“Behold!”

“Behold!” is an old English word that appears often in some English translations of the Bible. It is not a word that commands belief, per se. Neither is it a word that merely wants to catch your passing attention. Rather, “Behold!” invites—even compels—the listener to perceive deeply the truth of what God is doing.

To consider and contemplate what God is doing in your life and in the world at this dark time of year, we need to slow down and maybe even stop. We need to breathe and recognize what God is already doing. From our heartfelt thanks comes a generous response towards others in need, for the grace of God. This is the best preparation for Christmas!

In sermons during the last weeks before Christmas, we will consider the meaning of three “Behold!” commands from scripture: 1) Behold, I prepare the way! 2) Behold, I bring joy! 3) Behold, your servant!

Consider these scriptures in your Advent reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Malachi 3:1-4, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 1:26-38, Luke 2:10.

I look forward to reflecting with you during this holy season.

Blessings, and Peace,

Martin