Among the readings we associate
with Advent are these words from the prophet Zepheniah, depicting a day of celebration.
"The Lord is in your midst, God will rejoice over you with gladness, ....as
on a day of festival." (Zeph. 3:14-20) This is an exceptional image, for
it paints a God who is not so serious or so powerful as to stand above and apart
from the people. This God appears in the midst of the people, taking part in their
Trying to capture the power of this passage, a colleague
writes. "The image I have is of God as a rabbi at a Jewish wedding lifted
on the shoulders of the dancing guests celebrating the union of the bride and
groom." Calls to rejoice and celebrate are frequent in scripture, but the
image of God actually stepping up to share in our human celebration, dancing,
if you will at a wedding reception, is rare.
It's rare, and I fear it may
be too simple. For in the midst of good times, it's relatively easy to celebrate.
Whereas the true test of faith is whether we can celebrate when things are not
going according to plan. It was this way for the Apostle Paul when he wrote his
letter to the Philippians. It was during a time of mounting persecution. Paul
had already been arrested, and was being held in a Roman prison, and he was writing
a letter of consolation to the little church in Philippi. Paul knew that hard
times were coming for such small clusters of Christians all across the empire.
But he wanted to share with them a word of encouragement, so he wrote: "Have
no anxiety about anything, but ... with thanksgiving let your requests be made
known to God. And the peace of God which passes all human understanding, will
keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."
no anxiety about anything....." ....Easier said than done!
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding.
This is the source of the joy we feel in God's presence. And it's a joy that can
come when we least expect it, even in the face of circumstances which would not
appear to give much reason for rejoicing. Perhaps that's the difference between
true joy and mere happiness. It was so for Jesus when he shared his last moments
with his disciples - and he knew that death was waiting in the wings, but still
he said to them: "These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in
you, and that your joy may be full." He said this at the supper which he
knew would be his last; he knew he would be leaving them very shortly, yet the
one thing he wanted them to remember him by at the moment of separation was the
joy. As Fred Buechner puts it, "Happiness turns up more or less where you'd
expect it to be -- a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy,
on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it."
when God comes a calling on us, all our occasions shall dance for joy. That's
what the apostle discovered even as he sat there in his lonely prison cell. God
came dancing down the corridors of that dreary prison and filled him with a peace
which did surpass all human understanding.
Which brings me back to the beginning,
to the lesson from Zephaniah, which pictures God dancing in the midst of the people.
When I shared this image with a friend the other day, it sparked her memory and
inspired her to tell her story. She has graciously given me permission to share
it with you in the hope that it might help someone else. It speaks to the kind
of joy we are discussing here. The person of whom I speak is now in her mid eighties,
but when she heard about the God who could dance at a wedding, she was inspired
to tell the story of her divorce, which happened some forty years ago. It followed
ten years of pain in a difficult marriage. During that whole time her husband
was involved in a series of love affairs, and would not, or could not, give the
habit up. For ten years she struggled to make the marriage work, keeping the vows,
she thought, for better, or for worse. And there was their nine year old daughter.
... Wouldn't it be better for her sake to hold the family together? Finally she
discovered that her husband had fathered a child with another woman. After days
of painful conversation and reflection, she graciously offered to take the child
in, and raise it as her own, it would be her child too. Her husband scoffed at
the idea. "He laughed in my face."
"He laughed in
more than she cold take. She decided to make the break, taking her daughter to
a tropical island, where it was possible to get a divorce, simply by filing papers
after six weeks of residency. Mother and daughter registered at an inn with a
heavy metal fence out front, and a large, imposing gate; there was a hand-painted
sign outside which read: "Heaven's Gate." Hoping for some words of healing
in a time of painful transition, she brought with her a copy of Mary Baker Eddy's
Science and Health. Not
exactly the sort of book most of us would take with us to that proverbial deserted
island. But when times are tough, we sometimes reach out for straws. And in any
case, she wanted to use this time to make some decisions about the future and
if possible, to get closer to God. Maybe Mary Baker Eddy cold help. Unfortunately,
the book was a bust.
Heaven's Gate was another story. Lovely inn-keepers,
with a nine year old daughter. A flock of other folk, come to the same island
to end failed relationships, all presented the opportunity to share their stories,
and begin new friendships. There was a lawyer from Washington State; a swarthy
German from St Louis.
My friend and her daughter became very close to the
inn-keepers and their daughter. In the days they explored the island and its lovely
beaches, swimming at crescent bays lined with tamarind trees; at night, they listened
to the music of the steel band, shared long dinners with the other guests, dancing
with the governor of the island, black and white together. And the German began
to take some interest in my friend. "He was so good looking and so gracious
to me, I felt like a real person again. I really blew my top!," she finishes
the story with a flurry, throwing her hands up in delight, a tremendous look of
glee spreading across her face in the sheer joy of the memory, reveling in the
feelings of that hour even though it happened more than forty years ago.
in this story of joy and liberation, there is God, The Spirit, dancing in pleasure
and in delight to the music of the steel band, alongside the woman who is feeling
truly free for the first time in ten long years. And she finds God, not in the
book of theology, but in the food, and the dancing, and the good times with her
daughter, and the friendship, and the love, all of which are cause for great rejoicing!
As surprising and as delightful as the one who bequeaths them. God celebrating
not in the consummation of a marriage, but in the discovery that real joy is possible
once again for a middle age woman and her daughter even in the pain of betrayal
and divorce. At Heaven's Gate.
At Heaven's Gate
As Paul indicates in his letter to the Philippians,
we are to rejoice, not just in the good times, but in all times. And when things
are seeming rather hopeless, and when even a holiday like Christmas seems to have
lost its luster, we can still rejoice in the Lord. In closing his epistle to the
Philippians, Paul gives this formula, not for mere happiness, but for the deep
joy that comes from God. When times are difficult, and when the bad things seem
to be getting the better of you, then suggests the apostle, think on these things:
"whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there
is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned
and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the peace of God which surpasses
all human understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Rejoice
in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice."
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.