My favorite characters in the Lord of the Rings are the Ents. These were an ancient race of giant living talking breathing trees in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. So I have a little confession to make: whenever I hear that reading we just heard from Isaiah 55 where it says The mountains and hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. I always picture the Giant Ents from Lord of the Rings. And then I picture these clapping trees from Isaiah holding little Hobbits in their branch arms in what ends up bring a willful conflation of Middle Earth and Major Prophet. I suppose to some people that might feel wrong. Maybe a little like the visitor we had at Pentecost who was greatly dismayed at some people snickering during the reading from Acts. You know, the one where Peter stands up and tells the crowd that clearly these men couldn’t be drunk since it’s only 9 o’clock in the morning. Every year people laugh at that. My guess is because every year it’s funny. But laughing in church can dismay some folks because sometimes it feels like religion has become more about decorum than delight. It’s so often more about judgment than joy.
So this week I kept thinking about joy and what role joy has in our faith. Sure we talk about prayer and sin and creeds and liturgy and discipleship and advocacy as being part of our Christian faith. But what of joy? It sadly never seems to be on the top of the list of what it means to be God’s people. And it’s for sure not what we are known for….any guess what the top adjective used to describe Christians is? Judgmental. I think maybe that’s because human religion so easily becomes more about knowing right from wrong than knowing God.
Lutheran theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer knew this. He suggests that the Original sin was choosing knowledge of good and evil over knowledge of God. See, there were 2 trees in the garden of Eden and the snake said if you eat from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil you will be like God. But there was another tree. The tree of life. Yet we chose knowledge of Good and Evil over knowledge of God. Bonhoeffer calls this the Fall upward.
We chose to move God out of the center and put ourselves there, and ever since then human religion tends to be about the knowledge of good and evil and not the knowledge of life- or the knowledge of God. This can be pretty easily seen in how we read the parable of the Sower. I think we naturally tend to read this parable NOT as the parable of the sower but as the parable of the judgment of the soil. To focus on the worthiness of the soil is to read the parable in judgment. When we approach this text or our lives with only the knowing and judging of good and evil, we miss out on the knowing of God. But to focus on the lush and ludicrous image of how God extravagantly, wastefully, wantonly sows the Word of the Kingdom is to read the parable in joy.
And isn’t life just too short, too sacred and too important to skimp on joy? Yet joy can often be the thing we give up when being right seems more important. It’s like that cliché: would you rather be right or be happy? I’ve focused on being right a lot in my life. First in the conservative Christianity of my youth and then in the Leftest politics of my young adulthood. They aren’t always mutually exclusive, but if given the choice, I want to choose happy instead. And leave being right to God and God alone.
Speaking of being right. I hate to destroy any one’s youthful idealism here, but Bible scholars aren’t always right. For instance, the Hebrew word from our Isaiah 55 text that they chose to interpret as Purpose is the same word that can also be translated “delight” so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that in which I DELIGHT, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it Personally I think the word delight might be more accurate given the playful, whimsical imagery that follows For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
What a fantastical, joy-filled, playful image- it’s like Biblical Cirque de Soile….the delight of God seen in singing hills and clapping trees. But I wonder if there were those in the time of Isaiah who were dismayed at this imagery as lacking in decorum especially given that this is spoken by a prophet to the people of God in Babylonian exile - a people who felt they had lost everything and that God had abandoned them. So I wonder if these whimsical verses seemed like the equivalent of sending a circus clown into a refugee camp. But it’s not that Isaiah lacked analysis or didn’t respect the gravity of the situation. It’s not that Isaiah couldn’t see right and wrong…he was a prophet after all. But sometimes the job of a prophet is not to discern right and wrong but to point God’s people to joy. To remind us that our God delights in us. To remind us of our true home. Remember Proverbs 8? Sophia, the Wisdom of God is described at the creation of the world as rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
I want the day to come when Christians are described not as judgmental but as those who, like the Wisdom of God, rejoice in the world and delight in humanity.
Which makes me wonder: What would it be like to rather than judging the supposed imperfection of your body, to experience the joy of being a beautiful perfect creation, made in the image of God? What would it be like, rather than judging the unhealthy grocery cart contents of the lady behind me in line at Safeway, to instead experience the joy of seeing Christ’s own face in her countenance. What would it be like to, rather than judging the political or religious correctness of every person, institution, and event to instead experience the joy of God’s kingdom breaking in on us all. I don’t know for sure. But I’m game to try and find out. I want to choose happy. And leave being right to God and God alone.
Some people have scorned the idea of blessing bicycles as frivolous to which I respond: Oh my Gosh, thank you! A little frivolity up in here may be just the ticket. I mean, the church has been in the knowledge of good and evil business, the judgment business quite awhile. Maybe it’s time for we who follow Jesus of Nazareth to joyfully be in the blessing the world business. So many of us are painfully familiar with religion that errs on the side of judgment. But here at House for All Sinners and Saints I guess that given the choice, I want us to err on the side of blessing. Because you are a people formed by this God who makes hills to sing and trees to clap, who rejoices in the world and delights in humanity – therefore does it not follow that we should be maybe even making up excuses to bless people and things and events?
And what is a call to joy but a call home. A call home to the garden of this God whose desire to be known is so much more powerful than our desire to replace God with only the knowledge of Good and Evil. Undeterred our God still uses any means necessary to be know by us: speaks through prophets, slips into skin and walks among us in Jesus, woos us in bread and wine, surprises us in the strange and the stranger, enters our ears in the words of life and transforms us into a people of Joy, a people of singing hills and clapping tress and every single kind of soil. Blessed be the God of blessing.