I look forward to continuing the conversation in these other places!
There are images circulating around the internet right now that I’ve seen seminary pals posting on Facebook that say, “what do you mean Easter is over?! Easter lasts 50 days!” But it’s easy to forget after all the glorious celebration of Easter Sunday that we get to continue the party. And part of this means being able to rock out the “hallelujahs” again!
The Lenten ban on “hallelujahs” or “alleluias” is something that I really try to uphold, but it gets hard because I love music. Even with pop music, I’ll be singing along in the car, feeling the music, bopping along, and then I realize that I’ve let the forbidden word slip. Oops. One of these songs is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which has been covered by everyone and their brother. You’d think that with a title like “Hallelujah” I’d be able to see it coming and restrain myself, but it’s still really hard because it’s a great song! It is, however, a melancholy kind of song – the kind of song that makes me well up and want to let out all the emotion in my soul.
Music can do that to you. It can carry you away so that you say “hallelujah” even in the middle of Lent or it can move you to tears. And speaking of great music, we’re going to hear some fantastic music in just a few minutes. In reading over the text of Benjamin Britten’s piece, which is printed in the bulletin and was written by Christopher Smart, I was at first a wee bit baffled by the lyrics. But as Gerry and I discussed the piece, I became really moved by what it was saying. One part of it that really caught me were these lines:
Hallelujah from the heart of God,
And from the hand of the artist inimitable,
And from the echo of the heavenly harp
In sweetness magnifical and mighty.
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.”
First of all, Christopher Smart’s poetry is mysterious and beautiful. Second, I was hooked by this idea of a “hallelujah from the heart of God.” What does that mean?
Hallelujah is a Hebrew word. Well, actually, if we want to get technical, it’s two words – “Hallelu” and “jah.” And this phrase is a command that means “you all praise God!” So when we shout “hallelujah,” we’re really saying “ya’ll praise God now!” It’s an exclamation – something that is not just for us, but that is meant to draw others in. “You all praise God” so that we can join our voices together in praising and worshiping God, just like a choir.
But what would “hallelujah from the heart of God” mean? I think it means something incredibly profound. I think it means our praise of God doesn’t start with us. It starts with God. This may sound like a really foreign concept for us, but it shows up in the psalms as well. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. By the LORD has this been done; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. … You are my God, and I will thank you; you are my God, and I will exalt you, Give thanks to the LORD, for the LORD is good; God’s mercy endures forever.”
Psalm 118 is part of the praise psalms whose primary purpose is to praise and glorify God. And the writers and singers of these psalms praise because God is who God is. They give thanks and exalt the Lord because of who they know God to be and because of what God has done. They give praise and bear witness to how God has been active in their lives in order to point to God and to share the goodness of God. They shout “hallelujah” and command “praise God,” inviting others to join the song of praise. They invite them to be a part of the chorus of hallelujahs by sharing with others what God has done for them.
We even see this in the Gospel of John: “now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” All that we hear in this Gospel is written down so that we may come to believe in and worship Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. All these amazing things about Jesus’ life, miracles or signs, death and resurrection have been written down in order to invite us to believe. All these things that have come from the loving heart of God and have been graciously and generously given to us – these things invite a hallelujah. What we’ve experienced as the goodness and mercy from God’s own heart should evoke a hallelujah – our praise of God.
In all of this, the question is this: do we give praise and shout hallelujah in order that we, as well as others, might believe?
When I am struggling with unbelief, or doubt, or missing out on that encounter with God, I recall what God has done in my life and in the lives of those I know. I listen to the stories of others who are praising and bearing witness to God’s action in their lives. This hearing and remembering what God has done helps to spark gratitude and praise in my life. It helps me to continue believing – and as we hear in the Gospel of John, it’s through this believing that we have life to the full in the name of Christ.
On Wednesday, I watched a TEDxChange event that was put on by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. TEDTalks are devoted to “ideas worth spreading” – sharing ideas in order to make a difference in the world. At Wednesday’s event, several speakers and poets took the stage, but the topic all were focusing upon was “positive disruption.” The speakers spoke about ways of positively disrupting the world in order to make a difference – whether through better health care for women, contraceptives, or famine relief.
