The Trees Clap Their Hands
The Trees Clap Their Hands
September 25, 2016 Maple Grove UMC
How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of just being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, for one, the Psalms tell about joy:
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
The hills gird themselves with joy,
They shout and sing together with joy. (Psalm 65:11-13)
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
May those who sow in tears
Reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
Bearing the seed of sowing,
Shall come home with shouts of joy,
Carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126:4-6)
How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of just being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, the poets know about joy. There’s Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; . . .
What is all this juice and all this joy?1
There e.e. cummings:
I thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.2
And there’s my favorite poet, Mary Oliver:
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There [is] . . .
much that can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. . .
It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. . .
Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.3
How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of just being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, if I get a vote, the one who knows joy best is Isaiah, the prophet who got to tell the exiles they were going home. Today’s tree scripture is also today’s joy scripture and also today’s anthem:
For you shall go out with joy,
be led forth with peace,
the mountains and the hills
shall break forth before you into singing
and all the trees, the trees shall clap their hands.
Pine trees shall shoot up in place of the camel thorn,
myrtles instead of briars.
All this shall win the Lord a great name,
a sign for all time.
How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, maybe, with Isaiah, it’s best not to tell you at all, but to show you: Clap my hands! Or better yet to join with you and the trees in clapping our hands for joy: All of us clap our hands!
I want specifically this morning to think with you about three aspects, or three kinds, of joy: joy as a response to circumstances, joy that comes from inside, and finally expectant joy, or anticipatory joy.
Joy as a Response to Circumstances
In Exodus 15 Moses’ sister, Miriam, pulls out her tambourine and leads the people in song and dance. Why? Because the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. In 2 Samuel 6 King David danced before the Lord with all his might. Why? Because at long last the ark of the covenant had been brought to Jerusalem. In Matthew 28 the women ran from the tomb quickly and with great joy. Why? Because the angel said that Jesus was raised. There is a joy that is our natural and heart-felt response to circumstances.
Periodically our church’s prayer team sends out what they call their "Rejoice List." The prayer team’s work is confidential but here, without names, are samples from a recent Rejoice List. They’d been praying for a Maple Grove member who’d receiving an emergency pacemaker. All had gone well. They’d been praying for a member’s daughter and son-in-law who’d been separated, but now had reconciled. One couple’s grand-daughter had been born and all were well after a high-risk pregnancy. Do you see why they call it the Rejoice List? Joy is our natural and heart-felt response to answered prayer.
I wrote this poem many years ago, a true story about our daughter Rachel’s response to first seeing the beach:
She toddled down the dune to that first sight
Of sea, for which there is no grown-up speech,
Much less for two year-olds. She took it in
Silence, just beach far as her eyes could reach.
Who knew the universe could be so blue?
Who knew the world would be this wide? Who knew?
She looked, she laughed, and then she clapped her hands.
It was, she knew, the only thing to do.
Will you join Rachel and all the trees in clapping our hands for joy?
Joy From the Inside
Sometimes, however, there aren’t any circumstances to prompt our joy. And yet . . . ultimately joy does not come to us from the outside; joy is something that arises from the inside. In the church we call this "the joy of the Lord." It’s joy that comes not from getting a job or from the Buckeye’s beating Oklahoma, but from the presence and promise of God in our lives.
In the first church I served I visited a woman in a nursing home. I got to know her story. She was legally blind. She’d lost most of one leg to diabetes. Her husband had died when they were still young, and two of her three children had succumbed to cancer. And yet every time I visited, she had a smile on her face and was eager to sing hymns with me. I asked her one time, "Mary, with everything that’s happened to you, you have every right to be sad and angry. How is it that you’re always filled with joy?" More than twenty years later, I still remember what she told me. "Pastor, joy isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something God gives you. All you have to do is receive it." Amen.
Here’s how the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk put it:
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.
Because joy is something that comes from the inside, will you join Habakkuk and all the trees in clapping our hands for joy?
There is joy that a response to circumstances. There is joy that comes from the inside. And finally there is expectant joy, the joy of anticipation. In Columbus, Ohio, we call this ‘tailgating.’ The game won’t start for hours, but already fans are rejoicing. It’s expectant joy.
Our family took a beach vacation the first week of August. Already in June I was shopping for beach chairs and travel size toiletries. Part of me was already on Pawley's Island. It’s expectant joy.
In the flow of Maple Grove’s capital campaign this fall, Celebration Sunday--when we’ll have special music and decorations and grand refreshments--comes before most of us fill out our pledge cards. Some might call this wishful thinking. I call it expectant joy.
That’s what’s going on in Isaiah 55. When Isaiah wrote these words to the exiles in Babylon about going out with joy, no one had gone anywhere yet. The people of Israel were still slogging it out in Babylon, with no way home in sight. There was nothing obvious to rejoice about, no clear reason for the trees to clap their leafy hands. Here’s how Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it: "before there can be any geographical departure from [Babylon], there must be a liturgical, emotional, imaginative departure. Israel in exile must be able to think and feel and imagine its life out beyond Babylonian administration."4 In other words, expectant joy doesn’t just take place chronologically prior to a joyful event, our expectant joy is part of what makes that event happen. Nancy Gay calls this "visioning prayer." Before it happens, already she sees it and rejoices for it.
The truth is, not every Jewish exile in Babylon wanted to go back to Israel. Some had cushy jobs in Babylon. Some didn’t have it so well but were more afraid of change than of staying put. None of them knew what the journey would be like. As Brueggemann points out, Isaiah’s call to go out with joy is not an imperative. God doesn’t nag those who fear what’s new. It is an invitation; it’s permission to clap your hands on your way to a new and joyful life.5 So why don’t we? With the exiles let’s envision, let’s rejoice and clap a new life into existence.
How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of just being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, channeling Brueggeman, let me say to you this way: O my Maple Grove friends, when you go out today, go out with joy and peace, not in anxiety and anger. Go out with your life transformed from brier to myrtles, from camel thorn to towering pine. Go out from tired old fears that divide us, go out from old quarrels unresolved. Go out from sin unforgiven. Go out from old decisions that have scarred and wounded. Go out from old memories that have become weights around your neck. Go out into God’s promised future, which our rejoicing helps make happen. And once more with two year-old Rachel, and once more with the prophet Habakkuk, and once more all the trees, will you clap your hands with joy?6
1 Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Spring," https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/51002.
2 e.e. cummings, "I thank you God for most this amazing," https://thepoetryplace.wordpress.com/2009/06/01/i-thank-you-god-for-most-this-amazing/
3 Mary Oliver, "Don’t Hesitate," Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 42.
4 Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 162.
5 See Walter Brueggemann, "Sabbaticals for Rats?" The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011),132.
6 The ending is adapted from Walter Brueggemann, "Power to Remember, Freedom to Forget," The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power and Weakness, ed. Charles L. Campbell (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 62.