“How the Holy Habit of Worship Leads to Joy”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
15 December, 2019
Advent 4A
Week 7 of 8 on the Holy Habit of Worship
Ezra 1:1-4; 3:10-13 (Narrative Lectionary)
Luke 1:39-57 (Revised Common Lectionary)

Introduction to the Theme:
Recall that genuine worship is the practice of submitting to the sovereignty of God above all other powers and realities.  Trusting and honoring God before all else, even the people and institutions we trust in this world.  It takes work and attentiveness until we’re able to do it as a normal way of being, which is why we understand it as a Holy HABIT.  But as we’re all aware, we can fall out of healthy habits and into bad ones that become destructive—which is what often happens in the life of faith.  So, the holy habit of worship needs constant vigilance: the sort of attentiveness that Advent calls us back to.

*********************************************************************

Eighteen years ago at this time, Joel and I were getting ready to travel from Copenhagen to Lawrence, Kansas, where Joel’s sister lived.  She had given birth to her first child in October, and we were going to celebrate a Christmas christening for little Haven.  Joel and I were living in Copenhagen that year with our two older boys, Krister and Phineas, who were four and two at the time.  Joel was a doctoral student, and he needed to be in Copenhagen in order to complete research to finish his Ph.D.  Less than a year before that, we weren’t sure that would be possible because, while Joel had been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, it didn’t provide enough funding for our entire family to live overseas.  Miraculously, a very generous gift check arrived in an envelope to us in April, and by July we were in Denmark.

As unexpected as that gift was, even more unexpected was the discovery in early December that I was pregnant.  I was beside myself, completely overwhelmed, and I cried for a month: I simply could not see how we could financially afford to have another child.  All I could do was pray, and practice trusting that God would continue to provide for us in the same always-surprising ways I had experienced on a number of other occasions in my life.

Seventeen years ago at this time, our family was living in Norwell, MA, where I had been called to co-pastor a congregation similar to this one.  Eli, our youngest (and, by the way, a tremendous gift from God!), was born in August – three months after we arrived.  I can’t begin to recount all of the unforeseen divine provisions; there were many.  In the four and a half years we spent on Boston’s South Shore, we experienced more joy than I think I’d ever known before then.  But the joy wasn’t without challenges or suffering.  We weren’t really able to survive as a family of five in that area on my salary alone, and despite what we had thought about how easy it should be for Joel to secure a teaching job, it had been a year and a half and no realistic prospects.  Until Oxford University offered him a position.

And so it was that, thirteen years ago at this time, we were putting our house on the market, getting ready to move our lives to England.  All we could do was heed our best understanding of God’s will for our lives, and trust that God would also provide a job for me—because life in Oxford was not going to be affordable without both of us earning.  A year later, we were increasingly desperate because I still did not have a job, and we were still paying a mortgage and taxes on our house in MA, as well as paying rent in Oxford.  It would the better half of another year before we were settled into our newest home—a brand-new place purchased by the Synod of the United Reformed Church I had been called to serve alongside the Mansfield College Chaplaincy.  We were overcome with joy, and finally a sense of peace and hope that this would be our home for a very long time.

Exactly six years ago, on the Third Sunday of Advent in 2014, most of you had no idea that I was quietly here in Hollis.  I spent the weekend at Ann Siglin’s house, so that I could meet with the Search Committee and so that they could observe me preaching in a neutral pulpit in Hampstead.  (It was less expensive than flying them over to observe me in Oxford, though that might have been preferable for some of them.)

My family’s time in Oxford was suffused with joy, but it wasn’t without its suffering, either—some of which became more and more pronounced.  There were things that were getting harder and harder to live with, which usually is a signal that the only thing to do is open yourself to a significant change.  As we talked endlessly about it, Joel and I were concluding that the work God had for me to do there was coming to a close; it was time for us to demonstrate our faith and confidence in divine provision yet again.  That decision, in and of itself, was painful and full of heartache—but also infused with hope and the potential for greater joy than we’d been experiencing for a while.

