Keepers of the Story

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream,” writes the Psalmist.  What do you dream about?  What carries your mind when you imagine better days?  What is it that you begin to hope for when you turn your attention to a possible future joy?

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On this Third Sunday of Advent, that is where we turn: to joy.  We can feel it in the air around us, of course.  Children anxiously waiting for Christmas.  Carols playing round the clock on the radio.  Homes filled with the scents of pine and baking.  We drive around after dark—that is after 4:30pm—we see lights on trees and candles in windows.  We receive cards with updates and pictures of family and friends, and we mark the days to Christmas as we the anticipation of joy builds.

But notice it’s not just any type of joy that the Psalmist writes about, but joy that comes after difficult days.  Days when instead of delight, we experience deep pain.  Days when we thought we might never dream again, when all we hoped for seems to have burned to the ground.  Days like Good Friday.  Or when Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi in the Hebrew scriptures declared that she’d take on a new name—Mara, meaning “Bitter”—after her husband and sons had died unexpectedly. She chose that name, she told Ruth, “Because the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.”  Those kinds of days.

As a priest when I hear the story of how someone has entered into one of those dark times, my heart breaks.  I want desperately to take away their pain, whatever it is.  Their grief overwhelms them, and I wish I could magically say the right prayer and have them get out of the pit.  But that’s not how it works.  No prayer I offers has the power to move those who hurt to a place of joy instantaneously.  I cannot utter a word that can transport them from the wilderness.  But that does not mean they should give up.  It does not mean they should not hope.

I am a child of the 80s, and one of the albums that came out during that time had a profound impact on me.  It’s Peter Gabriel’s “So.”  The third song on the album is titled, “Don’t Give Up,” which Gabriel sang with Kate Bush.  He starts with these lyrics, “In this proud land we grew up strong, we were wanted all along. I was taught to fight, taught to win; I never thought I could fail.  No fight left or so it seems, I am a man whose dreams have all deserted. I’ve changed my face, I’ve changed my name, but no one wants you when you lose.”

And that’s exactly how the people of Israel felt during the Babylonian Exile. They had been taken away from their homes and forced to march to that far off place.  They shed tears along the route, as the places they loved lay in ruins and the bodies of the fallen did not receive a proper burial.  Their shattered dreams had been left behind as the smoke and ashes rose into the air.  They wondered if God would ever hear them again.  If they would ever return to God’s good grace. They sowed that long path in the desert with their weeping.  And then once they arrived in captivity, they cried more tears.  They thought it was no longer possible for them to be connected to God.

That captivity lasted 60 years.

Our lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures today, the Psalm and the reading from Isaiah, were likely written at the same time.  They were written not during the time of King David, nor in the many years following David’s reign, nor even during the Babylonian Exile.  Most scholars agree these two were written after the Israelites had returned from Babylon to a home that no longer looked as it once did, but home it still was.  The words telling us that when we sew with tears, we’ll reap with songs of joy are given from experience.  Our Psalm even tips us off a bit if we were to read it in the Bible, “A Psalm of Ascent” it says as a sort of title.  It was one of the Psalms used by pilgrims and worshippers as they made their way up to Jerusalem for the yearly religious feasts—Jerusalem is situated on a hill and travelers always go up, always ascend, to that city.  These Psalms proclaim the greatness of God, of our need to trust and hope in the almighty One.  That no matter how bad it gets, God will not forsake us.

What strikes me in this is that the one writing our Psalm today has been there and is back again.  The writer has experienced the bleakness of the Exile, but now in the return sees the joy being given.  The line that when we sew with tears we will reap with songs of joy is written after the fact.  They now know the end of the story, that their tears did produce rejoicing.  That what the experienced at the time of the Exile—while horrifically painful—was not the last word. The story went on to joy.

And it’s our job to keep telling the story.  To keep reminding ourselves  and others that no matter how bad it gets, no matter the experiences we have that seem to signal the end of our dreams, that they do not get the last word.  That God has not abandoned us even if we cannot hear or feel God’s presence.  That we should not lose hope.

We are keepers of the story.  And we must share that story with others.

We know what happens in seven days, as we light candles and watch and wait and hope that Jesus will be born in a manger.  We believe that he will come as a babe bringing life and good news.  And yet even as we mark the time until that day, we do not know the day or the hour when Christ will once more return.  Advent merges those periods of waiting together and so we hear about the Day of the Lord during this season and we read about the preparation for Jesus’ ministry by John the Baptizer in addition to the Annunciation.  The stories come together into one stream and the themes of waiting and expectation intermingle.  Just as we know the babe will arrive on that silent night once more, so we can hope that Jesus will come again at that Second Advent.  We can be joyful in knowing that as he was once born, so will he come again.

We hold out these stories of hope for those who do not yet know them or who have been confounded by despair.  How do we know that those who go out weeping carrying the seed will come again with joy, shouldering the sheaves?  Because God has done it before and promises to do it again.  God promises to never leave us or forsake us.  We shout “Rejoice!” on this Third Sunday of Advent to declare that even in the darkness, we know that the light will never be put out.  We know that God will once again restore our fortunes, just as God did so long ago. The Lord restored the fortunes of Zion—of Jerusalem—and then the dreams they had were restored.  Like the watercourses in the desert—not just trickles or streams, but water coursing through those dry places to bring sustenance.

As followers of the one to be born and the one to come again, we need to hold out that hope for each other and the world.  Because there will be days when we will want to give up, days we want to take on the name “Bitter,” days when all will appear to be ash and smoke.  We will experience times when we will need to hear the story again and be reminded of the faithfulness of our God, the Lord who has done great things for us.

That song of Peter Gabriel’s that I like so much doesn’t end with his lamenting, of course; the title is “Don’t Give Up.” Kate Bush, the female voice, comes into the song as a counterpoint: Don’t give up, You still have us, Don’t give up We don’t need much of anything, Don’t give up, ’Cause somewhere there’s a place, Where we belong.” She continues, “Rest your head You worry too much It’s gonna to be alright When times get rough You can fall back on us, Don’t give up, Please don’t give up.” 

“When the Lord restored our fortunes, then were we like those who dream, then were our mouths filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy.”  “Rejoice always,” as St. Paul puts it.  Even in the dark times when your world is closing in.  Remember the stories of hope.  Remember that the people of Israel made it back to Jerusalem.  Remember that Naomi becomes a grandmother and her line stretches down to King David and further beyond to that cold night so long ago when a baby came to a couple who had to sleep out in the barn.  She no longer remained “Bitter” but once again lived into her given name Naomi meaning “pleasant and delightful.” Her heir is coming again soon, in just a matter of days, bringing hope once more.  We just need to trust.  And never, ever give up.  Amen.