A new song
Isa 49:8-13 & Luke 4:16-21
Tidings of Comfort – a service for those who are sad at Christmas – 12/10/14
St. Paul’s Alexandria
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
The Lord has comforted his people
And will have compassion on the suffering ones.
Suffering: It’s not a word we hear much in the world around us these days. It’s a word that rubs against the grain amid holly wreaths and gaily wrapped packages and silver lanes and candy canes aglow.
Suffering: It’s a reality, whether we acknowledge it, or bury it under piles of tinsel. Suffering is an old, old story here on planet earth.
It was an old story for the people Isaiah addresses in tonight’s first reading. These are the people who endured the destruction of Jerusalem two generations before, who as they were marched away from their beloved city, must have looked back at the smoke from the burning temple and wondered if they would ever see home again. These are the people who were living in exile, torn away from families and from every familiar place, from every holy place. These are the people who had hung their harps on the willow trees along the river and wept: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Today Isaiah announces to them there will be a new song, a new song. “Sing for joy, O heavens!” They will not go back to the way it was, but they WILL go forward, to a transformed future, a future different from and better than they might have imagined.
Transformation was at the heart of a play that has haunted me since I saw it last spring. Katherine is a Beethoven scholar who is obsessed with one of Beethoven’s obsessions: for 20 years the great master wrote variation after variation on a snippet of melody by a minor composer who had invited 50 of the great masters of Vienna to offer their adaptations. At first Beethoven refused, but for years, even in the midst of writing masterpieces like the Ninth Symphony, even as his deafness deepened, Beethoven could not put it down. From what he called a beer-hall waltz, he extracted a march, a minuet, a fugue – THIRTY-THREE variations before he was done.
33 Variations, in fact, is the name of the play, and Ludwig was not the only one creating variations. Katherine, too, was transforming and being transformed, and so was her daughter, Clara. From two woman who could not bear to touch one another, they become an inseparable pair of fellow sufferers. Katherine, in her middle age and at the peak of her musicology career, has developed a terrible disease that is wasting her body while her mind watches. WE watch Katherine transform. At the beginning, she is a cranky individualist, mercilessly critical of Clara and not about to accept help from anyone, least of all her distant daughter. Her terrible illness forces her to depend on others, to give and receive mercy. By the end of the drama – and the last of Beethoven’s variations, which are played throughout – we know something about transformation. Katherine, while not cured of her terrible disease, is nonetheless healed. She and Clara have a new song, a new story.
A new story is what Jesus has to tell when he strides into the synagogue in his hometown. He is fresh from forty days in the desert, filled with the Holy Spirit, and he reaches back 600 years for the words of the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he tells the suffering people of Nazareth, announcing that he is the one Isaiah promised God would send. He is the one who will preach good news to the poor, give sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. His people ARE oppressed, living under Rome’s thumb, and wherever there is political suffering, there is personal suffering, too. But a new chapter has begun in earth’s sad story, Jesus tells them. And in these very walls, a new song – this year’s variations on the angels’ ancient song – will soon resound. HOPE is here, even in the midst of suffering.
Now, I am not here to tell you that suffering is a good thing. Suffering is never God’s will for God’s people. But I am sure of this: God is able to bring good from the most devastating disasters, the most terrible grief. That is the drama of redemption, — good from evil – and that is drama more compelling than any stage play, more sweet than even Beethoven’s music. The drama of redemption is the ultimate drama of the gospel, and of our lives.
Transformation is happening. God is doing a new thing. Watch for it in the days ahead. Listen for the music of a new story. And in that song, hear God’s love for you.