I’m glad today we have the brass quintet with us this morning because my sermon is about joy and rejoicing, and what better expresses that than the sound of brass instruments, which is why we often have them at Easter, at weddings and other celebrations..
There’s a lot of rejoicing in the Bible: the Israelites rejoiced when they brought in the sheaves; there is rejoicing in heaven over the one lost sinner. There are Paul’s admonitions to “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!”
We have two lovely readings this morning from the Old Testament that both have a lot of rejoicing going on in them. The first is Psalm 30. If it is a psalm with which you are not acquainted it is well worth getting to know. The poet is on the other side of some personal tragedy or trauma. He hints at what it was, but never quite tells us. It was as if he had died, but has now been restored to life. And his response to his restoration is worshipful thanksgiving.
Karl Barth once said that the worst sin in ingratitude, and I often wonder about those who have no sense of God in their lives. Who do they thank? Who do they thank of the birth of a child or a glorious sunset? The meditation I chose for the bulletin today is from John Calvin, who we don’t typically think of as a joyous guy, but look at what he says, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” Rejoice and give thanks.
But it is clear that the poet of Psalm 30 has no doubt who to thank. “I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, you have healed me, you have brought me back from death. You have brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.” Sheol was the shadowy underworld where the souls of the dead reside. And the Pit is, well, the Pit.
Here the poet is giving joyful thanks for his life restored beyond any hope of restoration. The poet does admit that he has experienced some hard times when he has known the absence of God, or even the anger of God. But he is quick to say that such times have been fleeting: “For God’s anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” This mirrors the passage in Isaiah 54: 7 where God says to Israel, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you.”
But after a night of weeping joy comes with the morning. The Hebrew word translated here as “joy” means a shout of glee, something like in English “yay,” “wow” or “woot woot.” A shout of joy comes in the morning after a hard night of weeping..
After my bicycle accident 19 years ago (I have traumatic brain injury), I suffered many months of insomnia. Each night became a dreaded prospect for me. In the early months my brain couldn’t process music, and I had difficulty reading, so there wasn’t much to do to pass the time. So, time each night hung heavy on me.
Several times during that bad period I got up with the dawn and wrote a hymn. Sometime it would come complete to me in meter. As I read them now some of those hymns are very dark, as was my circumstances. But the strange thing is that they all end with some element of praise and thanksgiving.
That is what many of the Psalms are like. They move back and forth between lament, even complaint against God, to praise and joyful thanksgiving. And I have come to believe that that is often the rhythm of faith.
It surely is in Psalm 30. The back and forth between lament and joy of this Psalm mirrors real life, whether it is the life of an individual, the life of a congregation, or the life of a nation. We face times of testing, times of profound challenges, times of weeping for what has been lost, but also times of rejoicing for what has been restored, for what has been found, for what has been given to us by sheer grace.
Paul admonishes us to “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.” That is what a congregation does. We use the metaphor of the body for the church, and it is a good one, for we do not live out our faith alone, but in community. Anybody’s suffering or hardship is ours. Anybody’s joy is our joy. We share it, we feel it, and in sharing both the weeping and the rejoicing our bonds of love and compassion deepen and grow.
Our second reading is also full of rejoicing. It is from Isaiah 66, the very last chapter in the Book of Isaiah. It is quite an extraordinary invitation to rejoicing given what Israel has gone through during the several hundred years that the Book of Isaiah covers.
Let me give you a quick review. I taught a Bible study on Isiah at my church during Lent this year, so this stuff is on my mind. In chapters 1-40 of Isaiah, what we call First Isiah, Israel is under constant threat from enemies including the mighty Assyrian Empire, the Near Eastern neighborhood bully at the time. Isaiah prophesies that God will not abandon Jerusalem to her enemies, and that turns out to be true. Even when the Assyrians lay siege to the city, taunting them from just outside the walls, the city doesn’t fall. The Israelites wake up in the morning to find the massive enemy army gone and many dead bodies. Why? We don’t know. Was there a plague? Was the Assyrian army needed elsewhere? We really don’t know.
In the decades between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah we have the prophet Jeremiah, who changed the prophecy to warn of impending doom at the hands of Israel’s enemies. This time the enemy is the Babylonians, who supplanted the Assyrians as the new neighborhood bully.
Jeremiah’s prophecies were right, and Jerusalem fell, its temple burned, its monarchy finished, and its leading citizens taken in exile to Babylon, where they lived for 70 years. Late in this period of Exile we have Second Isaiah, the Isaiah we all love, who promised comfort to the exiles. “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people” for instance, and a good deal of the rest of the libretto for Handel’s Messiah.
This prophet up in Babylon promised the exiles that they will be going home to Jerusalem. God will make a way where there seems no way, a highway home. “Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain made low, the crooked place straight, and the rough places a plain.” And he was right. The new neighborhood bully that supplanted Babylon this time was Persia, and King Cyrus of Persian freed the exiles and let them go home.
Many of them did, and when they got back to Jerusalem they wept for their ruined city and their broken down temple. This is the time of Third Isaiah and the passage we have today from the time the exiles have returned home to despair.
After all their suffering and loss of identity Isaiah says to them: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her–that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom.”
That passage is particularly striking in that it ascribes maternal images to Jerusalem. Like a nursing mother, the city will console and nourish them.
But then, even more dramatically, Isaiah speaks for God, and God, too, is described in strictly maternal terms. Listen to this: “For thus says the LORD: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bodies shall flourish like the grass; and it shall be known that the hand of the LORD is with his servants, and his indignation is against his enemies.”
It is extraordinary that in this profoundly patriarchal society we have such words from God: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” After all the suffering that the people of Israel have been through, they get to hear such moving words of comfort and hope, and are given cause for rejoicing.
One of the things I have noticed as a student of the Bible is that some of Israel’s greatest insights and most artful literature have come about during her time of greatest suffering and defeat. For example, from the time of the Exile we get some of the Bible’s most memorable and impressive passages. We get the great hymn of creation in Genesis 1. We get many of our most beautiful and poignant Psalms. We get the deep dive into the divine purposes of the book of Job. We get the glorious vision of restoration and return in Second Isaiah.
In this we see how often there is a connection between great suffering and great creativity, between great loss and great joy. The shout of joy comes after a hard night of weeping. The joy of Easter comes after the desolation of Good Friday. Restoration, return, resurrection: these are some of the grand themes of God’s way with us.
As the poet says: “O LORD my God, you have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Amen.
(I preached this sermon on July 7, 2019 at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI.)