I Wonder (Isa. 35:1-10; Php. 4:4-7; Lk. 1:46-55) Advent 3: Joy
The words I read to introduce our first hymn were taken from what is called the Song of Moses in Exodus 15, and are commonly agreed to be some of the oldest poetry in the Bible, and so, arguably, some of the earliest words to express faith in the God of the Bible. Here they are, again, from the pew Bible: “Who is like you O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendour, doing wonders?”
This is, I think, a pretty good translation until we get to the last two words “Doing wonders,” which might say that God works miracles or wonders in the world, and it’s true that the Bible sometimes pictures God this way. But that’s not exactly what these words mean here. In fact, the word “wonder” is singular, though it’s translated as plural in many English versions. I rather suggest that the word means what it says. God “does (or creates) wonder.” The 77th Psalm says much the same thing that God “creates wonder.” These texts say that God is the doer or maker, either of the things that cause wonder, or, perhaps, of wonder itself. I’ve been helped to think about “wonder” in the Bible by a number of books by William Brown who teaches Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. In a new book he takes up the last part of the long definition of “wonder” in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is:
The emotion excited by the perception of something novel and unexpected, or inexplicable; astonishment mingled with perplexity or bewildered curiosity. (W. Brown, Sacred Sense [Eerdmans, 2015]: 4.)
As I say, wonder is an ambiguous word. It can mean “to wonder at” or “to wonder about.” It can be raised when we are confronted with things we do not understand, that are beyond us (whether pleasant or unpleasant). We are both off put and attracted. We do not only “wonder at,” we go on to “wonder about.” Wonder in a sense of puzzlement and awe often leads to wondering about and finding the patterns and elegance that science discovers in the natural world and art, literature, and music finds in other places.
Wonder may be caused by things too grand for us, as in looking up at the night sky out in the country, or the great tides of the sea, or the grand canyon, or the Mississippi River, or Pike’s Peak. Or it can be caused by a baby’s smile, or the seashore teeming with wonderful diverse, tiny lifeforms. Wonder arises from relationships with others: spouses, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren and so on. Wonder is roused by a Frost poem, a Mozart symphony, a Bach fugue. Each of these can cause us to catch our breath a little in awe and wonder. And, then we are drawn on into wondering about the world or our relationships or music, art, or literature.
The words of the song “I Wonder As I Wander” partake of the ambiguity between wondering at and wondering about. But there’s also a kind of “lateral wonder.” Wandering out under the sky causes “wonder at” the sky, but , for the hymn writer this turns to wondering about “how Jesus the saviour did come for to die” – two central messages of the Christian gospel. Wonder of one kind can lead to wonder at another. And to wonder about something else. Wonder can never absorb its object by wondering at or about it. And this is so whether it’s about the Christmas miracle or microbes or galaxies or the daily miracle of life and love on planet earth. Or many other things.
You may be thinking, “What wonder has to do with Advent, most specifically, with the joy that we celebrate on this Gaudy Sunday?” Joy is another ambiguous term in the Bible. The Bible uses many Hebrew and Greek words to mean “joy” or “rejoicing.” Together these words usually mean something more like “confidence” than “giddiness.” Joy in the Bible is quite often the deep and abiding assurance that, whatever happens, God is sovereign, and with us. St. Augustine wrote: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” This rest in God is joy. Often that confidence breaks out into an inner smile, that, if it’s a colour is red not gray.
I would propose that the word joy is descriptive of the experience of being in the continuum between wondering at and wondering about. It comes, at moments, in the pursuit of wonder. It is the feeling that comes along a line with wondering about God at one end and Jesus and resting in God and Jesus at the other. Joy is a resting place in a pilgrimage of wonder. I am not saying that this the only way to feel joy, but it does appear to be so in at least two of our Lectionary texts.
Our Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 35 is a prelude to the symphonic poem that occurs a few chapters later, in chapters 40-55, and summarizes many of the themes of those chapters. This poem is about the wonder that happens when God comes to people who feel alone. The people who received this text were in a mess, and people who receive now it still are. They need God to show up and cause things to happen.
