Kingdoms come and go. They always have. The kingdom of Israel lasted only a short time, before being over run by Assyria…and then Babylon …and then Persia. And, as always, some kingdoms are better than others. Cyrus is the king of Persia…and it is interesting that in Scripture, Cyrus is actually referred to God’s “messiah” because he allowed the people throughout his kingdom to practice their faiths freely…and let them rebuild their houses of worship. In truth, it turns out Cyrus’ empire was more just and fair than Israel’s.
As the people begin to rebuild the temple, at first, they are wary…they didn’t dare leave their altar unattended, sure it would be torn down again by their neighbors. But eventually, people began to trust their new freedom. And, finally, they began to celebrate. They sing the psalms together, loudly with joy…”God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever!” Kind of like “God is Good!” “All the time!”
But not everyone could rejoice. Some just looked at the new house of worship…and grieved. Because they remembered how it used to be…and it was not what it was. And they felt out of step with the joy of those around them. Instead…they wept. And their weeping intermingled with the shouts of joy and was eventually lost in the celebration.
So…I have a question. Does that sound like Advent to anyone? Are there any of you who feel more grief than celebration during this season? Remembering the way Christmases used to be? Do you feel like your tears get drowned out in the hullabaloo of carols and lights and parties and Hallmark movies?
This story is so poignant …because it embodies the reality we live in. We live in a world where kingdoms rise and fall…and where some are better than others…and where one person’s joy is always mixed with another’s tears.
Paul invites us in Romans to “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice”. But often the rejoicing and weeping are brought on by the very same event for different people.
Some of you can relate to this at Christmastime. As some people’s cheer abounds as they are busy creating memories — picking out trees and baking cookies…your heart is heavy with empty days and absent loved ones. And that doesn’t mean that anybody is doing anything wrong. It’s just the way it is. That’s what I love about this Scripture from Ezra. The celebrators are not praised and the weepers are not condemned. They both simply “are”. People of faith both celebrate and grieve as the new temple is built. And that is just the way it is.
That’s just the way life is. And we know that. You know, I often hear of people who long for days past — the church they grew up in or the country they grew up in or the community they grew up in….and they grieve. Yet, at the very same time, other people celebrate and rejoice because of the changes that have come about — because they now feel like they finally belong, instead of looking in from the outside. People of faith, both …but as one celebrates new beginnings, the other grieves what is gone. One isn’t wrong and the other right. They just “are”.
We live in a world where grief and joy are intertwined.
And the sad truth is…the way we humans have set up our life together..usually one person’s “win”…success… celebration…..requires that another person will feel “defeat”…loss…and sadness. We’ve chosen to live on this planet like life is one big Basketball game. We separate ourselves into teams…whether it’s religion or politics or class or race or global warfare …and we spend our time jockeying for position…striving to come out on top while we push others to the bottom. And the horrible thing is that when we live this way, we’re geared to delight in the downfall of our opponents….the other “team”. Schadenfreude is the term used to refer to that secret feeling of gladness we have when someone we “oppose” has something bad happen to them. There’s a reason we have a term for it, because it’s so human. We don’t like to admit it…but we love to see the people we disagree with…the people we dislike…the people who hurt us…fall on their faces. Matt and I listened to a podcast recently on NPR talking about the way this reality shapes our life together…and reinforces our sense of separation from one another.
Tragically, this is the way we have lived on earth together, from the beginning of time.
And this is the world Jesus was born into. And into this world, Jesus comes…for us all. In Mary’s song…she speaks of the hungry being fed, and the rich sent away empty — the poor lifted up and the powerful taken down from their thrones. She speaks of justice making — restoration — changing the world. Changing the way we live together…turning the world not just upside down, but inside out. It means that whoever’s on top…needs to be moved aside. And that’s hard. Painful. It causes grief. But it needs to happen and so those who have been hurting, who have been left out…can be lifted up from the bottom…and can rejoice. Now, this can trigger our Schadenfreude…give those on the bottom glee, to see the comeuppance of those on top. But that isn’t what Jesus came to do. Just reverse the top and bottom. Jesus came to reveal God’s kingdom…God’s way…which brings grace and mercy for all people.
When we pray for God’s kingdom to come and will be done…it isn’t a prayer that we would “win” over all the other religions and cultures of the world. It is a prayer, that finally we would recognize that we belong to one another. All of us. That we are all on the same team, after all. The rejoicing and the grieving together. There is room for us all. To be who we are. Where we are. To come as we are …and to know we are children of God. We are ALL children of God. Understood. Loved. Important.
Empires rise and fall…but no nation is God’s kingdom. No political structure and no religion is God’s kingdom …not even Christianity. God’s kingdom is love, taking root in our midst. Embodied in Jesus. Love that enters the darkness…that warms the cold. Love that finds a place within us…that transforms our internal schadenfreude and makes room inside us to both weep with those who weep AND rejoice with those who rejoice. Love that opens us up inside…so that we quit playing to win…and instead play to build one another up. God’s kingdom is love…that embraces us all and gives us hope — that something new is possible. A new way of being in the world. God’s love gives us hope — that life is possible, even in the midst of death.
God’s kingdom is love. May love hold you this Advent…as you rejoice and as you grieve. And may you know indeed that God is with you. Amen