Sunday, December 16, 2012
Christian worship is always counter-cultural, but maybe never more so than this Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, the pink-candle observance of Advent - Gaudete Sunday - when, positioned as we are within the university context, standing on the front-edge of final exam week, and, more sharply, in the shadow of the shooting deaths of twenty seven - mostly school children - last Friday, the liturgy comes to us with the simple, one-word exhortation that does not fit at all: Rejoice! Rejoice.
Unfortunate. Embarrassing, even. But that’s what the pink is about. The readings, too, try to do their part: Gaudete coming from the first word of the Latin translation of St Paul’s epistle tonight; St Paul to the Church: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say, rejoice.”
Zephaniah, also: Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The canticle: Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy!
The gospel, well, it’s harder to see the joy in John the Baptist, but it’s there: the promise of baptism at the hand of the coming Messiah, the holy One come to save Israel from her sins, to reconcile, restore, the People of God to God; baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Then again, this is starting to sound like exam week.) And then, my favorite line for its confusing peculiarity, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
This is how John proclaims the good news: fire is coming! Everyone will burn. John is not the one you put in charge of departmental Christmas parties.
For many of us, though, I imagine John sounds more honest that the other lessons. An end by fire fits more nearly our understanding of the world we inhabit. In this world, it is not easy to rejoice. Finals week or not, rejoicing comes with difficulty. Joy is not easy. Some would say, is not responsible. Knowing what we know about the world and ourselves, is not possible. For some, expressions of and hope for joy feel like betrayals of the truth.
But Luke intercepts our attempts to co-opt John with our doom and gloom projections when Luke tells us that John thinks he is proclaiming genuinely good news. Maybe he is, but we have inherited enough of Dante’s legacy to know that fire means hell. Hell does not sound like good news. But that we think of John’s fiery language first in terms of what it will do to us and only afterwards in terms of what it says about God names precisely the sin from which John tells the people we will need to repent.
For John, fire is not primarily the avoidable consequence reserved for lives gone awry (i.e., hell); instead, fire is first the impossible possibility of God born in our midst.
God will not burn us with fire, as if fire were a tool in God’s hand, a Zeus-ian lightning bolt god. No. God is the fire. God might burn us, yes, but with the same, living presence of God born to Mary. This presence is the fulfillment of a deep ache, desire, and promise. God’s presence is good news. God’s Fire, an occasion for joy: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. We are right to name - and hold in holy fear - the judgment of the light, what it will require of us, but also to feel the thawing ice sliding from our shoulders, the promise of what John Wesley called a heart “strangely warmed.”
Think fire that came to Moses in the bush that burned but was not destroyed;
think fire, that great column that lit up the nights, by which God led the People of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, into the Land of Promise, so that the night and the day might be both alike, that fire which anticipates the realms of angels;
think fire as the Spirit descended on Mary, sparking the flame of the Church whose head is Christ, only Son of the Father;
think fire that formed as flame and fell on the heads of Jesus’ friends as they stood there, in his absence, locked for fear behind closed doors. The Holy Spirit birthing, breathing, life of the kind and quality we share by virtue of our baptism.
Think even the flames of the Great Fire stoked at the Easter Vigil, in which we celebrate, we remember, the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Fire, not first as our punishment, but - throughout the resounding witness of Scripture - first as God’s presence. Fire as good news.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst.
If you’ll humor me, turn to page 286 of your Prayer Book, the Easter Vigil, the night before Easter morning, the heart of our baptism, at which the Great Fire is lit. I pray you’ve had the wonderful occasion to attend an Easter Vigil, preferably with Great Fire. See the three-fold response sung by the deacon as the flame is introduced in procession before the Assembly:
Rejoice and sing now.
Rejoice and be glad now.
The response of the People of God to the presence of God. As Christmas announces and Easter confirms, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. In the words of John Wesley again: “The best of all is, God is with us.” Rejoice.
There is this great, bittersweet quote I love: “Smile, people will wonder what you are up to.” I love the quote for its reminder to treasure the gift of joy. But I also grieve the quote, just to the extent that even the barest hint of joy - a sidewalk smile - is estranged to our cultural sensibilities, deeply buried beneath the grief for so many people, such that folks will wonder what you are up to.
Count the truly joyful smiles you see, walking here on campus or on the streets back home. And, if you are brave, the next time you are walking out across those sidewalks, smile, not at people, but simply before people, the next time you are walking. Pay attention to the faces that express their gratitude for a face that reflects the fire’s warming glow. See how they acknowledge your risking the impossible possibility of joy in this world. No less than the theologian Karl Barth once said that “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” And elsewhere he wrote, “The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all.”
Of course, one should not fake it. Cannot fake it. And yet joy may be the truest measure of one’s remembering the nearness, the presence, the fire, of Jesus. So we practice the hard discipline of joy as we come here and become the burning bush by our participation in the Eucharist, and by the daily practices of thanksgiving that are an extension of this act.
The joy we find in the nearness of Jesus, says St Paul, allows us to be gentle with ourselves and the world. Allows us the gentleness to bear with one another in love. I often wonder if gentleness is not among the most understated, underrated, of the fruit of the Spirit. Of course, in addition to gentleness, the joy we find in the nearness of Jesus allows us the patience to be present to those living in what appear to be hopeless situations; indeed, the joy we find in the nearness of Jesus paradoxically teaches us how to truly grieve, allows us to be present to God in the present, now, as it is, broken, remembers that the most definitive word about ourselves or the world finally belongs to God, and that Word, in the end, is good. Even after an unthinkable Friday morning at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that Word is Christ,
Who, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, now, and forever.
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