In the meantime… joy.
The texts for this week:
Anyone else out there tired of watching the news? Not sure you can take one more reminder of the fact that the world seems to be coming apart at the seams?
Anyone else out there just plain done with angry rhetoric? Talking heads, political pundits, and politicians proclaiming they know the answer to all that ails us, pointing fingers with swagger about how we got ourselves into such a mess, and offering little substance but lots of noise?
Earlier this week, I decided I just can’t do it.
The speeches, the analysis, the insightful critique, the prophetic witness even . . .
I need for just a moment for all of it to stop.
Let me off the ride.
I need to hear a different voice, immerse myself in a different story.
Twenty years ago, when I spent a summer studying Hebrew, I had a classmate whose name I have since forgotten. She was probably 15 years older than I was, at seminary with a little more living under her belt and all the wiser for it.
You could tell because she was quiet in class.
She didn’t have every answer – didn’t have to speak to every issue ever raised – didn’t need to impress classmates or professors with her brilliant insight.
She had come to learn and to grow and to take it all in.
And there was a lot to take in – especially in summer language school where we spent long hours everyday bent over crooked forms someone told us were letters of an alphabet that made words that went backwards on the page. It seemed important because God spoke this ancient language, and if we wanted to become Presbyterian preachers, we would learn to speak it too. (ok, so not really speak it but at least read it enough to pass the class and a later ordination exam!) Anyway, the point of all of this is to say that my classmate had a compelling habit during our class breaks. She didn’t head to the Coke machine in the stairwell. She didn’t badger the professor with questions or talk with her peers about the upcoming weekend. She just moved over to the window and recalibrated her gaze by taking in the full distance of the view outside. I asked her about it once. She told me that the work was hard, the text confusing. After an hour or so of such intense focus on the page, she just needed to look at something bigger, something really different.
So today when I read the words of John the Baptist, I thought,
I just can’t dwell in this part of the story. I know we’re a brood of vipers. I know we’re not ready or worthy of a coming Messiah. I know there is so much in my life from which I need to repent, so many things and people about which I need to change my mind and my heart. But, today, I need to hear a different word, to focus on another part of the story – or find another way of preparing my soul for the coming of the Christ. Today, I need to shift my gaze to the light of the pink candle, the candle of joy.
And to do it, we are going to turn our attention to a truly unlikely place.
Tucked away near the end of the Hebrew Scriptures is a three-chapter book of a prophet named Zephaniah. He’s not known for his optimism. Two and half of his three chapters are pretty scary stuff. He’s angry, and his message is that God is angry and that the coming Day of the Lord is going to be a brutal reckoning for a people who have had every chance to straighten themselves up and just haven’t done it. Most of the words of the prophet Zephaniah make John the Baptist look like little more than my really mean 6th grade English teacher.
But there’s this: After the prophet clearly and vividly describes the consequences of rebellion and faithlessness, he turns his attention to a wholly different moment in the story and shows us a heavenly dance party. It’s not uncommon for a Hebrew prophet to pronounce chapter after chapter of gloom and doom, crime and punishment, and then punctuate it all with a promise of restoration and hope. That is the general pattern, in fact. It’s like they are saying, “You mucked things up. You deal with the consequences. It stinks, but, ultimately, God is in charge and won’t leave you in your mess forever. God will restore you, and you will rejoice and give thanks for God’s faithfulness to you.”
Zephaniah’s message is similar but he directs our eyes to a part of the story most of the others do not. Zephaniah shows us the heart of God – rejoicing, dancing, celebrating. It’s God who is so happy here, so sure and steady and confident in the future. God is so thrilled to be back together with his beloved children that God does the singing – to the stubborn, willful, disobedient people who have failed time and again to do the right thing, and, as the story goes – and continues to go – never, ever get it right.
If there is one thing the Bible is not, it is not a story of a people who learn from their mistakes and ultimately resolve all of their issues and earn their way into the Pearly Gates. Even in Zephaniah’s prophecy, there’s no word about the people getting themselves together and repenting before we have this final picture of God celebrating them, restoring them, and coming to live among them and bring them home. I have to think he doesn’t mention it because it’s not the point he’s trying to make. With a clear assessment of the mess they have made and the major work they have to do – and an experienced understanding of how they probably won’t really get it done, Zephaniah points the people to God who is just plain in love with them. He shows them a God who will turn heaven upside down so that he can be with them, who will ultimately right all of their wrongs, clean up the messes they have made, and redeem them from the prisons they have created for themselves.
Did you see the social media coverage of Chicago high school student Shea Glover’s photography project? She posed people in front of her camera to have their pictures taken. As she began shooting, she also began explaining that her project was to take photos of people and things she found beautiful. Her finished product demonstrates the transformation in her subjects’ faces when it dawns on them that someone finds them beautiful. The go from being serious, shy, uncertain, smug, or irritated – to genuinely flattered, confident, playful, stunning – joyful. It is a change of mind – a change of heart – about the way they see themselves and understand themselves to be seen by others. (If you haven’t seen it, you really need to watch it. Click here.
I have to wonder if this is a way to motivate God’s people to change – to repent – to switch the emphasis from “you’ve really screwed up” to you are supremely loved, treasured, beautiful in God’s eyes. Shea Glover’s photography subjects didn’t cease to have zits, or failing grades, or messed up relationships with their families and friends. But for a moment they were given a long view, a different glimpse, someone else’s generous and gracious perspective – and it changed the way they carried themselves – if just for a moment.
Zephaniah didn’t speak his prophecy into a world that was thriving. Things were coming apart. In the same way, Jesus wasn’t born at the height of history when human beings had finally figured out how to be good to one another. For the most part, I have experienced God most powerfully when things were darkest and I was most aware of my utter inability to make it any better.
So, today, with an honest naming that all is NOT right in the world, we admit aren’t ready for Christ to come. We probably never will be. But we light a pink candle anyway and allow the words of the prophet and the hope of the Gospel to remind us that God sees a bigger picture, a different side of things. God’s intent is not to convince us how depraved we are but to bring us back to a place of goodness, justice, compassion, and peace – to bring us joy – deep and abiding joy in the knowledge that we are loved.
We light the candle because we believe joy can change us.
Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and painter Leonard Cohen offers us a picture of Advent joy – the joy that is honest about brokenness, but truly hopeful and confident in the redemption of it all.
The birds they sang
at the break of day
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government —
signs for all to see.
I can’t run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
and they’re going to hear from me.
Ring the bells that still can ring …
You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen “Anthem”