For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘joy

This is a first draft of my sermon for this Sunday, December 16. I don’t usually post things early, but I thought it might help other colleagues who are also seeking a path to speak of Advent’s promised joy in the face of such tragedy. Please feel free to borrow, quote and adapt, just please credit where appropriate. It still needs editing, and I will probably tinker with it throughout the day. I will post a final revised version on my sermon blog on Sunday. 

The scripture reading for the day is Zephaniah 3:14-20.

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This Third Sunday of Advent is supposed to be a day about joy.

“Rejoice, daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, daughter Jerusalem!” proclaims the scripture from the prophet Zephaniah.

And yet, shouting and rejoicing seem grossly out of place this Sunday, in the wake of the slaughter of children, a national tragedy. How dare we rejoice in the face of such horror? How dare we talk about joy in the face of such grief and devastation? It’s inappropriate, unseemly, insensitive, untimely. This is not the day. Now is not the time. How dare we?

And yet, it wasn’t the time for Zephaniah either. But he does. How dare he?

Zephaniah, or whoever wrote the book in his name that comes at the end of the Hebrew Bible, mostly likely lived more than 600 years before the birth of Christ, during the reign of the king Manasseh. Manasseh was a client king for the conquering Assyrians, and widely regarded as one of the most wicked and evil rulers Israel ever knew. According to the book of 2 Kings, Manasseh defiled the holy temple with false gods, trusted wizards and fortune tellers instead of priests and prophets, persecuted those who followed Yahweh’s law. In a bit of history hauntingly parallel to our own, he even practiced of child sacrifice, including the murder of his own son. 2 Kings tells us that “Manasseh spilled so much innocent blood that he filled up every corner of Jerusalem with it.” (2 Kings 21:16) Evil. Violent. Tragic. Appalling.

How could Zephaniah preach joy in the face of such evil?

Well, he didn’t start out with joy, for one thing. We only read the joy part today—the last six verses of this tiny little scroll. Zephaniah begins at the beginning—decrying the tragedy, death and destruction that he sees all around him. Speaking as God’s voice, Zephaniah declares punishment for all the evildoers. He describes “a day of fury, a day of distress and anxiety, a day of desolation and devastation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and deep darkness, a day for blowing the trumpet and alarm.” (2:15) I don’t know about you, but that describes my day on Friday with startling accuracy.

Zephaniah doesn’t try to make sense of it all, or explain it, or even figure out who to blame for it—he just names the situation for what it is—horror and suffering and tragedy. A world where children die violently—in ancient Jerusalem and modern Palestine; in Newtown, Connecticut and Portland, Oregon; in Chenpeng Village in Central China and the town of Aleppo in Syria. A world in which violence has become commonplace and lawlessness the law of the land. A world where it’s easier for a troubled young man to acquire a gun and a fake id than it is to find the mental health assistance he needs. Zephaniah names it all. And he names the feelings it provokes—anger and pain and sorrow and desolation and despair. Then he tells us that God is angry and hurt and mourning along with us. That work—calling out the suffering and telling us God shares it—takes up almost the entire tiny book of Zephaniah.

In just the last few verses, slowly, gently, Zephaniah dares invoke joy. The turning point comes when, again speaking for God, he says, “Wait for me. Wait for the day when I rise up.” Not now. Not yet. Not joy realized, but joy promised. Not joy fulfilled, but joy awaiting. Zephaniah does not declare that everything is alright, or even that it will be alright again soon. Nothing about dead children is ever alright, whether two days or 2600 years ago, whether caused by a mass shooting or an abusive king, or war, or famine, or bullying, or addiction, or suicide, or cancer, or anything else. He does not tell us to get over it, move on, or be happy. The prophet speaks of joy because he wants us to know that in spite of it all, God still reigns. How dare he speak of joy in the face of such tragedy? How dare he not.

How dare any preacher or prophet let us think for one moment that God’s promised joy risks being snuffed out by any evil this world could ever display.

