Advent 3: Branches of Meaning

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One of the Bible’s primary promises is that everlasting joy is on the way. Rev. Victor and the Calvary Choir explore the mystery of meaning and how God’s promises sound like joy, and God’s Good News is worth repeating. This Sunday, find meaning at Calvary.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scriptures

 

Isaiah 35:3-10

Strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees. Say to all those of faint heart: Take courage! Do not be afraid! Look, The Lord is coming, vindication is coming, the recompense of God—God is coming to save you!” Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be unsealed. Then those who cannot walk will leap like deer and the tongues of those who cannot speak will sing for joy. Waters will break forth in the wilderness, and there will be streams in the desert. The scorched earth will become a lake; the parched land, springs of water. The lairs where jackals used to dwell will become thickets of reed and papyrus. And through it will run a highway, a road called the Sacred Path. The unclean may not travel by it, but it will be for Gods people alone; and no traveler—not even fools—will go astray. No lions will be there, nor will any fierce beast roam about it, but the redeemed will walk there—for those whom God has ransomed will return. They will enter Zion shouting for joy, with everlasting joy on their faces; joy and gladness will go with them, and sorrow and lament will flee away.

 

Matthew 11:2-11

While in prison, John [the Baptist] heard what the Messiah was doing. The Baptist sent word by his disciples and said to Jesus, Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, [those who cannot walk] walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written[1], See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

 

Luke 1:46-55

Mary’s Song, “Magnificat” Canticle of the Turning by Rory Cooney, GIA Music, 1990.

[1] Here, Matthew again (3:3) references Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3, the opening strains of Second Isaiah and also Handel’s Messiah.

 

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Full Text of Sermon

 

Our Countercultural Roots

Last week, Rev. Cal reminded us that Isaiah prophesied[1] how the wolf shall lie with the lamb. Also last week, Isaiah told us that one day we will trust leopards to tend our goats. This week, a saltier version of Isaiah emerges, some of today’s reading written much later[2] than last week’s scripture. At this point, Isaiah has had it up to here with animal predators and writes, metaphorically, about the Sacred Way:

No lions will be there, nor will any fierce beast roam about it, but the redeemed will walk there— for those whom God has ransomed will return. (referencing the Exile) They will enter Zion shouting for joy, with everlasting joy on their faces; joy and gladness will go with them, and sorrow and lament will flee away.[3]

 

A world without predators or predatory behavior! Can I get an amen? I did not see this one coming. On the path that leads us home, on the Sacred Path to God, predators are forbidden. Yes, everyone is called to a closer walk with God, but God expects us to love one another. We don’t even have to like one another, but we do have to love.[4]

All three passages today itemize some the most counter-cultural roots of our faith. This morning’s opening hymn is a scriptural paraphrase of the Magnificat.[5] Mary’s Song also inspires the art on your bulletin, by Jan Richardon. Consider the Magnificat. Can you imagine a fourteen-year-old, unwed, Near-Eastern mother-to-be proclaiming publicly a world turned upside down? Considering Greta Thunberg’s recent treatment[6], I can only imagine how a teenage Mother Mary would be berated today: singing of the one percent turned away wanting, the poor and homeless fed and housed, and, no doubt, predators banned from Twitter!

 

Repeat the Sounding Joy

It’s not a coincidence that Calvary’s leadership, elders and deacons, are ordained today when Jesus says to bring good news to the poor. And the prophet Isaiah promises that there will be joy in all hearts and on all faces. It is not a coincidence that this Sunday is set aside for that very joy.[7] Calvary’s Advent theme is “Repeat the Sounding Joy” in honor of the 300th anniversary of “Joy to the World.”  Since preachers who apply the scripture to current events too clearly are often misunderstood, let’s look at this through another lens. Two weeks ago, Joann talked about the words of “Joy to the World”, and today I’ll consider the music. When debuted in the 1700s, “Joy to the World” went like this.[8]

Our tune is number 40 in your hymnal, written 117 years later by a Presbyterian composer named Lowell Mason. Did you know that this Presbyterian composer stole melodies from Handel’s Messiah? It’s okay, composers do this all the time. It’s a tradition, and besides, they can’t help it.[9] Lowell’s first borrowing comes from this:

Mason reformed, reused and recycled Handel’s music into this:

That initial musical quotation is pretty easy to hear: the same intervals, close to the same affect and tempo, etc.

