We gather this day on the Sunday when we are supposed to be particularly celebrating and rejoicing in our waiting. And the words we’ve heard in our Old Testament lesson, and the Psalm and Philippians could seem ill timed- there is no unbridled rejoicing this day. We’ve been all too clearly reminded that evil and pain come crashing into our world, taking lives. Evil still takes up residence in people we thought we knew and makes us strangers, not only in Connecticut but in many other places closer to home. As we like lots of other people are asking the question, “what then should we do?” The stark reality of events breaks open a rare moment when we are prepared to walk away from all our obstacles and ask the question. And if ever there is a time when the words “O Come Emmanuel” signify our longing call to God, it is in times such as this when we think about the lonely, and those in misery and cry “Come be God with Us and free us from this. We’re confused, come bring wisdom and help us learn. We’re broken by depression and fear, come restore us and make us strong enough to go on. Come bring some light into our darkness and hope into our doubt”. Boy, I not only want to sing that, I want it to work, don’t you?
And at first I was thinking how ill-suited today’s readings are for such a time, but then on second glance, they are not just unbridled rejoicing without a care, they are rejoicing as those who have been or are in the midst of pain and sorrow and regret. Where people saw they were on the wrong path, or realized the weight of being dominated or menaced by others, or like Paul, were captive. For us as we try to find and hold onto that promise of ultimate rejoicing, the harder question is what about now? How did these people in Scripture find the power to rejoice? How might we? It has to come from beyond us, the power and strength to do so.
The people coming to see John in the wilderness were not wise religious experts in Luke. They were confused everyday people like you and me. Some coming because they were curious, some figuring it couldn’t hurt, some swept up by the crowd or a charismatic person. They were interested in this new message, but not committed. John challenges them and tells them they have it all wrong, that they are focusing upon surface stuff. IF they are serious, there is more to this message and this Messiah. You can’t just be curious. This good news is about committing to a whole new way of living, and having hope because there is a whole new source of power to do so.
Repentance is about refocusing your whole life outlook. This is what we dare to glimpse when life gets serious. But to continue to refocus with staying power, with focus that lasts long after big events are history, takes more. The source of this power can only come from the One of whom John spoke- the One more powerful than all of us. The One who has used that power to save us.
This year we have of course focused upon how we are recalling the birth of Christ into our midst. And talking about hoping real hope for God’s ultimate promise. But I’ve also been trying to lift up “God with Us” in the here and now. God active and a Kingdom present now. Frankly sometimes it is hard to see or hold onto. Yet this day I am trying to remember that God’s story is not just about God coming to say “You’re mine, you’re fine, carry on.” Which is good because we’re not fine. This is why God continues to come to be God with us and to save. Maybe we can together rejoice that this is true as we help each other live into it. Into believing that God is so powerful we can walk away from the way the world sees things over and over again because God is with us.
But God with us is not God for us ( not save us so we can get back to business as usual) and not God for me (others can fend for themselves). God with us is a whole new outlook and the journey into it takes an “us.” This is why of all the examples John is giving the crowds I like the two coats, something I see in a whole new way today. Most of the crowds were poor and they may well have only had two pieces of clothing- a tunic they wore underneath and one they wore on the top. Two coats- one on the outside and one functioning like underwear. Be willing to give away one. Be willing to walk around in your underwear so someone else isn’t naked. And trust that when your one wears out, you’ll be covered-that’s radical giving and radical community.
But there are so many concerns in our world to which we could ask the underlying question-What would you give for life to change? What would you give for people to be made whole? What would you give for an end to violence? What would you give to save lives? That’s the point. There are so many life struggles that could have different futures.
What would it mean to believe that someone had the power to help us make rejoicing possible in the places of our longings? For all of us? That’s the point of the gospel. Christ is the answer to all our questions and the strength for our struggles. God who knows who we can be and still longs to save and to free us.
Once I was putting together a toy with one of our daughters and the instructions were time consuming and challenging, and as we worked on it, I secretly suspected that even when put together, it might not work. My daughter on the other hand, was approaching this from a very different perspective- she was eager and focused because she was working in a sense of expectation and rejoicing- what if it works!! How great would that be?
In all our songs of sorrow, God’s never ending refrain is “I love you, I want to bring hope. I will rejoice over you and renew you. I will save, I will change you. I want to bring you home and give you strength. I can bring peace where it seems impossible.” If it is true, this is great news of expectation and rejoicing. The kind that we should want to trust in, to share and to live into because we’d give anything for it to be real and to work.
It does not end today’s pain, but does offer much that can shape our conversations about our world’s challenges. There are no straightforward pat answers, but maybe the best way to honor the children, ourselves, our world and our God is to embrace that vision. To meaningfully look for and share the expectation that it can work. To dare to silence the voices of the non committal and self focused and instead to walk together as a community and a nation in a whole new conversation. One that leads us away from demonizing and clashing that bring bitterness and pain. One that dares to work with each other and with God trusting that Jesus came to break open real power and possibility. And that rejoicing, however slowly comes in trusting God’s power and light and life really do work.
So Come Emmanuel- Be God with us. We want to rejoice. Help us be this people with you.
(This video of the Piano Guys is produced by the Mormon Church)
(This video of the Piano Guys is produced by the Mormon Church)