Sermon by David Irby
December 15, 2019
The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God.
the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
As most of you know, Janet and I recently returned from Sweden and a wonderful visit with Leah and her family and for me with my colleagues. At this time of year in Stockholm, the sun comes up there at 8:30am and disappears by 2:30pm. So in the midst of this cold and dark place, everyone looks forward to the Christmas season when every window has a candle and Christmas lights sparkle in shops and streets. Christmas carols play, St. Lucia returns, and people feel a sense of happiness and well-being in the midst of the dark.
We, too, look forward to Christmas and the celebration of Advent. Our theme for today is “Walk in Joy”. This brings to mind that this is the season to experience joy and gladness as we look forward to the arrival of the Christ child. It is what the Bethlehem shepherds heard a heavenly messenger exclaim: “I bring you good news of great joy for all the people.” This is not about momentary happiness but about the miraculous inner spiritual gift of joy that gladdens the soul and lightens the spirit. It is a deep wellspring of love, hope, and gratitude. Ah, to walk in Joy!
I don’t know about you, but I long to walk in joy. Now, that is not my typical everyday experience. Have you ever felt loneliness, depression or despair? Have you ever felt hopeless or stuck? If so, then this part of Isaiah’s message is for you! He proclaims: The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad! The desert shall bloom and rejoice! Weak hands will be strengthened! If your heart isn’t strong, it will be made so! God is coming! If you are blind, you’ll be able to see, if you can’t walk, you will soon be running all over the place! Those who have harassed, bothered, mocked you or tried to destroy your life will be banished! You will be in a safe place–called the highway of God, the Holy Way!
This paraphrase of Isaiah comes from a commentator (Shannan Vance-Ocampo). This Advent Sunday is a time to experience joy. Yet, some of us may be struggling this season with joy. The lights of Christmas are out, carolers are singing, and presents are being wrapped. But, many struggle to experience joy in this season. The good news for today is that this amazing joy that Isaiah references is for everyone. What is really startling about this proclamation is that this joy and hope arises not in the midst of happiness, good cheer, and great fortune but rather in the opposite – in the midst of destruction, pain and despair. Yet, what could be more needed in our world today than unabashed joy and uninhibited hope?
Biblical scholars believe that this section of Isaiah was written at the end of the Babylonian exile around 539 BC. Remember that Judah and the temple were destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 605 BC and the population of Judah was deported to Babylon. They were enslaved, lived in the arid and beastly hot desert of modern-day Iraq for 75 years, and longed to return to Jerusalem and to worship in their holy temple. In Psalm 117 we read of their torment and pathos:
1By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
This tormented wail is also found in the book of Lamentations that was written during this period of exile. It was a time of cruelty, loss, despair, and longing. The exile ended in 538 BC when the Persian Cyrus the Great captured Babylon and allowed the Jewish people to return home to Jerusalem. Thus, what has come to be known as Second Isaiah was written in the context of this devastating experience of exile but also in the anticipation of returning to Jerusalem. It was a time of rekindled hope and joy, which was built on the ashes of fear, despair and loss.
In today’s passage in Isaiah, we are reminded that in life’s struggles we are not alone, God is present! Isaiah declares that God is working for our good and even for our joy. God is always making a way in the dry deserts of our lives for joy. This text contributes to our preparation for the coming of Jesus by proclaiming that those who experience their lives as exile, those who pass through a wilderness, those who are weak may shout for joy, for God will transform all things.
Isaiah fully acknowledges that the good news comes out of a place of pain, despair and even disbelief. He doesn’t sugarcoat it. Isaiah owns that part of the story, and even affirms that in despair, God is there seeking to turn our pain into joy and blessing.
For instance, one might assume that pain and despair would be found in the setting of hospice and being bedridden for a year, as my mother was at the end. She did experience depression and her dementia was so advanced that it was difficult for her to remember anything or to even complete a whole sentence. At some points, she thought that I had a famous brother in California and that Janet was married to him. So when Janet and I visited her, she was often confused about how Janet could be married to both of us. What can I say, Janet is amazing! But, mom was always excited to see us, even if she couldn’t remember who we were. We developed a habit of praying with her on each visit, and she was deeply touched by our prayers. And, to our surprise on one occasion, she joined us in prayer in order to pray for us. Most surprising of all, when she prayed, she used complete sentences to express her blessings for us. In those moments, she radiated joy, peace and light. In those moments, the Kingdom of God came near and we experienced joy.
This joy is the good news that we need today. In the past several years, there has been a national contagion of nastiness, hate, and lies. There is fear and despair that often overwhelms. Despair and burn-out have become the new normal. We could really use some serious joy!
Another commentator offers this beautiful way of seeing the scripture reading:The Good News at Advent is that God has not taken off on a retreat but that the God who cares for the dry and barren places cares for each and all of us. God shows up even in the desert and barren places of life to await us in renewal, restoration and salvation. (Feasting on the Word)
God is also in this passage as a protecting God. Isaiah describes a God who realizes that much of the impoverishment that the people of God experience is because of the evil actions of others. And so in today’s passage God comes in as a protector, banishing the evildoers, and setting up a safe space for care and healing. And this is part of the calling that we hear for ourselves in Isaiah today. We are called to be bearers and bringers of the hope and love of God. We are also called to be banishers and protectors where evil has taken root.
In our congregation, we have created a safe place to worship, inquire, and nurture our faith. In our great diversity, we find love, peace and joy. And as a congregation, we are searching for ways to support justice and serve those who are the most vulnerable in our communities. This is faith that is in the street, setting things right, making things whole, and then joyfully celebrating what God has done for us, and what God has empowered us to do on behalf of others. Last week Carolyn shared the joy she experienced in presenting our congregation’s Christmas gifts to the needy at Crystal Springs Elementary.
We can be the instigators of a contagion of joy and hope. A world-wide outbreak of joy would be awesome. We can give priceless gifts of joy to bless others through some simple acts of kindness. Let me list a few:
- The gift of listening, really listening. No interrupting, no daydreaming, no planning your response. Just listening. This is what hospice ministry is all about.
- The gift of affection. Be generous with appropriate hugs, pats on the back and handholds. Let these small actions demonstrate the love you have for family and friends.
- The gift of advocacy and service. Share your knowledge, experience and energy with public officials to advocate for peace, justice, health care and the environment. And serve those in need.
- The gift of laughter and a cheerful disposition. Share laughter and joy with others and lighten up their world.
When we share joy, others automatically mirror it back. This is how we create a contagion of joy and hope.
As I mentioned at the start, Janet and I had the pleasure of spending Thanksgiving with Leah, Mattias and Emanuel who is now 3 ½ years old. When we would arrive each day, Emanuel was so excited to see us. He radiated love and joy, and we mirrored that back to him. Two Sundays ago, we had the opportunity to join them in attending a Christmas concert in a home near their apartment. Emanuel sat in our laps and was enthralled by the music. We felt privileged to share that experience with him. Our hearts were filled with joy and gratitude. He single handedly created a contagion of joy.
Maybe we could all use a prophet like Isaiah to bring us joy and to remind us of the goodness of God. But, sometimes that gift comes from the exuberance of a child, a person on their death bed, the sharing with a friend, or the singing of Christmas carols. Sometimes, joy comes from the quiet and everyday places in life.
The Good News for today is that God is working on our behalf. The Good News for today is that our joy is for the healing of our souls and the healing of our world. So we look forward to the hope in the Christ Child soon to meet us once again on Christmas Day. As the hymn exclaims: “We shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace”. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
I gratefully acknowledge ideas from Shannan Vance-Ocampo and Preparing Through the Christian Year A.