Sunday, December 14, 2014

Phil Kniss: Finding joy in the muddled middle

Advent 3: O that you would reveal your joy
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126:1-6; 1 Thess. 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

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So today, my sermon is “Finding joy in the muddled middle.”
    And last Sunday I talked about finding peace in the wilderness.

This isn’t exactly the same sermon that I preached last week,
    but you will hear echoes.
    As well you should, during Advent.
        Each Sunday has its own focus,
            but the whole season has a common theme.

Advent is traditionally, a fasting season,
    where we name the continuing darkness
        in our world and in our lives,
    and where we express our hope in the light of Christ,
        that light which has come, is now coming, and is yet to come.

We don’t usually emphasize the fasting part of this season.
    I guess there are too many
        cookies and chocolates being passed around,
        party buffets being catered,
        and fruitcakes being re-gifted . . .
            to even consider a fast.
    If we fast, it won’t be until our New Years’ resolutions kick in,
        when it’s time to rehabilitate ourselves from seasonal excess.

But in the church calendar—
    which is quite different, I assure you,
        than the Hallmark calendar our culture and economy run on—
    this is not the Christmas season.
        It is Advent.
        And it is a time to slow down, not speed up.
            A time for listening, not noise-making.
            A time to reflect, confess, even lament
                the darkness that remains in the world,
                and remains lodged in our inner being.
            That is a darkness, a wilderness, a muddled middle
                that we dare not deny,
                that we can not wish away,
                that we can do nothing about, except wait,
                    and cry out for the light of God in Christ,
                    to keep showing up in our midst.

Now, having said that,
    I hasten to add that I don’t begrudge the merry-making
        that dominates December.
    I love to listen to, and sing, the joyful songs of Christmas
        from Thanksgiving on.
    If you attended the Christmas Coffeehouse on Friday or Saturday,
        you saw me up there on stage singing my heart out,
            about things joyful and merry and bright and silly,
        and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
    And tonight, here,
        you will witness a delightful, and joy-filled program
            of children’s Christmas music,
        and we are all going to receive those uninhibited,
            childlike expressions of joy
            as a precious Christmas gift to this community.
    So, please,
        no one accuse me of being a Scrooge,
            by talking about this
            as a season for fasting and contemplation.

But this time and space—Sunday morning worship in Advent—
    is different.
Yes, maybe we do feel just a tinge of spiritual whiplash,
    when we walk into this space
        and there are no Christmas carols being sung,
        and we are being invited to be still, and reflect,
            and name the reality of wilderness and darkness,
            and talk about waiting.
    Maybe, for some, there might even be a bit of discomfort,
        or impatience with the season.
        I’m fine with that.
    Consider this hour of worship
        a small, but necessary Sabbath from the frenzy of the season.
    Consider it a time to really remember the reason for the season.

Sometimes when I hear Christians saying things like,
    “Let’s keep Christ in Christmas,”
        or “Remember the reason for the season,”
    I get the sneaking suspicion that what they really mean,
        is let’s keep up everything we already do—
            like shop till we drop, and eat till we hurt,
                and party like there’s no tomorrow,
        but just add Jesus to everything,
            make sure Jesus’ name is prominent on Christmas cards,
            and that decorations have more baby Jesus, and less Santa,
            and that kids get to sing Christmas carols in schools,
            and that cashiers get to say “Merry Christmas.”
        Somehow, if we achieve those things,
            then Christ will be in Christmas, and all will be well.

To be honest, it would be hard for me to care less
    about keeping Christ in our culture’s version of Christmas.
    I appreciate that our culture embraces this season
        as a time to celebrate, and come together as family,
        and wish for world peace and good cheer.
    But when I see two-inch stacks of sales flyers stuffed in the DNR,
        or visit a local shopping center,
        or watch some TV,
        or see all the junk email in my inbox,
            I’d rather leave Jesus completely out of it.
            I don’t think he’d want to be associated with
                a lot of what passes for Christmas in our culture.

Coming to worship during Advent is my way
    to keep Christ in the season.
    It’s my way to have a Sabbath from the seasonal frenzy,
        whether that frenzy is focused on Santa or Jesus.

