Thin Places: Horizon
This summer I sat atop a lighthouse, watching the waves come in and draw out, over and over again, a kind of dance to the sun that eventually woke up the sky with gentle hues of yellow and pink and orange. Somehow the waves drew me out with them, into the masterpiece of air molecules scattering light off the coast of Maine. Like most of the other stories I’ve shared during this series on Thin Places, I was mesmerized, Kelsey too, without much to really say; beauty had taken hold of us.
We left the island a couple hours later, headed to Acadia. We drove around, walked, and I’ll even say we “hiked” a little bit. As the day wrapped up, the darkness made us flip on our phones’ flashlights as we walked to the car. And as we came around the bend, the trees unzipped before us, exposing the softest orange sky I’ve ever seen. The sun had just missed us, gone behind the mountain or hill, and the water was in front of us in a kind of bay.
We’d gone from a sunrise on an island, to a sunset in this cutout, and once again, beauty held us silently, closely.
The same horizon, the same sun, two different moments in the same day, two unique experiences of beauty and awe.
That veil between heaven and earth, between the sacred and the ordinary, seemed only as thin as the stroke of God’s paintbrush.
A Thin Place, where God’s presence is palpable, where a beauty that’s beyond us, stills us, and somehow also moves us.
We’ve come to attach significance to the rising and setting of the sun. It speaks to temporality, to new starts, to hopes and dreams. Sunsets might cause us to reflect back, and sunrises give birth to new opportunities. We often count on our circumstances fading away, trusting that the sun will rise again.
When we read through Isaiah, sometimes called the Fifth Gospel, we see this imagery pop up. The dawn is breaking, a new day is coming, light, hope, newness. The people, in exile, longing for relief, for redemption, for a return to their homeland, and the prophet speaks of moments like this. Where the wilderness and the desert will blossom and rejoice, where a highway will cut right through it all, and the people will return home in joy. And listening to the reading from today, I can almost picture a perpetual sun on the horizon, rising, setting, constantly burning a light, no matter the surroundings, no matter the circumstances, no matter the time of day, a metaphor for God’s unending love and the joy it sustains.
Every Advent at this time, the third week, we speak to joy, usually when there is so much around us to despair, of which to be afraid, angry, weary. And each year we practice joy, like we practice longing and hope in observing Advent itself. Practicing joy as God’s people who believe this world is not as it should be or ultimately will be, means we are resisting the despair and fear that so often consumes everyone else.
Joy as resistance to despair.
Joy as persistence in the face of injustice, inequity, insufficiency.
Joy as insistence that there is meaning to our lives beyond our circumstances, beyond what we can see.
Joy as resistance, persistence, insistence.
Joy is that internal beauty that calibrates us like the sun on a horizon grounds us.
It’s why the people of God in exile in our reading from Isaiah today can hope and long for something more, can have joy — because it’s not circumstantial; it’s substantial on its own.
This Sunday of most any other Sunday, is that time of year when psychologists and theologians might most agree, at least on this one point: happiness and joy are not the same. And this Sunday of most any other Sunday becomes that moment when we parse the difference.
Happiness is more dependent on external circumstances;
Joy comes from within.
Put another way: happiness is fleeting; joy is the evidence of the deep inner work of God in your life.
Happiness is how you feel when someone “likes” your Facebook post;
Joy is your dog greeting you at the door, wagging her tail and spinning in circles.
Happiness is putting a cute outfit on your baby;
Joy is what you feel when you hold her, when he smiles, when they laugh, when you watch them sleep.
Happiness is a new comforter on the bed;
Joy is the warmth in your heart of the person sleeping next to you.
Happiness is likinga situation, a circumstance, an object, a purchase;
Joy is lovinga person, being loved by a person, having a calling, finding meaning in life, finding yourself, loving yourself, loving God, being loved by God.
Joy is that ability to find meaning in life regardless of your circumstances.
Which should be a guide to us, to learn to prioritize that which cultivates a sustaining joy over a fleeting happiness.
I don’t say that intending them to be at odds with one another, but maybe instead of the temporary happiness that our social media might bring us, what if we put down our phones and embraced the joy that friendships can offer?
Instead of sitting at home binge-watching a tv show, what if we spent time in nature, in service to others, with friends, with family, doing something more impactful? Or if you’re a busy person, maybe for you, cultivating joy would be to disconnect from everything else and actually be alonefor awhile.
I don’t know what it is for you. And again, happiness and joy aren’t enemies. They’re often partners on the same journey. But finding happiness is a lot easier than cultivating joy, which is also why happiness is much more fleeting than joy.
This has never been more viscerally apparent than that terrible day, two-and-a-half years ago, when my Dad died. Of course, I wasn’t happyabout it. Happiness flittered away the moment I saw my stepmother’s call at 6 in the morning. But the sadness itself was born out of a love, the richness of which offered me deep joy. Memories and stories and pictures made me sentimental — and still do — and made me cry. They made me unbearably sad.
But there was something deeper, a hope, a love, a belief that I would be okay, that this too, would pass, that even though he’s gone forever on this plane, there’s something more that I trust in, beyond this, that I’ll see him again someday, and that before that time comes, I’ll still see him and hear him. Maybe in the sentimentality of keepsakes, or the triggers of memories, or the way I see his hands showing up in my own as they grow older, in my cough or laugh or idiosyncrasies. In how I’ve learned to love.
And I’m still not happythat he’s gone, but I recognize that it was joy that has guided me. That even when it has felt like the sun setting on the horizon, the darkness of grief and loss unsettling and disorienting, the sun still burned all the same, behind the scenes, eager to rise again in its time.
The love of God is rich and true, more faithful than the perpetual sun rising and setting and rising again. And while the circumstances of our day-to-day lives might be unbearably challenging, unfair, devastating, the people of God can trust and believe and model for the world, that God’s mercy are new with the morning. That as the people of God proclaimed when they did in fact return to their homeland to rebuild in Nehemiah, “The joy of the Lord is our strength.”
I’ve often wondered why sunrises and sunsets are such gorgeous reds and oranges and pinks, when the rest of the day the sky is blue. It has to do with the distance of the sun’s rays as they’re hitting the horizon in a series of events called “scattering.” Throughout the day, the sun’s rays are scattered by air molecules, dispersing light at various wavelengths, resulting in a blue hue for most of the day. At sunrise and sunset, because of the shape and rotation of the earth, the sun’s rays have to travel the furthest of any other point in the day, which means that with the additional time and distance traveled more blue and violet light is scattered out of the sky than normal. This results in the other colors showing through — the beauty we see in the sunrises and sunsets that so often feels like a thin place.
There are times when joy is apparent, easy to notice, when skies are blue.
And there are other times, when it feels like you are enduring harder and longer than usual, when you’re feeling scattered and tossed about.
Hear me today, hear the words of Mary and Isaiah too: in those moments God is with you too, closer than you realize, the space between you, thinner than you know. And the truth of that, the reality of it, the beauty — is gripping. And joyful. And it will still you. And move you.
Sermon preached at FBC Worcester, MA, the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019.
Isaiah 35:1–10; Luke 1:46b-55