Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Mourning into Dancing, Take Two

Mourning into Dancing, Take Two
Psalm 30 [1]
Last week I talked about how the way this world looks can shake anyone’s faith. In light of the suffering and tragedy in our world, I asked the question, how do we go on celebrating the good news of Epiphany that God has not left us to our own devices, but has entered this world, so that wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, the all-powerful and all-loving God is always there. I think there’s another question we have to address, however: In light of all the suffering and tragedy in our world, should we celebrate that good news? At any given time, people around us are going through all kinds of hardships—loss of health, loss of job, loss of marriage, loss of loved ones. Does our celebration of the Gospel of Epiphany come across as so much gloating?
When we look at the world at large, there are even more reasons to question this good news. Places like Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan, have been wracked with the violence of for years—in some places, for decades! 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, millions are just a paycheck from being destitute and homeless. And millions 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 even to talk about “dancing” with joy, as the Psalmist does in our lesson for today. 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. They come right out of the depth of pain and suffering.[2] The difference is that 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 we’ve been talking about—that wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, we are constantly surrounded by God’s love.
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.[3] The praises of the Psalms reflect the joy that comes from the assurance that God will keep his promises, especially his promise never to leave us or forsake us.[4] That very faith itself transforms our lives. From that perspective, the praise of the Psalms reflects the “laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated”; [5] it is “the deep confidence that God is good and that God’s goodness somehow prevails.” [6]
Is that kind of confidence in God’s goodness and love inappropriate in our world full of violence and oppression and suffering? Should we express “the joy of being restored to life?” Should we utter the “laughter of the redeemed?” I think it depends entirely on how that joy is expressed. If it is expressed in an arrogant and condescending way—as it sometimes can be—then I think it is entirely out of place in our world.
But if it is expressed humbly, sensitive to the pain and suffering around us, I think it is entirely appropriate for us to celebrate the good news that God constantly surrounds us all with love. Especially the case in that most of us have a history behind our celebration—most of us have gone through the fire, and come through the high waters, and endured pain and suffering, and come out on the other side with the conviction that “had the Lord not been on our side” we might never have made it.[7]
From that perspective, it is entirely appropriate for us to express our joy over the goodness of God that has prevailed in our lives. It is entirely appropriate for us to celebrate the Gospel of Epiphany that God is always with us, surrounding us with love, regardless of our circumstances. The witness of our deliverance joins with the a virtual chorus of witnesses throughout the ages who have not only believed the Gospel of Epiphany, that God does not leave us alone but is with us constantly, but also have experienced in our lives as we ourselves have come through our personal suffering. In fact, we are called to celebrate that Good News in part to encourage those around us who may be in the midst of their own suffering.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/12/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-59, 356.
[3] H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 357: “The new reality of the nearness of God and the help of God fills life and determines the understanding of existence.”
[4] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 141: “Praise is the way the faithfulness of the LORD becomes word and is heard in the LORD’s world”; 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.
[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle, 72, 73, 74.
[6] Nouwen, Mourning Into Dancing, 51.
[7] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreter’s Bible IV:796, where he says, “the psalmist has arrived at a new awareness of God’s presence, even amid suffering, when God appears to be absent.”

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