Why does the assembly in Jerusalem weep when they hear the reading of the book of the Law? Is it because they know how far they have been from keeping it, and how little they have understood about God’s way with them? Such awareness would feel to them like a judgment, and this is not an unusual response to the scriptures. We might be familiar with this kind of feeling, and if we accord the Bible any authority in our lives, it is often the authority of correction, of setting us straight because we have not been good and faithful followers of God’s decrees.
But this story has a surprise ending, and it proposes a different kind of response to the word of God, for “Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep… "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
“the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
Could this be the “take home message” of the Bible—that ours is a God of joy, who delights in us? Could it be that this message is given to us so that we might take strength from it to live fully and generously, with hope and courage and determination?
Jesus seems to think so. At least this is how Luke portrays him in the synagogue at Nazareth. This is the only scene in all the Gospels where we hear Jesus reading directly from the Scriptures. As Luke tells it, this is a familiar setting for Jesus—no doubt he has read here before, but this time will be different. For Jesus will not read the opening of the 61st Chapter of Isaiah to elucidate some fine point of moral discipline, or to demonstrate any metaphysical thesis. Rather he will use the scriptures to authenticate and articulate his own identity and mission. And his identity and mission are to manifest, in his own life, God’s will to save and heal and free us. The joy of God is us and our world transformed by the power of shalom, of peace and wholeness, well-being and harmony, of right action and respectful relationship. The creative Spirit of God gave the imagination of this joy to the ancient prophet, along with the courage to announce its arrival. And in Jesus, the arrival is now. The shalom of God stands in the synagogue, and all the potential of this world to be a place of joy and not condemnation, of liberty and not bondage, of true seeing, and not blind folly, is a living, breathing reality.
So begins the public career of Jesus of Nazareth, and it’s important for us to remember this scene because of our inclination to think and act as if it never happened, as if the joy of God were still just a remote dream, some nice words on a dusty old scroll. Or worse, we like to imagine that God is not joyful, and never really was, that the gift of the only-begotten Son was just a momentary lapse. Our rejection of that gift at the Cross, some say, only served to confirm God’s low opinion of us and our world, and since then God has resumed his accustomed practice of toying with us cruelly before putting us out of our misery.
There has been a lot of that kind of thinking going on in response to the catastrophe in Haiti. I’m not referring to the cries of the Haitians themselves, who justly, and with solid biblical precedent, arraign God and bewail their seemingly endless suffering. I’m speaking rather of our co-religionists who sanctimoniously preach the Bad News, pronouncing punishment on Haiti for her sins. I’m speaking also of our secular intellectuals who would never let the name of God pass their lips in thanksgiving for the innumerable blessings of good fortune that they enjoy, and yet seize on this moment to wring their hands over the evidence of God’s indifference or non-existence.
I do not have answers for these people, but I do have some questions.
It is a profound and irreducible mystery that the Earth we inhabit is a living organism. Her astonishing fecundity is warmed and nourished by a pulsing heart, a remnant of the fireball from which the Sun was born. It is a world that shakes and erupts, that storms and surges, and yet it is this dynamism, which can be awesomely destructive in this or that place, that maintains on the whole a miraculous diversity and abundance of life. Is such a world the result of God’s malice or God’s providence? And the poverty that crippled Haiti before the earthquake and last year’s cyclones?; the greed and cruelty that created her as a giant slave plantation?; the savagery of her war of liberation?; the economic embargo of European powers determined to make a bad example of her?; the repeated invasions and despotic proxy rulers?; the extreme disparities of wealth?; the shoddy construction, the inadequate infrastructure, the weak and corrupt governance: are these also to be charged to God’s account?
Last week our diocese sent out an email with a link to a video clip on the Wall Street Journal website. Some of you may have seen it. It was about Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin of the Episcopal Church in Haiti. He now presides over a diocese that is physically destroyed. Its cathedral, nearly all of its churches, its schools and social service centers, its university—all have been reduced to rubble.
He and his surviving priests have taken refuge in one of their schools, where there is a cafeteria and a rapidly diminishing reserve of food and water. On the night after the earthquake the grounds of the school were opened to the newly homeless and the few tents that they had were given to the first arrivals. So began a camp that has sheltered as many as three thousand people. Now, before the bishop can even begin to think of rebuilding a church whose worldly substance has been lost in an instant, he has to find food and medicine and proper sanitation for a small town’s worth of people that have moved into his only remaining house and now have nowhere else to go. Yet, as I watched him describing the situation to the interviewer in the video I was impressed by his calmness and simplicity, his complete lack of self-pity --“That’s the way life is,” he says, “there are moments like this, moments of sadness. There are moments of celebration.” And then, incredibly, a smile comes across his face, the smile of someone who has considered all the possibilities and has chosen to proclaim good news to the poor. “What is important,” he says, “is to keep the faith. We must keep the faith, knowing that God is with us, in the good as well as in the bad days; we must keep the faith.”
This is the strength of one who knows of the joy of God. His proclamation is for us a gift of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is a generous giver, endowing each of us with particular gifts, but what brings these gifts to perfection is that we are able to give and receive them in harmony with others in the body of Christ. And the life of that body is the joy of God manifest in Jesus Christ. The words of his Gospel and the grace of his sacraments are meant to communicate this joy to us, so that we might receive strength like that of Bishop Duracin. I am sure that the Bishop gives thanks for your gifts of money to relieve the emergency and for your prayers for him, his church, and his nation. But I venture to say that he is even more thankful to you for keeping the faith, for preserving the hope that this turbulent world is filled with God’s shalom. Just as we give thanks for the Bishop’s apostolic presence in a situation of extreme suffering, he would give thanks for the ways that your life bears witness to the living presence of the joy of God, in times of sadness and times of celebration, on good days and bad. “The joy of the LORD is your strength” is still news, and through Christ, in the Spirit, we have the freedom every day to believe it.