And here we are today, with lives that feel incredibly blessed and joyful, but certainly not without sacrifice and, yes, even some suffering.  (The balance is tipped more toward joy at the moment, because Joel arrived home a couple nights ago.)  We had no idea, when I accepted the call to lead and pastor this congregation, whether Joel would find a teaching job near enough so that we could live as a family year-round.  It was a risk we took in faith with our eyes and hearts wide open.  We hoped, we prayed!  And, we continue to hope; we continue to pray.

Sometimes, our sense of the right timing of things is not the same as God’s.  I’m guessing the teenaged, not-yet-wed virgin Mary might have had similar thoughts about the timing of her conception.  And, I’m confident that the descendants of Abraham and Sarah who found themselves exiled in Babylon wished that God’s plans would correspond more closely to their own desired timetable; they longed to return immediately to the region they believed God had promised in perpetuity to them.

On the first two Sundays of Advent, we heard from the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, respectively.  Both prophets were preaching to a beaten-down audience, to people whose confidence in God had begun to waver because it was taking longer for them to experience relief than they would have liked.  In 597 BC, under King Nebuchadnezzar II, the Neo-Babylonian empire had crushed the Kingdom of Judah in war—and humiliated the Jews by deporting them far and wide across the empire so that they couldn’t regroup and mount an insurgency to re-take their land.

For nearly 60 years, the exiles lamented and cried out to God in prayer, asking “How long, O Lord, how long must we endure this suffering?!”  They listened eagerly and hopefully to the words of the prophets, who spoke on God’s behalf with promises to the people that, before long, they would experience salvation: a Messiah was coming to them, someone who would restore them to a life of shalom—of wholeness, peace, and joy—someone who would reconcile them with God and one another.

And so, the people did what we try to remember to do and practice during Advent: they watched, and waited, and prepared for the coming of the Messiah, the One who saves and restores us to a life of joy, who fully reconciles us with the sovereign God.

In 539 BC, Babylon was once again at war—but this time, the empire fell to Persia.  The victory was sweet for the Jewish people, not only because those who had humiliated them were now suffering a taste of their own medicine, but also—and more significantly—because, as we heard in our first reading this morning, King Cyrus of Persia declared what so many of them had scarcely dared to hope for: not only were they invited to return home to Jerusalem and rebuild the beloved temple that had been decimated by the Babylonians, but they were given funding enabling them to get back there and get the job done.  It says Ezra 1:7 that, “King Cyrus himself brought in the vessels of the Temple that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods.”

Needless to say, there was great jubilation and rejoicing among the people.  As we heard in the concluding verses of the passage, after the foundation of the new temple was laid, the joy was so great that the sound of the celebratory shouting and weeping could be heard far away.

It’s worth mentioning that that particular celebration was short-lived.  It’s possible for God’s preferred timing to get impeded by human machinations.  Not long after the celebration we read about, an adversarial group in Jerusalem mounted an active resistance to the rebuilding of the temple.  In Ezra Chapter 4, we begin to read about how “… the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus… and until the reign of King Darius.”[1]

My point is simply that it’s not always God’s plans that get in the way of our ability to experience the joy we long for; more often than not, the culmination of our joy is forestalled because of those who work against the ways and the will of God.  Whether it’s we who get sidetracked from trusting God’s sovereignty by placing our confidence in the powers and institutions of this world, or it’s other individuals endowed with worldly power actively working against the purposes of God in favor of their own selfish interests, God’s plans often get derailed.  But because God is sovereign, those plans cannot ultimately be thwarted.  Eventually the temple was completed; God always finds a way for the divine will to prevail in the end.  But in Judah’s case, it wasn’t before many more years of waiting and hoping, praying and trusting that God’s promises would be fulfilled, and their joy would be complete.

It takes the eyes of faith and a heart devoted to worshiping God alone to recognize the ways that God is at work even in situations that appear at first blush to represent significant hardships.  In order to experience true joy in the midst of sacrifice or suffering, we must have confidence that God is working ahead of our ability to see or comprehend; we must practice the hope we talked about and reflected upon on in the first week of Advent.