It’s a couple hours in the week for us to be together,
    away from the noise,
    and with each other, in honesty,
    remembering who we are, where we are,
        and how we are called to live in these days.
    Because we know, and we declare
        that things are dark in this world,
            yet we hope,
            yet we have peace,
            yet we will rejoice in the certain, but often hidden,
                light of God in Christ, Emmanuel,
                God with us.

Yes, I love singing the fun and joyful songs of Christmas,
    all month.
But even more,
    I love this hour of honesty.
    I love this chance to remember together.
        To name our wilderness.
        And to name our hope.

And we do it again today, as we ponder the meaning of joy.
    Advent may be a season for fasting,
        but we are not shy about expressing joy.
    We opened the morning singing,
        “Blessed be the God of Israel who comes to set us free,
            who visits and redeems us, and grants us liberty.”
    We lit the pink joy candle.
    We rejoiced in the good news of scripture.

        We heard Isaiah proclaim,
        “The Lord has anointed me
            to bring good news to the oppressed,
            to proclaim liberty to the captives,
            to comfort all who mourn;
            to give them a garland instead of ashes.”
        We heard the psalmist sing,
            “The Lord has done great things for us,
                and we rejoiced.”
        We listened to the words of Apostle Paul,
            “Rejoice always . . . give thanks in all circumstances;
                for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
        And we heard in the Gospel, John saying he
            “came as a witness to testify to the light,
                so that all might believe.”
        Good, positive, uplifting words of hope and joy in scripture.

    But even as we read, listen to, and sing these words of joy,
        we see something else being named here in the texts.

The very prophet Isaiah who was speaking words of hope,
    of the coming restoration,
        was standing ankle-deep in the muddy mess, with his people.
    In Isaiah’s very proclamation of the joy to come,
        he was naming the muddle, of which they were in the middle.
    Yes, you are oppressed. Yet, I have good news for you!
    Yes, you are captive. Yet, I say, be free!
    Yes, you are mourning. Yet, I say, wash off your ashes!
        This is the day of the Lord’s favor!

Likewise, apostle Paul, in his letter to Thessalonian Christians,
    sounded giddy with enthusiasm.
    “Rejoice . . . always!  Pray . . . constantly!
        Give thanks . . . in every circumstance!”
    But this was no cheery denial of reality.
    Earlier in the letter, he named,
        in all honesty and with the anguish of a loving parent,
        the deep suffering and persecution they were undergoing.
    And he wrote this out of his own context of suffering,
        nearly to the point of death.

What could cause a prophet and an apostle
    to be so confident of the joy to come,
    when all they could see around them was the mud of
        exile, persecution, suffering, loss, devastation?

We get a clue to this from the psalm of the day, 126.
    If you have your Bibles,
        it might be helpful to follow along here.

    Psalm 126 is a particular kind of song,
        in this Israelite hymnal, that we call the book of Psalms.
    Like our hymnal, it’s organized.
        Different songs for different occasions.
    There’s one section of 15 songs in this hymnal—
        Psalms 120-134—labeled, “Songs of Ascent.”

These were songs to sing while on pilgrimage
    to the temple in Jerusalem, high up on Mt.  Zion.
    Thus, songs of ascent.
    Songs to sing while walking uphill together,
        in procession, preparing for worship of some kind.

    These were not songs to sing back home,
        before they started on their pilgrimage.
    These were not songs to sing in the temple,
        after they arrived.
    No, they were songs to sing while they were halfway up the hill,
        still on the way.
    They were songs to sing while they were in the muddled middle,
        so to speak.

We see this in the structure of the Psalm.

It’s organized in three sections.
    One to help them see and remember the past.
    One to acknowledge the present reality.
    One to look hopefully into the future.
Or you might say,
    one is like an old photo album—recalling the past,
    one is like a mirror—naming what is,
    and one is like a telescope—revealing what’s ahead.

So the people begin singing the song,
    by essentially pulling out their family photo album,
    “Remember back when, the Lord first restored the fortunes of Zion?
    It was almost too good to be true.
        “We were like those who dream,” it says in v. 1.
    Back then, we laughed (v. 2), we shouted,
        we had others admiring us.
    Those were the good old days, literally.

