The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus, 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the Wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
46 And Mary said,“My soul magnifies the Lord,47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel,in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
This advent, we have been following the theme, ‘What can’t Wait?” Then following the advent candles, we’ve had sermons on “Hope Can’t Wait”; “Peace Can’t Wait”; and now this week, “Joy Can’t Wait.” It is an important reminder that ‘our help is in the name of the Lord.’ The many other things that can hijack the season— shopping, decorating, mandatory gift giving, navigating family differences, grieving lost loved ones, etc.—-need a larger spiritual framework or the season will wear us down to a nub. We need to remember what Israel, and what we, are waiting for. The problem biblically is that these thematic words do not necessarily follow the lectionary reading.
Our first reading today from Isaiah is a case in point. The people were exiled and had to have a way to live in a present they did not like! The images of a restored people, a restored nation and a restored relationship with God seem to me to be far more related to hope than to joy. In real life it is important to have such hope—even when it is far away. If you are diagnosed with cancer, Parkinsons or just old age—if the fracture lines in your family are exposed —if you are alone and disconnected—the season becomes a reminder of what we do not have. In such times, we have to find a new way to think of God or we will be swallowed by depression and despair. Why me? Why does it have to be so difficult? What kind of God would allow such a thing? The exiles asked these kinds of questions—and we do to. They were waiting, as we wait for a possibility that was outside of their experience.
Isaiah steps into this breach with today’s images. The desert blossoms, bodies become whole again (hands, knees, ears and eyes are restored). The land will be lush, the roads safe and my personal favorite, the way to God will be so clear that even fools can find their way. These images are sustaining even though NONE of them literally happened. Though exceptions prove the rule, the desert is still dry and dangerous. Our bodies fail us, loved ones die and the way to God is as unclear as it is clear. Whatever it means to be joyful, it does not mean our egocentric needs get met. Some how God’s joy is different from our personal well being and can occur in our most desperate circumstances. Joy is possible when you are grieving. Joy is possible when our bodies are failing. Joy is possible life is dangerous. And joy is possible when we cannot find our way. This is the promise and the hope of the season. And ultimately, it is the joy of the season.
It is always difficult to describe the presence of God. We are forced to use words and images that we know to describe a reality we do not know. We can point, we can make analogies, use poetry and music but God’s hope for us, God’s peace for us and God’s joy for us is always more than our words can describe. In Faith in Real Life, I asked where people had experienced joy. I wasn’t looking for a definition as much as the experience that people associated with the word Joy. Here are the examples the group reported.
First morning after my husband died—joy that he was free from pain. I was expecting it to be the saddest day of my life, (that was to come later), I discovered joy.
When I woke up after open heart surgery—I was alive.
After first child—oh my gosh, my mother loved me this much–crossed my mind that God’s love was greater still.
Singing in choir—with emotion so great it was impossible to sing.
Times I felt deeply loved/treasured/known.
First time I held my child.
Felt great joy when Clark became an elder— when 20 years ago it was not possible—an affirming of people—love has grown.
Family was gathered for a 90th birthday. I had expected resistance and foot dragging but there was respect and regard. Joy was a surprise.
When a grandchild is born—the light and the promise they bring.
Watching the excitement of children opening presents.
Out of this dispirit list, we tried to look for common elements to the word ‘Joy’ and tried to differentiate between happiness, joy and awe. Happiness seems to be more closely related to our mood and personal sense of well being than joy. I believe there is a maturation process in our understanding of Joy. Early in life, our focus tends to be on what we get. Typically, for children (even 70 year old children) receiving becomes a standard of specialness. I remember feeling jealous of a sibling because he received a present I had wanted. I watched a little girl go into a major pout because she wasn’t first. The hunger to be seen and to be special requires recognition,special status,and comparisons. At Christmas children are usually focused upon what they got for Christmas more than what they gave.
But of course such thinking does not end with childhood. A lot of people get married on a similar basis. There are often unspoken but powerful expectations about what we will receive in the relationship—a confidant, a soul mate, a friend, a business partner, a regular sexual partner etc. But in real life, every aspect of a marriage can be interrupted. Interests and moods change. Health changes. Economic circumstances change. Disability and death visit. The viability of our relationship shifts from what we think we are supposed to get to how will we cope with the inevitable changes and disappointments. In real life we do not find out how deep loneliness can be until we face the inconveniences, hardships and separations of such changes.
It takes a while to realize the joy that comes from investing in another human being. That is a joy that can sustain us through any hardship. It sustained the Israelites in exile and Jesus on the cross. Joy seems to be an odd experience in the midst of grief and isolation but in real life, along side of grief are new and often unexpected connections. God appears in the pain. Other people sustain us—even as we endure what we thought was unendurable. At least for a time, we can see what it means to be held in God’s hand—no matter what the world brings. Something bigger than us is possible. I believe we have such experiences in music, in new births, in watching love grow. The world is a different place where humility and gratitude abound. Joy is the recognition of God in our lives.
When the Word becomes flesh, hope leads to joy. When we know joy, we have the foundation for a deep peace in the midst of a deeply broken world—even in exile and even on a cross. And to continue the advent theme, such deep peace allows us to love in new ways.
Oh come, oh come Emanuel. Let it be so.