Burdens heavy and light

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The “work” of scripture

Once more from last Sunday

Last Sunday was warm – not as warm as it has been, but it was the weekend following the fourth of July, so it seemed right to begin the sermon by saying:

On a hot summer day it seems hard to say more than “God loves you; go in peace.” We should be at the beach with our toes in the sand. We should be at a lake in the mountains, or on the back porch listening to the ball game with an iced-tea in our hands. We should be holding hands in a movie where the theater is cool. Or visiting a friend with air-conditioning and children the same age running around the back yard. Hot summer days don’t seem like the days for work.

But scripture is work. It asks something of us. It bids us listen. It asks us to see. It calls for self-examination and an open heart. It summons us to generosity and compassion and the hard work of reconciliation.

Scripture is work. But scripture is also promise. It comes to heal. To comfort. To reassure. To encourage. It comes to free what is bound and restore what is broken. It comes to gather what is scattered and unite what is divided. Scripture is work, but it is also promise. It bids us bend the knee, and yet raises us in an eternal embrace.

If you would like to read the whole sermon, it is posted here. It is rooted in the Gospel text for Sunday that includes harsh words of judgment against the cities of Jesus’ day and the sweet word of invitation:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Here are two other thoughts from the sermon:

People wouldn’t listen to John because he was too freakishly religious, and they won’t listen to Jesus because he’s not religious enough. At least, he’s not their kind of religion. But this is the deal. We don’t get to pick the god we want. We have to deal with the God who is.

+     +     +

There is a yoke here. There is a life of service to be lived. It is not an easy yoke in the sense that it doesn’t ask much of us; it asks very much indeed. But it is light because the work of mercy and grace lifts the heart and frees the Spirit and leads to joy and life.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKom%C3%A1rom554.JPG By Szeder László (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Prisoners of hope

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Saturday

Zechariah 9:9-12

12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

We can take apart the grammar and poetry of this sentence. We can discuss the cultural context from which these words derive their meaning. But I want first to simply relish them. I love the unexpectedness of the phrase “prisoners of hope.”

Jesus was a master of the unexpected. The parables, so familiar to us now, are masterful at the sudden twist, the startling comparison, the shocking example. The prophets, too, are brilliant at this: Jeremiah’s underwear. Walking around the temple court wearing a yoke. Ezekiel telling a lurid tale of sexual betrayal. The scriptures are full of the shocking. And they need to be. We are such complacent, rutted people. It is not easy to make us see ourselves differently. Not easy to make us see others differently. Not easy to make us see God differently. And how hard it is to make us behave any differently!

The scriptures need to catch us up side the head. There’s no other way to get through to us.

So how many of us are prisoners of hope? How many of us are bond-servants of a wondrous promise? How many of us are truly captives to the vision of a world made whole as if it were a conquering hero returning from the battlefield with prisoner/slaves in tow?

How many of us wake up each morning and run to serve the promise of a world where peace reigns? We go to bed in despair. We wake up in fear. Hurry to work. Hurry to school. Hurry to coffee and traffic. The alarm clock makes us groan. Dinner is a chore farmed out to whatever I can pick up on the way home. We eat on the run……or we eat alone. Something frozen. Maybe cereal from a box after too much wine. There is no family at the table, no prayer of blessing, no song of joy.

We are, most of us, I suspect, captives to the pressures of daily life rather than prisoners of hope.

And the people of Judea were captives to the daily struggle and shame of a once glorious city still littered with rubble and now under Persian rule.

So the prophet points to the horizon and promises a king – a king no one believes is coming. But he will come. Hidden in a Galilean peasant. Speaking words of grace and challenge. Touching the world with healing and freeing it from evil. Enduring the shame and degradation of the cross, but leaving behind an empty tomb and a hundred and twenty prisoners of hope. They will become millions.

And shall we break off the shackles of hope for the shackles of mammon? Will we break off the ties of mercy, compassion and kindness for the sour belief that these shall not prevail? Shall we surrender to the thump of weapons as our true hope? Is it only death and taxes that are certain, not grace and life? Shall we forfeit joy?

No. I will come to the table that promises a world gathered to speak the blessing. I will sing the song, and feast the feast. And I will willingly extend my hands to the thongs of hope.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AName-Keftiu-at-Abydos-Ramses-Temple.jpg By HoremWeb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The promised blessing

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Jesus and Nicodemus

Watching for the Morning of March 12, 2017

The Second Sunday in Lent

Sunday our focus turns to the Gospel of John and the visit of Nicodemus. In the background is the promise to Abraham that through him God will bring blessing to the earth. The earth is in travail. The flood has purged the land but not cleansed the heart of humankind. They denied the command of God to fill the earth and tried instead to storm the gates of heaven by building their ziggurat in Babel. A confusion of languages followed, a deep and fundamental disruption of humanity’s most remarkable achievement: words. With words we can storm the heavens and land people on the moon, but with words we also lie and steal and sow division and hate. With words we can connect on the most intimate level, and with words we can rend beyond repairing. In the face of this fragmented world, God speaks a promise to Abraham: in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And now Nicodemus stands before Jesus failing to understand these words about being born from above, born of the Spirit, born of God, born of the promised blessing. He wonders what sense it makes to talk of coming forth from the womb a second time. He doesn’t understand the metaphor of the wind. He comes to Jesus “by night”; he is in darkness.

