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Comic Relief

December 14, 2015

“Comic Relief” Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7 © 12.13.15 Advent 3C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In the old Eagles tune “The Best of My Love,” the singer laments how “every mornin’, I wake up and worry what’s gonna happen today.” I suspect many of us could say the same. Each day, the news reports another shooting, more hateful rhetoric, some new injustice, more meanness done by someone motivated by a twisted version of Christianity or Islam. And that’s not to mention the usual crime and conflict and garden-variety problems. We hear stories that make us afraid, cynical, and doubtful of the goodness of people and the power of God. And even if we were not daily assaulted from the TV and the Internet with sad and bad news, we would have enough of it as we deal with our own grief and sickness and stress and anxiety about the future. Who can stand against such a relentless attack on our psyches? We need comic relief.

Even if we don’t know that term, we’ve experienced such relief watching a TV show or a movie, reading a book or living daily life. Comic relief is the introduction by a writer of some humor or witty dialogue or even a quiet or romantic scene in an otherwise serious work. The author or screenwriter is trying to give the reader or audience a chance to take a breath and relax in the midst of relentless suspense, tragedy, and horror. In daily life full of sorrow or pain, a card or call from a friend, some diversion like a TV show or sports, a marriage or birth announcement, the smile of a child or the funny antics of a pet bring comic relief, if only for a time.

Something like comic relief is going on today in our worship. Liturgically, Advent was the last season to become part of the church calendar. It grew over the years to parallel Lent. As you know, during this time, we’re called to repentance and action in anticipation of the Second Coming as much as in preparation for the birth of Jesus. In the Middle Ages, believers had difficulty conjuring any sort of joy when faced with thebleak prospect of standing before the harsh Judge on the Day of Wrath, the Dies Irae. That’s how they saw Jesus. So there was introduced a day of rejoicing on the third Sunday of the season. This was known in Latin as “Gaudete” Sunday, from the Vulgate version of today’s Philippians text. The liturgy in the middle of December reminded people that Christ not only was watching their every move, but was also there to reassure and help them.

In keeping with the theme of repentance, the color of Advent is purple, the same as Lent, though some churches have backed off from that and use a particular shade of blue for their paraments and stoles. Other times we see a distinction made between blue purple for this season and red purple for Lent. Whatever the color used elsewhere, the Advent wreath keeps the purple around the circle, but today, in recognition of the change in tone, the candle has traditionally been pink, something lighter, not so serious.

Frederick Buechner once observed that the gospel is comedy (Telling the Truth), a tale where the main character comes out better at the end than the beginning. So this is a day that particularly is full of gospel truth. This is a time for backing off from harsh words and breast-beating, hair-shirted sorrow for sin. We get gaudy. Not in the sense of cheap, sordid, and tasteless, but bright, rich, colorful. Today is for gleeful anticipation, as if we’re getting ready to dig into a great feast. We exult in the promise of Christ’s coming.

The texts for the morning definitely offer comic relief, most welcome after the heavy gospel reading from the first Sunday of the season, with its frightening promise of cosmic catastrophe. And we’re glad to hear them after the readings from last week, with their call for purifying fire and the leveling of the landscape of our lives to prepare for the Savior.

The epistle sets the tone for today. Paul is in prison and the church to which he writes faces persecution and internal strife. Yet the apostle is completely confident that our Lord is near. He knows that Christ is present with him and the church now and is coming back soon to reign. So Paul can exhort the Philippians to rejoice always.

The text from Zephaniah falls right in line. In the prophecy, Jerusalem is personified as a young woman, known as “Daughter Zion” or as we might call her in the South, “Miss Zion.” The text is full of festive words; a mood of hope and joy prevails throughout. What makes that noteworthy is that in the not-so-distant past, Miss Zion has experienced tragedy. She might be compared to a girl devastated by the loss of her love. Or someone who has lost everything she owned in a disaster, even cherished keepsakes, along with her self-esteem and dignity. The specific event that has brought on such sorrow is the destruction of Jerusalem; Judah has gone into exile in Babylon as judgment for the sins of the people and their leaders.