How else could Mary possibly be joyful—she, whose realistic prospects as a pregnant, unwed young woman were that her fiancé would dismiss her (knowing he wasn’t the father), her family would shun her in their own shame, and she would wind up as an impoverished and vulnerable single mother, raising an even more vulnerable child, both of them objects of social scorn and rejection?

And yet, Mary’s response to her situation was not one of despair.  No; instead, her words were, “[M]y spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”[2]  She continues with a poetic song of reversals that reveals her recognition that God is ultimately in charge of this world, and of her life.  She had heard as a girl about how God had made it possible for the Israelites to escape their enslavement in Egypt.  She’d also heard about how, more recently, God had humbled the powerful, arrogant Babylonians who had humiliated her people; and then, how God restored to them the joy of having their own temple in which to worship, all through the unexpected goodness of kings who didn’t even worship Israel’s God.  Mary had observed how powerful, selfish figures in this world were brought low even as lowly figures were raised up, and she worshiped this God of love; she invested her trust and faith in this God, more than the lesser gods of this world who would have her believe that she was contemptible, inadequate, worthless.

It’s not always easy to comprehend how, or even see where God is at work in this world, or in our personal lives.  But the secret to finding joy, especially in the midst of significant suffering or sacrifice, is to engage in the Holy Habit of Worship.  By remembering how God has been faithful in the past—not just our own past, but in the history and countless testimonials of all those who have gone before us in faith—we will find ourselves able to hope more deeply, to trust more confidently, that God will continue to be faithful in the future.  With souls and minds thus strengthened and emboldened, as we watch and wait for the advent of divine blessing that is coming to us, we will almost certainly find it impossible not to sing along with Mary in joyful anticipation, “My soul magnifies the LORD, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  Hallelujah!  Amen.

[1] Ezra 4:4-5.

[2] Luke 1:46.

 

“How the Holy Habit of Worship Leads to Joy”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
15 December, 2019
Advent 4A
Week 7 of 8 on the Holy Habit of Worship
Ezra 1:1-4; 3:10-13 (Narrative Lectionary)
Luke 1:39-57 (Revised Common Lectionary)

Introduction to the Theme:
Recall that genuine worship is the practice of submitting to the sovereignty of God above all other powers and realities.  Trusting and honoring God before all else, even the people and institutions we trust in this world.  It takes work and attentiveness until we’re able to do it as a normal way of being, which is why we understand it as a Holy HABIT.  But as we’re all aware, we can fall out of healthy habits and into bad ones that become destructive—which is what often happens in the life of faith.  So, the holy habit of worship needs constant vigilance: the sort of attentiveness that Advent calls us back to.

*********************************************************************

Eighteen years ago at this time, Joel and I were getting ready to travel from Copenhagen to Lawrence, Kansas, where Joel’s sister lived.  She had given birth to her first child in October, and we were going to celebrate a Christmas christening for little Haven.  Joel and I were living in Copenhagen that year with our two older boys, Krister and Phineas, who were four and two at the time.  Joel was a doctoral student, and he needed to be in Copenhagen in order to complete research to finish his Ph.D.  Less than a year before that, we weren’t sure that would be possible because, while Joel had been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, it didn’t provide enough funding for our entire family to live overseas.  Miraculously, a very generous and gift check arrived in an envelope to us in April, and by July we were in Denmark.

As unexpected as that gift was, even more unexpected was the discovery in early December that I was pregnant.  I was beside myself, completely overwhelmed, and I cried for a month: I simply could not see how we could financially afford to have another child.  All I could do was pray, and practice trusting that God would continue to provide for us in the same always-surprising ways I had experienced on a number of other occasions in my life.

