Sunday, December 11, 2005

Advent 3: Doing What the Lord Loves

Psalm 126; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

We lit the pink Advent candle today.
We always do that on the third Sunday of Advent,
because it’s traditionally the “Joy Sunday.”
It’s the Sunday we urge all Christians to rejoice! rejoice!
for the God of Salvation comes!
Both Old and New Testament readings on this day proclaim,
Listen up, people of God!
Sing the praises of God, who is sure to restore!
Shout for joy to the God who saves, who reconciles,
who makes things right!

And we’ve been doing that this morning.
At the opening of our service today, we read these words aloud:
“The glory of the God of light shines in the darkness,
Therefore, let us be glad and worship God.”
And we just sang “Hail!” to the Lord’s anointed.
And sang that “love, joy, and hope, like flowers,
spring in his path to birth.”

However. However... look around a little bit.
The evidence is a little troubling.
Why proclaim joy, seeing what’s going on in the world?
What has the past 12 months given us, worldwide?
Without having to think very hard, we come up with things like
a tsunami with something like 300,000 dead,
earthquake in Pakistan with numbers like 80,000 dead,
and rising, now that winter’s here,
hurricanes and mudslides take thousands of lives
in the Caribbeans, Central America, and the U.S. Gulf Coast,
poverty and homelessness is on the rise,
the world AIDS crisis is overwhelming.
All that, without even mentioning
the death and destruction we bring on ourselves,
when human beings deliberately fire guns,
and missiles, and bombs at each other with the intent to kill.
And of course, we must add to these things
the up close and personal pain and suffering we endure daily,
due to grief, broken relationships, mental and physical illness,
abuse, addictions, financial crisis, and more.

This is the world we live in.
I’m not exaggerating or sensationalizing.
I’m just reciting a list, and it’s only partial.
It’s reality.

And the message to us this morning, is “rejoice!”
for God is sure to restore, to save, to make things right.
Do you believe that?
Do you really?

I wonder sometimes. Don’t you?
I don’t think you can be a clear-thinking human being,
and not have doubts about it.
But God accepts our feeble faith, doubts and all,
and invites us, anyway, to walk the path of joy.
And that, dear sisters and brothers,
is what I proclaim to you this morning.
The path of joy is real. It’s available.
And it runs right smack through the middle of the wilderness.
People who walk the path of joy are not asked to deny reality.
But they are asked to look at another reality
that is deeper than the front page of any newspaper or website,
deeper than the pain they are going through right now.

I want to share several things I think might help us find the path.
These are not, I assure you, three easy steps to a happy life.
Deep joy is too complex for that kind of formula.
There are many things that conspire against us,
that can make joy hard to come by.
Not the least of which, is the crippling illness of depression,
which many among us struggle with.
And there are many situational factors that steal our joy,
like all those things I listed a minute ago.
But I say again, right through the middle of the wilderness,
runs a path of joy.
And it’s a path God invites us to walk.

But how to find it?
Let’s look at Psalm 126.
You heard it read by Jordan, Abigail, and Emerson
before they lit the pink candle.
You might want to turn to it. Psalm 126.

Let me read the first half again:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
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.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.

Past tense. This is a look back... a history lesson in a prayer.
The psalmist says to the people, “Back in the day...
Back in the day when the Lord restored us...
back then... our mouth was filled with laughter
back then... it was said among the nations
back then... the Lord did great things.”

Finding the path of joy, requires looking back.
Joy is rooted and nourished
in the memory of God’s mercy.

Time and again the psalms recall the works of God in the past.
It’s the way we get oriented on this path of joy.
We can’t find our way down a difficult path,
without being properly oriented,
knowing from whence we came.
And to keep the memory of God’s mercy alive,
we have to be intentional, diligent.
We have to retell the stories. Over and over again.
Our culture is so oriented toward the latest and greatest
new gadget, new idea, new experience to come along...
we’re losing the skills to maintain memory.

That’s one of the things that stood out for me,
when Irene and I were in Europe a few weeks ago.
That culture has a reverence for history and tradition.
In nearly every stained glass window, statue, and altar,
in nearly every church and cathedral we visited,
a story was being told—
either a Bible story or a story from church history.
The past is all around them, everywhere they look.

