Sunday, December 16, 2012

Heaven and Nature Sing

Heaven and Nature Sing
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 16, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 2: 8-14
Genesis 4: 8-12
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14     “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[1]  

If I've learned anything from my first full year of ministry, I'd say it's be careful making simple plans about preaching on the church calendar. This year the church calendar and the secular calendar and world events have thrown me some curveballs. The first was back in May, when Memorial day and Pentecost were on the same day, so I preached a sermon called the Spirit of Remembrance and tried to bring the two together. It was challenging. Then in the middle of my Marks of a True Christian series came Veteran's Day, and the topic for the day was "Live Peaceably with All," another challenging combination, but again I brought the two together. Today is the most challenging yet. Today we light the joy candle, on Friday I was picking hymns, and choosing all joyous ones. Joy to the World, and Good Christian Men Rejoice. Joy, Joy, Joy, it's time to light the special pink candle. Let's get ready to celebrate the joy of Christmas, and then I hear it on the radio: "School Shooting, in Connecticut, at least 20 dead." Then as the day progresses I start to hear more details: Elementary School, K-4, 20 children and 7 adults  murdered in cold blood, mother of the killer among the dead, she taught at the school, gruesome, senseless, violent, disturbing, sickening, disheartening, are just some of the words that come to mind, but could never describe the event from Friday morning.
What do you say? What can you say? How can we even consider joy on a day like this, so close to such a tragedy? How can such tragedy and joy be reconcilable? The poor families, and parents, and friends, and classmates, worlds changed out of nowhere, quickly and completely, and to think today we will sing three hymns of joy. How? Why?
I had planned to preach this morning on Joy to the World, and I will do so. For, this is Advent, and sadly and tragically this is what Advent is all about. Waiting, hoping, taking stock in the pre-Christmas world, looking at all the darkness, remembering the shadows, so that we can prepare ourselves for the coming of the light, so we can remember again just how much we need the light, just how much we need God to come into this world, just how much we need God to come into our hearts, just how much we truly need Immanuel, God with us. Oh how much we need God with us now!
 I chose to preach on Joy to the World before hearing the news. I chose the Scripture passages before hearing the news. I had an idea about what I was going to say before I heard the news, but not a clear picture. It is interesting that the frame work I had in mind is not so much altered by the events, but rather put into focus by them, rendered real by them, ironically brought to life by them, I pray that the events can do the same, bringing them life, life to all of those people, whose lives are now turned inside out and upside down, that you bringer of light and life can enter into even those personal depths of darkness that the victims of tragedy must be experiencing.
I specifically chose the Cain and Abel passage, again before hearing the news, for one important line: Genesis 4: 10-12
10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength;[2]  

This is the first murder. "Thou Shalt not Kill" is not even an official Commandment yet, guns haven't been invented, neither has the news, neither has war, neither has the media, neither has violent video games, neither has reality television, no Oedipus Complex, no homicidal psychosis theories, no death penalty. None of it, the only thing that is present at this point in the story is Sin, and wouldn't you know it, Sin is sufficient to cause something so disgusting as murder. Sure the fruit has been eaten before this. The Sin of the parents has now been bequeathed to the sons, both culprit and victim are forever affected. Yes the fruit, but look at what that fruit represents. Doubt that what God says is true, doubt about how this world is supposed to work, doubt about whether God is there for us, doubt and distrust between each other, the blame game, hiding, shame, then trying to earn the favor of God, then envy, jealousy when God doesn't behave the way we would like, all leading to murder, again and again. Sure it's an old story, ancient some would say, many think that we as people have evolved from such nonsense, that people are better now, that technology has rendered us much more sensible, that the systems we have created have sanded away our undesirable edges, that we are finally ready for real Progress. Of course it's all an illusion, and events like Friday remind us, but we seem to forget again and again. We try to improve the systems, we think if we could just tinker with it some more we can get it right, but again and again it happens. Sin is strong, stronger than we think, and stronger than we are.
I say again this is the first murder, and look at the effects of it. All of nature rejects it. As Abel's blood seeps into the ground, the ground becomes cursed. It rejects our action. It rejects murder because murder goes against the very framework of this world.
I had planned to pair this concept with the words of Dr. Watts' classic carol, "Joy to the World." How many times have we sung it, repeating again and again, "let heaven and nature sing," but this hymn really does speak to the issue breaking forth from Cain's act of murder. Listen to the words with the curse of the land caused by Cain we have just read.