Next, in the song, v. 4, the people hold up the mirror.
    They acknowledge the way things are right now, at this moment.
    And it’s not good.
    Their lives are like watercourses in the Negev Desert—
        dried up stream beds.
    They plead to God for relief,
        as they stand in this desolate, muddled middle.
        “Restore our fortunes” again, Lord.
            Make us like the stream bed in rainy season.
            Take our barren lives and restore them.
            “May those who sowed in tears,
                reap with shouts of joy.”

Finally, in verse 6, they pick up a telescope,
    and gaze into a future they know, somehow, by faith,
        will someday be theirs.
    And this is the song they sing,
        “Those who go out weeping,
            bearing the seed for sowing,
            shall come home with shouts of joy,
                carrying their sheaves.”
        Those are the words of the oldie-goldie hymn we sang earlier,
            “Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
            Tho’ the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
            When our weeping’s over, he will bid us welcome,
            We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”
        Yes, they sang. There will be a harvest.
        They knew their God would come through someday.
            They knew it.

As God’s people today, we find ourselves, more often than not,
    in the muddled middle.
Most of the time we are not living the beautiful dream,
    where God steps in and makes everything right.
    Those times have happened in the past.
        We have the photo album to prove it.
        But it’s not where we’re at right now.

And we’ve not yet arrived at our golden future.
    We have a glimpse of it, thanks to the prophets describing it.
    We have an image of the peaceable kingdom to hold on to,
        where the wolf lies down with the lamb.
    But we’re not yet living that far away vision,
        that we can only see dimly, through the telescope.

Now, we live in the muddled middle.
    We are just halfway up the hill.
    At the bottom of the hill, behind us, are the glories of the past.
        Remembering them gives us strength.
    At the top of the hill is the glorious vision fulfilled.
        Seeing that gives us hope.

And yet, right now—right now—
    although things are a mess and a muddle,
    there is reason, because of what we see now, in the mirror,
        for us to have a deep and sustainable joy.
What we see is that we are not alone on this uphill journey.

The pilgrims in Israel gathered together at the bottom of the hill,
    and started up together,
    led by musicians,
    and sang these songs of ascent together,
        walking together, in rhythm to the drums and trumpets
            and maybe trombones, like we heard today,
        moving upward and onward together,
    taking their individual voices, their separate small strands,
        and weaving them together into something greater.

That brings me right back to the purpose of worship during Advent.
    Worship in Advent,
        fulfills the same function for the church today,
        that the Songs of Ascent did for the people of Israel.
    It names the reality of the present darkness,
        but places it in a larger context, that results in deep joy.
        Not cheeriness. Not seasonal merriment. Not fa-la-la-la-la.
            But a deep underground river of joy that flows from the past,
                into the present,
                and on into the future God has in mind.

    That’s why we come together to worship in Advent.
        There is time for being solitary,
            for the individual devotional life,
            for meditating in our prayer closet.
        But Sunday morning worship during Advent
            is not one of those times.
        This is the time for collective, corporate, declaration
            of our shared hope in the light of Christ.
        Advent worship is our public protest
            against the hopelessness embedded in popular culture.
        Our culture is not equipped
            to recognize hopelessness and despair, and name it.
            It does not know where to turn for hope, peace, and joy.
            All it can do is distract, and cover up, and drown out.
            So out come the tinsel and cheap ornaments,
                and cheesy carols,
                and buy-one-get-one-free deals in the shopping center.

        Advent worship is when we pause, together as a people,
            while we are halfway up the hill,
            in the muddled middle,
                and together declare,
                God, you are our joy.
                You are with us.
                We are not alone.
                We are together with each other,
                    in the your presence, God who loves us.
                You loved us enough to come in days past.
                You love us enough to come again someday
                    and set the world right again.
                And you love us enough to be with us now,
                    while we are in the middle of all this darkness.

Come, Lord Jesus.
    Come, be light for our eyes.
    Come, be the air we breathe.
    Come, be the voice we speak.
    Come, be the song we sing.

—Phil Kniss, December 14, 2014

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