God speaks to us through Zephaniah: “The day is coming when you will no longer fear evil. I am in your midst, and I will create calm with my love. I will deliver the lame. I will gather the outcast. I will change your shame into praise. I will bring all of you back, and you can see them before your eyes.”

3rd Advent

These darkest days are just when we need the light of this little pink candle most of all. We don’t need this candle’s light when the sun is shining, the tree is twinkling and everyone is happy and bright. We need it now. Today. In the midst of despair. Not because the day of joy is here, but because we need to know it’s still coming. Otherwise, how could we ever go on?

And so, I join with Zephaniah and dare speak to you this day of joy. Just because we aren’t ready to hear it or feel it or receive it does not mean that God’s joy is not still there, waiting for us even as we wait for it. God still moves toward Bethlehem, even if there is room in the inn.  “Rejoice, daughter Zion, rejoice and exult with all your heart. I am in your midst, and I will create calm with my love.” “Fear not, for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

After the deep emotional and spiritual work we had been doing on our first few days in Jerusalem, all of us were relieved for a day of recreation in the desert. The day’s agenda included a trip to Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered), swimming in the Dead Sea, a cable car ride to the Monastery of the Temptation, and exploring the Tel as-Sultan in Jericho. All of these destinations were fascinating, but they did not carry such a burdensome weight of spiritual history. I was ready to engage the day with the joy and delight of new experiences.

Leaving behind the green of Jerusalem as we enter the Judean wilderness

We drove out of the city by going over the Mount of Olives, which is 2600 feet above sea level. In less than 20 miles, we dropped nearly 4000 feet—the shores of the Dead Sea are almost 1400 feet below sea level, the lowest place on earth. Our ears were a-popping! On the way, we again took one of the new roads built by the Israelis to facilitate Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which ran like a direct highway into the Judean wilderness. Our driver, Talib, pointed out that Palestinians were not allowed to drive on this road, but used the old Roman road that wound through the towns of Bethany, Bethphage and more. Everywhere you go in Israel/Palestine, you are confronted with the struggle over control of land and property.

A truck with Palestinian plates drives parallel to us on the Roman Road, unable to use the new highway.

An Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

We also saw many Bedouin encampments along the way. Israel has given the Bedouin citizenship rights, but demanded that they settled down from their nomadic practices. The encampments we saw in the Judean wilderness were rudimentary, although we saw evidence in the Galilee of towns and schools built especially for Bedouin communities. The major cultural shifts away from nomadic life among the Bedouin have not come easily, and poverty is in evidence everywhere.

A Bedouin settlement

The highlight of the Bedouin territory, especially for those of us who are the parents of young children, were the camels. There were camels everywhere! They caught us by surprise on the way down, but we vowed to have our cameras at the ready for our return. We all wanted a photo of the camels to show our children when we returned.

One lonely camel, whose picture is fuzzy because it was taken out the bus window at full speed.

Our first stop was Qumran, where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by a young Bedouin boy in a cave in 1947. Between 1947 and 1956, nearly 1,000 scrolls were found in nearby caves, preserved almost perfectly for 2,000 years. They represent copies of Hebrew Bible books, along with community rules and logs from the Essene community. The scrolls have made major impacts on biblical scholarship, and it was fascinating to look out on the hillside and see the caves where they were found. Next time I see a note in my study bible about “Q4,” I’ll know that it refers to a scroll found in Cave 4, which I saw with my own eyes.

A reproduction of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, on display at Qumran

Cave 4, where several scrolls were found

Qumran has since become a site of major excavations, uncovering the community life of the Essenes. The Essenes were a Jewish sect that existed from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. They chose to withdraw from the Second Temple practices and follow a stricter community rule which included common meals, ritual baths, celibacy and group living. Many think John the Baptist had some connection with the Essenes. The Qumran site has uncovered their cisterns, aqueducts, dining area, and many ritual baths, along with artifacts and Dead Sea scrolls that detail life in the community. It was fascinating to imagine a community living in the desert in such ascetic conditions.

Steps for the ritual bath, divided into three sections. One for those unclean going in, one for those clean going out, with the middle section to separate them from one another.

