Look & See
Philippians 1:6 & Baruch 5:1-9
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
5 December 2021
Today is one of the rare occasions when even our Protestant lectionary gives us an apocryphal text for the Old Testament lesson. And so we have this passage from Baruch, a book that claims to be written by the student and scribe of the Prophet Jeremiah, but likely came much later, probably in the century just before Jesus was born. And it draws upon various images and words from other Old Testament writings, including today’s passage which relies a lot upon the Book of Isaiah.
And I have paired that with one sentence from this week’s epistle lesson, a reminder that we are not finished, that God is still working on us. Hear now these ancient words:
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
for God will show your splendour everywhere under heaven.
For God will give you evermore the name,
‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory’.
Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;
look towards the east,
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot,
led away by their enemies;
but God will bring them back to you,
carried in glory, as on a royal throne.
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God’s command.
For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of his glory,
with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God within us,
For the Word of God among us,
Thanks be to God.
Of course I am not the resident musical theatre geek. That would be Katie Miller. But I am a gay man, so that gives me license to have opinions about musical theatre.
The theatre world, the popular music world, actually vast swaths of American arts and culture, have been mourning and eulogizing Stephen Sondheim, who died last week at 91 after a long career as a composer, songwriter, and creator of one Broadway hit after another. Few Americans have had such a lengthy and rich influence on our culture as Sondheim has. So it was good this week to read and watch the many tributes of him and his work.
The Sondheim show I’m most well acquainted with is Into the Woods. I first saw it as a teenager when the local college performed it. And I was impacted by its storytelling. The first act, which is a fun and enthusiastic mish-mash of various fairy tales, concludes with what appears to be the happy ending, only for the second act to descend into complexity, darkness, and ambiguity, raising rich questions about how we tell our stories and, therefore, how we live our lives.
In a tribute that appeared this week on the Atlantic’s website, Amy Weiss-Meyer wrote about Into the Woods and Sondheim’s overall approach to endings. She said, “He never believed in simple happy endings, but he knew exactly how to take advantage of his audience’s yearning for them.”
Yes, we do long for a happy ending. We long for everything to turn out right in the end. That if we work hard and do the right thing, life will be good and blessed. But, that’s not what always happens. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things don’t turn out the way we expected them to.
Back in the summer when the church staff picked our Advent theme, we began by acknowledging that we had no idea what to expect pandemic-wise come December. Would we be in the midst of another winter surge or would vaccinations lead to a decline in infection rates or something else?
We then realized that this idea of expectations was the right way to orient our focus. Of course there is the other meaning of “expecting” that has to do with being pregnant, of waiting for a baby to be born. And the last time we used expectations in our advent theme, in 2015, it was precisely this idea that shaped our worship. The joy and excitement and risk involved in waiting for new life. “Wonderful Expectations” was our theme.
But in 2021 our expectations are more unclear, complex, ambiguous even. As like to be full of anxiety as they are hope. Much less that we’ve learned the very hard way the last two years that what we expect might not happen and that we must be somewhat ready for the unexpected. Though, how can you ever really prepare for what’s unexpected?
So, we focused our idea for Advent worship around this ambiguity of waiting.
In her Atlantic tribute, Amy Weiss-Meyer reflected on how Sondheim’s wisdom about endings speaks precisely to the moment we are in in the course of this pandemic. She wrote,
Sondheim’s work was at its strongest when it lingered in the pain of the dawning realization that no ever after ever lasts long. His music and lyrics looked squarely at life and insisted, gently and eloquently, that of course it was never going to be exactly how we wanted it to be, that messiness and ambiguity were to be expected, and could even be part of the beauty. Voices overlapped, words whizzed by, anxiety and sorrow and joy were written into the very structure of the songs.
So, maybe this Advent, our spiritual growth will be measured by how much we’ve learned that messiness and ambiguity are to be expected and can even be “part of the beauty?”
And beauty is precisely what today’s scripture lessons imagines for us. “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction” we are instructed by the author. And instead, we are to clothe ourselves forever in beauty, the beauty of the glory from God. Wow, just wow! One of grandest statements in our scriptural tradition, I think. Definitely, worthy of our attention when we find ourselves in the midst of sorrow and affliction.
And then the passage continues. We will be robed in righteousness and crowned with glory. God’s going to show off our splendor, everywhere. And we will receive the name of “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.”
After these wonderful lines, the author invites her readers to arise and stand and look and see that their children are coming home, rejoicing. They were carried away in exile by our enemies, and all have suffered, but God has spoken and the reunion is about to occur, just look and see.
And the road we children will be traveling home on, instead of being through a difficult wilderness, will be made smooth and plain and easy so that we might travel in safety. And there will even be fragrant shade trees all along the way.
If Paul in Philippians declares that God is still working on us, something like this vision from Baruch is the work that God is trying to complete. God is turning us into our best selves.
What amazing images. What joy, what excitement. Baruch describes about as happy an ending as one could imagine.
But dare we imagine that ending? Can we truly hope for it? Are we fools if we expect it?
Frederick Buechner has a profound little book entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, in which he reveals the ways in which our Christian story has all three types of endings. It isn’t simply a happy ending; it messier and more ambiguous than that.
This week I read again through the chapter on how the gospel is like a fairy tale. The primary point Buechner makes is that in the Gospel, as in most fairy tales, our expectations get messed up. The noble king might really be the villain. The beautiful woman might end up being the witch. The poor and dirty peasant is likely to be the hero of the story. Or, as the gospel tells it, this child, born in a barn, in a small town on the edge of the great empire, to a teenage mother who was pregnant before she was married. Among the most marginalized figures one could imagine—that’s the truly human one, the child of God, the savior of the world, the king of kings, the prince of peace, etc., etc., etc.
Buechner also writes that “Like the fairy-tale world, the world of the Gospel is a world of darkness.” The Gospel understands that all its visions, hopes, and dreams come in the midst of sorrow and affliction. In fairy tales the characters learn to see beyond this world and its darkness to the place of beauty and joy.
And so the spiritual wisdom that Frederick Buechner wants to cultivate within us is that same sense of vision. He writes,
If with part of ourselves we are men and women of the world and share the sad unbeliefs of the world, with a deeper part still, the part where our best dreams come from, it is as if we were indeed born yesterday, or almost yesterday, because we are also all of us children still. No matter how forgotten and neglected, there is a child in all of us who is not just willing to believe in the possibility that maybe fairy tales are true after all but who is to some degree in touch with that truth.
To see the possibilities of beauty and joy and hope is to see like children again, full of amazement and wonder. And isn’t that part of what we enjoy about the holiday season? Doesn’t it, at its best, break through our adultness and return to us a sense of magic and splendor and awe?
We don’t want to give up longing for, hoping for, even expecting the happy ending. While at the same time we have to learn that messiness and ambiguity are also to be expected and are themselves part of the beauty. I like the poem by Hafiz that was read earlier, even when we are lonely in the darkness, there is an astonishing light in our own being. Or as Baruch imagines, beyond the sorrow and affliction are splendor, joy, and peace.