Monday, December 12, 2011

Choose Joy! 3rd Sunday of Advent

Scripture Reading
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 NRSV
1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

8 For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

As I read this passage I tried to imagine what it might feel like to be a person in exile, still grieving the loss of my home and everything dear to me, knowing that my ancestors were among the leaders, the wealthiest, the 1% if you will and that therefore their actions or lack thereof were at least partly responsible for Israel ending up in this situation. I am convinced that if I had the chance they had I surely wouldn’t make the same mistakes. I feel forsaken by my God. Is God not paying attention to our pain, our suffering, our fears? Then I imagine that I have heard Isaiah, who was truly the voice crying out in the wilderness of exile and pain, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s Favor. I heard him calling upon me to be joyous, to exult in my God, for I am of Israel. I am of a people whom the Lord has blessed.

Frankly, if I am one of the exiles in Babylon, I don’t feel all that blessed. Mostly I feel tired of waiting for God to swoop in and rescue us. I mean, can’t he hear our cries? Can’t he see the suffering of his people? Always before God has sent someone to lead Israel out of whatever mess she’d gotten herself into, but it’s been a long long time in exile. There’s no indication of a leader rising from among the people. Yet here is the prophet saying “Rejoice! You are going to bring healing to your land and your people. God has promised this and it is going to happen – soon!” I want to believe him. I surely hope he’s right. It’s just that it has been a long time so I’m really not sure what there is to rejoice about.

And yet, it happened just as Isaiah said it would. Cyrus the Great defeated Babylon, sent the exiles home and even helped rebuild the cities and the temple. From that time forward Cyrus was celebrated by Israel as a messiah, anointed of the Lord.

Six hundred or so years later the heavy foot of Rome is upon the land and has been for quite some time. Jesus has come and gone. He preached and died and was resurrected and arose into heaven, promising to return to us. The apostles told everyone that he was coming back, that he was coming into his kingdom, and that it would happen soon! Within the lifetimes of those who knew him. In the city of Thessalonica the people aren’t feeling very joyful. They’re tired of waiting. It’s been 20 years, half a lifetime since he ascended into heaven and he isn’t back yet. I imagine what it must have been like to be in that congregation, to be in the early church anywhere, wondering when Jesus will come, when the old ways will disappear and God’s kingdom will be established upon the earth.

Oh right. I really don’t have to imagine what that feels like, do I? Nearly 2,000 years have passed now. And still we wait. Each year we celebrate Advent – we wait. We tell ourselves he is coming! Emmanuel will come. The Messiah will come. It has been promised to us and we believe it is true. And yet we wonder, as did the church in Thessalonica, when is he coming? Can’t he hear the suffering? Can’t he see the pain of his people? When is he going to swoop in and save all of us?

Paul knew what the people were feeling. He felt it himself! He’d been so sure – they were all so sure that they would see Jesus return, coming down from the sky the very same way he left. But it’s been way longer than they expected. Paul starts to wonder if maybe they were mistaken in the way they interpreted Jesus’ words. Nevertheless, he knows his savior lives. He is confident that the kingdom of God will become a reality on the earth.

And so he tells the people, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “5:16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. 23May 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. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

Rejoice always! Not the easiest thing to do when life is not going well. The words of Psalm 137 keep coming back to me. How do we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? How do we rejoice when we can see so much pain and suffering in the world; in Kenya and California, in Darfur and Detroit, in Bosnia and Boston.

Give thanks in all circumstances! Really, Paul? I mean, I can see giving thanks for the things I have that are good. I have a job. I can pay my bills. I have a home to live in. There is food on my table. I’m pretty healthy right now and I have health insurance. I have a loving husband. I have friends I care about and who care about me. I am part of a caring, giving, doing community here at Delhaven Christian Church. I can give thanks for these and many other blessings. But giving thanks in all circumstances? How would that work, exactly?

Let’s see. I had that inflamed joint and it hurt a lot! But it forced me to allow others to help me. OK, I can give thanks for the injury. Our church secretary bought a home in Santa Cruz and is moving there next weekend. This is wonderful and I am really happy for her, but it leaves the church without a secretary and we lack the funds to hire another. Looking for something to be thankful for . . . ah yes, at least one person has volunteered to spend time in the church office every week so there will be someone here to give food to the hungry. Volunteering gives people an opportunity to serve the way Jesus directed us to serve, so I am thankful for that. Clearly, in many cases there is something for which I can be thankful.

Sometimes, however, there are circumstances that don’t seem to have a positive side. I thought of so many examples of terrible things that exist in our world, but I don’t have to list them for you. You know what the world is like today. The exiles in Babylon asked Isaiah and the Christians in Thessalonica asked Paul and we also ask: How do we rejoice in suffering? How do we give thanks in the face of tragedy? In light of all the terrible things that are going on in our lives and in our world how do we continue to wait for the coming of the Lord?

and both of them answered saying, Rejoice! Give thanks! For the Lord is faithful.

That’s it. It’s not things for which we are to be thankful. We aren’t being asked to rejoice over the bad things in our lives or even in spite of them. We are being reminded to rejoice in the Lord! We are being directed to give thanks to God for the love, compassion and forgiveness he showers upon us even, especially when we have done absolutely nothing to deserve it. We are being told, again, that our focus is always to be on God first and foremost, before any other consideration.

Paul said to rejoice always, give thanks for everything, pray unceasingly for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you... . hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

It is not that we are to rejoice and be thankful about the circumstances we find ourselves in, but that we are to rejoice and be thankful for God in us. In every circumstance, in every event of our lives, no matter where we find ourselves or how we feel about what’s happening in our lives and in our world, rejoice in the Lord! Every moment of every day, remember that we serve a living savior who is with us every moment of every day, who we can rely on to help us hold on when we feel ourselves slipping, and be thankful.

I got to this point in my writing and all I could think of were the words to hymns.
Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of Love.
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king!

Paul said, do not quench the Spirit.
Do not allow the world to drag your heart down into despair and sin. Rejoice!
Rejoice, for ours is the God of love and light.
Rejoice, for God in Christ is always with us.
Rejoice, for God’s kingdom is coming.
We don’t know when.
We don’t know how.
But we do know that we can loudly proclaim,
Christians All Your Lord is Coming

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