Sunday, December 11, 2011

(Advent 3) When half-spent was the night

Advent 3: Hold Fast
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

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On Friday night Irene and I went to see the play at EMU called “J. B.”
It was an artful, skillful, and provocative retelling 
of the biblical story of Job.
Job is not one of the lectionary texts 
on this third Sunday of Advent—“Joy Sunday.”
It might be obvious why not,
since Job is a story of unimaginable misery and suffering,
and a story of vain human effort to make sense of suffering.


But as I thought about it,
the story of Job is not all that far removed,
from the stories behind today’s readings.


There’s a lot of joy language in today’s scriptures.
In just a quick glance at the words and images,
you see joy bursting out everywhere—
good news, liberty, favor, comfort,
garland, oil of gladness, mantle of praise,
glory, exaltation, 
garments of salvation, robes of righteousness,
jewels, green shoots, spring.
And that was only Isaiah.
The list goes on in the Psalm, the Gospel of John, 
and the letter to the Thessalonians.


But there is something much more profound in these texts,
if you look more carefully.
The profound reality is that all these proclamations of joy,
were not made while the proclaimer was in the light.
They were not describing what they were seeing all around them.
They were proclaiming what they believed was coming,
or . . . what they had faith was already there, but still hidden.
The proclamations were made not in the light of the day.
They were made in the deep darkness.
They were made when half-spent was the night.


I just love that line in the song, “Lo, how a rose,” that the choir sang.
“Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As saints of old have sung;
It came, a flow’ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half-spent was the night.”


And the second verse goes on to speak of Mary,
“to show God’s love aright,
she bore to us a Savior,
When half-spent was the night.”


In the middle of the night, at the darkest hour,
when you couldn’t even see anything around you,
there came a flow’ret bright.


I wonder why . . . when half-spent was the night . . . 
that would be the time joy emerges?
At the darkest hour,
or, as another Christmas song says, “in the bleak midwinter” . . .
why should that be the time 
when joy and light make themselves known?


This question takes us straight to the meaning of joy.
And no . . . in the church, during Advent,
when we use the word joy,
we do not mean the same thing 
as when the word gets plastered on storefronts
or department store sales flyers.
This is not the joy brought on by a cup of eggnog, 
when properly . . . enhanced.
This is not the joy of twinkling lights and ringing bells.


And most assuredly,
this is not the kind of joy that depends on 
how the stock market performed yesterday,
or whether I’m in perfect health,
or whether my marriage is free of conflict,
or whether I have the ideal job, or any job at all,
or whether we were spared the latest storm,
or whether poverty and hunger in the world is going down,
or whether the European debt crisis is solved,
or whether Israel and Palestine make peace.


By any of these measurements,
we would be living in a deeply joy-deprived world right now.
No question . . . 
the events in our lives and in the world
affect us deeply, or at least they should.
They make us feel, and hopefully make us act in certain ways.
And when some of our hopes and dreams do come to pass,
we rejoice! we give thanks!
As well we should.


But the joy we speak of during Advent
is something else.
This is the joy that quietly, slowly, but surely pokes up its head,
when half-spent is the night.


That’s because this joy is not a feeling.
It’s an orientation.
It’s how we choose to orient ourselves, and with whom.
_____________________


I think if we take a closer look at the scriptures for today,
you’ll see what I mean by that.


Let’s look at Psalm 126.
We read it out loud in the call to worship,
just before we lit the pink “joy candle.”
You can turn to it, in your bulletin, or your Bible.


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. The psalmist is looking back,
giving a history lesson in a prayer.
He says to the people, “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 Advent kind of joy, requires looking back.
True joy is rooted and nourished
in the memory of God’s mercy.
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.
Time and again the psalms recall the works of God in the past.
Our culture is so oriented toward the latest and greatest
new idea, new experience, new technology . . . 
we’re losing lots of social practices
that are designed to nurture memory.