But I love that phrase “positive disruption.” I think that’s what “hallelujah” is in our lives. It’s a shout. It’s a word you want to blurt out. It’s a positive disruption or interruption in our lives in that it shakes up our doubts, sorrows, and difficulties and fills us again with gratitude, praise and joy. It’s the word that bursts the tomb and offers us Christ, standing before us saying “peace be with you.” It’s the word that causes us to think about what God has done. It’s the word uttered from another’s lips that causes us to remember God’s goodness even when we feel far from God. It’s the word that energizes us and helps us remember that we are invited to live our lives as responses to God’s love.
Today, may we let our hallelujahs burst forth in our words, prayers and songs. May we let the Spirit stir up in us those hallelujahs that were born in the heart of God. May we, with our hallelujahs, invite others to praise God. And may we continue the celebration of Easter all our days.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.
This was my humble and much wrestled with attempt to speak to the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut. May we continue to pray for God’s peace for the families and community affected, as well as for all people and nations. And may we be peacemakers, sharing the love we have experienced in Christ Jesus with all those we encounter in both our words and our actions.
Today is Gaudate or Joy Sunday. And the readings we’ve just heard are bursting with praise and joy. But to be honest, I don’t really feel a whole lot like rejoicing. I’m still thinking about the horrible shootings of the past week – two in one week. I’m sad and wondering how this could have happened. I’m frustrated and I’m angry that once again there have been shootings in our country.
I guess when I think about it more, I’m just tired. I’m tired of turning on the news and hearing about continuing bloodshed in Syria, or more trouble in Israel and Palestine. I’m tired of hearing about tragedies happening in movie theaters, temples, malls and in schools. I’m tired of all the bad news.
And so it seems that these texts for today are horribly out of place given what’s been going on in our world. But I think just the opposite is true – these texts have a lot to say to us this morning, particularly the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
I really love this letter to the Philippians. It’s positive and upbeat, it includes the Christ Hymn in the second chapter, and it’s full of these wonderfully written sentences and phrases that I have found incredibly valuable in my own spiritual life. Not to mention, it’s short and that makes it seem a little bit easier to handle!
But there’s a lot more depth to these four chapters than we might think at first glance. The Philippians were living in what is now northern Greece along one of the major Roman trade roads of the day – the Via Egnatia. In addition, the city of Philippi, once a backwater town, had become a sort of retirement community for Roman military personnel who had fought previously with Marc Antony and Octavian against Brutus and Cassius – yes, “Et tu, Brute?” So the city had a Roman vibe.
Then, in around 50 CE, this guy named Paul had founded a tiny church – the first on European soil. As a follow-up, Paul writes to the Philippians to share what he’s been up to, to encourage them to stay united in Christ, and to continue in the faith despite opposition. And he’s not just writing this letter from his cushy home office, he’s sitting in a prison cell, knowing that his life could seriously be in danger. Prisons in Paul’s day were not places for punishment or reform, but rather places where people would be held until a verdict could be reached. Paul was waiting to see what would happen.
It is with all this in mind that we hear four verses of Paul’s letter to the community at Philippi. We hear about rejoicing, about not worrying, and the peace of God.
How on earth is Paul able to write, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice?” If I were sitting in a dark, dank prison cell, pondering the possibility of my death, as much as I’d like to, I honestly don’t know if I’d be able to write that. And yet, Paul is not the only prisoner I know who has had this attitude.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis during WWII for various charges, the gist of which was that he wasn’t following the Nazi party line as he should have been. During Christmas of 1943, sitting in prison, away from his family, friends and fiancée, Bonhoeffer wrote a Morning Prayer included in a collection of “Prayers for Those Also Imprisoned.” The prayer is rather long, but here’s a portion of it that echoes Paul’s words:
“In me it is dark,
but with you, there is light;
I am lonely, but you don’t leave me;
I am faint-hearted, but with you there is help;
I am disquieted, but with you there is peace;
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I don’t understand your ways, but
You know the way for me…
Lord Jesus Christ
You were poor
And wretched, and imprisoned and abandoned like me.
You know the affliction of all people,
You stay with me,
Even when no person stands with me.
You don’t forget me and you search me out.
You desire that I recognize you,
And that I turn myself towards you.
Lord, I hear your call and follow.
These words help to clarify for me some of what Paul was talking about.
