When God Sings

There’s a song I used to sing to our kids when they were younger.  Sometimes I would sing it to them simply because I would have one of those moments when I would look at them and just be filled with joy from the simple fact that they exist.  It just made me happy that they were there. So I would sing this silly song to them.  But sometimes, more often, really, I would sing the song because they were in a snit about something and being pouty and cranky and not their real, better selves.  So I would sing.

Look at that face, just look at it, look at that fabulous face of yours!

I knew first look I took at it this was a face that the world adores.

Look at those eyes as wise and as deep as the sea!

Look at that nose!  It shows what a nose should be.

As for your smile, it’s lyrical, friendly and warm as a summer’s day.

That smile is just a miracle, where would I ever find words to say

The way that it makes me happy, whatever the time or place.

I’ll find in no book what I find when I look at that face.[1]

Did anyone ever sing over you?  To you?  About you?  It’s hard to remain gloomy if someone is singing to you.  

Most of the Book of Zephaniah is full of doom and gloom.  For two long chapters, the prophet makes it abundantly clear that God is mightily upset with idolatry, the ways the rich are taking advantage of the poor, and the way justice is being perverted.  But then suddenly at the end of his long, angry poem, the prophet changes his tune.  Suddenly his song about the end of the world becomes a song of grace and forgiveness. 

Sing aloud, daughter of Zion; shout, all Israel!

Rejoice, daughter, and exult with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem!

The Judge of All Flesh has taken away the judgments against you…

The sovereign of Israel, Creator of the Heavens and Earth, 

is in your midst, daughter; no longer shall you fear evil.

The Ageless One, your God, is in your midst, daughter,

a warrior who will deliver salvation;

who will rejoice over you with gladness, daughter,

God will renew you in love, daughter,

God will exult over you, daughter, with loud singing.

Zephaniah had been telling the people that God was about to erase them from the face of the earth, but then he stops and says, “No, that’s not what God’s going to do at all.”  God forgives you.  God loves you.  God is with you, next to you.  God claims you as a daughter.  So let’s sing!”

It’s a kind of resurrection.  Zephaniah had declared them as good as dead.  But then… grace! Forgiveness!  Joy!

God will renew you with love. 

God will exult over you with singing. 

Loud singing.

Can you imagine God exulting over you?  

Can you imagine God singing about you?  

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus is the Word who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, but maybe we could also see Jesus as the Song that God sings to us, the embodiment of the music of all creation who was and is in our midst bringing grace, restoration, and resurrection.  

That’s what the gospels are about, you know.  They are songs of restoration and resurrection.  

At the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, right after Jesus has cast out an unclean spirit in the synagogue, he goes to the home of Peter and Andrew, accompanied by James and John.  There he discovers that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill with a fever.  Jesus takes her by the hand and lifts her up and the fever leaves her.

When Jesus has restored Peter’s mother-in-law, Mark tells us that she served them.  We tend to bristle at that.  Personally, I like Wilda Gafney’s translation here.  She says that Peter’s mother-in-law “ministered to them.”  The verb in question is diakoneo and it can mean both to serve and to minister to.  That’s the verb that’s used in Mark 10:45 when Jesus describes himself as one who came not to be served, but to serve.  He tells the twelve that “whoever wishes to be first must be last and servant of all”  and “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”  

Serving is the mark of faithful discipleship.  It’s what followers of Jesus are supposed to do, and at the end of Mark’s gospel, we see that it is the women who followed Jesus who really understood about serving.  They were the ones who remained faithful to the end.  It’s entirely possible that Peter’s mother-in-law was among those women.  She rose to serve.  And maybe she just kept on serving Jesus all the way to Jerusalem.

Jesus took her hand and lifted her up.  What it actually says in the Greek is that he raised her up.  It’s the same language that is used in Mark 16 when the startled women at the empty tomb are told that Jesus has been raised up. Mark wants to understand that resurrection wasn’t just the end of the story, it was part of the daily ongoing story of Jesus.  The verb egeiro, to raise up, is used repeatedly in Mark’s healing stories.  In Mark 2:9, it’s the verb Jesus uses when he tells the paralytic to rise up.  In Mark 3:3 he tells the man with a withered hand to rise up and come forward.  In Mark 5:41 it’s the word he uses when he takes Jairus’s daughter by the hand and tells her to rise up.  In Mark 9:27, when a boy who has had a seizure is lying on the ground “as if dead,” Jesus takes him by the hand and tells him to rise up.

