A Broken Alleluia 1
Passage: Jeremiah 33:14–33:16
Perhaps the two greatest American songwriters of all time are Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. And what’s kinda crazy is that they lived at the same time, were contemporaries, and friends. And they frequently worked together, visited with each other, and hung out. In the mid-1980s they were both on an international tour and they met up at a Paris café for coffee. Because those are the sorts of things you do when you’re a music star. You meet another music star in Paris for coffee. Bob Dylan complimented Leonard Cohen on one of his recently released songs, called “Hallelujah” and asked Cohen how long it took him to write it. Cohen answered a couple years. And then Cohen asked Dylan how long it took him to write “I and I,” a song Cohen admitted he admired, and Dylan said “about 15 minutes.”
The dichotomy is even more pronounced when you realize Cohen was lying. It took him a great deal longer than two years to write “Hallelujah.” It took him half a decade. He filled two notebooks with verses to this song. The song haunted him, he could never get it truly right. One time he ended up on the floor of a New York hotel in his underwear pounding his head against the floor screaming “I can’t finish this song!”
While there are many ways to talk about the different types of innovation, there’s a helpful way of talking about innovation as it relates to time. And that is to talk about conceptual innovation and experimental innovation. I promise this is going to get to Jesus soon. Conceptual innovation is something that happens immediately. Bob Dylan writing “I and I” in fifteen minutes. Great art, great ideas, come pouring out and are recognized, consumed, and appreciated immediately.
Experimental innovation is innovation that happens slowly, over time, and with a few stops and starts. It’s Leonard Cohen filling two notebooks and taking half a decade to write “Hallelujah.” It’s something new that happens over a long period of time.
Culturally we are really good at recognizing the conceptual innovations that happen. We don’t always get on board, but we certainly react to them. I remember a number of years ago when Apple announced they were coming out with the iPad. It was going to be larger and heavier than a smart phone, a lot larger and a lot heavier. But it was going to have some of the functionality of a laptop. And I remember being like who is ever going to use one of those?! If you just need to look something up quick, why wouldn’t you use your phone? And if you wanted to do something more, why wouldn’t you just use a laptop? Who in the world would get one of those tablet things?!
We don’t always love conceptual innovation, but we certainly react to it. When Apple came out with an iPad, popularizing the tablet, they were doing conceptual innovation. We didn’t move slowly from cellphones and laptops to tablets. Steve Jobs spoke and there was the iPad.
We aren’t always as good at seeing and recognizing experimental innovation. And the journey that the song “Hallelujah” takes from an idea tormenting Leonard Cohen to the most covered and downloaded song of all time is a prime example of that.
Now while all of this is interesting from an intellectual perspective if you’re a nerd like me, I’m not bringing this up to merely to pontificate. Instead I think the difference between conceptual and experimental innovation is important for how we understand the Christian season of Advent, the coming of Jesus at Christmas, and the way God works in our lives and in the world.
You see we want God to be a conceptual innovator. When we have problems in our lives, when we are seeking direction, when we witness suffering and injustice in the world we want God to be a conceptual innovator. We want God to come out with a new plan, the best plan, the perfect plan to fix our lives, to give us direction, to redeem and restore our world. And we want God to put that plan into action and immediately make everything ok.
How often have you faced a big decision, gone to God in prayer and wanted an immediate and clear answer? How often have you wanted God to give you immediate and clear direction? How often have you wanted healing, peace, comfort, deliverance, assurance, or acceptance from God immediately? How often have we witnessed pain in our world and said why won’t God do something about this?
We want God to be a conceptual innovator. We want God to introduce a new paradigm that will solve the problems we face immediately so that we can move on in better lives and in a better world.
Sad part is God is an experimental innovator.
Today begins a season in the life of the church called Advent. Advent is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas where we wake up every morning and get a piece of chocolate out of a calendar. No. Wait. Advent is the four Sundays before Christmas where we prepare our hearts to welcome the Christ child at Christmas. But Christians prepare for Jesus differently than the rest of culture prepares for Christmas. The Church says Advent is about preparing for Christmas but by that we don’t mean getting the tree ready, getting your presents bought and wrapped, sending the Christmas card, etc.
When the church talks about Advent as getting ready to welcome Jesus what we mean is waiting. Advent is a time where we talk about waiting for Jesus. Remembering how Israel waited for Jesus and remembering how we are waiting for Jesus to return. Advent is about recognizing that we live in a world that needs saving, a world that needs redemption, a world that needs God to move and work and act. We await the fullness of God’s salvation in our lives, in our communities and in our world.
But even in observing Advent we are conditioned to think that our world is fallen, our lives need direction and here comes God in Jesus Christ to be that salvation. We are conditioned to celebrate Christmas as God’s conceptual innovation. And don’t get me wrong, Christmas is a monumental, paradigm shifting event. Yet at the same time we wake up on December 26thpretty much the same people we were on December 25th. Just some of us with a couple cool new gadgets.
This Advent I want us to conceive of God as an experimental innovator. I want us to look at our Advent Scriptures, Scriptures that come to us from the Revised Common Lectionary, and see how the announcement of Jesus, the waiting for Jesus came through a process of experimental innovation. And then to approach the birth of Christ through the framework of experimental innovation.
Quick timeout: the revised common lectionary is a grouping of Scripture within a three year series for the purpose of being read within Sunday worship. Each Sunday there are readings from the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Psalms, and the Gospels. So over the course of three years is you follow the lectionary and have four Scripture readings you’ll read most of the Bible in Sunday worship. For Advent I took a look at the Lectionary readings and chose one of the four for each Sunday of Advent. Time in.
