Isaiah 65:17-25, Thessalonians 3:6-13
“I can’t finish the song,” these were the words of late poet and song writer Leonard Cohen as he banged his head on the floor in frustration as he struggled to write the now-famous song, “Hallelujah.” For over five years, he worked on this song, he wrote eighty verses, including one that said, “Now maybe there’s a God above but all I ever learned from love is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you. And it’s no complaint you hear tonight, and it’s not some pilgrim who’s seen the light— it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah!”
Cohen’s words remind us that God comes to us not only in beautiful, victorious moments, but also in broken-hearted ones. For years, Cohen wrestled with how he would end the song “Hallelujah” and as he struggled, he despaired and said, “I can’t finish this song.”
It didn’t seem possible. Have you ever felt like? Like you lacked the endurance to keep going? Like you didn’t know the way forward? Like you were enveloped in despair?
“I can’t finish the song.”
That is exact how the early Jesus followers felt in the Greek town of Thessaloniki. At the point that Paul is writing to them, they are a religious minority in an Empire ruled by a foreign power. They are supposed to be patriotic citizens that hail Ceasar as Lord but instead they hail Jesus. As a result, people are jailed, lives are threatened, and their future hangs precariously in the balance. People ask: What will happen? How can the Jesus movement possibly continue when it is being oppressed by one of the most powerful empires on earth?
Filled with hopelessness, some of them begin to say, “What we do doesn’t matter. Let us at least eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow isn’t going to be very bright.”
They stop participating in their congregations and neighborhoods. They become idle, a word which in its original Greek meaning is actually closer to the words “irresponsible” or “insubordinate” or “going against the community”. These Jesus followers begin not to care about others. They eat the food off the common table without working. They actively chose individualism over community living, because when times get tough, isn’t that the easier choice?
And yet, and yet, when we look at Isaiah’s words today, we are reminded that that the new heaven and the new earth is for a people, for a community. The Isaiah passage reminds us that salvation is not just about me and my personal relationship with God; salvation is about all of us. It’s about loving our neighbors and having justice so that our neighbors are fed and housed. It’s about an earth that embodies tenderness so much so that the wolf and lamb lay down side by side and the lion becomes a vegetarian. It’s about a wholeness not just experienced by our soul, but also by the entire earth. And to become idle is to forget that we are needed in this kin-dom. To become idle is to forget that we have a kinship and a connection to all that lives.
“I can’t finish the song.” In response to the Thessalonians’ despair, Paul say, we have work to do. Never tire of doing what is right. For we have a responsibility as a community of faith not only to be fed but to feed others and when we don’t do that, when we don’t show up at the table, we are cheating others of our gifts and talents. To not participate in communal living is to deprive others of our presence.
If Leonard Cohen had given up all those years ago, we would have never heard the beautiful song “Hallelujah” that has now been covered by over 300 artists. In the final version Cohen created, he writes,
“You say I took the Name in vain; I don’t even know the name. But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you? There’s a blaze of light in every word; it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!”
Cohen reminds us that the light of God is found not just in our joyous alleluias, but also our broken-hearted alleluias, our laments and frustrations.
No matter what kind of hallelujah we have; we are called to offer it, to share our light with the world. For if the early church had stopped trying to be the hands and feet of Christ, we would literally not be sitting here today.
It is their courage to show up, to offer the broken alleluias side by side the joyous ones, that made it possible for the Jesus movement to continue. Thus, in the moments when we are banging our head against the floor, Paul reminds us that the question we are called to ask is not: “Do I feel like being at church today?” Instead, Paul points that it is at those exact moments of crises that others need us not only to be part of our church community, but also to be part of our local, national and global world. They need us not to be idle or to refuse to participate. They need to hear our song, our music, even if we don’t have it quite figured yet. Because when we don’t show up, it’s not just our loss, it’s everyone’s loss. This is particularly true in times of difficulty.
I experienced that truth first-hand this week as I struggled to write a sermon and said to myself, “I can’t finish this song.” I somehow just kept staring at my computer screen and not a single word came to me. With all the unrest in our nation, I felt flooded with grief, unsure what to say or where to begin.
I could relate to the Thessalonian’s temptation not to say anything at all, to be idle, to be irresponsible. Then, I remembered the Isaiah passage which reminds us that we are part of the kin-dom and I have a kinship with my siblings in Christ, even when I don’t know what to say. Then, I remembered the Thessalonian passage that my gifts, my light, my love is needed even when idleness seems to be the more tempting option. I come before you today, not because I have things all figured out, but because Isaiah and Paul reminded me that we belong to each other and we are in this together.
For God is at work in our lives making a new heaven and a new earth and it requires of us integrity, endurance and an ability to speak truth from the heart. When we do these things, we shall not be shaken. We shall inherit the earth.
This is what Leonard Cohen discovered as he wrestled with the song lyrics of “Hallelujah”. After five years, he finally completed the song, picking for his final verse these words:
“I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”
Alleluia. Integrity, endurance and an ability to speak truth from the heart. That is our call; that is our work so that we might co-create the new heaven and the new earth, that we might stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on our tongues but alleluia.
Alleluia. Empires, even the most powerful ones, will fall, evil will perish, hatred will fade and what will endure is: God, God’s justice, God’s love, God’s truth … and our alleluia.
Alleluia. We’ll find the courage to continue on because we’ll remember that love completes the song, love empowers us to endure and love leads us home. It teaches us that in the moments when we say, “I can’t finish the song,” those are the moments when our voice, our gifts, our light is most needed, no matter whether we offer a broken or a holy alleluia.
And so we work, we gather at the able, we eat and we feed others and with one voice [join with me; I’ll say alleluia three time] with one voice we say: Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.