So often we yearn for Jesus to take us by the hand and give us the strength to rise up.  When it feels like life has just knocked us flat—when we get some bad news, when our most important relationships seems to be high on tension and low on love, when we feel alone and beset by one dang thing after another, when life feels like a small death and a series of tragedies, we yearn for Jesus to take us by the hand and raise us back to life.  We yearn for a small, everyday resurrection.

We all know that need.  We all know that feeling, that yearning for the hand of Jesus.

Thomas A. Dorsey wrote a powerful song about it.  It was Martin Luther King’s favorite song and he asked Mahalia Jackson to sing it at civil rights rallies.  Leontyne Price sang it at the state funeral of President Lyndon Johnson.  Aretha Franklin sang it at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral.  It’s a song about our yearning for everyday resurrections.

Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:

Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

When my way grows drear,
Precious Lord, linger near,
When my life is almost gone,
Hear my cry, hear my call,
Hold my hand lest I fall:

Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

This is Jesus’s ministry of resurrection.  Everyday resurrections.  Time after time in the gospels, time after time in our own lives, he takes our hand, lifts us up and sings us back to life.

Christ sings us back to life so we can rise up and serve each other and carry the song of resurrection, the song of new life, the song of God’s great love to the rest of the world.  Jesus takes us by the hand and raises us up out of our feverish troubles and pain so we can raise up others out of their feverish troubles with the outstretched hand of Christ and the promise of Zephaniah.  God is in your midst.  Christ is with you.  

Rise up.  God will renew you with love.  And God will exult over you with singing.  Loud singing.


[1] From The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newly

When John Came A-Wassailing

So here it came a singing toward us, the third Sunday in Advent. Gaudete Sunday. Rejoice Sunday. The Sunday we light the pink candle in the Advent wreath, the candle of Joy. As I looked at the lectionary texts for the week, it was easy to pick up the theme of joy. Well, it was easy to find joy in the first two readings anyway.

The first reading was from chapter three of Zephaniah. I think we only hear from Zephaniah maybe once every three years in the lectionary, but it’s worth waiting for. Did you hear that marvelous line in verse 17? “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing!” What a picture!  Have you ever imagined God singing about you? To you? I sing to my dog sometimes just because he makes me happy. He seems to like it.  It’s kind of fun to think of God singing about us, to us, like that. So there’s some joy. That one was easy.

And then came the second reading from Philippians, that wonderful passage from St. Paul’s love letter to the church at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say Rejoice!” Well that’s pretty clear, too. So okay! Right there in those first two texts I’ve got plenty to work with to lay the groundwork for Gaudete –Rejoice- Sunday.

But then comes the Gospel reading from Luke 3, and, frankly, John the Baptist kind of sucks the wind right out of rejoicing. “You brood of vipers.” “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” “The axe is at the root.” “The chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.” Yeah. That’ll take you right to your happy place.

So I’m thinking about these texts and about Rejoice Sunday and about trying to tease some joy out of grumpy old John the Baptist, and in the middle of all that I found myself thinking about… wassailing.  What can I say?  It’s that time of year.

When the pagan Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain in the middle of the 5th century, they brought with them the tradition of wassailing. Wassailing, of course, eventually became Christmas caroling, but it started out as something very different.

The word wassail comes from the Saxon phrase Wæs þu hæl which means, “be thou hale” or “be thou healthy” or “be thou well.” At their celebration of the Winter Solstice, the Anglo-Saxons would go out into their orchards and sing to their cider trees, their apple and pear and cherry trees, to wake them up from their winter sleep and to encourage them to be healthy, to produce good fruit so that they could have a plentiful harvest of good cider. “Wæs þu hæl!” they would sing. “Be thou healthy.” And it occurred to me as I thought of all this, that this is kind of what John the Baptist was doing as he was preaching at the Jordan. He was wassailing. He was singing out that it was time to wake up and be healthy. So maybe there is some joy there somewhere between “You brood of vipers” and “the chaff will be thrown into the fire.” Or at least a calling to joy.