Now because experimental innovation is a super nerdy concept, I want us to use a case study in experimental innovation as the lens through which we approach Advent. And that case study is the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.” “Hallelujah” is one of the most viewed and certainly the most covered song in music history. It’s been featured in basically every popular tv show there is: Grey’s Anatomy, The West Wing, Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, The OC, Scrubs, General Hospital, etc. Pretty much every season of the Voice and American Idol and whatever show Fox is doing now that is basically American Idol but they don’t call it American Idol has someone sing “Hallelujah.” And really it owes some of its popularity to Shrek. It’s a thing.
But the path it took to becoming a thing is a fascinating story. A story that I think can be illuminating as we look at the story of God’s coming into the world.
And it’s also helpful in that some of the themes of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” help us understand the themes of Advent. Themes we will talk about shortly.
The last way I hope this will be helpful, and my final bit of preamble, is the ways in which each person’s “Hallelujah” is different and highlights different aspects of the song. We are going to look at four different songs or bits of songs from Scripture this Advent and each song is going to be different and highlight different things. Yet they are all related. We’ll touch on this a bit more in subsequent weeks, but seeing how different sings can sing related songs differently can help us see the different shades of light Scripture scatters.
But it is high time we looked at our first song, our Scripture for today. It comes to us from the prophet Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 33:14-16 New International Version (NIV)
14 “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.
15 “‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’
Before I talk about this particular part of Jeremiah, I need to talk about the tone of the rest of the book. The general themes of Jeremiah involve Jeremiah announcing God’s judgment upon Israel and foretelling the defeat of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians and their impending exile. A good bit of the book is God’s messages to the Israelites living in exile. There’s a famous verse from Jeremiah that folks will have in artwork on their walls or pillows or what not that is God saying I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. That verse was written to people who had witnessed the destruction of their home and are now living as captives in a foreign capital.
The underlying note of Jeremiah is despair. Israel was unfaithful which led to their downfall. During Jeremiah’s ministry, Israel experienced incredible suffering and loss. They saw the city of their God destroyed. They saw their homes destroyed. They were marched from their homeland to the capital city of their conquerors. They were beaten, embarrassed, and destroyed. The setting of Jeremiah is brokenness. The setting of Jeremiah is suffering. Israelites might even call it injustice, although Jeremiah will not.
Outside of the particular context of the book I think it’s easy for us to not truly grasp the sense of hopelessness occupying Israel at the time. The big promise that God had made to Israel would that they would be a great nation. God had proven Himself mighty and powerful and had declared Israel was His people. In their defeat what is happening and what has to be processed is more than just a tactical military defeat. It is the seeming undoing of the promises made by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as lived out by the people Israel.
And yet into this despair, into this loss, into this suffering we hear a small voice of hope. The days are coming, says the Lord. That’s our shorthand for hope. The days are coming. I will fulfill the promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah. God is saying you still are my people, I am still your God. I will raise up a savior who will lead you in the ways of righteousness. And as the leader leads you in the path of righteousness you shall be saved, Judah (Israel) shall be renewed, and Jerusalem shall stand again.
This is what the people long for. This is what the people crave. This is their hope in the midst of a great darkness.
And this is also, in many respects, the theme of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” “Hallelujah” is a song of lived experience, it’s a song that feels grounded and feels real. It’s a song that doesn’t deny the brokenness or despair that we feel. It’s a song that doesn’t shy away from feelings of hurt and pain. It’s a song for people who have lived and who still have the courage to hope.
The crazy thing about “Hallelujah” is that if you’ve heard the song you probably haven’t heard the original Leonard Cohen version. That version is quite different from the ones that get played and covered all the time. In the original there is this middle verse that gets dropped in the subsequent popular versions, yet I think serves as the song’s core. Cohen writes and sings, “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!”
Alan Light, former editor of music magazines Vibe and Spin, wrote a long book on the history, composition, redefinition, and ascent of the song “Hallelujah.” And about that middle verse he writes:
[Cohen] then builds to the song’s central premise—the value, even the necessity of the song of praise in the face of confusion, doubt, or dread. ‘There’s a blaze of light in every word; it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy, or the broken Hallelujah! A blaze of light in every word. That’s an amazing line. Everyword, holy or broken—this is the fulcrum of the song as Cohen first wrote it. Like our forefathers, and the Bible heroes who formed the foundation of Western ethics and principles, we will be hurt, tested, and challenged. Love will break our hearts, music will offer solace that we may or may not hear, we will be faced with joy and with pain. But Cohen is telling us, without resorting to sentimentality, not to surrender to despair or nihilism. Critics may have fixated on the gloom and doom of his lyrics, but this is his offering of hope and perseverance in the face of a cruel world. Holy or broken, there is still hallelujah.”
Holy or broken, there is still hallelujah. That is precisely the message of Jeremiah. Jeremiah might rightly have been called too doom and gloom. And yet within we hear the Advent, we hear the Christmas promise that there is hope. That the days are coming. That there is a future. That there is still hallelujah.
This Advent let’s start by being honest and saying our December 26this going to look a lot like our December 21st. There’s no magic fix coming our way. But the call of Advent and the hope of Christmas is that the days are surely coming. There is a light. There is hope. God will not forget His promises. And God will see to it that one day His promises are fulfilled.
And now for us, in the meantime, there is still hallelujah. Whether holy in days that we feel we are living in God’s holy presence. Or broken on days when we feel we are living in exile. Holy or broken, there is still hallelujah. And that for us is hope. Let us pray.