Advent 3, Year C
On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Many were killed, but some survived. Sadako Sasaki was only two years old when the bomb was dropped a mile from her home. She was unscathed as were many of her family. They were the survivors, those who remained after so many had been killed. However, 10 years after the bomb was dropped, her family discovered that Sadako had leukemia which at the time was referred to as “A-bomb disease.”  She was told by the doctor that she had less than a year to live. She was determined to live and tried hard to leave the hospital whenever she could. On August 6th, they had a ceremony near the site of the atomic bomb’s epicenter, which had been recently named Peace Park. She was not able to stay but heard a song while she was there. She sang it all the way home and as she lay in her hospital bed bleeding and in pain, she continued to sing.  She even taught the song to her roommate. While she was in the hospital, a group donated origami paper for the patients. A legend at the time was that if you fold 1000 paper cranes, your wish would be granted. Sadako set out to accomplish this task in hopes that her wish for life would be granted. She did not stop at 1000. She continued to fold them until she died. On one of the cranes, the discovered that she had written, “I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world.”
I learned about Sadaka’s story after I read a commentary that referenced her briefly. As I read more about her, I could not tear myself away from the story. The part about her singing in her hospital bed reminded me of our reading from Zephaniah. Our reading begins with, “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion, shout, O Israel!” This comes after two and a half chapters of the prophet Zephaniah railing against the people saying that God will destroy the people and the land because they have not obeyed God. Zephaniah went on and on about the horrible things that would happen to the people of Judah as a result of their behavior. Yet if you look at our reading for today the prophet seems downright cheery. Not only does he encourage the people to shout for joy, he describes a God who will “rejoice over you with gladness…exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”
This is quite a change from the God who wanted to destroy them. The Book of Zephaniah is only three chapters long and in the first two and a half chapters, Zephaniah was not a happy prophet. It is unclear what exactly was going on but some people have surmised that the beginning part was before the Babylonian exile where there was all kinds of bad behavior. Then the Babylonians came and carted off most of the Hebrew people, leaving a small group to remain. Because of the hopeful and joyful tone of the last chapter, scholars and readers have hypothesized that these words of hope were for those who remained in Jerusalem, the survivors. These people, often referred to as the remnant, had seen their holy city destroyed. They saw their loved ones carted away to a foreign land to serve their enemy as slaves. They undoubtedly saw many of their friends and family killed. They were left behind to pick up the pieces and pray that they would not be left alone forever.
This is a hard place to be, left behind and still living in terror. They still lived in this familiar place, but it could not have been more different. Where there was once a beautiful temple, there was now rubble. Where there was once a vibrant community, there were now only small pockets of traumatized people. Now Zephaniah is telling them to rejoice and exult with all your heart. It’s like when you are having the worst day of your life and someone comes along and says, “Cheer up.” That is never helpful! Zephaniah was not telling the people to cheer up or be happy. He was telling them that God was there with them in the rubble. God was with their families who had been taken to Babylon.
Zephaniah wrote, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.” That line about your hands growing weak caught my attention. I wonder if the people were weary of putting their homes and their lives back together and God was telling them, “Don’t give up! Keep rebuilding. Keep starting over. I will be your strength when you are weary.” We need that strength when we are starting over. God was providing not only the strength but the inspiration and joy as well. When they could not sing, he sang for them. God sang and sang until the song became their reason for dusting themselves off and starting again.
A theologian named Karl Barth described Biblical joy as a defiant “nonetheless.” For instance, the Hebrew people might have said: “The world is against us. We live in constant fear for our lives. Our holy city stands in rubble. Nonetheless…God is with us today and God is singing.” Sadaka might have said, “I am dying. My country lost 150,000 lives in 3 days. It seems as though all hope is lost. Nonetheless, I will continue to sing for peace and I will make these cranes until I die.”
That is the power of God. God does not ensure that bad won’t things happen. When we feel abandoned- living in the rubble of our lives, God gives our weak hands strength to keep building, keep starting over. God gives us people like Sadaka to inspire us. Her death could have led to hatred and bitterness. Instead, her 7thgrade classmates decided that they would raise the money to build a monument in her honor at Peace Park. The Children’s Peace Monument depicts a girl with her hands outstretched and paper crane in her hand. This story has spread far and wide. Every year, about 10 million cranes are offered before the monument. At the base of the monument, there is a plaque that reads, “This is our cry. This is our prayer. For building peace in this world.”
Sadaka and her community built peace, one paper crane at a time. It seems like strange building blocks, does it not? Origami paper cranes are delicate and easy to crush. But when they start to fill a hospital room, they provide hope. When they fill a park that was once the scene of disaster and agony, they fill the hearts of the world. I imagine Sadaka lying in her hospital bed singing her song for peace with God standing beside her singing that same song. Sometimes the song that God sings for us is one of sorrow for our pain. Yet I find comfort in a God who will sing for us when we are too weak, who will find joy for us when our eyes are too clouded to see the joy.
We are at a place in our country where we are living in fear. We are afraid for our country. We are afraid for those outside our borders. Every time we turn on the news, we find something new to fear, something new to grieve. The best way to combat fear is with joy. Our songs cannot keep us safe in a literal sense but they will give us strength to start again, and again, and again. And when we remember that God is singing with us, then our song has the power to cover the whole world with joy. As we prepare for Christmas, for the birth of the Prince of Peace, let us remember that peace and joy are not for Christmas alone.