One early morning this week, while it was still dark, I went outside to fill the birder feeders and was met with what I can only describe as “riotous” song. I couldn’t believe how loud the birds were! And there were so many different melodies. And they all—hundreds of them—sounded so close and so clear in the quiet morning that it seemed like they filled the forest behind my house. I was so amazed I grabbed my phone and captured a short video of it (I’ll post that online with the message). But when I went inside a few minutes later and looked at the video, I could hear the birdsong but the picture was completely black. That’s fascinating, I thought. The birds are singing long before there is any hint of light in the sky. Perhaps they are singing up the sun.
Scientists call this the “dawn chorus” and it is a well-documented phenomenon that happens in the early spring. Birds wake well before dawn—usually sometime around 4:00am—and in that span of time before it’s light enough either to begin searching for food or worry about hiding from predictors, what else is there to do but sing? They say birds do this for a couple of reasons. First, as a kind of statement to the world—“I made it through the night!” And also, as a show of strength to other birds, because the stronger and more vital you are, the more vibrant your song, the better your chances of attracting a good mate. So while it’s still dark, birds celebrate their survival and sing their hearts out in hopes of attracting love, which leads, of course, to a nest and hatchlings, continuing the miracle of life in our world.
This idea of singing while it’s still dark brought to mind for me the touching courage and inner strength—and sometimes even joy—of the Ukrainian people as they live through this unspeakably tragic and frightening time. Just yesterday, I saw a video of a young man playing the cello in the stairwell of a house that had been bombed. Almost nothing was left standing but there he was, in the middle of the rubble, making beautiful music with his beloved instrument, still intact. The music celebrates their survival, the goodness of another day. The testimony—courageous and true—is that Joy and beauty and life live on. His song celebrates the goodness of life overcoming darkness, even while the darkness is still here.
Claiming and celebrating God’s goodness—no matter how things look around us—is a powerful and prayerful act that can bless not only our lives and whatever our current circumstances may be. It can also bless and inspire those around us to do the same. When we see people smiling bravely through their fears, going out of their way to help others, forgetting for a moment their own needs, we might think they are courageous; and we may call them heroes. But I think they are also be doing something deeply inspired and God-given: Claiming the goodness of life right where they are, living boldly whether things change or not, and acting from love for the good of others, whatever the outside world may be doing.
Our brains tells us we’re not really wired for this kind of inside-out, soul-level living. The human brain is a threat-scanning machine, constantly evaluating every input—people, place, and thing—for any potential risk it poses to our safety. As a result of that constant scanning, we have endorphins coursing through our veins that heighten our anxiety, keeping us glued to the news and worrying about conflict in the world. We want to feel safe, and that’s understandable and reasonable, but what we get from the world “out there” is a lot of uncertainty that keeps us on the edge of our seats. How can we claim the goodness of life and sing in the dark when we don’t feel safe?
The answer lies somewhere else, not in the circling thoughts of our minds but in the wisdom and constancy of our hearts. In our Old Testament reading for today, taken from Psalm 16, we can hear that the psalmist clearly understands this challenge. Light and dark are side-by-side throughout his life, and he knows he needs to keep close to God as the source of his security, wisdom, and truth. In his language we can hear that there is risk in his world. He writes,
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
We might wonder what in his life threatened to shake him. In terms of the historical David, we know he faced many foes, had many temptations and trials, and he failed some of them. But each time he did, he went to God and confessed it with a contrite heart, and as a result, he kept his connection to God honest and strong. There is a key there—his heart was right with God and he made sure that it was so. When we create and tend a space for God in the center of our hearts, we can live our lives in peace and even joy, no matter what the outer world does.
In so many of David’s psalms, we can hear the threat at the door, the evildoers plotting to kill him, the temptations that get perilously close –and sometimes succeed–in swaying him from the high road. But we can also hear that David has created this heartful space for God in is life. He knows how much better life is when he puts God first:
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
David knows and has learned how to claim God’s goodness, protection, and love, even in the dark, long before the dawn of deliverance comes. He knows that that’s when his choice to trust God above all else is most important and most powerful. That’s when the temptation to despair, to doubt his belief that God loves him and will help him, is the strongest. When he calls God’s presence into a moment of struggle, he is remembering and wrapping himself in God’s love, and he begins to feel confident that God will work everything out in the perfect way, so he can “rest secure” and find joy in God’s presence.