Verse 1

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Heaven and nature will sing, together with one voice, as they have since God first released his Word in this world, saying "Let there be light," but keep listening the grateful chorus expands.

Verse 2

Joy to the world! the Saviour reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

Let men their songs employ, finally man is singing too, and everything else repeats it, a glorious harmonious harmony between heaven and nature and mankind as well, again at peace as it should be. Man couldn't sing this song before because of Sin. Can we sing it today?

Verse 3

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Here is the curse verse, Do you hear it, though, this verse echoes Genesis 4. It echoes the blood crying out from the ground, and the following curse, but the blessings put an end to the curse, His blessings, which have abounded from continuously from the First Day. We see truly that. . .

Verse 4

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

And the result, which is unchanged is that He rules the world with truth and grace. God is in control despite the cloud of Sin that haunts our eyes, and that spills the blood of the innocent,  despite all of it, Truth, Grace, Righteousness, Wonders, and Love. Couldn't we use a little of that today. Such is the truth of Christmas, but Isaac Watts didn't write "Joy to the World" based on the Christmas story, he didn't write it based on the Christmas texts, he didn't even write it based on the New Testament. Like many of his hymns it is simply a poetic rendering of a Psalm. In this case Psalm 98, which in my Bible is labeled, "Praise the Judge of the World." Here is that psalm:

Praise the Judge of the World
A Psalm.

1     O sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
have gotten him victory.
2     The Lord has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
3     He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.
4     Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
5     Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
6     With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
7     Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
8     Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
9     at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.[3] 

Sin begets more sin. Our initial reaction to tragedy is disbelief: How can this happen. Our next reaction is horror: O my God how awful it is for those poor people. Our next reaction is shame: How can this happen in Ameria? Who are we? Who are we becoming? Then our next reaction is blame: Guns and Guns Rights activist are to blame! Atheists are to blame, with their secularism, if there were prayer in schools this never would have happened. And our final reaction is distrust and doubt: Let's tinker with the laws, let's make new ones to prevent this from happening, which really means we need more laws to protect us from each other. Doubt and Distrust. Does this pattern sound familiar? If not take another look at Genesis 3 and 4 this week. The story of Sin repeats itself again and again.
We must stop the cycle, not allowin Sin to repeat and repeat. We mustn't let it because God is our only hope, and His power is sufficient. Did  you notice in the pattern that turning to God is absent, just as it was in Genesis 3? And just as He does in Genesis 4, He will judge and he will set things right, the world does not accept such tragedy, everything that God has made rejects such senseless violence, just as it always has, Sin just blinds us to it, but Christmas seeks to show us this truth anew, Christmas seeks to restore this truth to our eyes and to our lives, Christ shows us the possibilities of Righteousness, the possibilities of Love, and the truth of God's reign. Though we like the ground reject such tragedy thoroughly, we cannot overcome such Sin with more Sin, doubt with more doubt, evil with more evil. God's love is enough to get us through, and despite great sorrow, in darkness there is light shining, and in great despair there lives the seeds of great joy. The answer is Christmas; the answer is love. Let us pray that this act of violence is the one that wakes us up to the very truth of Sin, and turns us all toward God, not against each other in blame, but toward God, not to ourselves and the tightening of control, but toward God, not to our tinkering of systems and the thoughts of what if, but towards God, towards the God of Righteousness, the God of Justice, the God of Love.
During Advent we light four candles around the Christ Candle, so that from Christ, heading in those four directions, Christ's light can shine. We light the candle of Hope, knowing that Christ is the source of our hope. We light the candle of Peace, knowing that Christ is the only source of lasting peace. We light the candle of Love because Christ shows us how love is the central truth of our world, and anything else, outside of love creation wholly and completely rejects. And therefore today, despite our great sadness, we lit the candle of Joy because, although on days like today when we are fighting back tears, we have Hope that from Love will come Peace, all because Christ is born, and Sin is cleansed from us, making righteousness reign; therefore we can take great Joy with the rest of creation, repeating in song, that God doesn't abandon us in our Sin, but takes on our Sin, and does "rule the world with truth and grace." And we steadily await the day when these senseless acts of violence are no more: "and they were terrified." And so are we,  "But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord." May God grant that it be so. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 2:8-14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 4:10-12). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 98:1-9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.