We’ve started a new holiday tradition in our house this year; we’re observing Chanukah. Every evening, for the eight days of Chanukah, also known as “the Festival of Lights” we’ve been lighting candles in our menorah. Now, if you’re not familiar with the background of Chanukah, or lest you think your pastor has converted to Judaism, let me put your mind as ease. I haven’t converted and as Christians, we have a shared history with our Jewish sisters and brothers. Chanukah finds it roots in the Old Testament and specifically the Psalms.
So, what is Chanukah then? Well, tradition holds that a miracle occurred after the Maccabee family of took back the Temple in Jerusalem following a long war with Greeks. But because of the war oil was in short supply. There was only one vial left. And that vial contained only a single day’s supply to keep the menorah lit in the Temple. But miraculously, the oil from the vial burned for eight days. Thus, the eight days of Chanukah.
Now, I lift this tradition up this morning because on the first night, when I recited the Psalm, I did so in Hebrew. After which, Becky rolled her eyes, and said, “Now in English.” And guys, you men, you all know that the wifely “eye roll” says a whole lot more than any words could convey. I took her eye roll to mean, “Really, what good is a prayer if we can’t understand the meaning?” In other words, “How can we share in the joy of this festival of lights if the experience, in this case the prayer, is not shared?”
And it’s this concept of shared experience that looms behind our Psalm for today as well. Even with its “shouts of joy,” Psalm 126 is actually a lament; a cry for help amid terrible circumstances. The psalmist remembers what God had done for Israel in the past. And even more, what it felt like when God fulfilled God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah and later, when God delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and lead them to the promised land. And, not long before this Psalm was written, the homecoming of those freed from exile in Babylon.
The psalmist remembered how they shouted with joy and laughter on their way home. Years later, however, when that first rush of joy came to an end, they found themselves struggling. The rebuilt Temple, the centerpiece of their worship, was not as magnificent as the one built by Solomon. But there were even greater problems facing them. Return was not the same thing as restoration, as anyone knows who has tried to heal a relationship, or to rebuild a community after a natural disaster. Simply returning doesn’t make it all better. It might be a step in the right direction, but return is not the end all/be all of healing.
Think, for example, of the long-term and perhaps overwhelming work of rebuilding and restoration faced by the people of Puerto Rico, or the Virgin Islands, or Texas, or many parts of Florida, after being hit by powerful hurricanes in recent months. Their work goes on even as our attention is drawn toward wildfires destroying homes in California, just as they devastated other western states this summer. Whether a natural disaster or an act of human destruction, the leveling of a city or town is demoralizing for a people. Just returning to their homes, or the pieces of their homes, is not the same thing as having their lives restored. That will require a much deeper transformation, first as an individual and then, as a communal effort.”[i] A communal effort that reaches beyond just that community to include all of us. The crisis’ that have hit our nation are, in the end, a shared experience.
And there are so many examples of this. One that sticks in my mind, however, is the image of a man in California, with a raging wild fire in the background, saving a frightened little rabbit. Now, I can feel those wifely eye rolls again; it’s just one bunny, right? What’s the difference? Well, bear with me here. I think this video went viral not because one rabbit got saved or even because it was a kind act on the part of this man. Instead, I think it struck a cord with so many people because they, in that moment, felt helpless in the face of the raging fires. And this small act of kindness gave the viewer, if even for a moment, a shared experience of hope with that man and bunny; perhaps even a share experience of joy. And perhaps that’s something we are all seeking in this Advent Season.
So, Psalm 126 speaks to the shared experience of the natural disasters that we’ve encountered this past year. That makes sense. But this beautiful poem also speaks to us on a more personal level. While the church observes Advent, the secular world around us tells us to be joyful as we shop and clean, as we decorate our houses and fill up our calendars. But all around us are also those who carrying heavy burdens. And the holidays make these burdens even more pressing.
As I think about these things, I can’t help but think of the Christmas song, I’ll be home for Christmas. Homecomings, whether they are physical or simply in one’s memory can be filled with joy, with expectation and perhaps even warm one’s heart. But homecomings can also be met with disappointment. Cynthia Jarvis touches on this reality for some, when she spoke about conditions being made acute by what she called “culture’s merriment.” And that these conditions can lead to sadness because of severed relationships, hidden addictions, the domestication of violence, depression that is denied, or, and I quote, “…the self-loathing cut deep into the flesh.”[ii]
The point here is that Christmas isn’t merry of everyone. So, this Advent, let us think of our neighbors and friends who are grieving, widows or widowers who mourn the loss of their spouse, those struggling with illness, or loneliness, or depression; and what about those who are homeless, or refugees displaced by war, or those with little to call their own; the hopeless?
So, by now, you must be saying, “Pastor, isn’t the third Sunday of Advent supposed to be about joy? Where’s the joy? But before you roll your eyes again, remember the promise of the psalm: “Let those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts. Let those who go out, crying and carrying their seed, come home with joyful shouts, carrying bales of grain!”
Talitha Arnold reflects on the mystery of suffering turned to joy in this text: “The natural power of God to turn seeds into grain would be miracle enough,” she writes, “but Psalm 126 makes an even greater statement. The seeds are not ordinary, but seeds of sorrow. The fruit they bear is not grain or wheat, but shouts of joy.”[iii]
My friends, we seek joy in this season, and we are right to do so. But perhaps we have been looking in the wrong places and in the wrong ways, because the seeds of joy are often planted in sadness and watered with tears. This is the honest joy that often comes only after weeping in the night.[iv]
Look, no one is immune to suffering. We all have struggles, we’ve all faced adversity, and we’ve survived. Perhaps even a little stronger or wiser for the experience. So, there’s no reason, even as we celebrate the coming of the Christ into the world once again this year, that we cannot find ways to bring a little comfort to others around us who are struggling.
Now, you might say, “my heart is full of the joy of the season and I don’t want to lose that feeling.” Good point. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to lose it. As a matter of fact, I would bet that if you were to reach out to someone whose down and out this Christmas Season and share the love of God through a simple act of kindness, you would find that you and the person you’re reaching out to, would share an experience of joy.
And that’s finally the crux of Christmas itself. God, incarnate in the Christ-child came to this earth so that we might have a shared experience. A shared experience of justice and peace and faith. And when things go array, Jesus offers us more than just a mere return, he offers us restoration. He walked this earth so that all people might have the opportunity to be reconciled, healed, and restored to God, and this often happens through a faith community. And it’s in our faith community, our congregation, that we invite all people to share inn this, our experience of Joy.
So, as we continue this journey we call Advent, may the joy of this season, the shared experience of being in the presence of the Living God through the Spirit, reach deep into your being, and then, radiate forth, warming the hearts of all whom you encounter. May it be so. Amen.
[ii] Cynthia Jarvis (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1) 2010
[iii] Talitha Arnold (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1) 2010