Our story today from the New Testament—one of my favorites—is the lively, colorful story of the Triumphal Entry, when Jesus makes his way into Jerusalem in preparation for the Jewish holiday of Passover. All four of the Gospels tell this story, each in a slightly different way, but they all share the sense of jubilant celebration. Jesus tells his disciples to go into a nearby town and find the donkey waiting there; if someone questions them, they are to simply say, “The Lord needs it,” and borrow the animal. This is connected to something the Old Testament prophet Zechariah wrote 500 years earlier, which foretold the coming of the Messiah:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The disciples found the donkey just as Jesus said they would and brought it back to him. They spread their cloaks on the animal’s back and Jesus climbed up. Toward Jerusalem they made their way, humble man and humble beast, and the roadway was filled with a colorful, jubilant and cheering crowd. The people spread their own garments on the ground—it must have been such a colorful tapestry—in a gesture of respect they would offer to make way for a great king. They gathered and waved palm branches in the high afternoon sun. In the Mediterranean, the palm branch was a symbol of victory and peace and eternal life. What a beautiful sight it must have been! What an experience of joy, of arrival. It may have felt—for some—like a glimpse of the eternal goodness and blessing of God’s kingdom, right here, right now, on this earth. I’ll bet the people there that day remembered and talked about it for the whole rest of their lives.
Don’t you wonder what brought so many people out to celebrate Jesus’ arrival that day? Were they just attracted to the spectacle of it all? In the book of John, the story just prior to the Triumphal Entry was the moment Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, which was surely a story that would have spread far and wide among the people. No doubt there were many in the crowd who were true believers—people who had seen the miracles Jesus performed and who had now brought along their families and friends to see this holy man for themselves. There also were likely people who weren’t eyewitnesses but deeply hoped the stories they heard were true, as well as people who was merely curious, people who were cynical, and some, like the Pharisees, who wanted to see Jesus stopped.
As the crowd grew, the people began to sing out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
The Pharisees were angry about this public demonstration of devotion to Jesus; Jesus, who challenged their authority and status and rebuked their ambition and drive for power. Simply by being in the presence of Jesus—who worshipped God with all his heart in spirit and in truth—the Pharisees must have been uncomfortably aware of their own hypocrisy and their empty faith. And that likely made them angrier.
“Teacher,” they said, “Rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” He answered, “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
What an answer! God’s joy will make itself known through all God’s creation, one way or another, Jesus was saying. All of life will sing in the dark: It’s the nature of life itself—celebrating the goodness of living–you can’t stop it. Right there, in the darkness of the oppression and plotting anger of the Pharisees. You can’t stop it. In the darkness of danger and inhumanity and loss of life in Ukraine, you can’t stop it. In the darkness of rancorous division and distrust in our own country, the goodness of life sings out—no one can stop it. No matter what the outer darkness may be, God’s joy of living will make itself known. The stones will cry out.
As wonderful as this moment of jubilation was as Jesus and his disciples made their way into Jerusalem, we know that this is just a bright moment in time; their joy will be short-lived. Over the next few days, Jesus will share the Passover meal with his friends in the Upper Room, and during that meal Judas will excuse himself to go meet with the Pharisees and betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Early the following morning, as Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane and the disciples sleep, the soldiers will come to arrest Jesus. Darker days are ahead.
But that fact doesn’t change the importance—the joy, or the lasting victory–of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. That was a moment of divine recognition—where Jesus was honored and adored as Messiah, the transcendent bringer of God’s grace and deliverer of God’s good news of love for every one of God’s children. It was a magnificent “dawn chorus,” heralding a completely new day of love and light for all the world, the hope and truth of eternal love, the promise of life everlasting.
We can sing in the dark on purpose in our lives, choosing hope over despair, offering gratitude for tiny steps in the right direction rather than waiting for everything to go our way. We can stop listening to our anxiety and calm our thoughts with our trust in God. We can turn off the news and spend more time turning inward, caring for the space in our hearts where we can meet with God whenever we choose. We can pray, we can smile, we can share, we can sing. And as we begin to feel that God-inspired hopefulness and strength welling up within us, we can make it our purpose to claim the goodness of life—just as it is, today—and live boldly, acting with compassion and reverence for all. That’s how God through us will inspire the hearts of others, and the Light will shine on and on until the darkness is overcome. We already know the end of this story, and it’s Light, it’s Love, it’s Peace, and it’s Joy. And we know, deep down in our heart of hearts, that no one—and nothing—on this earth can stop it.
Thanks be to God!
- OT Psalm 16: 5-11
- NT Luke 19: 28-40
- Recording of early morning birdsong, April 7, 2022