Forming Faith Blog

Joy and Sorrow (December 15, 2019)

A sad boy praying.
A Promise Fulfilled

This is the reading for the third Sunday of Advent and so we are approaching the end of this season of waiting. After the horrible events of Judah’s conquer and exile at the hands of the Babylonians, God sent messages of hope and comfort to the people, letting them know that God is always with them and that this period of suffering will come to an end. God will make a smooth way to bring the people back to their home country. Although the readings chosen for the last two weeks focused more on the promise of the coming Messiah (appropriate for the season devoted to the coming Messiah), many of the prophecies to the exiled people were promises of restoration. The Books of Ezra-Nehemiah is a record of the fulfillment of these promises.

A Little History

History can be seen in cycles, and this is especially true of the histories present in our Bibles. As I understand it, the prevailing view of biblical scholars is that much of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was written in its final form during or after the Babylonian exile. One of the primary theological questions addressed is a basic “why did the exile happen” and the important corollary “how do we stop it from happening again.”

The Histories answer this by highlighting a cycle in Israelite history:

  • The people turn away from God
  • The people are oppressed by foreigners
  • The people cry out for help
  • God rescues the people (only for the cycle to begin again).

So, the answers to these primary questions are that God punished the people for their gross disobedience and the solution is for the people to faithfully observe the Torah God gave them.

Echoes of Exodus

The exodus from Egypt is the defining story for the people of Israel, and specifically for their relationship with their God. YHWH is a rescuer, one who brings people from oppression into freedom. The people are those whom God chose to rescue. This exodus begins the first cycle, though this oppression is not a punishment. If the exodus is the defining story of the people, then the exile is the primary national trauma. So, to make sense of it all, the people linked the two stories. In Babylon, God’s people suffered as they did in Egypt, and likewise, God will deliver them back to a land of their own. We can even hear an echo of Exodus 12:35-36 within the proclamation of Cyrus in Ezra 1:4.

Observing the Torah

Upon returning from exile, the people are called to observe the Torah. In chapter 3, we see the beginning of the temple’s rebuilding and reintroduction of the commanded temple sacrifices. We also see the reestablishment of major festivals, beginning with Sukkot. When the influential scribe Ezra arrived, he read the “book of the law of Moses” to the whole (intergenerational) assembly.

Joy, Sorrow & Everywhere in Between

The first thing the people did was to rebuild the sacrificial altar and lay the foundation for a new temple. This was the renewed center of worship, and it was with worship that the people responded. But, the proclamations of joy were intermixed with the cries of sorrow for what had been lost.

Truly, this is an example of what our worship should be like. Too often in worship, we focus on praise and thanksgiving with some solemnity for our sins mixed in. This can teach people that joy, thankfulness, and guilt are the only acceptable emotions in church. This leaves out a gamut of emotions including anger, sorrow, depression, fear, and anxiety that exist (and sometimes dominate) our lives. This can especially be true as we approach Christmas, a particularly joyful holiday. The very real anger, sorrow, depression, and anxiety that people experience are excluded and the people who experience these can feel excluded as well.

Free Resource

Both the Book of Psalms and (for those who use one) hymnals can offer a full range of worship materials that encourage worshippers to include everything they feel into their worship response. This week’s free resource “Worship with Our Lives” uses these resources. This activity was created for our Living the Word: Kids (PK-2nd) curriculum to help students identify different emotions in worship. The version provided here has been adapted to be useful for an intergenerational audience, as well as the intended elementary-aged one.   

May you experience God’s comfort this Advent season however you feel!

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

If you would like to know more about our perspectives on faith formation and cross+gen ministry, you can check out the following links:

For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our complete Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

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