Melpomene and Thalia
Melpomene is the Greek muse of tragedy and Thalia that of comedy (Col. Viking Desk Ency., 732). Supposedly these gave their names to the theater masks on the bulletin cover. O that comedy and tragedy were as easily exchanged as masks in a play. But we're really not in the area of emotions; we're in God's area. David after falling away, after a year's long impenitence in the face of adultery and murder, after being confronted by God's wrath against him, after being reconverted by grace, prays: "Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice" (Ps. 51:8).
That's where our text is going, but it's only for disciples. It's not for hearers, seekers, or ticket-punchers but disciples of the Lord Jesus. There is a group around Jesus consisting of "a large crowd of His disciples" and "a great number of people." This crowd came from all over Judea, even Jerusalem, and surprisingly from the pagan lands of Tyre and Sidon. These came for 3 reasons says Luke: to hear Him, to be healed of their diseases, and to be cured of unclean spirits. Jesus was doing all 3 but what got the crowd stirred up was the power going out from Him and healing all. This moved all the crowd to seek to touch Him.
Lot of tragedy being turned into comedy, huh? But look whose laughing now? Jesus only speaks to the disciples of Him. The following words of our text were not, are not spoken to mere hearers of the Word or to seekers of something spiritual. They are spoken to disciples, followers, believers. These words are for those who believe they are poor, miserable sinners, as you confessed yourself to be at the beginning of service. These words of Jesus are for those who believe that as a called and ordained servant of the Word, I in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, have forgiven them all their sins.
So disciples of Jesus, the next stop on the highway of Melpomene and Thalia is either Ray LaMontagne or Luther. Ray sings in a haunting 2004 song "Trouble" that "Trouble been doggin' my soul since the day I was born." Not a bad approximation of the doctrine of original sin. His life is a cycle of being saved from trouble and worry by a woman only to be knocked down by trouble again. He would escape this cycle. He wants to put off the mask of tragedy and don the mask of comedy.
Jesus blows that sort of thinking up for disciples. Jesus attacks the desire deeply embedded in all of us to be rich, full, happy, and popular. He does the absolutely bizarre thing of pronouncing all of these as woe.' "Woe to you who are rich; woe to you who are well fed now; woe to you who laugh now; woe to you when all men speak well of you." So much for "like us on Facebook" and "follow us on Instagram" and pictures of food for that matter. The Lord of heaven and earth, the God of all creation, pronounces my lifelong plan to be rich, full, happy, and popular as "woe." I think I'm pursuing Thalia; I know I'm pursuing Thalia if not Nirvana, and Jesus tells me I'm chasing Melpomene. This is the thing of horror movies and nightmares. I think I'm putting the mask of comedy on and I find welded to my face that of tragedy. Woe indeed.
Ray LaMontagne's view of trouble doesn't fit with this text. Luther's view does. Trouble, trouble, trouble is to be preferred, embraced, welcomed as opposed to popularness, happiness, fullness, and richness. Hear what he says in his Bondage of the Will, "Satan causes his captives to believe themselves free and happy. For Satan knows that if a man were to realize his own misery, he would not be able to retain anyone in his kingdom, because God could not but pity and help him who recognizes his misery and cries for help" (LW, 33, 130). This is more than declaring the 80's slogan "He who dies with the most toys wins" is false. It's more than the lesson of Citizen Kane's Rosebud 40 years before or that of Dickens' Scrooge a 100 years prior. More is being said even than what Solomon did 2,800 years before that: Everything under the sun is vanity, emptiness, not even dust blowing in the wind but breath on a glass.
Do you know how I know more is being said? Because the world can get Wells', Dickens, and even Solomon's point. It takes no special revelation from God to recognize that fame, fortune, fullness, and fun are fleeting. A person may be wearing the mask of comedy today or 10 thousand today's but that is no guarantee, no proof, no promise that they won't be wearing the mask of tragedy tomorrow. You can find pagan philosophers from Aristotle to Zen masters imparting that bit of wisdom. But they never reach David's prayer, "Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice." He doesn't say that my broken bones may be healed, but that they "may rejoice." This is not changing the mask of tragedy for that of comedy. This is Thalia and Melpomene dancing.