That’s one of the things that become obvious
if you ever travel to other places in the world.
Many cultures of the world 
have a deep reverence for history and tradition,
that our culture sometimes lacks.
You see it in architecture—
in stained glass windows, altars, shrines, carvings.
In every cathedral we visited in Europe a few years ago,
a visual story was being told—
either a Bible story or a story from church history.
People go to great lengths to tell and remember
the old stories that have shaped them.


We need to remember God’s faithfulness over the span of time,
if we want to walk a path of joy today.
_____________________


There’s something else we need to find Advent joy.
It’s also 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.
As best we figure out, each of these 15 psalms,
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.


But the important part of this picture,
in terms of understanding 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.


Finding joy when only half-spent is the night,
will not happen if you’re out in the dark by yourself.
We need God’s people with us,
to remain grounded in the joy of Advent.
That’s why band together in community.
There is no deep or lasting joy in the night,
without the experience of community.
_____________________


Now, look at the reading from the prophet this morning—Isaiah 61.
  This is the scripture Jesus read aloud one day in the synagogue.
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 joy that appears in the night.
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.


Because . . . v. 8 . . . here we get God’s reason:
“For I the Lord love justice.” . . . I the Lord love justice.
That’s the motivation, apparently, behind God’s mission,
God’s agenda to restore his people and his world.
The God of salvation, whose coming we proclaim in Advent,
is a God who loves justice.


And by justice, of course, we mean the biblical variety.
Justice (slash) righteousness.
Biblically speaking, justice—or its synonym, “righteousness”—
defines what God is about.


We tend to give justice a more limited, shallow definition—
fairness, human equality.
Then we try to judge God by our standard of justice.
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 defining what was right, what was just.


But this justice expressed in creation got corrupted by sin.
God’s design for harmony, good will, dignity for all life, mutual respect,
was replaced by a lust for power, violence, and self-interest.
And when this un-righteousness, or in-justice, played itself out,
God began the work of restoration.
We are 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. If God is the source 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 live in the righteousness and justice of God.
_____________________


So, do we want to be able to discover joy
when half-spent is the night?
when we are still in the midst of our darkness,
and the darkness of the world?
Do we want to find where joy is breaking through
like a green shoot in midwinter?


We surely won’t find it by trying to deny the darkness,
trying to put on a facade of joy,
like so many people do in the Christmas season . . . 
trying to dispel darkness by buying things,
playing nostalgic music,
eating more,
drinking more.
It’s like trying to hide a rotting front porch,
by putting up thousands of twinkling Christmas lights,
only to be found out, when the sun comes out again.


Joy can never do an end-run around the darkness.
No, it emerges in the middle of it.
Deep joy is discovered and embraced in the darkest hour,
when the night is only half-spent.


That’s how Paul could write to the church, in 1 Thessalonians 5,
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances.”


That’s why it made sense, from God’s perspective,
to send a wild man named John the Baptist,
into one of the darkest periods in Jewish history,
with a mandate to “testify to the light.”
That’s what we heard in John chapter 1 this morning.
While the people were still under Herod’s brutal iron fist,
John the Baptist testified, gave witness, 
to the light already among them.


We, too, can discover the light now among us
in the middle of our night.


The psalm and Isaiah readings today showed us how.
We tell each other stories of God’s mercies throughout history.
We give priority to being in community with God’s people.
And we orient our whole lives around a commitment to
the justice and righteousness of God.


Here’s another way of saying the same thing . . . 
Do we long for light, while waiting in darkness?
remember the past mercies of God;
walk in the company of others;
love what God loves.


As an expression of our faith,
that even as we wait in darkness,
there is light to be found, let’s sing together Sing the Journey #54
Longing for light, we wait in darkness.
Longing for truth, we turn to you.
Make us your own, your holy people,
light for the world to see.


Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light!
Shine in your church gathered today.


—Phil Kniss, December 11, 2011


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