The remains of a first-century latrine at Qumran.

From Qumran, we completed our descent to the shores of the Dead Sea, where we donned swimsuits and took a dunk in the famous salt and mineral-laden waters. Swimming in the Dead Sea was just pure fun. Each of us cast aside our concerns about body image or looking graceful, and just acted like children at the beach. Any hope of dignity soon disappeared when the knee-deep mud at the water’s edge caused most of us to fall in immediately, covered in the (supposedly beautifying) Dead Sea mud. The 28.5% salt and mineral content makes it impossible to sink in the Sea, but it also is challenging to get any parts of your body to stay under the water! As a group, we laughed and laughed as each of us tried to shift our weight and get our feet underneath us into a standing position, only to see them bounce to the surface again. Once we got the hang of floating, we even engaged in some synchronized swimming, much to the amusement of ourselves and our colleagues on the shore.

Synchronized swimming in the Dead Sea

Like our “polar plunge” in the Sea of Galilee, floating in the Dead Sea felt like the healing waters of baptism. Casting off any cares and concerns, I just let my body get covered in mud and float around awkwardly in the water. Our tour guide told us, with a wink and a smile, that a swim in the Dead Sea minerals will make you look 10 years younger. I’m not sure my skin felt that much smoother, but my heart definitely felt lighter from the joy and playfulness of the place.

Check it out: no hands AND no feet in the water, yet still we float! How cool is that?

After cleaning up and changing from our swim, we headed into Jericho (part of the West Bank). You wouldn’t think that the forbidding monastery built into the cliff cave on the Mount of Temptation (traditional site of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness) would also be a site of joy and playfulness, but when you have to take a cable car ride to get there, it has a certain amusement park feel to it. Our group piled into three cable cars to make the five minute ascent to the top. We laughed and took pictures of the amazing view, and someone even started a light-hearted Hava Nashira, with each car singing one part of the round.

The cable car for the ride up to the Mount of Temptation

Can you see our destination? On the left, almost to the top of the mountain, the monastery hangs off the cliff.

Waving and taking pictures and singing "Hava Nashira"

The monastery is only 350 meters above sea level, which doesn’t sound like much until you remember that you’re starting near the Dead Sea, which is nearly 1400 feet below sea level—so it’s actually a steep climb. At the top, the monastery itself hovers out over the sheer cliff face, looking over a series of caves that have served as hermitage sites for Christian monastics since the first centuries after Christ. We got our exercise with more switchback steps on the mountainside, but it was worth the workout to see the spectacular view from the monastery. On the right were the hillside caves, and on the left were the monastery cubicles built off the side of the mountain. Although this was first developed as a monastic site by the Byzantines in the 5th century, it was abandoned and destroyed and not rebuilt until the late 19th century. This site was not for those who are afraid of heights!

Once we got to the top, we still had to climb all these steps to reach the monastery.

Looking out from the monastery to the caves in the cliff. These are the kinds of caves Jesus would have spent time in during his temptation in the wilderness. You can't tell from the photo, but they are hundreds of feet up the cliff, nearly impossible to reach.

Hanging off the side of the cliff, looking back at the monastery and the caves.

After a cable car descent, lunch and a little shopping, we explored Tel as-Sultan, the site of historic Jericho. The signs all claim that Jericho is the oldest continuously-occupied city in the world, dating back at least 12,000  years. As we climbed the archeological site, we saw the remaining walls of mud brick dwellings from several periods before Christ, along with black layers indicating the city’s destruction. Despite the wealth of archeological information found in the city, there is no evidence of that the famous walls ever “came a-tumblin’ down.” The most interesting and impressive find doesn’t look like much in the photo, but it is a Neolithic tower, a stone structure built sometime around 10,000 BCE, probably for worship. It was amazing to stand on the hilltop and imagine that human beings had been making a way of life in this desert for millenia.

The circular stone tower at the center dates back to the Neolithic period in Jericho.