The reading for today, written by an anonymous prophet later than the rest of the book, is certain that the judgments will be taken away, and Miss Zion will rejoice and exult in the renewed love of Yahweh. All she lost will be restored. That will prompt the gaudiest party imaginable. Not only will the people rejoice; Yahweh himself will jump for joy. Those who oppressed Miss Zion will be dealt with; and the outcast, the disabled, and those of little importance will be lifted up and given dignity and strength and fame. A wasteland, as it were, will become a garden; a barren table, a groaning board. And all right before their amazed eyes. God has been gone, but he’s back again. Time to celebrate as never before!

Given the state of the world, of our nation, and many times of our lives, we despair of ever experiencing the assurance of a Paul that the Lord is near or the exuberance of a Miss Zion restored to relationship with God. But sometimes when things are not going well, faith is difficult, prospects look bleak, what we need to do is live “as if,” asking “what if?” What I mean is that we could treat each day as an experiment in rejoicing. The working hypothesis would be that when we trust God to fulfill his will in us, we will “go out in joy and be led back in peace,” as the prophet said (Isaiah 55:12). Joy is evidence of a vital, experienced faith. As Wordsworth put it, “with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things” (William Wordsworth, Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, 1.47). Joy comes from the deep-down conviction that God is sovereign in love and power, even when bad things happen and life stinks, and we begin to believe that God is not so good or powerful or wise as we would like or we once thought. We keep our conviction because at some point we have “seen into the life of things,” and we refuse to let go of that vision. Joy is the emotion of those who have seen dramatic turnarounds in the battle against sickness or hatred or greed, and they know that God the Warrior has won the victory. But it’s also the calm that comes over us when we are forced to retreat and tend to our wounds and our wounded. It’s the fountain that bursts forth from the rock before us in the barren desert, it’s the shout from our lips when God has restored our fortunes, and we are like those who dream. But joy in the Lord is also a river that runs silent and deep in those places where there are no words for our feelings, and only the Spirit can express our longings and our praise. It’s the cry of the prisoner set free from cruel oppression, but even those who live under another’s thumb and by their leave may know joy, for their souls are free in the Lord. Joy can be had when happiness is not a possibility. With Frederick Buechner again: “Happiness turns up more or less where you would expect it to—a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it” (Wishful Thinking: 47).

As Buechner implies, joy can’t be conjured or contrived, only given. The hymn-writer addressed joy as “thou spark from heaven immortal,” and he was right. The flame that burns in our hearts even in the darkest hour has its origin in those tongues of fire that sat on the Church at Pentecost. And they’re fanned by the sometimes gentle, sometimes rushing wind of the Spirit. Joy was the parting gift of Jesus to his disciples, and it’s his continuing legacy to us. When we feel a shudder of joy run up our spines, it’s the work of the Spirit imparting to us Jesus’ great bounty.

When we experience some wonderful event in our lives, we want to share the joy we feel. So it is with the joy we have in the presence of the Lord. It will grow and gain even more strength if it’s proclaimed and given away. Our joy becomes full when we help others experience the presence and power of the God who has brought us delight and assurance. As George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “This is true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one…” (Man and Superman). The secret of lasting joy from this season and any time is to keep brightening someone else’s life, to tell the great good news of how God has come among us in Christ, to marvel at how a dream has been fulfilled right before our eyes, to laugh and leap and love because of the great reversal of fortune God has accomplished. When we think of what great things God has done for us, we can indeed rejoice. He is near us, among us, coming for us.

Advent and Christmas bring us the promise of deliverance. Not merely a temporary reprieve from the sorrow and stress—comic relief—but a permanent solution we might call “karmic” relief. Karma as you know is the cycle of cause and effect, action and consequence. In the coming of Christ at Christmas and the Second Coming, God breaks the endless cycle of sin and its consequence, the relentless crushing load of hopeless destiny. We hear words of comfort, assuring us that our sin is forgiven and our warfare ended (cf. Isaiah 40:2, KJV). The world is turned upside down, which is to say back to the way God intended, as the proud and strong are scattered, but the humble and poor are lifted up and fed.

Thanks be to God for such great good news that fills our hearts with laughter and joy!

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