But Jesus does not drive this thickheaded lunk away. He speaks, and in his word is life. He bears witness to the majesty of God’s love, to the sacrifice such love will make, to the redemption that is at hand, to the new creation that is dawning.

Nicodemus will linger near this Jesus. He will defend him to his accusers. He will come with spices fit for a king to give this Jesus an honored burial. He senses there is something of God here, something of that longed for blessing of all creation.

Abraham was in a right relationship to God by faith, argues Paul, by fidelity to God’s promise, for Abraham was declared “righteous” hundreds of years before the law was given. The psalmist speaks of his confidence in God as he looks at the pilgrim road rising through the dangerous hills to Jerusalem. It is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in Nicodemus. And it is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in us who come Sunday to hear the words and share in the one loaf and taste the promised blessing.

Your Name Be Holy

Our focus in Lent on a portion of the catechism, the basic teachings of the faith, takes us into the Lord’s Prayer this year. Sunday we will consider the first petition: “Holy be your name.” What honors God’s name? And what shames it? And what, exactly, are we asking God to do? There is much to ponder in this simple prayer.

Reflections on the themes of each week and brief daily devotions related to those themes can be found on the blog site for our Lenten devotions.

The Prayer for March 12, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and Gracious,
who met Nicodemus in the darkness
and called him into your light:
Grant us to be born anew of your Spirit
that, with eyes turned towards Jesus,
we might live your eternal life;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for March 12, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a
“The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” – Following God’s halt to the tower of Babel and the scattering of the nations, God calls Abraham to venture out to a new land trusting only in God’s promise so that, through Abraham, God’s blessing may come to the world.

Psalmody: Psalm 121
“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” – A pilgrim song, expressing the people’s trust in God as they journey up towards the hills of Jerusalem.

Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
“For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
– Paul argues that Abraham was righteous not by his keeping of the law but by his trust in God’s promise.

Gospel: John 3:1-17
“just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’” – Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness, unable to comprehend the new birth of which Jesus speaks.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHenry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Study_for_Jesus_and_Nicodemus.jpg Henry Ossawa Tanner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A crimson cord

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Wednesday

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

Her life hung by a thread, a length of crimson cord.

Joshua sent two spies into Jericho. The text says they took lodging at the house of Rahab, a prostitute – presumably the line between a public house and a brothel was thin in those days as in many others. When the king of the city learned of their presence, he sent word demanding Rahab bring them out, but she hid the spies and sent the soldiers on a chase saying the men had already left the city. Her house was built into the city wall and in the night she let the men down by a rope, having asked for them to reciprocate her loyalty. They told her to gather her people into the house and mark it with a crimson cord. When the city was taken and sacked, it would be her protection.

The brutality of the slaughter is for another time. What haunts me is that in the midst of the cries of chaos and confusion, the screams and blood, all her hope rests on a promise made visible by a crimson cord.

When Abraham went out from Haran he left with nothing more than a promise. When Joseph languishes in prison, he is sustained by nothing more than the promise given by God in dreams he received in his youth. Amidst the wails and sorrows of that night when death struck Egypt, the hope of the Israelites rested on a promise made visible by the blood of a lamb upon the doorpost.

Faith is not my own inner conviction; it is clinging to the promise we have received. Amidst the cries and cruelties of our broken world, all our hope is in a crimson cord and a promise: a splash of water and the promise that our death is taken by Christ and his life given to us.

Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Rahab – this great litany of saints – are lifted up to us by the author of Hebrews as examples not for their great deeds or holiness, but because they entrust their lives to the promise of God.

We who gather at the table of the Lord trust our lives to the promise incarnate in a bit of bread that all debts are lifted. We trust our lives to promise that the world belongs to the God who rescues the enslaved and opens the grave. We trust our lives to the God who promises that mercy, kindness, compassion, forgiveness are the destiny of the world.

All our hope is in a crimson cord and a promise, in a lamb slain who lives and shares his imperishable life with us.

1Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

 

This reflection is slightly edited from that for Propers C 15 in 2013.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARed_thread.jpg By Saurabh R. Patil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

With eyes raised

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Watching for the Morning of August 7, 2016

Year C

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 14 / Lectionary 19

Sunday’s Gospel contains a stunning and unexpected reversal. The servants who are “dressed for action” with “lamps lit” waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet are suddenly brought into the joy of the wedding feast. Instead of serving their master when he comes, they become the recipients of his banquet.