Joy is to Happiness as Love is to Like.

            The third line of “Joy to the World”—the “repeat the sounding joy” part—is also from Handel’s Messiah but less obvious. Perhaps you’re familiar with the overture: minor key, serious French overture style to allow nobility to enter the concert hall, followed by a fugue-like clamoring of tunes piling over one another, building building building to this [end of overture].

And then [Comfort ye] everlasting Joy.

What is this sweet transformation! “This is the one about whom it is written[10], ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’” This is prophetic John the Baptist music, words from Isaiah, and it is so meaningful that it was turned into “repeat the sounding joy.” It’s not the sound of happiness, it’s a deeper emotion: joy. Joy will be written in their hearts and on their faces. Joyful religious people. Hint hint. We have so much to be joyful about. Now, Handel did not know his creation would be repurposed with new meaning. Neither did Isaac Watts did not suspect as much for “Joy to the World” but Lowell Mason, like Michael Conley, was an inspired Presbyterian composer.

 

Transitional Isaiah

The same goes for how today’s scripture from Isaiah was redacted and reformed, repurposed and recycled. Our ancient prophecy today, Chapter 35, is considered part of First Isaiah, but there are some interjections of material that could only come after the Babylonian Exile. Isaiah 34 and 35 function as a bridge from pre-Exile First Isaiah to the savvier post-Exile Second Isaiah. Biblical scholar Christopher Seitz observes that Isaiah does not record “Zion’s defeat but, more mysteriously, moves from the promise of victory amidst the nations…to foreseen exile and finally to bring words of comfort and forgiveness…”[11] in the ‘comfort ye’ and the ‘prepare ye’ of Chapter 40. So, in honor of Rev. Cal Chinn[12], I hereby declare Isaiah chapters 34 & 35  Transitional Isaiah.

 

Yes, we’ll gather at the River.

There is a wild river of consciousness, call it God, the Higher Power, the Universal Yes, Unconditional Love. You are here because you feel—or you suspect—it is real. This river is the Life that made all of this possible. Through many voices and languages playing the same tune but at different times and in different ways, the God of Abraham and Sarah has been kept alive, but our God does not have to survive human history; God’s sovereignty and need for good publicity is made clear early on in the Bible. There are many competing religions, and, to paraphrase the prophet Jeremiah, I can’t stop you from worshipping whatever it is you choose to worship.

Our religion depends on us to study it, experience it, share it, support it and demonstrate it. If you want more out of your life, start with this: find someone who needs help and help them. Perhaps a smile at a troubled stranger is all you can muster. Go for it. Say good morning. Help someone. Loving and helping pave the Sacred Path, and Joy is the destination. The meaning of helping is not be thanked or turn a buck, the meaning of helping one another is love: to put someone else’s happiness ahead of your own. It cannot coexist with predatory Me First[13] behavior. Though anyone is welcome to walk it, the Sacred Path expects us to love one another. The Dalai Lama says “Our prime purpose in life is to help others. If you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”[14] At our country’s southern border, there is a variation on an old theme: Babylonian Exile. This predatory worldview berates anyone it cannot bully, like Greta Thunberg or the thousands of other children taken and held away from their parents.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: …the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

My husband, Lou, and I await the release of Peter, a 27-year-old asylum-seeker from Guatemala who, after coming out to his family, had to run from his brother and father who conspired to kill him. Currently, Peter is a voluntary captive at Otay Mesa[15] (ICE Prison[16]) in Southern California. Thank you for praying for Pedro/Peter. Some of you have even written him letters, and he wrote back. Lou and I are looking forward to sponsoring Pedro and introducing him to you. With God’s help, he’ll be here in the New Year. For Lou and me, this is how we want to help someone and bring more meaning into our life. Perhaps this will upend the world as we know it, but it is the cure for the sorrows of materialism and our exploitive culture. Spiritualist Mark Nepo tells this story about the river of meaning.

