“Concerning Joy”

Psalm 126

The Third Sunday of Advent

(audio begins at about 20 seconds)

“Those who go out weeping will come home with shouts of joy.”  Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from today’s psalm; a single, simple sentence which captures one of the most fundamental hopes of the Christian faith; the deep and abiding, strong and enduring, hope that, someday, God will wipe all the tears from every face, and joy, not pain, will have the last word.  Or, as this morning’s psalm says, “Those who go out in tears will come home in joy.”

All of which is beautiful to ponder, and hopeful to believe, but all of which must be spoken in ways that are so careful to be so truthful that they ring true, not only on the happiest ears in the room, but also on the saddest ears in the room.  The rest of the world can lapse into a glib and easy way of speaking of joy if it chooses, but we are not the rest of the world.  We are the church of Jesus Christ; so we don’t get to wander off into that “sunny side of the street” optimism which races to embrace joy without first stopping to sit truthfully with the pain which is so deep for so many.

We live in a world where joyful things happen and terrible things happen,  and, if any of those things can happen to anyone, all of those things can happen to everyone; not because God planned it or sent it or allowed it, but, because, as our Lord Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “The rain falls and the sun shines on the good and the bad the same.” 

And, in most lives there is plenty of both; rain and sun, laughter and tears, joy and pain.  As Mrs. Soames said in Act III of Our Town, looking back on her life from the vantage point of heaven, “My, wasn’t life awful . . . And wonderful.”

Truer words have rarely been spoken. Almost every life is both, awful and wonderful; some times a sea of joy, punctuated by islands of pain; other times a sea of pain, punctuated by islands of joy, a convergence of joy and pain which the poet Mary Oliver captured in her verse; “We shake with joy, we shake with grief.  What a time they have, those two, housed, as they are, in the same body.” 

Indeed, isn’t it so?  Earlier this week, I prayed my way, one more time, through our church roll, A to Z; Abell, Adams, Aden, Alexander, Aldridge, Allen . . . Wooley, Worley, Wyatt, Wylie, Yates, Yelverton, Zeigler. In most of those four hundred and something homes, there has been, and will be, plenty of both; pain and joy, because that is the way life is for all of us.  “We shake with joy and we shake with grief.”

I can’t think about all this during the sacred season of Advent without remembering my late friend Bobby McCord. Bobby, like myself, grew up in a decidedly non-liturgical religious world. So, the first time he walked into his church over in Georgia and saw an Advent wreath adorned with three purple candles and one pink, he declared, with no small degree of indignation, “Can this church not afford a matching set of candles?”  Newly initiated into the ways of the liturgical church myself, I took Bobby aside and explained to him that three purples and a pink is a matching set of Advent candles; purple, in Advent as in Lent, a reminder of the bruising pain of repentance, and, pink, the liturgical color for joy; a circle of bruises, interrupted by a flash of joy, which Bobby and I agreed was, in fact, a perfectly matched set, not only for Advent, but, also, for life; some pain and some joy.

But, the last word will be joy. There will be no lack of sorrow and trouble, struggle and pain; not because God is that way, but because life is that way. And, we will have to have one another, and the family of faith, to face it, bear it and make it through. But, finally, ultimately, eternally, those who went out weeping will come home laughing.

As one wise soul once said, “Things will not always hurt the way they do now.” God will someday wipe every tear from all the faces of the whole human family, and every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea will sing glory to God, and hallelujah; all of us, together, warming our hands at the same flame;  the stubborn, relentless, unquenchable, endless, eternal, everlasting light of joy.