The readings Sunday are filled with promise and joy. Abraham is brought outside and promised descendants like the stars for number. The psalm sings of the providential care of God and the joy of those for whom the LORD is their watchful, caring god. Hebrews sings of Abraham’s trust in God’s promise – a trust, the first reading tells us, God acknowledged as true righteousness (fidelity). And Jesus’ followers are assured that God delights to give them the kingdom. God’s reign, God’s new creation, God’s healing of the world does not have to be extracted from him as justice wrested from reluctant politicians; God is eager to give his Spirit. God is eager to breathe upon us his grace and life.

We live in eager expectation not just for that final day when the trumpet sounds heralding the coming of the king, but for every taste of the banquet to come, for the breath of the Spirit, for surprising mercies, for stunning majesties and every small and unexpected act of kindness. We live in expectation that kindness shall prevail, hate shall perish, and reconciliation triumph. We live with open hands and generous hearts. We live with lamps lit and eyes raised. The master is bringing the joy that has no end.

The Prayer for August 7, 2016

Gracious God,
you promised to Abraham and his children a wondrous inheritance
and called them to live trusting in your word.
Grant us confidence in your promises
and courage to live as children of your kingdom;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 7, 2016

First Reading: Genesis 15:1-6
“And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” – God renews the promise of descendants to Abraham and his trust in God’s promise is recognized as righteousness.

Psalmody: Psalm 33:12-22
“Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love,” – A hymn of praise at the providential care of God.

Second Reading: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” –
For whatever reason, the reading of Hebrews is divided between the end of year B and August of year C in the lectionary, so this Sunday we resume readings from Hebrews, beginning with the great recital of those who put their trust in the promise of God (whose fulfillment we await with confidence).

Gospel: Luke 12:32-40
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” – Our reading continues Jesus’ teaching on wealth/possessions from last Sunday, calling us to live for and trust in God’s dawning reign of grace and life.

 

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Righteousness

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He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

Friday

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Abraham was 75 when he left Haran, taking his wife, Sarah, and nephew, Lot, and leaving his father behind. He left, according to the narrative, in obedience to God who promised he would be the father of a great nation through which all families on earth would be blessed.

He went to Shechem, then to Bethel, then by stages to the Negev. During a famine he went down into Egypt and eventually returned, moving again in stages from the Negev back to Bethel. Tension between his household and the household of Lot caused them to separate, and Lot to move into the Jordan Valley and took up his fateful residence in Sodom. Lot became the victim of a war between the “kings” (chieftains of city-states) of the region and Abraham went to rescue him. After all this, “some time later” according to the text, we find him still childless.

“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Three times he has heard the promise of descendants, and three times nothing has happened but the ongoing vicissitudes of life.

“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

I appreciate the frankness of his conversation. He can see no future but that his steward will end up with the estate. God, however, explains nothing. What God does is simply repeat the promise. And Abraham trusts it.

Trust is not a substitute for righteousness. Righteousness means fidelity to God and to others. Abraham has shown fidelity to Lot. Now he shows fidelity to God. He accepts God’s word.

Few of us have a vision such as Abraham’s. What we have is the promise of God mediated to us through the text of scripture and embodied in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. They are the equivalent of the smoking pots: God’s covenantal promise made visible: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood…shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.”

We don’t know how we will get to the fullness of the promise of the world brought into the blessing of God. But we accept and live by the promise. And it is righteousness.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHeavens_Above_Her.jpg By Ian Norman (http://www.lonelyspeck.com) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The God who promises

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Thursday

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

5“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

We are a people who live by a promise. It means our faces are fundamentally turned towards the future, for a promise, by nature, is about what I will do not what I have done.

The genesis of human religious practices is the desire to maintain the world: to be sure that the sun comes back after the winter solstice, to be sure the rains come in the spring, to validate and sustain the values and structures of the past – to keep things the same. Kings and priests go together.

Prophets, on the other hand, are about the present and future. What God is doing, what God will do, where the people should go – where they must go lest tragedy overtake them. And, when ruin comes, the prophets speak of grace to come, God’s promise of new beginnings.

We are a people who live by a promise. We are not a people upholding conventional morality; we are a people speaking a new morality: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”

We are not a people defending the monarchy’s divine right; we proclaim a new kingdom, the reign of God.

We are a people who tell of a God who overthrows the established social order of Egypt to set slaves free. We are a people who tell of a God who overthrows his own king and temple in the name of justice and care for the poor. We are a people who tell of a God who overthrows death itself.

We are a people who live by a promise, whose eyes are toward the future. We do not forget the past. The past is our witness to this God of the future. The scriptures and practices and traditions of the past keep us pointed toward this God of promise. But the God we worship, the Lord we follow, is a God who leads us into the future.

Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

And it is the courage to trust that promise that represents true ‘righteousness’ – true fidelity to God and others.

 

Photo: © Dietmar Rabich, rabich.de [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The promise is enough

Friday

Luke 1:46-55

File:Gliwicki Klub Kolekcjonerów GKK - Matka Boska Lysiecka.jpg52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

It seems, at first glance, like an odd choice of tense for the verbs: he brought down, lifted up, filled, sent away – all simple past tenses. Technically, all God has done is announce what will happen. Mary will have a child who will be great, who will receive the throne of David, who will reign forever. God has announced the future and Mary sings of it as past event, as already accomplished. The promise is as good as the done deed. The future is given and received in the promise.

We don’t live that way. I can hear my mother repeating the aphorisms: “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush,” “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” and “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” But that is exactly what Mary has done. She has put all her eggs in the basket of this promise of God, and now she is counting the chickens. There is no waiting to see if God will come through, no hesitation whether God can accomplish what he purposes. The promise is enough for Mary to sing as if it is all present reality.

When I was first told I was going to be a father, I was also told we couldn’t announce it yet. In that first trimester there was a chance you might lose the baby. We needed to wait to tell family. We needed to wait before buying baby clothes. We needed to wait before creating a nursery. We needed to wait to be sure.

But for Mary there is no waiting. All that God has promised is celebrated as present reality. The announcement that this child is coming means that the world will change. The injustices of the world will be undone. The poor will be raised up and the powerful cast down. It is signed and sealed and delivered. It is a done deal.

Mary breaks all the rules. She lets go of the world as it is to grasp hold of the world as it shall be. She is counting her chickens. She is singing from joy. The promise is enough.

 

Image:By Grzegorzfl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

Heaven and earth

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Glancing back to Sunday

Luke 21:25-36

33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Heaven and earth won’t pass away. That’s not the meaning of Jesus’ words. The meaning of this expression in the ancient Mediterranean is simple: as impossible as it is for heaven and earth to pass away, it is more impossible for my words to pass away.

What will pass away is this age when children are found lying lifeless in the surf, and infants are buried beneath rubble. What will pass away is the world of tribal animosities and racism. What will pass away is the slash and burning of the rainforest. What will pass away at the cruel words spoken in homes and streets. What will pass away are the tears of the bereaved.

Heaven and earth won’t pass away. Neither will the words of Jesus. The words that call us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The words that speak mercy and forgiveness. The words that call for the sharing of bread and the welcoming of the outcast. The words that say “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (not “Go and make church members,” or “Go and make Christians,” but “Go and make disciples, students, followers of the way of Christ.”)

Jesus’ words will endure, the words that say “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” This age will end. This age of warring and grasping, of greeds and sorrows, of lusts and shames – this age will pass. But the heavens and earth will endure, the handiwork of the eternal: the rising and setting of suns, the swift motion of planets, the wash of waves upon shores, the cry of the wild, the beauty of the natural world, the mystery of life, the wonder of love, the laughter of children, the bonds of affection, the truth of goodness and the goodness of truth, it will endure.

This age will pass and all its discordant cries. But the creation will endure. And Jesus’ words will endure. They speak things that are eternal. They speak harmony. They speak life.

 

Image: Norman McMullan [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The ransomed of the Lord shall return

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Wednesday

Isaiah 51:4-11

The ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

We are grateful for the remarkable recovery from brain surgery of a child in the parish. Every day seems an answer to prayer. But even as we celebrate his recovery, there are parents in the congregation whose children did not recover.

I think of them as we provide each status update. I know the complicated emotions of gratefulness for others even as you grieve your own loss. When my daughter was killed, I knew the land of bitterness was nearby. There’s a story of my brother crawling through the fence on my grandparents’ farm into the pasture where the bull grazed. I can feel my mother’s fear even now as she tells that story. The land of bitterness is like that field. It’s an easy fence to cross but a terrible place to go.

Advent is for those parents whose children didn’t come home. It is for those whose hips are mending in a hospital bed. It is for those whose homes are empty or cold or absent. It is for those who flee their homeland – and those unable to flee. It is for the parents of Alan Kurdi whose body will continue to lie in the surf as long as his image endures in our memory.

Advent is a simple promise: the sorrow of the world shall not endure. The gulf that separates the perfect realm of heaven from the troubled realm of earth will be overcome. God will come to dwell with us. Indeed, God has come to us already in the child of Nazareth, the crucified and living one.

Advent is for the parents whose children didn’t come home, and the parents whose children won’t come home, and the children who have reason to not go home. But it is also for the families that do come home, that have enjoyed in some small measure the goodness God intended for us in families. Yet even the best of families have known the ache of our fallen world. And so all are recipients of the promise that shapes this season: “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.