All of the things Paul talks about in these four verses – rejoicing, not being worried, receiving the peace of God – all of these things only happen in the context of what God has done first. We are able rejoice, but we rejoice “in the Lord.” We are not concerned or worried about the things we face, because in all things, we can always bring our prayers, requests, and questions before God. And we receive the peace of God that guards our hearts and minds “in Christ Jesus.” In God, come down to earth in a fragile, vulnerable baby, we rejoice, we pray, and we know God’s peace.
What is peace? How do we define it? There are two KFC commercials right now that feature the tagline: “find some peace this holiday.” One shows a man using chicken to quiet two women, who are laughing and gabbing, while the other shows this same man pacifying his fighting children with chicken and chocolate chip cookies. Is that what peace is? Quieting down the noise with fried chicken?!
When we say we long for peace or that we’re praying for peace, what is it that we’re actually saying? Are we hoping that people will stop being physically harmful to one another? Or are we hoping that conflicts will cease? What does peace mean to you? What does peace look like and feel like to you?
I think we often have a more limited view of peace. I think our idea of peace sometimes looks like something that you’d hear in a beauty pageant – “I wish for world peace and for everyone to have a puppy!” Both awesome things, but a little limited.
God’s peace is far greater than that. God’s peace is “shalom” – completeness, soundness, safety, health, prosperity and wholeness. God’s peace is nothing short of the complete healing and wholeness of an aching world. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine it. Wars cease. Painful conflicts end. Bitterness between politicians disappears. Words of love and joy flow from peoples’ lips. Sharp and hurtful remarks are gone. Relationships are healed and restored. People feel and are safe and secure because this peace from God is permanent – it is not temporary or confined like human peace.
This is the peace that Paul and Bonhoeffer knew. It was in the hope of this peace that they lived and died. It was in this peace that they waited for Christ’s return, just as we do today. And it’s not that their lives were free from the pains, tragedies and sufferings we experience. No – just the opposite! They had more than enough trials and ordeals. But they knew that the Lord was near.
They knew that God had come into a violent, worrisome world as a vulnerable child to live life among us. They knew that God, the holy One of Israel, had lived life as a poor peasant – an outcast. They knew that this same God, had faced the injustice and violence of the world head on, and had been crucified. They knew that this God – the God who worked through weakness and the unexpected – was raised from the dead conquering sin and death once and for all. And they knew that this God had done all of this out of love for God’s beloved children.
They knew that they could take all of their struggles, worries, problems, fears, doubts, questions and joys to God in prayer and supplication. They knew to give thanks for the good things and to let their requests – all of them, even the most mundane – be made known to God. Knowing all of this, they lived with the peace of God guarding their hearts and minds. They were able to rejoice in the goodness and the promises of God even in the midst of persecution, violence and injustice. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might, and has become my salvation.”
We catch glimpses of or experience this peace from time to time. We may feel God’s peace surround us when praying or being prayed for. We may witness courageous souls stand up against violence and hate in favor of love. We may see it in little children who go caroling through the neighborhood, lifting a neighbor’s spirits. God’s peace – God’s kingdom – is breaking in, despite all that we have seen to the contrary. It has always been this way.
The peace of God is found in expectant hope. We see the horrors of the world around us and yet we know what God has done for us in Christ. We watch the news and we pray, knowing that God hears us and is at work, even if we cannot perceive how. We wait and hope for that day when God’s peace will reign. We wait and hope for Christ’s coming, knowing that all things will be made right at last.
It will take time to grieve the losses we have experienced this week. Even if we were not in that Oregon mall or at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we are all grieving. We are all wondering what the next steps will be. But God is also grieving. God is grieved anytime there is suffering in this world. And God knows the unbearable pain of losing a child. But God also knows that death does not have the last word. There is light that the darkness can never overcome. There is peace that no violence can take away. There is life that comes forth from death.
I’ll close with the last verse of the hymn we are about to sing: “O God, whose heart compassionate bears ev’ry human pain, redeem this violent, wounding world till gentleness shall reign. O God of mercy, hear our prayer: bring peace to earth again.” Amen.
© 2012. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.
We light one candle.
We wait in expectant hope.
We light two candles.
We pray and work for peace.
We light three candles.
We rejoice for Christ draws near.
We light four candles.
We love and rest in love.
We light candles
And the light of the world
Rekindles us to new life in him.
© 2011. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.