“What Can’t Wait? Joy Can’t Wait”
Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:46b-55
Third Sunday of Advent – Sunday, December 15, 2019
Our text for this third Sunday of Advent, Isaiah 35, speaks about the hope of return from exile.
For a whole generation, the ransomed people of Israel had been living in Babylon, today’s Baghdad.
Dragged away from home and country, across the Fertile Crescent,
they wondered if they could even sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.
They wondered if God was still with them in this unfamiliar place.
Their future was uncertain; their current circumstances challenging.
They even spent great effort writing down their history while they were in exile,
since they thought it might be coming to an end.
Just prior to our text for today, Isaiah offered reminders of why the people had ended up in exile.
God had held out God’s hands all day long, as the prophet proclaimed,
patiently holding off judgment for centuries, but the people refused to change.
There were those who kept taking advantage of others,
who were using their wealth and power for their own economic advantage,
and, in the process, had strangled the poor.
There were unfaithful prophets in the land, who were saying only what the people wanted to hear,
who would made decisions about what they would say based on poll numbers,
not talking seriously of difficult subjects, but smiling and saying all will be well,
if you just trust in me.
There were those who were belittling God’s Word,
who had no interest in keeping God’s commandments.
And, Isaiah reports, there were those whose ultimate trust was is in a powerful military
and a full bank account, instead of in the Lord.
Recognizing the cause of the exile and realizing the need for a Savior,
Isaiah offers a few practical recommendations:
Walk in righteousness – do what is right and good in the eyes of God.
Live faithfully in your relationships with others.
Speak the truth, always.
Never go along with wrongdoing in order to get along with others.
These actions, Isaiah claims, will engender hope among the people.
Then, in our text for today, Isaiah 35, the prophet offers a bold and hopeful vision of the life to come,
a whole new life made possible by God’s saving actions.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 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.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
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.’
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
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;
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.
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 traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. 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. 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.
The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of our Lord stands forever.
We were reminded the other night at the Wednesday night program how closely related
are the four gifts of Advent – joy, our theme for today, is so closely related to hope, peace, and love.
If one has hope, even in terrible circumstances, one can still know joy.
If one has some sense of inner peace, even in the midst of uncertainty, one can still experience joy.
If one knows that they are loved and still has some ability to love those around them,
then that person will know joy.
Vernon Gramling wrote this week: “Somehow 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 when life is dangerous. And joy is possible when we cannot find our way.
This is the promise and the hope of the (Advent) season.”
Whether we speak about the exile of a nation, or about some personal exile,
some significant trauma in which you find yourself in unfamiliar territory,
with no clear way back to where you were, or where you want to be,
how might we come to know joy even when all seems lost?
Russell Nelson, author of Accomplishing the Impossible, wrote:
“The joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives
and everything to do with the focus of our lives.”
Joy has little to do with circumstances, and everything to do with focus,
which begs the question: What is the focus of your life? What are your priorities?
What do you think about most often? Around what do you organize your daily/weekly life?
And is this focus bringing you joy?
If this focus, if your current priorities, are not bringing you any experience of joy along the way,
then you might want to question your priorities,
or at least question the direction of your internal compass.
Many have found, especially at this time of year, that doing something generous for someone else
can bring feelings of joy.
Caring for a family or a child in need can bring joy.
A positive, friendly and helpful person who comes alongside can bring you joy.
Vernon wrote that the Faith in Real Life group was reminded the other day
that joy is often related to investing oneself in another person.
What is joy?
Webster’s Dictionary: “the passion or emotion excited by the acquisition or expectation of good;
pleasurable feelings or emotions caused by success, good fortune, and the like,
or by a rational prospect of possessing what we love or desire.”
Joy is “gladness; exhilaration of spirits; delight.”
But that definition does not quite describe the breadth or depth of joy.
Bill High was the fifth child in a family of six.
His father was a military man who met and married his mother in Japan.
After his father left the military, his father worked hard to provide for his wife and six children,
but they struggled mightily. Bill grew up very poor;
for a long time they lived in a two-bedroom rental house with six kids and only a small kerosene heater.
After some major disappointments in life, Bill High’s father turned to the bottle,
and their life began to spiral downhill. His father bounced from job to job,
with most of his days ending with a few beers at the local tavern, eating up the family’s limited income.
By the time Bill was 10, his dad was a raging alcoholic and chain smoker.
Bill wrote that he and his siblings learned to hide from his dad’s fits of anger.
When his father’s health declined rapidly, and he finally went to the doctor,
the diagnosis was lung cancer. Eighteen months later, just before Christmas in 1974,
when Bill was still in elementary school, his father died.
It was a sad and tragic holiday for the High family, a season of exile, if you will.
But Bill’s Japanese mother worked hard. She learned new skills. She improved her language ability.
She got a new job. For decades, she gave selflessly and worked tirelessly to provide for her children,
so much so that Bill was able to attend college, and then later law school.
Twenty-six years after his father died, in 2000, after a successful run at a large law Midwest firm,
Bill High co-founded The Signatry: A Global Christian Foundation.
As the CEO of The Signatry, Bill now works to change the way people view and practice generosity.
He encourages people to give of their wealth and, as of this year,
his foundation has sent out over $2.5 billion in grants.
“Joy”, Bill High writes. “It’s a short but powerful word.
(joy) is more than circumstances. Happiness is dictated by circumstance.
Joy is more like a deep abiding…a state of mind and an orientation of the heart.
(Joy) is a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope.”
“Joy is a feeling, yes. But it’s also a confident abiding in the vine,” Bill writes,
the vine “which is Jesus (Christ). It’s knowing that all of our life derives from the vine.
But it is also the future expectation that everything is going to be okay as we draw life from the vine—
no matter our circumstances.” (billhigh.com)
If you have seen how the desert can blossom suddenly after the rains finally come,
if you have witnessed one who was disabled leaping again like a deer,
then you begin to hope that the exile you are experiencing will not last forever.
If you have seen waters springing forth from dry beds,
if you have seen how burning sands can become like pools,
then you begin to realize that you will not be left to wander in the wilderness forever.
If you have seen God open blind eyes and unstop deaf ears,
then be strong, the prophet proclaims, do not be afraid,
for God has come and God’s grace will come again.
I will close with Luke 1:46b-55, the Magnificat,
Mary’s song of hope which leads to joy even in the midst of uncertain and challenging circumstances.
Neither Mary nor her cousin Elizabeth knew the future,
but they each held tightly to God’s promises.
Neither knew what might become of their sons, or even if they would survive the pregnancy,
but they held onto each other and they held onto hope.
When they recalled what God had done in the past, they looked forward to the future in anticipation.
Hear the Word of God:
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’
When we remember the deliverance that God has wrought in the past, we have hope for the future,
and that hope can engender joy, even in the most desperate or uncertain circumstances.
God has come to us in Jesus Christ, and yes, Christ will come again.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church