If you look closely, you can see various layers of brick, and even the two layers of black indicating fires.

Me in Jericho, the oldest continuously-occupied city in the world, with mud-brick Bronze Age homes in the background.

When we piled back into the bus to return to Jerusalem, the air was full of laughter and joy. The tour guide teased us for our obsession with the camels, and we teased each other for rocking the cable cars, buying goofy souvenirs, getting stuck in the mud, and not losing as many wrinkles as we had hoped after our dip in the Dead Sea. We agreed that, even if the outside didn’t show it, we all felt younger at heart after our boisterous fun. Friendship, laughter, playfulness, joy—these are part of the pilgrimage experience, too. This day of recreation was just as holy as the days of serious contemplation, and we were re-created, renewed in joy and love.

Camels! Look at all the camels!

Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 35:1-10

I am struck in my initial reading by the audience for this passage from Isaiah. The prophet is declaring joy and courage and gladness, but for whom? For the wilderness, the dry lands, the weak hands, the feeble knees, the fearful hearts. Those are the places and peoples that probably need joy the most, but they also seem the least likely to find it, at least in their current condition. Usually, we believe that joy is something that comes after—after we have powerful hands and strong knees and courageous hearts, after we have overcome our fears. Then we have joy.

But Isaiah here, at least at the beginning, seems to point to something else. He declares: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (Isaiah 35:1) I think Isaiah might be describing the possibility of joy before all those things happen, while we are still weak, feeble and fearful. If that’s what he’s talking about, then I’m definitely listening—because weak, feeble and fearful feels a lot more like my life most of the time than strong, powerful and courageous does.

It’s the image of the crocus that speaks to me of joy “before and during,” rather than only the joy that comes “after. “ I don’t know much about flowers, but I do know what a crocus is, and when it blooms. The crocus is a tiny stump of a flower, just a few inches off the ground, and it comes in all kinds of colors—purple, yellow, lavendar, white. This ferocious little flower is most renown because it blooms when nothing else does. Before the snow has even melted away, before the trees show the smallest bud or the grass hints at green, you can find crocuses poking their heads out and displaying their colors for the world. And after the fall has taken its toll, when leaves have fallen and trees are bare and grass is withered, the crocus appears again, defiantly spring-like with its colorful petals and green stems amidst the grays and browns on the landscape.

The second half of the passage speaks of more traditional rejoicing. Of course we rejoice when the blind can see and the deaf can hear and the lame can walk. Of course we rejoice when the drought is ended and the green growth returns. When we have security from lions and beasts, when we are on the right path and nothing can deter us, when we get to go home again—of course the sorrow and sighing flee away when that happens. The second half of this passage from Isaiah reassures us that that day of rejoicing will come, that God’s promises are true and God will make those things happen, and we will rejoice when they do someday.

While that is an important reminder, what’s far more compelling to me is that crocus, which seems to tell us that we don’t need to wait for all that stuff to happen to find joy. A joy that, like a crocus, blooms when it is illogical, impossible, inconceivable—that’s the joy I need. A joy that doesn’t wait for me to get myself together, to clear away the icy relationships or nurture the fallen prayer practices back into life or fix the withered courage in my heart. A joy that comes before we are healed and fixed and organized and prepared and reconciled and righteous and whole and holy. That kind of joy could only come from God.

I have to think that our God of Christmas incarnation is a God of that crocus-like joy. After all, God did not wait for the world to get its act together before sending Christ. Mary and Joseph didn’t have their lives arranged just right to welcome a baby. They didn’t even have a proper place to stay in Bethlehem. The shepherds were terrified of the good news, and certainly did not prepare themselves for the holy. Yet God came anyway, the tiny babe was born, and everyone rejoiced. A crocus in the snow, a spring of water in the desert, joy in spite of fear and doubt. Feeble knees and weak hands and fearful hearts, there is joy for you as well.  Flowers bloom even in the desert. Joy is possible even amid doubt and fear and struggle. God comes to us just as we are, right now.

Thank God, because I don’t think I’d find joy any other way.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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