 

A troubled widower made his way to ask a wise old woman about his troubles. The old woman received him and they walked along a stream. She could see the pain in his face. He began to tremble as he asked, “What’s the point? Is there any meaning to life?” She invited him to sit on a large stone near the stream. She took a long branch and swirled it in the water, then replied, “It all depends on what it means to you to be alive.” In his sorrow, the man dropped his shoulders and the [crone] gave him the branch. “Go on,” she said, “touch the branch to the water.” As he poked the branch in the running stream, there was something comforting about feeling the water in his hand through the branch. She touched his hand and said, “You see, that you can feel the water without putting your hand in the water, this is what meaning feels like.” The troubled man seemed puzzled. She said, “Close your eyes and feel your wife now gone. That you can feel her in your heart without being able to touch her, this is how meaning saves us.” The widower began to cry. The old woman put her arm around him, “No one knows how to live or how to die. We only know how to love and how to lose, and how to pick up branches of meaning along the way.”[17]

 

Considering my life thus far, I realize that I learned music in order to have a way to heal all that was to come, all that is to come. Music is the branch that connects me to my faith (God). Pastoral ministry connects me to my faith (God) alive in other people.[18] It is the broken branch I poke into the deep river of meaning. I urge you to sit down by the stream long enough to muster the audacity to touch your branch to the current, and take the plunge.

Amen.

 

 

 

[1] First Isaiah: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
[2] First Isaiah (pre-Babylonian Exile) proper comprises chapters 1-39. Second Isaiah (post-Exile) makes up the rest of the Book of Isaiah. That makes 70 or so years that went by between First and Second Isaiah. Some scholars posit yet a Third Isaiah and add more years to the history
[3] Isiah 35:9-10
[4] Of course, God can transform predators into loving people fit to walk the Sacred Path. Dr. King was outspoken on love vs. like.
[5] Luke 1:46-55 “My soul magnifies the Lord…” or today: “My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great” in The Canticle of the Turning.
[6] https://www.foxnews.com/politics/melania-trump-silence-greta-thunberg
[7] The Advent “joy” candle was lighted at the beginning of the service.
[8] The tune is in the tenor part, three lines down. It’s G Major. Also, WARSAW (Holyoke) tune, from Harmonia Americana, accessible online at <https://hymnary.org/hymn/HA1791/87>
[9] Musical Borrowing discussed at <http://www.chmtl.indiana.edu/borrowing/>
[10] Here, Matthew again (3:3) references Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3, the opening strains of Second Isaiah and also Handel’s Messiah.
[11] Christopher Seitz, Interpretation: Isaiah (Louisville: John Knox, 1993), 242.
[12] Calvary’s Transitional Pastor Head of Staff
[13] While America First approach is offensive to the gospel, the president’s Me First behavior is an affront not only to the gospel but to the constitution.
[14]  Accessible many places online, including: <https://spiritualityrealizations.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/quotes-the-student-says-i-am-very-discouraged-what-should-i-do-master-says-encourage-others/> (December 14, 2019)
[15] https://www.ice.gov/detention-facility/otay-mesa-detention-center
[16] Why private for-profit ICE prisons are tantamount to human trafficking, <https://www.kpbs.org/news/2019/nov/29/ice-tries-extend-private-detention-contracts-state/>
[17] Mark Nepo, The One Life We’re Given (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), accessed online at <https://marknepo.com/books_onelife.php>
[18] In retrospect, through spiritual reflection, I find that I learned music to find God for myself. I became a minister to find God in other people, also a blessing for myself but hopefully for others, too. Where are you on this journey of faith? I want to know.

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