Seventeen years ago at this time, our family was living in Norwell, MA, where I had been called to co-pastor a congregation similar to this one.  Eli, our youngest (and, by the way, a tremendous gift from God!), was born three months after we arrived.  I can’t begin to recount all of the unforeseen divine provisions; there were many.  In the four and a half years we spent on Boston’s South Shore, we experienced more joy than I think I’d ever known before then.  But the joy wasn’t without challenges or suffering.  We weren’t really able to survive as a family of five in that area on my salary alone, and despite what we had thought about how easy it should be for Joel to secure a teaching job, it had been a year and a half and no realistic prospects.  Until Oxford University offered him a position.

And so it was that, thirteen years ago at this time, we were putting our house on the market, getting ready to move our lives to England.  All we could do was heed our best understanding of God’s will for our lives, and trust that God would also provide a job for me—because life in Oxford was not going to be affordable without both of us earning.  A year later, we were increasingly desperate because I still did not have a job, and we were still paying a mortgage and taxes on our house in MA, as well as paying rent in Oxford.  It would be almost another year before we were settled into our newest home—a brand-new place purchased by the Synod of the United Reformed Church I had been called to serve alongside the Mansfield College Chaplaincy.  We were overcome with joy, and finally a sense of peace and hope that this would be our home for a very long time.

Exactly five years ago, on the Third Sunday of Advent in 2014, most of you had no idea that I was quietly here in Hollis.  I spent the weekend at Ann Siglin’s house, so that I could meet with the Search Committee and preach at the Congregational Church in Hampstead—so that the Search Committee could observe me preaching in a neutral pulpit.  (It was less expensive than flying them over to observe me in Oxford, though that might have been preferable for some of them.)

My family’s time in Oxford was suffused with joy, but it wasn’t without its suffering, either—some of which became more and more pronounced.  There were things that were getting harder and harder to live with, which usually is a signal that the only thing to do is open yourself to a significant change.  As we talked endlessly about it, Joel and I were concluding that the work God had for me to do there was coming to a close; it was time for us to demonstrate our faith and confidence in divine provision yet again.  That decision, in and of itself, was painful and full of heartache—but also infused with hope and the potential for greater joy than we’d been experiencing for a while.

And here we are today, with lives that feel incredibly blessed and joyful, but certainly not without sacrifice and, yes, even some suffering.  (The balance is tipped more toward joy at the moment, because Joel arrived home a couple nights ago.)  We had no idea, when I accepted the call to lead and pastor this congregation, whether Joel would find a teaching job near enough so that we could live as a family year-round.  It was a risk we took in faith with our eyes and hearts wide open.  We hoped, we prayed!  And, we continue to hope; we continue to pray.

Sometimes, our sense of the right timing of things is not the same as God’s.  I’m guessing the teenaged, not-yet-wed virgin Mary might have had similar thoughts about the timing of her conception.  And, I’m confident that the descendants of Abraham and Sarah who found themselves exiled in Babylon wished that God’s plans would correspond more closely to their own desired timetable; they longed to return immediately to the region they believed God had promised in perpetuity to them.

On the first two Sundays of Advent, we heard from the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, respectively.  Both prophets were preaching to a beaten-down audience, to people whose confidence in God had begun to waver because it was taking longer for them to experience relief than they would have liked.  In 597 BC, under King Nebuchadnezzar II, the Neo-Babylonian empire had crushed the Kingdom of Judah in war—and humiliated the Jews by deporting them far and wide across the empire so that they couldn’t regroup and mount an insurgency to re-take their land.

For nearly 60 years, the exiles lamented and cried out to God in prayer, asking “How long, O Lord, how long must we endure this suffering?!”  They listened eagerly and hopefully to the words of the prophets, who spoke on God’s behalf with promises to the people that, before long, they would experience salvation: a Messiah was coming to them, someone who would restore them to a life of shalom—of wholeness, peace, and joy—someone who would reconcile them with God and one another.

And so, the people did what we try to remember to do and practice during Advent: they watched, and waited, and prepared for the coming of the Messiah, the One who saves and restores us to a life of joy, who fully reconciles us with the sovereign God.

