Sunday, December 17, 2006

Advent 3C

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 85:7-13; Philippians 4:4-9; Luke 3:7-18

“I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative, receptive congregation than write a hymn,” insisted Robert Wadsworth Lowry, an American Baptist minister in the late nineteenth century. But the melodies in his mind and the poetry in his proclamation would not be stopped. Today, appreciative, receptive congregations continue to sing his gospel songs. “I need thee every hour.” “All the way my Savior leads me.” “Shall we gather at the river?” And this one:

My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn that hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul – how can I keep from singing?

How can I keep from singing? That’s how I feel this time of year. How can I keep from singing in these seasons of Advent and Christmas, filled as they are with melody and poetry? I secretly don’t mind that the music starts playing in stores before the end of – what, is it May now when sleigh bells and silver bells start to jingle all the way?!?

I’m sure my love of preparing for and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in song goes back to first grade, when I was in the children’s choir at Otey Memorial Parish in Sewanee, Tennessee. We practiced and practiced our little Christmas anthem. We practiced and practiced a handful of Christmas carols. We practiced and practiced and practiced singing while walking in a straight line carrying a lighted candle. But none of that prepared me for the wonder I felt on the first night of the Annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, when we processed slowly around a darkened All Saints Chapel, illuminated only by the soft glow of our candles, half-singing and half-listening to the university choirs (or were they angels?) singing with us, Once in royal David’s city, stood a lowly cattle shed…. Twelve years later, although at a different school, I was in the university choir, holding a candle, processing slowly around a darkened church, singing the same beautiful hymn.

One week from tonight we’ll all be singing once again all those beautiful gospel hymns – good news of great joy hymns. Our Advent hymns are also lovely, their melodies and poetry reflecting this strange season – sometimes set in darkness and minor keys, and sometimes filled with rejoicing. How can we keep from singing?

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion, the prophet Zephaniah exclaims to Jerusalem and her people. Shout, rejoice, and exult with all your heart! For God is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. Rejoice in the Lord always, the apostle Paul exclaims to the church in Philippi. Again I will say, rejoice!.... The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.

This third Sunday in Advent was traditionally known as Gaudete, from the Latin word for rejoice. The penitential purple was lightened to rose. The readings and even the liturgy itself reflected a shift toward joy. In the Roman missal, a new antiphon was appointed, more hopeful than those sung earlier in the season – we know it as the sixth verse of a beautiful Advent hymn: O come thou dayspring from on high and cheer us by thy drawing nigh; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

On this day even God rejoices. God sings. God exults over you with loud singing, Zephaniah writes, as on a day of festival. Perhaps C.S. Lewis had this image in mind when he wrote The Magician’s Nephew, one of the books in the Narnia series, in which the lion Aslan sings the world into existence. Madeleine L’Engle imagines in one of her stories that the universe is held together by song. Even science sings – I once had a scratchy record on which astronomers had layered the pulses and beats and sounds associated with wavelengths measured from distant stars. So many ancient melodies and harmonies. So much poetry. How can we keep from singing?

We can read today’s gospel, that’s how. John the Baptist doesn’t sing. He shouts. Zephaniah and Paul sing such lovely songs of gladness and love and gentleness and rejoicing, and then John comes along shouting about slithering snakes, and axes at the roots of trees, and fire burning away chaff. (My homiletics professor suggested that “You brood of vipers!” is perhaps not the most effective way to hold on to a receptive, appreciate congregation!) John was shouting. But then, most of the crowd that came to see John weren’t interested in singing, anyway. They weren’t there to hear a sermon or join the choir. They came because darkness had been looming as Roman rule grew more oppressive and the application of Jewish law more rigid. Fears of impending divine judgment were rising. Most of the crowd that came to see John were interested only in proving their innocence before God. They believed that a quick trip into the wilderness for baptism, which at the time was simply a ritual act of cleansing, would do the trick. They were, after all, God’s chosen people.

Perhaps they had forgotten – as we are still inclined to forget today, in this wilderness season of Advent – perhaps they had forgotten that the wilderness is not a place to rush into and out of. In the story of the Exodus and in all the history of salvation, the wilderness is a place to journey through on the way to a renewed and restored and fruitful life as people of God. Getting wet, whether in the Red Sea or the Jordan River, wasn’t enough. In fact, it was and still is only the beginning of the journey.

By now John was preaching a gospel sermon to an agitated, anxious congregation. What then should we do? they asked him, and it became a refrain. Teacher, what should we do? And we, what should we do? Take your fingers out of your ears, John seems to reply. Let the wilderness filter out the cacophony of sound that assaults you each day, and listen to God’s song of salvation. Hum its melody, learn its poetry, and make your life become that song. Let your life resonate with the ancient song of love and peace and mercy and righteousness and truth and gentleness. Let your life be what God created it to be – a song sounding outward just as a tree bears fruit.

John is preaching repentance, in Greek metanoia, which means a change of mind. Not just washing clean but literally taking out one mind and putting in a new one. Taking out one song, perhaps, and putting in a new one. One is coming, John said, who is more powerful than I and he will fill you with that very song if you let him. He will light a fire for you to carry into the darkness.

How can we sing, though, when we are choked by chaff – things that don’t matter but are nonetheless mixed up with our lives, like bits of husks and stems and leaves mixed up with wheat. How can we sing when we are breathless with anxiety? How can we sing when our voices crack from despair? How can we sing when are throats, like our lives, are aching and raw? When we hurt, the call to rejoice can sound as harsh as the call to repent. And yet, it is precisely our hurt, our voicelessness, our diminishment, our losses, our sadness, and our weight of sin that Advent confronts and calls us out of that we may face the divine judgment, which is….Emmanuel, God-with-us. Remember the good gospel hymn? Good Christian friends, rejoice with heart and soul and voice, now ye need not fear the grave: Jesus Christ was born to save! Calls you one and calls you all to gain his everlasting hall. Christ was born to save! Christ was born to save! The fire he brings is not punishment but refinement, for we all have chaff, we all need a change. The burdens we carry do not make us unfit for Advent’s message of joyful expectation. They qualify us for voice lessons.

It will be true for many of us that the noise in our lives will increase this week – work to be done, cookies to bake, relatives to entertain, parties to attend, traffic to negotiate, gifts to wrap, cards to write, expectations to be met, or not met…. But let us not forget that we are still in the wilderness of Advent. Where might we hear God singing, out in the world, in our life together, and in our own lives? In the gospel of Luke, which has journeyed with us through this season, God is heard through the songs of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, and Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Simeon, an old priest who thought he would never see the light. They sing about a world in which all voices are heard and honored and nurtured and comforted.

Perhaps John isn’t shouting, but rather singing very loudly and off-key the same song, and showing us by example that we don’t have to master complex arias, we don’t have to save the world. What then shall we do? Hum a tune in our daily life. Live and sing the good news right where we are. Give a coat. Be honest in our work. Respect others. Be nice. Tell the truth. Share. We’d be surprised what joy the most ordinary songs can bring, suggests Madeleine L’Engle, noting that the melody of one of Bach’s most beloved chorales was the melody of a popular street song. “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred,” she writes, “and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”

John’s strident chord of repentance doesn’t seem to belong with today’s songs about rejoicing, but as it resolves it moves us into what will be a new key in that ancient refrain of God’s power to save. It’s a good gospel hymn – may we be receptive and appreciative.

What though my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth….

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin; I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smoothes since first I learned to love it:
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing:
All things are mine since I am his – how can I keep from singing?

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