Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Forever Joy

A Forever Joy

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

December 4, 2016

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Isaiah 35: 1-10

James 5: 7-10

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.


I always have a great difficulty preaching about Joy. Pain, suffering, perseverance, adversity, challenge, death, no problem, but Joy is hard. I think mostly it is hard not because I don’t know joy is, or don’t experience, or find that Joy is missing, but rather it is simply hard to put into words, without falling short, or sounding cheesy, cheapening what it is. It makes it quite challenging, but so central to the Advent season. I mean, it is the joy candle that is special, at least a special color in the wreath, giving it a distinction within the set. . .  This sermon therefore is going to be a little different. I’m going to seek some help in putting Joy to words. . . and like last week, this sermon is based more on the Old Testament Lesson than this New Testament  Reading from the Epistle of James, but it does make sense, and it speaks about the flipside of joy, the difficult part, which is waiting, patiently for the joy to come, certainly crucial for the Advent season, here is James 5: 7-10

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

So I spoke last week on the idea that we all need a little Christmas, that we need to focus on our hopes believing in them, having faith that our hopes are not false hopes, but real and strong and ever present. We need Christmas to give us hope. And also that our world desperately needs peace, both on a personal, close to home scale, and a global scale. We need Christmas to give us peace. . . and now Joy, Christmas does come and each year gives us joy, joy in our memories, joy in the celebration, the family, the traditions, the songs and stories. . . and warms our hearts in the midst of some of the coldest days of the year. . . but how can we get this Joy, this temporary Christmas holiday Joy to be a forever joy, a forever Christmas, Jesus in our Lives, Thy Kingdom Come, Isaiah 35, forever Joy. . . I said that I was going to employ some help this morning, and I am. I am going to weave some of the great writings on joy together to try to get us all to feel what exactly Isaiah 35 is getting at when it says:

Isaiah 35: 1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.

10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

What strikes me most about this prophecy of Isaiah is the way that all of nature sings right along with those praising God. . . . The wilderness and the land shall be glad, the desert rejoicing, blossoming, and abundantly, these flowers, but also singing. . . the flowers themselves sing in wonder of the coming of the Lord. And it isn’t just here that we find all of nature singing like this: Let’s take a look at Psalm 96: here are verses 11-13

11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
    let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12     let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
13     before the Lord; for he is coming,
    for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
    and the peoples with his truth.

One thing is consistent here, when God is doing wondrous things, he does not only fill his people with rejoicing but all of creation. . . it is written in the very framework of the Earth he made. . . look at Psalm 19, here are verses 1-4

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    and the firmament[a] proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
    and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
    their voice is not heard;
yet their voice[b] goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.

And this shouldn’t be a surprise to us because we sing about it every Christmas when we sing Joy to the world. . . let heaven and nature sing, let heaven and nature sing. . . yes heaven and nature, all singing in harmony. . . and this idea, Isaac Watts takes this also from a Psalm, this time Psalm 98, look at verses 3-9

All the ends of the earth have seen
    the victory of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
    with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
    make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
    the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
    let the hills sing together for joy
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.

All of the Earth sings, claps its hands, rejoices, rejoices rejoices. . . and it even spills over into the new testament, into the Gospels, if we will recall the famous scene often read on Palm Sunday where the powers that be ask Jesus to quiet down the crowds and he says, that if I could get them quiet, even the stones would cry out. . . . .

Yes nature singing, have you ever heard it. . . some of the great poets hear the singing in nature: William Cullen Bryant writes about going into listen when the darkest thoughts haunt his brains. . . he writes in Thanatopsis

O him who in the love of Nature holds

Communion with her visible forms, she speaks

A various language; for his gayer hours

She has a voice of gladness, and a smile

And eloquence of beauty, and she glides

Into his darker musings, with a mild

And healing sympathy, that steals away

Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

Over thy spirit, and sad images

Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,

Make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart;--

Go forth, under the open sky, and list

To Nature's teachings, while from all around--

Earth and her waters, and the depths of air--

Comes a still voice--

And that still voice tells him about life and joy, and death and joy, and he hears that sympathetic voice of God’s praises in nature. . . just like the prophets of old talked about.

