University Congregational Church
Dec. 11, 2016
“Advent Inverted – Joy”
Rev. Dr. Thomas Long wrote, “If there had been in the middle of the 19th century, such things as iPods and MTV, pianist Franz Liszt would have been on them. Long before Elvis, the Beetles, Bono and J-Lo, there was Franz Liszt. He was the debonair Liberace of the romantic piano. Europe had never seen anything like it. His concerts were mobbed with fan hysteria. He was trailed by groupies. Liszt’s strong, passionate, brooding style had his fans rushing from the audience and throwing themselves onto his piano in a dead faint. Franz Liszt was Vegas before there was Vegas.
And then something happened at the height of his popularity. He had – what shall we say – a conversion experience; a religious awakening. He suddenly and passionately began to take his faith seriously. He made religious vows. He patterned his life about what he thought Jesus’ life was about. He began to do concerts to benefit the homeless. He gave away his possessions, and even gave away free piano lessons to poor students. He received letters from people asking for money and he just sent it to them, no questions asked. One day he was checking into a hotel. The desk clerk recognized him and gave him the key to the royal suite. He took one look at them and gave them to his valet and then he slept with the servants.
People began to whisper. Something had gone quite wrong with Franz Liszt. Had he gone mad?
When he died, there was found on his piano an almost finished new piece of sacred music. It’s strange, disturbing, almost concoffonist with jangling meters and jarring chords. One of the sections of it, Liszt called “de profundis” De profundis is a stormy work in which two opposing musical ideas are made to do battle with one another. It has a long and violent introduction. As the work progresses, these two musical ideas — really two conflicting world views — strive to come to some resolution, or at least some kind of understanding, with one another. And then it suddenly resolves into music of such beautiful serenity and simplicity; it makes you want to cry. It’s almost as if Liszt was trying to point to the shalom of God that is possible in the midst of chaotic frenzy in this world.
His son-in-law overheard him composing this section through the thin walls of the home they shared. His son-in-law, by the way, was the brilliant and egotistical Richard Wagner, whose musings against the Jews eventually made it into the philosophy of Adolf Hitler. Wagner was also a composer whose works include “The Flying Dutchman”. Hitler was an admirer of Wagner’s music and saw in his operas an embodiment of his own vision of the German nation. When Wagner heard de profundis, he said to his wife, “I think your father has finally lost his mind.”
Sanity, insanity. In your right mind, out of your mind. There’s a fine line between the two. Jesus was sometimes thought to be mad. Many Gospel stories about Jesus and his followers have overtones of the demonic and the holy. Often in the story, there is no clear division.
“In Our Right Minds” by Thomas Long
We continue our Advent Inverted theme today. Each Sunday during Advent, we are looking at the story of Jesus’ birth and contrasting it to a modern dilemma. On Hope Sunday, we explored the topic of immigration. On Peace Sunday, we considered how to find peace in the midst of never ending war. Today, on Joy Sunday, we are looking at mental health.
I realize these are not the topics – immigration, war, and mental health – that you typically think about during the month before Christmas. But Advent is a time of darkness seeking light; of hopelessness finding hope; of the forlorn and forgotten experiencing joy.
Before Jesus, there was John the Baptist. John was a teacher who wandered Judea with a rather peculiar personality and personal hygiene. Listen to this old story about John and his ministry…
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matt 3:1-12 NRSV
Sanity, insanity. In your right mind, out of your mind. There’s a fine line between the two. How do those who deal with depression, mental illness, unrelenting fear, and hopelessness find joy in this season? Who and what will be Emmanuel – God with us – be for each person?
Joy is not only a reality promised in some far-off future; it is a quality of abundant life. Like peace, it doesn’t fall from the sky onto our heads. It is a quality that is cultivated purposely. For many, it is a difficult process to find any joy. Are you taking responsibility for including joyful times of celebration in your daily life? And are you creating opportunity for others to feel joy when they are around you?
How long has it been since you let go and relaxed in delight and joy like a child lost in carefree gladness? Advent is a great time, writes Dr. Kathleen McCallie, to put a bookmark in our serious projects and self-importance long enough for a little sparkle, play, and joy.
From deep darkness can come the most inspiringly beautiful things. Music. Art. Poetry. Life itself. As your pastor this Advent, I encourage you to dig into the darkest places and to add a spark of light. And when your light is just beginning to glow, let it help another person find just a bit of light in you so that they may also begin to glow. Light the way until all may see the light of Christ being born –
• in you,
• in me,
• in those struggling with depression or hopelessness,
• in the old and the young,
• in all who need a song of joy to still their restlessness.