In 539 BC, Babylon was once again at war—but this time, the empire fell to Persia.  The victory was sweet for the Jewish people, not only because those who had humiliated them were now suffering a taste of their own medicine, but also—and more significantly—because, as we heard in our first reading this morning, King Cyrus of Persia declared what so many of them had scarcely dared to hope for: not only were they invited to return home to Jerusalem and rebuild the beloved temple that had been decimated by the Babylonians, but they were given funding enabling them to get back there and get the job done.  It says Ezra 1:7 that, “King Cyrus himself brought in the vessels of the Temple that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods.”

Needless to say, there was great jubilation and rejoicing among the people.  As we heard in the concluding verses of the passage, after the foundation of the new temple was laid, the joy was so great that the sound of the celebratory shouting and weeping could be heard far away.

It’s worth mentioning that that particular celebration was short-lived.  It’s possible for God’s preferred timing to get impeded by human machinations.  Not long after the celebration we read about, an adversarial group in Jerusalem mounted an active resistance to the rebuilding of the temple.  In Ezra Chapter 4, we begin to read about how “… the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus… and until the reign of King Darius.”[1]

My point is simply that it’s not always God’s plans that get in the way of our ability to experience the joy we long for; more often than not, the culmination of our joy is forestalled because of those who work against the ways and the will of God.  Whether it’s we who get sidetracked from trusting God’s sovereignty by placing our confidence in the powers and institutions of this world, or it’s other individuals endowed with worldly power actively working against the purposes of God in favor of their own selfish interests, God’s plans often get derailed.  But because God is sovereign, those plans cannot ultimately be thwarted.  Eventually the temple was completed; God always finds a way for the divine will to prevail in the end.  But in Judah’s case, it wasn’t before many more years of waiting and hoping, praying and trusting that God’s promises would be fulfilled, and their joy would be complete.

It takes the eyes of faith and a heart devoted to worshiping God alone to recognize the ways that God is at work even in situations that appear at first blush to represent significant hardships.  In order to experience true joy in the midst of sacrifice or suffering, we must have confidence that God is working ahead of our ability to see or comprehend; we must practice the hope we talked about and reflected upon on in the first week of Advent.

How else could Mary possibly be joyful—she, whose realistic prospects as a pregnant, unwed young woman were that her fiancé would dismiss her (knowing he wasn’t the father), her family would shun her in their own shame, and she would wind up as an impoverished and vulnerable single mother, raising an even more vulnerable child, both of them objects of social scorn and rejection?

And yet, Mary’s response to her situation was not one of despair.  No; instead, her words were, “[M]y spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”[2]  She continues with a poetic song of reversals that reveals her recognition that God is ultimately in charge of this world, and of her life.  She had heard as a girl about how God had made it possible for the Israelites to escape their enslavement in Egypt.  She’d also heard about how, more recently, God had humbled the powerful, arrogant Babylonians who had humiliated her people; and then, how God restored to them the joy of having their own temple in which to worship, all through the unexpected goodness of kings who didn’t even worship Israel’s God.  Mary had observed how powerful, selfish figures in this world were brought low even as lowly figures were raised up, and she worshiped this God of love; she invested her trust and faith in this God, more than the lesser gods of this world who would have her believe that she was contemptible, inadequate, worthless.

It’s not always easy to comprehend how, or even see where God is at work in this world, or in our personal lives.  But the secret to finding joy, especially in the midst of significant suffering or sacrifice, is to engage in the Holy Habit of Worship.  By remembering how God has been faithful in the past—not just our own past, but in the history and countless testimonials of all those who have gone before us in faith—we will find ourselves able to hope more deeply, to trust more confidently, that God will continue to be faithful in the future.  With souls and minds thus strengthened and emboldened, as we watch and wait for the advent of divine blessing that is coming to us, we will almost certainly find it impossible not to sing along with Mary in joyful anticipation, “My soul magnifies the LORD, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  Hallelujah!  Amen.

[1] Ezra 4:4-5.

[2] Luke 1:46.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC