One of the most common misunderstandings about Christianity is that pleasure and enjoyment are not really allowed, and indeed that if Christians are seen to be enjoying themselves then they are being at least a bit naughty. I suppose it comes from the fact that God has given us Christians an important role to play in the world, warning people not to turn simple pleasure into selfishness, or even worse into the exploitation and manipulation of others! God also wants us to remind people that some of the most enjoyable things in life require more than a little hard work. As they say in the sporting world, “There’s no gain without pain.” Sometimes however, at various times in our Christian history, people have decided that the safest thing to do is to ban certain pleasurable things – plays, books, even singing and certainly dancing – on the grounds that they inevitably lead to corruption and vice.
I suppose such kill joys might accept singing, provided it is suitably solemn and holy, but how they square their views with the idea in our 1st reading today, (Zephaniah 3:14-18) of singing that is combined with shouting and rejoicing I really do not know. As for dancing. we hear at the end of the reading, not that we are allowed to dance but, rather more amazing, that God himself “will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival.” So if God can dance with shouts of joy, so can we.
At this point it is worth remembering that all these passages in the Old Testament that are addressed to “Jerusalem” or “Zion” or “Israel” must be understood as addressed to us as the Church. So we are not just hearing some exhortation to sing and dance and shout for joy addressed to a people back then, but listening to words that are meant for us now. And why must we celebrate like this? Well precisely because God does, and, as we hear twice in the same reading God does this not at some safe distance but “in our midst” – which immediately points us forward to Christmas.
How sad it is when people think of God as some remote force far away. Of course God is utter stillness too – the still silent presence that never changes – but God has also chosen to be Creator and that means endless activity and movement and rejoicing, and God has chosen to bring this creative activity that is his presence right into our midst both in and through Jesus our brother and friend, and also in our own rejoicing, so that our singing and shouting for joy is always, if it is good, an experience of God as Holy Spirit welling up within us. Love and peace and joy then are never static things, they are always part of the adventure of life that is the gift of God to his people.
Notice that John the Baptist in our Gospel (Luke 3;10-18) gives a slightly different twist to this activity of God, for not only does God baptise with the Holy Spirit but also with fire. Think then of God as fire, always dancing always moving, always changing. John goes on to use an image from the countryside of his time, that God is like someone winnowing wheat. I really need to demonstrate this because words hardly convey the activity that is meant by the word winnowing. Taking the great rake-like wooden implement and tossing the harvested wheat in the air so that the rubbish blows away and the more solid wheat-seed falls back ready to be made into flour.
St Augustine describes singing at the harvest as one of the great ways people respond to God. He even describes how the singing becomes ecstatic as it goes beyond words, and surely we can extend this to any singing or dancing that is a giving thanks in some way for some good thing that has happened or is happening to us.
But notice our 2nd reading, (Phil 4:4-7) probably written while Paul was in prison awaiting execution. Here, as in a number of other places, he tells us to “rejoice always” – always in every situation – a much harder thing to do. To find God’s goodness and rejoice in it, not just when times are good but even when times are hard. God does not create a world that is always easy to live in, and this can seem a hard thing to accept, but without struggle and effort and even pain – in the harvest, in sport, and in life in general, love and joy are shallow words with no real meaning. God rejoices as he is born in poverty in a stable, and even as he dies on the cross. He is sad of course, but still he rejoices. For true joy, true love, is always sacrificial, never selfish, it is always active never passive which is why dancing is such a good way of expressing what God is really like. Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel has come to us, O Israel.