“These things I have spoken to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (KJV)
“I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakeable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties, but take heart! I’ve conquered the world.” (Peterson “The Message”)
Two days after Donald Trump became President-elect of the United States, Leonard Cohen, the Canadian folk-singer and prophet for our times, died. He was 82, was struggling with cancer and had a fall. But I guess he also died of a broken heart, broken by what was happening in the world, especially south of the Canadian border. I decided I needed to hear his voice again. Fortunately we had the CDs of his famous Live in London Concert with some of his greatest songs: “Dance with me to the end of love,” “The Future,” “Ain’t no cure for love,” and most famous of all “Hallelujah,” Yes, “Hallelujah” or Praise the Lord, the very words with which we will end this meditation and our service today.
Cohen was Jewish. He may not have been Orthodox, and he was no saint, but he was steeped in the Bible and Jewish tradition; he had also dug deeply into the Jesus story. As you listen to his songs, time and again you hear strong echoes of the prophets and their cry for justice, and Jesus speaking to us out of his suffering. Some say Cohen was a prophet of doom, and I guess to some extent he was, but no more so that the Old Testament prophets, and no more so than Jesus when he said, as in John gospel, “in the world you will have tribulation.” But there was another note that sounded in Cohen’s songs, an almost whimsical note of joy in living, and note of grace in the dark places of life. Who can forget his words,
Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
As I listened to him sing last week one line in his conversation between songs struck me: “I have studied the world’s religions and cheerfulness kept breaking through!” Yes, Cohen was not pious or religious in any conventional sense of those words, but neither were the prophets. And like them he could be scathing in his comments about religious hypocrisy. But as he explored religion in greater depth, he also discovered cheerfulness and light breaking through. We get a glimmer of true religion, religion without pretension, religion in which cheerfulness and light keeps breaking through. “In the world you will have tribulation,” says Jesus, “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Even as Jesus went towards Jerusalem and the cross, cheerfulness broke through, a profound joy that arises when you know you are on the right path even if it is into suffering. “For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross,” says the writer to the Hebrews.
Jesus’ words are translated differently in modern versions of the Bible. It no longer sounds quite right, as it might have to the translators of the Authorised Version, that Jesus was cheering up his disciples as he journeyed to the cross. So the NRSV has Jesus saying “In the world you face persecution. But take courage. I have conquered the world.” Or according to Eugene Petersen: “Take heart! I’ve conquered the world.” “Take courage” is probably the best literal translation of the original. But sometimes “courage” for us means the bravery of a soldier, or the bravery of a sky-diver, or the bravery of someone who plunges into the sea to rescue a drowning swimmer. “Take heart” speaks more directly to us, it is a word of encouragement. So, yes, it is about courage, but in a way that speaks to us in times when we fear that faith is failing, hope is disappearing, and love has become a cheap commodity. “Take heart!” “Be of good courage!’ “Be of good cheer!” Take your pick, they all point in the same direction, they complement each other.
But in order to take heart we need to discern the light breaking through the gloom of bad politics, bad religion, and even some lousy sporting results. In times of despair about what is happening in the world, we need to be reminded that Jesus’ suffering and death are a prelude to his resurrection and the gift of his empowering Spirit. In the midst of the darkness we need to see the “light breaking through the cracks” like a ray of sunshine on days when darkness covers the earth. When the world seems to be falling apart, when life’s tragedies strike, when bad guys win elections, when religion lets you down, when injustice seems to triumph, when things look dismal all around you, take courage and be of good cheer. Jesus has overcome the world of tribulation. This is not a cheap cheer, an escape from reality, it is a profound joy when God’s grace enables and encourages us to take heart.
Everyone of us has his or her own story of pain and suffering, of loss and despair. These may or may not have anything to do with the bigger picture, just as Cohen’s death may not have had anything to do with Trump’s victory. No, these are our own personal struggles that weave through our own stories and those of our families. As some of you know, yesterday we as a family celebrated Steve’s death almost seven years ago now. He would have been 55 years old if he had lived. It has often been a difficult road for us to travel and we will feel the pain of our loss. “But cheerfulness keeps breaking through!” “There is a crack in everything, for that’s how the light gets in!” So take heart and sing along with Cohen and all the angels of heaven: “Hallelujah!”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 17 November 2016