And, when God comes, things do happen all right! In fact, this poem says it causes a revolution in all kinds of ways: It makes the desert bloom, rehabilitates people who can’t walk, stand, run, hear, or think, to do all of the above, and it makes a highway that is broad and straight through desert places to bring people home. Now, remember, this is a poem, and we read poems amiss to think of desert places really rejoicing, or (from a different poem in Isaiah) trees actually clapping their hands. These are images of people and places brought to shalom – wholeness, health, energy, and well-being. What a wonder! I wonder how that could be in this world, so full of the hate and narrowness we talked about last week (which has not abated in interim, of course)? If it could, it would bring smiling joy.
The Gospel is Mary’s song from Luke 1, and it grows out of her first reaction to bearing the Messiah, found earlier in chapter 1, when she said: “How can such things be?” What a wonder when God comes, in this way, for this purpose! Once again, when God comes, things happen! Unpredictable, unaccustomed things that cause wonder to well up within us.
In Luke’s story, when Mary said these words, she was pregnant and probably about 13 years of age. The first thing God said was that such was not only OK, but God’s will and plan. That might surprise some who think that “family values” always refer to certain kinds of marriage, issuing in two kids and a dog. These are imagined values, really, of early 20th century US culture. But they were not only imagined but imaginary even then among folk in Mary’s situation. What a wonder that God did not choose someone who had avoided messes!
Mary’s song was actually banned by the government of Guatemala in the 1980’s because they understood the words, and, considered them subversive and politically dangerous. They are. Her song starts by rejoicing in God who saves. And, by this, she does not mean the cozy value of getting right with God at an evangelistic service (or a baptismal font) and living ever after in the 1950’s morality of Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot, and Puff. That wasn’t what made Mary sing. No, what rejoices Mary’s heart in God is that God, rather, saves this way:
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…
In Mary’s day, every peasant like her knew who the proud, the powerful, the rich, the lowly, and the hungry were. It was her view, from these words, that the little life within her was going to start a revolution that would be a joy to some and a plague to others. Herod the Great understood it, as he tried hard to eliminate the threat of this King of the Jews, this Messiah. One writer said that it may be that only two people truly understood how subversive and dangerous this little life of baby Jesus was going to be. Herod the Great and the 13 year old Mary.
To move from wondering at this text to wondering about it, when we hear that Jesus’ coming means that God’s bringing an upset to the way things are, do we rejoice as God’s people today? Do we kid ourselves that God’s idea of salvation has changed? Do we understand that it is the role of the followers of this Messiah Jesus to understand what he was up to? For the most part, we, here in the privilege of the West, have to understand that we are the proud in the thoughts of our hearts (listen to the politicians), we are the powerful on our thrones, we are the rich. All of which means that, if this text be applied in its simplest sense, that when God arrives, we will be scattered, brought down, and sent away empty, while those miserable beggars in such places as Africa and South America and Asia, not to mention at our doorsteps, are the ones who will be lifted up and filled with the good things rather than us. I made the brief comment that wonder is not always pleasant. Many of us don’t want to think of things that way, do we? It is perhaps not surprising that some that have cried loudest for a literal, simple understanding of the Bible, have not wanted to read this text in its simplest, most literal way, but have wanted to spiritualize it almost completely.
If we do hear this text, we may begin to understand that our blindness, deafness, lameness, and dumbness may be more economic and social than physical. To heal these things, we need to listen to Mary’s baby boy, who did not conquer Herod by playing Herod’s kind of power game, but out-loved, out-graced, out-included Herod and all the Herods that followed and still do. What a wonder! Does it give us joy in any way? Does this make our spirits smile?
Our Epistle Lesson turns us from wondering at these things to wondering about what they imply for us. As I said last week, this passage sets out four key characteristics that mark communities of Jesus. Paul said, Let joy, gentleness, prayer and gratitude be your community hallmarks. My proposal is that, although Paul commands,“ Rejoice in the Lord,” that joy, that smile in our souls, cannot be commanded. Rather, it comes as we experience the God who makes wonder. Communities of faith need to be living with the wonder of God in Jesus, and have moved from wondering at it all to wondering about how they can translate his beloved community into our world. And, so come, three further Christ-like virtues: gentleness, prayerfulness, and thankfulness. We may complain we don’t know exactly what these words mean. That’s an excuse. We may not know exactly what is included in gentleness, but we know what isn’t. And we see a lot of what it isn’t in our world daily, from surprising people. We must know what it means to be prayerful. Most times it means talking to God less than listening to God. And, giving thanks for one another, is, though not easy to do, easy to make a goal. Be like this. And joyfulness might just break out in our world. And do we ever need it!
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.