Jesus says we can be Sara's not Sari's; we can be John the B's not his daddy. And this is nothing short of a miracle. It's life from death, health from disease; it's unclean spirits cast out, it's broken bones singing. It's the Old Adam of endless aching need, lust, greed, and self being put to death and a New Man created after Christ Jesus in true righteousness and holiness walking about in a new life the same way Christ did after rising from the dead. What? Did you think God the Son took on your flesh and blood going under the Law and keeping it so you can be a better fallen person? Did you think He suffered, bled, was damned, and died so that your Old Adam could have a fuller, happier, healthier, richer, more popular life today? Do you think Jesus kept the Law in your place and suffered the punishments you deserve so you could spend more time wearing the comedy mask and less time wearing tragedy? Think again.
You can be Sara's not Sari's. Unlike other name changes in the Bible these both mean "princess." But what a miracle was worked. Sari was sure her happy days were long behind her. She openly laughed at the thought the Lord could do anything this late in her life to save her from her emptiness. She laughed in the face of the Lord's promise to her that in a year she would have a child. God mercifully, graciously didn't judge her for that, and despite her disbelief, He gives her a child and she names him Isaac which means "He laughs" and says, "God has made laughter for me everyone who hears will laugh with me" (Gen. 21:6).
Would you give your son a name which could bring to mind your sin of laughing in the face of God? Why would you do that? Only if you were a different person. Only if your tears were turned into laughter. And that's what Jesus tells you disciples, no promises you disciples: "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh." You may have the life of Sari, but He has made you Sara's. The world can know the Byrd's could even sing it -that there is "A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance" (Eccl. 3:4). But the world is only enduring the one to get to the other. It's not rejoicing in broken bones but suffering them until they get healed. But in Christ we sing: "In Thy service pain is pleasure; with Thy favor loss is gain" (TLH 423:3). That's crazy talk to all but disciples of Christ.
You can be Sara's not Sari's, and you can be John the B and not his daddy. Daddy Zachariah is dumbstruck by God's promise that he and his aged wife would be given a son. John the B leaps for joy in his momma's womb when he hears the voice of the mother of our Lord. In both cases the Spirit of the Lord was imparted. The Spirit of the Lord is attached to every Word of God. God gives John in the womb the best faith of all, the faith He praises. Jesus says, "Unless you change and become little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 18:3). Now, don't get caught in Nicodemus' loop of how can a man re-enter the womb. No, silly, the Spirit by means of Water and the Word does that miracle. While in the bag of waters, the Word was added and so John leaped for joy there. Using that same word "leap for joy" Jesus promises you believers that in the day of trouble, trouble, trouble when you're hated by men, even excommunicated by them, insulted and rejected as evil for Jesus' sake, you can leap for joy.
But there is more to the story, isn't there? The child of promise named laughter is laughed at, same verb as Sari's laughing, by the child of the law, Ishmael. And John the B's headless body leaped about after unbelief lopped off his head for the sake of keeping a promise to a dancing girl. But these facts aren't the entire story. Being laughed at by the law led to the child of the law being forever separated from the child of promise and forbidden to inherit alongside of him. And while John the B's headless body leaped and kicked about, his soul went on to a prophet's reward in heaven. The people of God, the disciples of Jesus, on the world's stage wear both the mask of comedy and tragedy, even as many worldly people do. But we look to the Crucified God to do what can't be done; we look to the God who washes away sins with Water, who gives His Body for Bread and His Blood for Wine, who with a word from a sinner sends sins away for good, forever. We look to the God who has physical tears and bowels moved by compassion to make broken bones rejoice, laugh, leap for joy.
Shakespeare's soliloquy "All the world's a stage" ends in despondency. Shakespeare closes, "Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything" (As You Like It, II, VII). When the curtain closes on this stage, Shakespeare dons Melpomene. Solomon by contrast Thalia. He too is frank about the losses of old age, read Ecclesiastes 12, but ends with "Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the soul return to God who gave it" (Ecc. 12:7). And broken bones celebrate. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (20190217); Luke 6: 17-26