Sunday, December 9, 2012

Longing for Innocence: A Pre-Pageant Meditation on Joel 2:12-17, 28-29

Scripture can be found here...

This season—this beautiful, sparkling December season—is known, it is notorious, for inciting attacks of nostalgia and melancholy. Personally, I am subject to longing for the days so beautifully captured by Taylor Swift as she sings about her mother in “The Best Day”:

It's the age of princesses and pirate ships
And the seven dwarfs
Daddy's smart
And you're the prettiest lady in the whole wide world.

This season brings to the surface our underlying and persistent longing for innocence. That longing can take many forms.

We long for a time when we saw the world through the eyes of a child. I carry with me the image of a boy, about 3 ½ years old, wearing a red fair-isle sweater, his round face crowned with curly hair. He is playing with a wooden toy that involves turning a crank so that angels will spin and dance. For me, this is an indelible vision of innocence that still resonates: to see that toy, that Christmas celebration, with such pure openness and wonder.

We long for things to be the way they used to be. For one, that might mean a return to his high school physique. For another, that might mean a return to a relationship she misses. For still another, that might mean a return to the days when the house was filled to overflowing with the energy of our children.

Or we long for real innocence, in the original meaning of the word. We might be carrying around a burden of guilt—maybe we have disappointed someone, or hurt someone, or simply not been as loving as we could have been. And we are longing to be relieved of that burden, to know that we have made it right, that we have been forgiven, that we can start fresh.

The longing for innocence can take many forms.

For the people listening to the words of the prophet Joel, their longing was complicated. They say you can’t go home again. But what they mean is, you can go home, but it will be different, so different that it might not actually feel like home any more. The view from fifty is not the same as the view from five.

The exile is over. The Persian regime has given permission for the temple to be rebuilt, and has also started the process of repatriating those Judeans who want to return to Jerusalem. For those who return after the rebuilding of the temple, they are in for a shock: it is smaller, it is unlovely, it is not the same as Solomon’s splendid edifice. Their hearts break all over again. It’s not as good as it was. And, as a wise preaching professor said, they are not as good as they were. The people of God who are returning to Judea can only see what has happened to them as a punishment. They had cheated the Lord. They had cooked the books of their relationship with God. They had betrayed the Holy One. And here is the result: their home, even when they are able to return to it, is not what it was.

They are longing for innocence. They are longing to see their home and temple with uncritical, hopeful, childlike eyes. They are longing for things to return to the way they one were. They are longing to be unburdened of the guilt they carry with them, like an invisible marine’s sixty-five-pound backpack.

Joel has the words they are longing to hear. “Return to me,” God says through the prophet. Let everyone come, the old, the young, even infants at the breast. Return. Return to me. It is not too late, because I, your God, am the one who looks at you and still sees the curly-headed boy full of wonder, the strong-headed girl full of determination. I am the one who looks at you and still beholds your original innocence. Return to me. See the world with new eyes. Hear my call afresh. Leave your burdens behind. Return to me. Return to me.

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