And Bryant isn’t the only one: Willam Wordsworth in what is probably my favorite poem, his “Intimation of Immorality,” his great Ode, hears the rejoicing of Nature as well, listen:

The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;

I hear the echoes through the mountains throng,

The winds come to me from the fields of sleep,

        And all the earth is gay;

            Land and sea
    Give themselves up to jollity,

      And with the heart of May

    Doth every beast keep holiday;—

          Thou Child of Joy,

Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy

Ye bless├Ęd creatures, I have heard the call

    Ye to each other make; I see

The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;

    My heart is at your festival,
      My head hath its coronal,

The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.

        O evil day! if I were sullen

        While Earth herself is adorning,

            This sweet May-morning,
        And the children are culling

            On every side,

        In a thousand valleys far and wide,

        Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,

And the babe leaps up on his mother's arm:—
        I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!

        —But there's a tree, of many, one,

A single field which I have look'd upon,

Both of them speak of something that is gone:

          The pansy at my feet
          Doth the same tale repeat:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

If it is so easy to find that joy, so simple, so accessible that all it takes is a walk outside, why do we find joy so hard to find at times. Wordsworth asks the same question, “Whithere is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

It may seem too easy, too trite, too obvious to just blame sin, but the Biblical record points us in that direction, with the same type of story, that the metaphor is that the entire creation, that nature rejects our sin. Look at the first violence done, Genesis 4, Cain and Abel.

Cain and Abel – Genesis 4: 8-12

“Let us go out to the field.”[b] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 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; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”

The blood is rejected by the ground, the earth cries out against he violence. .. and leaves it speaking instead the curse, the curse of toil. Look at Isaiah 24: 4-6:

The earth dries up and withers,
    the world languishes and withers;
    the heavens languish together with the earth.
The earth lies polluted
    under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
    violated the statutes,
    broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
    and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled,
    and few people are left.

Isaiah who paints such vivid pictures of promised joy and redemption and the coming of the Lord, can also paint a vivid picture of desolation, a withered and languishing Earth.

            As I was reading and studying these texts, this idea, of heaven and nature singing, and our inability to hear I couldn’t help but think of the Myth of Narcissus and Echo.

Echo spotted the most beautiful young man. His name was Narcissus. Echo did something she thought she would never do - she fell in love. But Hera had taken most of her voice. All she do was echo sounds made by others. She could howl like a wolf, buy only if a wolf had justed howled. She could sing like a breeze through reeds, but only if the reeds sang first. How could she tell Narcissus that she loved him?

One day, she spotted Narcissus looking into a stream. He seemed enchanted by what he saw.

"Come to me," Narcissus begged, looking into the water.

"Come to me," Echo echoed eagerly.

Narcissus swung about. "Who's there?" he angrily demanded to know.

"Who's there," Echo echoed loudly.

"Stop that!" Narcissus snapped.

"Stop that!" Echo echoed.

"Let's meet," Narcissus said in a much softer voice that he had used so far.

"Let's meet!" Echo echoed happily. She stepped out from behind a tree.

"Go away," Narcissus shouted at her.

"Go away," Echo echoed sadly.

Echo went sadly away.

Things did not go well for Narcissus after that. Narcissus returned to the stream again and again. He stared at the lovely young man he saw in the water. He did not know it was only the reflection of himself.

Hidden from sight, Echo watched Narcissus as he lay by the stream. She repeated everything that Narcissus said. Narcissus ignored her. Day after day he lay by the stream, admiring his own reflection. He stopped eating. He stopped drinking. And finally, he died.

We feel for Echo in that old story, wanting to talk, but not being able to be understood by the one she loves, who is deeply in love with himself, staring ever so lovingly into his own eyes. Is our difficulty in knowing joy, hearing the echoes of joy in the world around us, the heavens and nature singing the beauty of the coming of the Lord because we are so wrapped up in the love of ourselves?
John Keats wrote that "A thing of Beauty is a joy forever." How can we achieve, how can we experience, how can we be given that gift of forever joy? How can our eyes be opened to the beauty of the world around us? If we think about the second verse of Joy to the World, it sings
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,

And so it is the fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains that repeat the sounding joy of the men employing their songs. . . so in other words the rejoicing of the world is an echo of our own, so the Echo  and Narcissus is even more poignant for us. . . where can we spread a little joy, where can we pull out of our own blindness and fill the Earth with resonating sounds of joy. It would seem that just the smallest rejoicing could reverberate louder and louder and louder across more and more of the world. Joy truly to the world, so let it be so, Amen.