One of the things I do as I think about preaching is to read the texts early in the week and underline the fragments that stand out for me. As the week proceeds things turn up that seem to speak to those bits. The piece that stuck in my mind this week is Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. He writes that to rejoice always and to pray without ceasing. Praying without ceasing I can imagine from the traditions of Christianity that tell us to make our lives a prayer. Celtic Christianity offers prayers for every waking moment – prayers while milking cattle, prayers for walking, prayers for preparing food for meals, prayers for mopping the floor as well as grand prayers of the creation and God’s love for us. Monastic traditions balance prayer of work and prayer gathered in community. Like breathing, prayer is done as we go out and as we return, scattered and gathered, sown and reaped.
The psalmist sings of this cycle in terms of loss and renewal. Tears of great sadness and songs of joy are intertwined in lives fully lived. Giving our selves to fully living and loving is opening our selves to wounding but also for receiving incredible gifts.
Praying without ceasing opens us to seeing the holiness shining through every moment not matter how mundane. Paul’s “rejoice always” is more difficult for me – but perhaps it is the result of the praying without ceasing. When we see the holiness in every moment we can rejoice even though grief and pain are a present reality. It does not take away the grief or the pain but gives us a place to lean into God when life feels very unsteady. Not easy to pull off, though. Isaiah, in our reading from Hebrew Scriptures and John the Baptist, in our Gospel, both lived in hard times yet stayed focused on that which really matters.
Imagine a time when a people are oppressed by foreign powers; imprisoned and heartbroken, feeling hopeless. Or maybe if you watch the news it is not too hard to imagine, as it is reality in many parts of the world. This is the world into which Isaiah speaks:
The spirit of the Yahweh is upon me
because Yahweh has anointed me
God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed
bind up the brokenhearted
to proclaim liberty to the captives
to release the prisoners
to proclaim the year of the God’s favor
to comfort all who mourn
The people of Israel have lost everything, their place of worship destroyed, their leaders made captives, their land taken by others, their wealth gone. And yet Isaiah comes preaching hope in the midst of despair.
John the Baptist also lives in time when a foreign power holds the country captive, taxing unmercifully, co-opting religious leaders with promises of calm and safety, to maintain the empire. Many are living in poverty or eking out a living from a few sheep and a little land. He preaches a message that hope is coming and has come into the world and is embodied, incarnated in One who is in their very midst, that the light is shining even in the darkest moments of our lives.
Neither Paul, nor Isaiah, nor John preaches of a false happiness but of the deep joy that carries us through good times and bad times.
Jesus promises that if we take on his way of living we can cast off our heavy burdens imposed by culture, by our fears, by our own actions. When we yoke with him – the burden will be transformed into an ease and lightness. On Wednesday I was listening to a daily podcast from Pray as you go. As is the way of serendipity or the Spirit – the message was if we feel joyless and overburdened by our life and work, especially our supposed work for God, perhaps it is because we have taken on something that is not really from God. Perhaps it is not what God is asking of us at all. The mark of God’s call to us is a sense of deep joy in our life and work. It is not a promise of a painfree easy life but it is a promise of peace in the midst of conflict, joy in sadness, and tranquility in crisis. We live in perilous times - although Wyoming often runs opposite to the national economy - many of us are feeling the effects of fear for the future if not right now. Care and Share Food Bank has had more people show up for food than ever - so we are not immune. Staying centered in God will not save us from everything but it will help us to see what is really important and what is not.
Our collect (prayer) for today, the 3rd Sunday of Advent is for Jesus to stir up power and come among us or another way of saying it is "give us the power to see you in our midst and give us the energy to follow you." Sin is the inability to see clearly what God would have us do, the inability to see neighbor as self, to see the creation as God would have it be. Following the way of Christ allows us to see how we are to be in this world and what we are to do or not do. It allows us to let go of our fears. Praying without ceasing is a way of taking off the blinders and being able to rejoice always.
Ted Loder says it this way:
Hidden God, wherever you are, in your own kind of space,
we watch and wait for you to startle us to wakeful
newness in this Advent season.
Come and thrust into us the spirit of daring and courage,
to make flesh on earth a bit of the kingdom of heaven.
Come and lift up the valleys
of our discouragement and doubt and denial
and make level the mountains of our greed and pride,
so we may see your glory revealed once more
in us and in all our brothers and sisters
from the shepherd least to the magi lofty.
Come lace our songs, our shopping, our celebrations
with your mystery and strange magnificence,
and let us sense it in the small, strange stirrings
of the earth and of our hearts, now and always.
Ted Loder, _My Heart in My Mouth