“It’s Hard To Stay In Exile”
Zephaniah 3: 14-20
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
December 13, 2015
Across the past week, as I have immersed myself in the rhythms of Advent, I have been impressed by how closely this time of year in the Christian tradition resembles the dynamic time that leads up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition. The Jewish month of Elul (that begins somewhere between the middle of August and the middle of September, depending on the cycle of the moon) signals the beginning of 60 days of self examination, repentance, repair of relationships – – all movements of the spirit that find their grounding in the prophetic texts that describe the terrible pain and isolation of the exile of Israel in foreign lands. About halfway through this period, the weekly readings shift from sorrow, and sadness to comfort and peace and reconciliation.
And so it is with Advent. We are at the midway point. We have heard the warnings and admonitions of John the Baptist –calling for us to return from the narrow and sorrowful and conflicted places in our lives – – to turn around and face ourselves toward God. We have encountered, quite literally, the jarring, disorienting nature of exile as we have lived through the emotional and spiritual impact of the events of the last several weeks – – and now – -midway through – -the Advent scriptures abruptly call us to rejoice – to let go of sorrow and entertain joy. The great rhythms of our tradition keep us moving.
It is not comfortable to stay with the 1st half of this 4 weeks of holy time. Yet somehow, we have to confront the discomfort, the sense of unfamiliarity, the dire warnings of the prophets and the gospels, the calls for repentance – – even though we might want to leap over that and find the comfort of the familiarity of Christmas. Early Advent gives us the chance to do the self-examination we need to do in preparation for receiving the gift that awaits.
Our texts for today were written for the encouragement of Israel as they lived out their time as deportees, first at the hands of the Assyrians and then at the hands of Babylon. The brightest and best of Israel’s people had been removed from the land of Judah, uprooted from their homes, their culture, their religious center….
Their homes were destroyed – – and they did not know what the future would hold for them. The Psalms attest to their distress as they mourned…”How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” The writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos and Micah and Malachi are full of the dire warnings about what will happen to Israel because of her failure to live up to her high calling as God’s people. The warnings proved to be true – – and the exile happened.
Exile is a powerful metaphor because exile comes in all shapes and sizes. Exile is happening at every moment – from the massive movements of refugee populations in Europe and the Middle East to the personal exiles we all experience from time to time. Exile might describe the feelings of disorientation that come with a difficult diagnosis. It can come as the anger and sadness that accompany a breach in the family or in a friendship. Sometimes exile is the state of grief when a loved one dies. Exile can be the disjointedness that comes with the loss of our health or with the loss of a job. Exile is, perhaps, most profound when it comes as a dark night of the soul when we feel separated from ourselves and from God. Exile comes in all shapes and sizes – and it is hard to be there.
This is why the ever – rolling seasons of the church year are so valuable and necessary. As Advent cycles around again, we are reminded of our various exiles – those things that often make the Christmas holiday challenging and uncomfortable for us. And we are once again presented with the challenge and the opportunity to make the return trip back to where we sense the greatest peace and well being and wholeness – – represented by the Holy Birth that we begin anticipating in November.
So – here we are – midway through. The 3rd Sunday in Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday – – Gaudete – Latin for Rejoice – the day of rejoicing. We light a different color candle – rose pink – a color for joy – contrasted with the purple of repentance. In our liturgy, unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable hymns of early Advent shift ever so slightly away from the themes of warning and repentance and yearning toward the fulfillment of Christmas as the time of our waiting moves into the final days.
This Sunday is also known as Mary’s Sunday. In some lectionary cycles, Mary’s song of rejoicing is the scripture for today. In Luke’s gospel, Mary sings out: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my savior, for he has looked with favor upon his lowly servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed. (Luke 1:46-48) So, joy and rejoicing are the theme as our anticipation increases – – even thought we aren’t quite there yet.
God’s time is funny that way. It does not move forward in a straight line. It is continually folding back in on itself and seems not to have the orderly predictability of calendar time. This is everywhere evident in the Christian year, but, perhaps most obvious in this season when the pull is toward The Big Day, even while we still have our feet somewhere in the exiles that hold us back. It seems as though only young children get to know a Christmas that is purely joy and excitement. The rest of us keep moving back and forth in God’s time – exile and return, exile and return.
But the inexorable movement is toward reconciliation and peace and wholeness. We are not created to live in exile indefinitely – – and the word for today is that wherever we find ourselves, there is the potential for returning and rejoicing. Zephaniah calls to us: Sing aloud! Rejoice with all your heart! The Lord your God is in your midst….God will rejoice over you with gladness…God will renew you in God’s love…..God will exult over you with loud singing! Imagine! – – a singing God!! Isaiah promises that we will draw water from the wells of healing with joy! This is the promise of the birth we celebrate –made real in the love that is continually bursting into our lives in the person of Jesus.
Even as we anticipate the celebration of the birth, God’s time moves us toward the Holy presence available to us right now in the sacrament of communion – something that happens totally out of synch with this time of year. A celebration instituted at the very end of the life of the One whose birth we celebrate. It almost seems like an Einsteinian moment – when all time is in the present moment – past, present and future. Not so strange really as we celebrate belonging to a God who is, was, and will be both now and forevermore. So wherever we are on the journey between exile and home, let us take a little time in the present moment to rejoice together as we join one another at the table that has been prepared in love for us. May God bless us with moments of peaceful gratitude and glimpses of rejoicing as we break bread together. AMEN