December 12, 2016

Then Came a Time

“White as Snow” is the ninth track on U2’s 2009 album, No Line on the Horizon. According to one critic, “the quietest, most intimate, and arguably most arresting” song the band has ever recorded.

“White as Snow” is a song about dying. Inspired by Sam Mendes’ film Jarhead and William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin, it is Bono’s lyrical attempt to enter the mind of a mortally wounded solider as he breathes his last in Afghanistan.

Setting comforting images of childhood’s carefree moments over and against the stark reality of the young man’s bitter surroundings—contrasting memories of family road trips with this place where “the road refuses strangers”—the song is somber, but not bleak. As in so many of the songwriter’s works, faith makes this distinction possible.

Comingled with memories and pain, the dying man’s final thoughts are of grace and redemption. In a clear allusion to the “Lamb of God” Bono sings,

Once I knew there was a love divine

Then came a time I thought it knew me not

Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not

Only the lamb as white as snow

The snow-white lamb, then, becomes the soldier’s final quest and ultimate hope.

Rising above the moment, in the end the young man ponders things sublime.

“Where might we find the lamb as white as snow,” he wonders.

“If only a heart could be as white as snow,” he concludes.

It’s really a beautiful lyric.

“White as Snow” is something special musically, too.

Recreating the same somber, but not bleak atmosphere, the song’s simple melody is, in fact, based on “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the quintessential Advent hymn.

This pairing of music and words makes a powerful combination.

The juxtaposition of a familiar and ancient hymn with a contemporary and soul searching lyric establishes “White as Snow” as a touchstone for us this morning as God’s people.

What, after all, are we about as God’s people if we’re not about holding in tension and making connections between things ancient and things contemporary?

Who are we if we are not a people committed to the belief that the old, old story of God’s love will indeed be realized and made new in the midst of the trials and tribulations we face this day?

Disciples of Jesus Christ understand that making connections like these is essential to the faith we share.

Advent is, of course, the season of the year in which the desire to make such connections directs our focus to the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth a little over two thousand years ago. These are the days to remember angelic visitors, the ministry of prophets, and the way in which God’s power transformed a humble manger into a throne room for a king.

But Advent’s images and ideas, its symbols and slogans, have a way of leading us into an ever deeper past—into an age of loss, exile, and a promised homecoming.

Advent brings to mind the darkest season of the Old Testament era, the Exile of God’s People in Babylon.

Some six hundred years before Jesus’s birth, the armies of Babylon invaded the land once ruled by King David, conquered the holy city of Jerusalem, and destroyed God’s Temple.

After the conquest, Babylon took thousands of Israelites captive and carried them into exile where they languished as strangers in a strange land for decades.

Writings from the Exiles paint a picture of a people who were separated from their land, their homes, everything that that knew and believed, and, some thought, even from God.

“By the rivers of Babylon,” laments Psalm 137, “there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion…How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

To borrow a phrase, “once the Exiles knew there was a love divine / then came a time they thought it knew them not.”

But it wasn’t so! God had not forgotten the people and the Exile did, in fact, end.

This morning we’ve read words that capture the excitement and hope and joy of preparations for the Exile’s homecoming.

Isaiah 35 describes a once barren land and formerly fainting hearts springing forth in new life as the Lord leads the people home.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom… Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."

Isaiah goes on to describe the path upon which God will lead them back home. It will be a road fit for a king and their experience there will be wholly unlike their forced march to Babylon.
A highway shall be there [in the wilderness], and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

While on the way to Exile, their cries were ignored, their path unclear, and their lives expendable, but on their way home the people would be dignified, guided, and wanted.
And 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.
The Exile ended in the year 539BC when Babylon lost a war with Persia and Cyrus the Great of Persia announced that the Israelites were free to go back home. Again, that was a long time before Jesus was born, but after his death and resurrection, Christians found the language of Exile and homecoming to be useful tools for describing their experience, too

A people who knew the sorrow of Jesus’ cross found a connection with the prayers of Exiles who felt abandoned and forgotten.

A people who knew the joy of Easter morning found a connection with those who saw their mourning turn to rejoicing.

And a people who possessed Resurrection faith in a world still dominated by Good Friday forces found a connection with those who held on to God’s promises and covenant as exiles in a foreign land.

The believers who saw how the Spirit could transform hard hearts into caring souls, who recognized that outcasts and marginalized people were welcome in God’s family, who came to believe that God’s love for them was more determinative of their identity than any label they wore, any circumstance they faced, any trial they endured—people like these found a connection with those who left exile behind and walked home with God.

So can we.

What, after all, are we about as God’s people if we’re not about holding in tension and making connections between things ancient and things contemporary?

Who are we if we are not a people committed to the belief that the old, old story of God’s love will indeed be realized and made new in the midst of the trials and tribulations we face this day?

Today, ancient words offer us Good News. In our sorrow and worry, in adversity and sin—in all our seasons of exile—we are neither alone nor forgotten for God is with us—making a way where there was no way, leading us home when we thought we were lost.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…[So] strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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