The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
April 7, 2019 (5 Lent)
Isaiah 43:16-21 Psalm 126 Philippians 3:4b-14 John 12:1-8
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth,
Do you not perceive it?
In the Name of the God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + AMEN.
The Bible is full of stories of anticipation. There are few as rich, though, as the story of Israel’s anticipated return from exile. In 587 B.C., the Babylonian Empire destroyed the Kingdom of Judah, sending many Jews into exile in Babylon and Egypt. It is a pivotal story in the history of God’s people, second only, perhaps, to the story of the Exodus. Like the exodus, the story of the exile and restoration from exile is a story of God’s faithfulness. Have you ever wondered whether God actually cared? Have you dared to imagine that God might not be watching over you after all, that God might have fallen asleep at the wheel. Maybe you’ve heard the Carrie Underwood song, “Jesus, Take The Wheel.” But what if you still crash? Have you ever wondered whether you should offer Jesus the wheel in the first place? I mean, can he even drive a stick-shift?
I’ve put this in sort of playful terms, but it’s actually very serious. There are plenty of Jews who wondered about God. The book of Job is an extended complaint about God not showing up when Job needed God the most. It’s right there in the Bible, which means you don’t need to feel guilty about feeling that way. I will say, though, that the point of Job, as near as I can make it out, is that Job doesn’t actually give up on God. Job doesn’t walk away from the source of all joy and of all that is. Job doesn’t accept easy answers: he just wants God to show up. And guess what? When God’s people cry out, even in anger, toward God, God shows up. But the story of Job is not the only example. We have plenty of complaint—or better, lamentation—in the Bible. Plenty of saints and righteous children of God found themselves beset by despair, nearly sure that God was not likely to show up. Elijah, one of the greatest of the prophets even asked God to let him die when he was being pursued by Jezebel (1 Kings 19). You might remember there’s a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations, which is full of guilt, sure, but also plenty of anger and dejection.
God’s people have always known pain, extreme pain, anguish and misery. And God’s people have always cried out to God in their bitterness, in their honest loneliness, fear, and anger. Nowhere is that more in evidence than in the crucifixion of Jesus. Christ, in his compassion, suffered. Unspeakably. And what did he do? He cried out: “Eloi! Eloi! Lama sabachtani?!” “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?!” Have you ever wondered whether God has abandoned you? If so, know this: Even Jesus, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God; Jesus, son of Mary, who said the Father is in me and I in him, and you in me. Even Jesus cried out because he felt forsaken by God. Even the Son of God has lifted his voice, in a challenge that threatens to rend the heavens and break God. You are not alone.
That’s the sort of abandonment the Jews felt when they went into exile. And they certainly lifted their voices in lament. But there’s more there. There’s something else buried in the consuming anger and the suffocating bitterness. There’s a spark in there that is ready to drive out all darkness and obliterate despair. It’s the miracle that we barely dare hope for. It’s the sliver of green alive inside the sleeping roses, which will burst forth in radiant colors. It is the hope of the Psalm: that our mouths will be filled with laughter, that where we sow with tears, we may reap with joy. “I am about to do a new thing,” God tells the exiled Jews through the prophet Isaiah. “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Are we able to perceive it? Are we willing to perceive it?
What is this new thing? What is this rumored Easter? Beloved, I wish my words were capable of capturing it. I wish my tongue was able to speak it. Even now, I think the glimpses of new life, restored life, the kind of life where it feels as though we are like those who dream, are just that: glimpses. But they are there, waiting for us. In them, God calls each of us by name, beckoning us toward something we did not know was possible. In these sacraments of—is it joy?—do we dare believe that such a thing as joy is possible? In these sacraments of joy, maybe, God blesses us, and claims us, draws us up into God’s very life, and promises, promises, promises joy. Not mere happiness, not giddiness or congeniality. Joy, something that touches the bedrock of all that is, something that touches the Love at the root of it all. “Do we not perceive it?”
God is never sleeping, the God who watches over Israel, who watches over us, slumbers not, nor sleeps. God never ignores the cries of his children, but through God’s people flooded the world with lamentation, and through our laments, the opportunity to find an unexpected grace, half hidden in shadows, half buried in shame and despair, a secret joy kindled by the Holy Spirit of God in the last corner of our hearts into which we would dare look. That’s what impels Paul to press on toward Christ. That’s what impels Mary to anoint the Savior. God gives water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to God’s chosen people, the people God formed for himself—hear that: we have been formed by God for God, not for destruction or desolation, but for God in love. God gives water in the wilderness so that we might sing not only lament, but praise. “Do we not perceive it?”
How can we perceive it? Come to the altar and receive there your joy! Receive there Christ under the signs of bread and wine. Receive here, in our prayers, in our song, and in the blessing of this space, your own heart again. And if you require more for the road, perhaps Mary Oliver can again be our guide:
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed our about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you’ll notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
(Mary Oliver, “Don’t Hesitate”)