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

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