Of course, we can take anything too far.
We don’t want to worship the past,
and keep it from moving us forward,
where we need to go.
But neither dare we ignore the past,
as if it doesn’t matter.
We need to remember God’s faithfulness over the span of time,
if we want to walk the path of joy today.

Another thing to help us find the path of joy,
is in this psalm, but it’s hidden.
It’s not in the words.
It’s in the type of psalm it is.
This is a one of 15 “Psalms of Ascent”—
psalms 120 to 134.
They had a particular function in worship.
Each of these 15 psalms, as best we figure out,
were sung as pilgrims were ascending Mt. Zion,
on their way to the temple.
If you can picture a huge crowd of pilgrims,
men and women and children,
maybe some trumpeters and lute players and percussionists
leading the procession,
and all singing this song together, in rhythm with their steps,
slowly and steadily making their way together
uphill toward the temple...
if you can picture that, you might be pretty close
to understanding how this psalm was used.

And the key part of this picture,
in terms of finding the path of joy,
is that nobody is walking up that hill alone.
They’re each walking it themselves, but not alone.
This is a pilgrimage of the people.
They are walking together,
they will arrive together,
they will meet God there together.

Same with finding the path of joy that goes through the wilderness.
You’ll never find it walking by yourself.
It seems so simple, yet so hard to do sometimes,
to find others ready to walk with us down a long difficult road.
That’s why we need the church.
That’s why people of faith band together in community.
There is no lasting Christian joy in the wilderness,
without the experience of community.

Now, let’s take a look at another text from this morning—Isaiah 61.
This is the scripture Jesus read one day in the synagogue,
when he began his ministry.
He took the scroll of Isaiah, and read ch. 61, vs. 1-2,
“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;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And Isaiah goes on from there,
describing a path of joy that runs right through the wilderness.
In the midst of their despair and mourning,
Isaiah prophesies, in v. 3,
the Lord God is going to provide a garland,
and oil of gladness, and a mantle of praise.
The ruins of life will be rebuilt, v. 4.

Then in v. 8, we have what I think is the crux of the matter.
These five words I want you to remember,
if you forget everything else I said today.
It’s the word of the Lord, spoken through Isaiah,
“I the Lord love justice.”
I the Lord love justice.
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
But I love justice.

That’s the whole motivation, apparently,
behind the mission of this God who is sure to restore.
The God of salvation, whose coming we proclaim,
is a God who loves justice, and hates wrongdoing.

Biblically speaking, theologically speaking,
justice defines what God is about.
And in the Bible, justice and righteousness are one and the same.
So when we define justice
as simply an issue of human fairness and equality,
we cheapen the concept,
we truncate it to something acceptable on our terms,
and then try to judge God by that standard.
No, it works the other way around.
God defines righteousness and justice,
because God is the One who created all things right and just.
When after creation, God said, “This is very good,”
God was essentially defining justice.

But over time,
this original justice in creation was corrupted by sin.
This harmony, good will, dignity for all life, and mutual respect,
was replaced by a lust for power, and violence, and self-interest.
And when this un-righteousness, or in-justice, started to play itself out,
God began the work of restoration.
And we’re invited—not coerced, but invited—
to join God in this work of restoring justice and righteousness.
God wants us to love what God loves.

Think about it... God loves justice. God is the source of joy.
So it stands to reason, that if we want to walk the path of joy,
we must orient our lives around what God loves.
If we love God, and want to live in joy,
we will do what God loves,
what brings God pleasure.
We will value what God values.
We will live in the righteousness and justice of God.

So, I gave you three things to ponder.
Not three easy steps to happiness.
But three things that could help us discover the path of joy.
Remember the past mercies of God.
Walk in the company of others.
And do what the Lord loves.

Injustice...unrighteousness...continues to rage all around us.
We are called to join the mission of God to restore,
to make things right,
to do what God loves.
In light of the way things are right now,
if we love what God loves,
how can we keep silent?

Let’s sing together, #61 in Sing the Journey.

—Phil Kniss, December 11, 2005

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