The Song of Life

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The Song of Life is God’s gift to his whole creation.  All of his creatures – you and I included – are meant to take up that song and let it be woven into our being so that God’s grace and mercy might flow through us and enrich the lives of others.

7-7-07 (GrasshopperSparrow1)
John the Baptist

Malachi 3:1-4, Acts 13:13-26, Luke 1:57-80

June 24, 2012

Peder Stenslie

When I take my mountain bike out on the Harmon Lake trail, I need to keep my eyes glued to the trail.  The scenery is beautiful and the place is full of birds; but I can’t afford to look around when I’m trying to keep a good pace, up and down ravines, around tight turns, over rocks and roots, etc.  But my ears… those are available and they work hard taking in all the birdsong around me.  It is an incredibly varied and beautiful chorus that I hear; and I want to share some of those voices with you today.

For example, I always hear this one.  That’s called the Spotted Towhee.  I also always hear this beautiful song.  Know what that one is?  It’s the Western Meadowlark.  Here’s another one I always hear.  That crazy song belongs to the Bobolink.  And frequently, I have the pleasure of hearing this song….  the Yellow-breasted Chat.

And there are many other voices.  Maybe a couple of you can help me.  You can hear the bird’s song by squeezing the plush toy.  I often hear this one.  That might be familiar to you.  It’s the Black-capped Chickadee.  Here’s another one I sometimes hear.  It’s the Song Sparrow.  All along the trail, song breaks out from thickets or coulees.  It’s everywhere.

And every song I hear tells me a story.  I can see it in my mind’s eye as I pedal.

For example, when I hear this song…  (Clay-colored Sparrow song) I know there’s a small sandy-colored bird perched nearby, with delicate white and dark brown lines on its face.  In my mind, I can see it sitting on the branch of a bush and throwing its head back as it sings its song.  Close by… on or near the ground, I know there’s a small cup-shaped nest of woven prairie grass.  In the cup, the female is sitting on tiny, light blue eggs with maroon-colored splotches. 

I also know that that nest is the reason for the song.

People sometimes carry the misconception that birds sing because they’re happy.  I will admit that many birdsongs sound happy, but the song of birds has a very serious and functional purpose.  Simply put, the purpose is to proclaim life in a hostile world.  The song is a declaration that: “Here… at this location, I… the singing bird, am committed to seeing through to the end a very delicate and fragile, but amazing and powerful miracle of life.  I am committed to this miracle and will fight against the many forces and dangers that threaten it.”

The song means that the bird has claimed a place where a nest will be built and where new life will be brought into being.  Eggs will be laid.  Nestlings will hatch and grow and become young birds ready to take to the skies.  The song of the bird announces that the parents will tend, feed, protect and teach the young birds so that God’s incredible gift of life will continue through them.

The wild birds’ Song of Life is, indeed, a beautiful song… and certainly reason to be happy.

Today’s lessons remind me that reading scripture is a lot like a bike ride around Harmon Lake.  There are so many wonderful songs to be heard… songs that boldly proclaim life in a harsh and hostile world.

Today, for instance, we celebrate the birth and life of John the Baptist.  It’s a special feast day of the church year.  We celebrate John because of his role in announcing the arrival of Christ. 

John’s song (and by that I mean his life and ministry) was sung in the wilderness around the Jordan River. In and through his song, the voice of God proclaimed life to a people and a world held in the grip of sin and death.

John announced to the people that the Spirit of God was among them… the power of God was on the move to rebuild and renew his people.  He told them of the gift of God’s forgiveness and declared that now was the time to let great change into their lives and open themselves to the work of God that was about to be done… in Christ, in the world… and in them.  That was the Song of Life proclaimed by John.

Today’s Gospel lesson also includes the song of John’s father, Zechariah.  Sung when John was an infant, it also proclaims the love and mercy of God.  Verses 78 & 79 read:

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The song of Zechariah announces that life is delivered by God even to those who sit in the shadow of death.

Our Old Testament lesson comes from the prophet Malachi.  He addressed a people who had become deeply corrupt.  Because of their corruption, violence and misery afflicted the whole country.  Malachi sang to them a song of life in a land of death.  He delivered God’s promise of help to create a future shaped not by their corrupt actions, but by the Spirit and love of God.

Our lesson from Acts opens with three men sailing on a journey… Paul, Barnabas, and John.  Each of these… with their lives… sang their own song, entrusted to them by God… to give hope and strength in a hostile world.

Barnabas became a follower of Jesus after the resurrection.  His given name was Joseph, but the disciples renamed him Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.”  It was he who introduced the apostle Paul to the disciples and convinced them that Paul’s conversion and faith were genuine.

Barnabas was a strong leader and a powerful preacher whose integrity filled people with confidence and respect.  Wherever he went the community of Christ grew stronger because of his work and his faith.  The song of his life gave strength and vitality to the early church at a time when the church was small and threatened by powerful, hostile forces all around it.

The man identified as John actually had two names… John and Mark.  He’s mentioned many times in scripture. He was an important helper to Barnabas, Paul… and later, Peter.  However, he was also a teacher in his own right.  In fact, the stunning Gospel of Mark is believed by many to have been written by his hand.  God’s Song of Life was heard beautifully in the life of John Mark.

And then there’s Paul, once a relentless and vicious enemy of the early church, he eventually became its most remarkable leader.  Paul was tenacious and bold; and it was he who first understood clearly that the Song of Life God laid forth in Jesus Christ was meant also for non-Jews… indeed the whole creation… not just for Jews.  Paul’s ministry to the gentiles completely transformed the church and he has provided us with some of our deepest insights into the relationship between God and the world.

The Song of Life is God’s gift to his whole creation.  All of his creatures – you and I included – are meant to take up that song and let it be woven into our being so that God’s grace and mercy might flow through us and enrich the lives of others. 

The Song of life is more than just the drawing of breath or a beating heart.  Drawing breath and a beating heart are just the beginning.  The Song of Life is living in love… being shaped and healed by love… because that makes us strong and healthy.  It is learning to love others so that others draw strength from us.

The Song of Life is growing in faith… learning to trust in God’s love for us… because that will give us courage to stand before the challenges of life. 

The Song of Life is knowing that God’s love for us always calls us forward to new life, whenever we get stuck in dead ends, or are hit by tragedy.

The Song of Life is learning what is truly valuable in this world … and pursuing and preserving those things with all our energy.

The Song of Life creates joy, beauty and hope in our lives and it builds and sustains healthy relationships and communities where justice, peace and compassion prevail.

The Song of Life…. sometimes sounds like this…  (Vesper Sparrow song.)  The birds know it’s what makes life worth living.  It’s the reason for their existence.  We’re the ones who can be kind of slow figuring this out.

So, remember what you learned here today:  First, birds don’t sing because they’re happy.  They sing because their creator has charged them with the task of carrying forth and carrying on the life he gave them.  In response, their song is a proclamation… a sign that, through them, powerful life, God’s purpose, is unfolding.  They serve the cause of life tirelessly so that the creator’s will is done.

And also, please, remember:  You too have been given the task to carry forth and carry on the life God has given you.  You too have been called to give yourself to the Song of Life that has proclaimed God’s love and will for creation since time began.

Have the courage, then, to sing.  Be bold.  Be like the birds of the prairie.  Be like Barnabas and John.  Give your heart, your energy… give yourselves in service to the most beautiful and the most powerful force in the world… the life that comes from God.  May it take root and grow strong in each of us.