Thursday, July 19, 2007

“Mourning Into Dancing”

Psalm 30; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20[1]

When you look around at our world, there is much to be troubled about. As John Calvin put it, “we are harassed by such a variety of afflictions, that scarcely a day passes without some trouble or grief”![2] My favorite reformed theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, puts it in a more humorous, if more personal way. In the face of the promise that all things are new because of Jesus Christ, he says that all we have to do to confirm that “the old is still there and becoming always older” is look into the mirror![3] I think the pun about “becoming older” is intended!

And when we look around us, we find even more reasons to despair. Places like Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, Afghanistan, are wracked with the violence of war and have been for years—in some places, for decades! In Darfur, where civil war has been going on for much of the last 50 years, rebel groups are being systematically exterminated by government-armed terrorists, just as the Tutsis were in Rwanda in the 90’s.

Those whose lives are not directly threatened by the violence of war are in many cases still threatened—either by the consequences of war, or by government corruption, or simply by crises in nature. Aid organizations estimate that 1/2 of the world’s population—roughly 3 billion people—live at the level of subsistence, and are only one drought or flood away from extinction. And in this country, thousands are just a paycheck from being destitute and homeless. And thousands more are homeless.

When you look around our world at the tragic suffering that is so widespread, at the injustice that is so prevalent, it may seem obscene to even talk about “dancing” with joy.[4] How can anyone in good conscience feel happy while so many are suffering so desperately? Sometimes we might get that feeling from Psalms of praise like our text for today. When you look at the tragedy around you—and you probably don’t have to look far—it seems almost delusional to say something like, “Sing praises to the Lord”!

But the praises of the psalms don’t stem from naïve delusions about life.[5] They come right out of the depth of pain and suffering. But they look at that pain and suffering from a different perspective. The Psalms of praise reflect the joy of redemption —or at least the joy of the hope of redemption. The Psalms of praise to God reflect the faith and the hope that “wonders have not ceased, that possibilities not yet dreamt of will happen, and that hope is an authentic stance.”[6]

The praises of the Psalms reflect a joy that is inspired by God—the confidence that God will never fail us or forsake us, but will be with us as a “very present help” no matter what our circumstances.[7] The praises of the Psalms reflect the joy that comes from the assurance that God will keep his promises and make all things right and restore everyone and everything to life.[8] The Psalms praise God because the hope and faith that assurance brings transforms our very lives. In a real sense, the hope and faith we learn from the Psalms is a major element in what in means to be “restored to life.” From that perspective, the praise of the Psalms reflects a joy over being restored to life; [9] it is the “laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated”;[10] it is “rejoicing with the God who Himself has eternal joy and is eternal joy;”[11] it is “the deep confidence that God is good and that God’s goodness somehow prevails.”[12]

If you’re thinking that this sounds like the disciples’ joy over the presence of the kingdom of God in our Gospel lesson for today, I think you’re right. Jesus continually bore witness to the joy of the Kingdom—in his parables, in his proclamation of the Gospel, and in his life. Much of what the Gospel of Jesus the Christ represents is joy from the faith that God’s kingdom of grace and new life is already transforming this world. And that conviction frees us so that we can live joyfully now![13]

Think of the joy that Jesus must have felt when he said, “Blessed are the poor.” Some might wonder who in their right mind would say that! Or “blessed are you who mourn.” What’s so “blessed” about grief and sorrow? But Jesus wasn’t looking at life through rose-colored glasses. He was looking ahead with joy to God’s future, where the sorrowing would be comforted, the poor would be supplied with all their needs, and the oppressed would be set free to live the lives they were meant to live. He was looking for the day when God would turn all the mourning in the world into dancing with joy over the new life he has given us all. And he was filled with joy because he knew that God’s kingdom of grace and new life are already at work making all things new![14]

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/8/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, on Ps. 30:5, quoted in H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 355.

[3] J. Moltmann, “Look, Everything Has Become New,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 35.

[4] J. Moltmann, “Joy in the Revolution of God,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 114.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II:1, 654.

[6] Patrick D. Miller, “In Praise and Thanksgiving” Theology Today 45 (July 1988): 186; he calls this “joy in anticipation.”

[7] Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 357.

[8] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 140-41; cf. Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 31, where he says that only God can be the true source of our joy. Cf. also ibid., 18, 48.

[9] Walter J. Burghardt, S. J. “Gospel Joy,” The Living Pulpit (Oct-Dec 1996): 38-39.

[10] J. Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle, 72, 73, 74.

[11] Barth, Church Dogmatics II:1, 649.

[12] Nouwen, Mourning Into Dancing, 51.

[13] Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, 78, 80, 190-91; cf. also J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 97-98.

[14] Paul Tillich, “The Meaning of Joy,” in The New Being, 150; cf. J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 152-53.

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