With all that in mind, I began to re-imagine my picture of John preaching by the Jordan. Instead of seeing him as a voice of foreboding, instead of hearing him cranky and impatient, I imagined him singing. I imagined him wassailing to wake the people. So I decided that this was what I would do in my own orchard, my own parish, on this third Sunday of Advent. I wassailed to them.  I sang to them.  And it went like this…

When John Came A-Wassailing

In the fifteenth year of sovereign rule of the Emperor Tiberius,
In a time of ruthless potentates and wrongs both small and serious,
The Song of God fell into John, the son of Zechariah,
And he sang it out so strongly they thought he might be Messiah.

But he said, “No, I am not the one you all have been expecting.
I am just the song that sings out where our paths are intersecting.
I’m not worthy to receive him or to tie his sandal thong!
He is the Maker of all Music and I am just one simple song.”

Like a wassailing in the orchard to wake the cider trees,
The song of John cut through their crust and brought them to their knees
As they heard a new reality and began to realize
That the reign of God might now unfold before their very eyes.

So he sang them to the river, saying time was of the essence,
And immersed them in the cleansing flow of forgiveness and repentance,
And his song filled up the wilderness with a Word to spear the heart
Until the crowd was all convicted as their masks were torn apart.

He sang, “You children of the covenant, you children of the promise,
You children of the circumstance and times that are upon us,
All you questing, anxious seekers, all you folk both awed and flawed,
Are you ready to stand naked in the searching gaze of God?

“All you tax-collecting schemers, all you servants of the sword,
All you noble trees and saplings in the orchard of the Lord,
Yes, your roots go deep as Abraham and you’re clothed in your tradition
But that’s not enough to save you from your pathway to perdition.

“O you brood of sneaky vipers, O you children of the snake,
Who warned you of the wrath to come? Who told you what’s at stake?
Did you think that life was something you could skate through or could fake?
Well, my sleeping trees of Zion, it’s time for you to wake.”

Then in dismay the people cried, “John, tell us what to do!
If our heritage means nothing is our fate left up to you?”
And he said, “No that’s not in my hands, but it is somewhat in yours,
For the Winnower we’ve waited for is at the threshing floor.

“So now’s the time to change the way you think and see each other,
Now’s the time to change the way you treat your sister and your brother,
Now’s the time to change your heart and mind and show it by your fruits
With more honest and more decent and more generous pursuits.

“So give away your extra coat to the person who is shivering,
And give up half your sandwich to that hungry kid who’s quivering,
Don’t take more than what you’re meant to take, don’t lie, extort or cheat,
For the Winnower is coming and he’ll sift us all like wheat.

“Yes, the time has come to bear the fruit of new life and repentance
For you’ll reap the harvest that you’ve sown, you’re writing your own sentence.
Even now the axe is at the root, even now your options dwindling,
So will you produce good cider? Or will you be so much kindling?

“For the One who fashioned every soul finds a use for each and all.
Will you be the cider in the cup or the fire that warms the hall?
Will you be the sweet aroma drawing others to the table
Or dissipate as so much smoke in a cautionary fable?

“And I know this all sounds frightening– to be assessed, appraised and weighed–
Every one of us has cause to fear, but I sing, ‘Be not afraid!’
For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,
Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.

“And I’m simply here to tell you in this wild and holy place
You have another chance to be made new, a chance to live in grace,
For one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn
But to find every seed of love and good and make it grow again.

“So this song that sounds so ominous, it really is Good News!
For the God of second chances hopes that you will not refuse
To change your heart and mind and ways and show it by your fruits
With more loving and more honest and more generous pursuits.

“For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,
Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.
Yes, the one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn
But to find every seed of love and good and make it grow again.”

—–

So now as the lights of Advent, hope, peace, joy and love light your way to Christmas, Wæs þu hæl!  Be thou hale.