In a recent New Yorker essay, “Headless Horseman,” Adam Gopnik discusses the inescapable brutality of the French Revolution. The word “headless” in the essay’s title refers to the beheadings that took place as liberty was established. He states, rightly, that the violence of that era cannot be easily reduced to merely intellectual or political realities of the time.
He ends the essay with these words, comparing the violence of the Eighteenth Century to the brutal regimes of the Twentieth:
It sometimes seems as if history had deliberately placed Hitler and Stalin side by side at the climax of the horror of modern history simply to demonstrate that the road to Hell is paved with any intention you like; a planned, pseudo-rationalist utopianism and an organic, racial, backward-looking Romaticism ended up with the same camps and the same carnage. The historical lesson of the [French Revolution] is not that reason devours its own but that reason cannot stop us from devouring each other.
There you have it. Even The New Yorker can admit, now and again, that humanity has a deep and disturbing problem. To recognize this, to really recognize this, leads one to either cry out to God for redemption, or to accept somehow that a cloud of despair must forever hang over humanity.
Many, believe it or not, take that second option. In fact, have you ever noticed how that which is considered “high art” is often dark and disturbing? This is because those who seek to look closer at humanity and its condition, when they are honest, realize that what is there is rather…well, dark and disturbing. Many wardrobes have been built on this premise.
What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ offer instead? Rather than despair, the Gospel promotes joy. Precisely because humans are so damaged, we need a God who rescues – not a God who merely educates or commands. Finding this merciful God, and seeing all he has done for us through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is a happy occasion indeed!
Yet Christians like myself can sometimes lack joy. Why is this? Well, for me, I think the answer is that I take my eyes off that Gospel and place them back on myself. Even though I should know better, I forget that my sin-weakened frame will always disappoint me. I will always let me down. So I become glum, wishing I could do better, be better, pray better, love better, etc.
We must, ironically, begin with despair concerning ourselves. But if we are to honor the God of the life-giving Gospel, we cannot end there. We must discover and delight in the great rescue of God. When we do, we’ll have something to celebrate. We’ll have Someone to celebrate. May our worship today, and every day, reflect this true joy!