Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Promise of Joy

Isaiah 35:1-10
Advent 3
December 11, 2016
William G. Carter

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 traveler, 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.

It was Charlie Brown that said, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel . . . I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

You may think those are unusual words for the holidays, much less for the beginning of a sermon, but today I want to take them seriously. Ever since cartoonist Charles Schulz put them on the lips of a young boy, they have resonated with a lot of people. For all the beauty and sparkle of the season, this is a hard time for a lot of people. They may dress up, come to church, and put on the happy face, but underneath, there’s an emotional struggle.

When I was a little kid, I thought Christmas sadness came when you didn’t get all the gifts you wanted. The fact is, there is a lot about this season that tests our spirits. The brutal weather is hard on our bones. The dark sky plays on our emotions. Few of our families resemble the actors in those stories on the Hallmark channel. And as one of my ninety-year-old friends says it, “The older you get, the more you have to reduce your expectations.”

To all this, the prophet Isaiah says we will “rejoice with joy.” It’s a bracing word, Charlie Brown.

If there’s any sadness in your life today, I want to take it seriously. We can’t simply take any negative feelings and shove them in the closet until February. If we do, they will still be waiting for us. Any unresolved grief lingers in the shadows. Any unmanaged frustration will be dished out to others. We have heard about the stewardship of our money; we also have to be good stewards of our emotions.

I was reflecting on this yesterday when I was stuck in a traffic jam in the middle of town. The car in front of me was going in slow motion, so I wanted to lay on the horn. When I made my way to a shopping mall, there were no parking spaces. When one opened up, it was too narrow. When I got to the store, they didn’t have the item that they promised to save for me. You know how this is, and you know how tempting it is to let anger direct your reactions and for dismay to entice you to give up.

And that’s just in the arenas of travel and shopping. If you’re working, the job is always more stressful in December. There are sales quotas to meet, reports to fill out, anxious people to please. And then there are the complications of our families, and all the surrounding drama.

And the prophet Isaiah declares, “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

How can he talk this way? I don’t know; he just does it. Five times in this brief poem, he speaks of joy. The desert shall rejoice, the barren places shall break into blossom, and speechless people who have no song will sing. Like a lot of the prophets of Israel, he speaks in promissory language. He points to a future that is some distance ahead and declares that it’s practically here and now.

Please notice this is very different from the advice that crabby people give one another in December. They will say, “Ignore the sadness.” Put up another string of lights. Eat another cookie, drink some eggnog. Get in the holiday spirit. Keep busy. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. To hear some folks, all we have to do is talk ourselves into a good mood. If only it were that easy!

It’s clear that Isaiah knows how life can be. He speaks of weak hands and feeble knees. He knows there are people who have a fearful heart. He knows there are some who cannot see, some who cannot hear, and some who cannot move. Sorrow and sighing are real.

But so is the possibility of God’s action. It’s real too. This undated poem points to a moment when God will give a home to those who have no other home. God will restore their lives. God will re-establish their physical well being and affect the environment around them. “They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” That is good news. God promises joy.

Someone describes joy this way:  “Such a gift, far from being a positive attitude or constantly upbeat mood, is best described as a deep confidence, even a kind of astonished laughter because of the discovery that there is One at work in our world more central to our stories than we are to ourselves.” (Tom Currie, The Joy of Ministry, p. 4)

I like that description. Joy is more than a transitory emotion, as with all the other emotions that come and go. Joy is a “deep confidence” or an “astonished laughter.” It is rooted in the kind of God that we have. God’s work in the world is with those who have weak hands, feeble knees, and fearful hearts. It’s where confidence replaces the fear, where laughter interrupts the sorrow. Joy is the deep and abiding knowledge that, no matter what happens to us, God is with us, and God is working out the restoration of the world.

And this is something that we can keep reminding one another. Isaiah’s poem is not a carrot on a stick, some vain hope that entices us to keep going. No, it’s this confidence that there is a greater love at the heart of the universe than what we see day to day, that there is a greater goodness than the recurring human nastiness, that there is a deeper wisdom than all short-sighted stupidity, that there is truly a salvage operation that heaven is undertaking on earth.

We have the privilege of proclaiming this message, and passing it along as we hear it. Maybe that’s the true purpose of the Christmas carols that we sing, or the cards and messages that we might still send out. It is more than holiday hype, but the promise of God’s saving work that can always trusted. With Israel, we can remember how God brought them home, then we can affirm that it is God who desires that all of us, in a much deeper sense, find our way home.

In the darkest month of the year, the light can shine in surprising ways. Someone told me how they were feeling blue, as if all the oxygen had been drained from their atmosphere. Suddenly they heard the Ray Conniff Singers chirping out, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,” at precisely the moment when they were feeling a lot of dismay. It was just enough to nudge them out of their funk.

Or one of you was telling about a congested store, a place with a frustrating floor plan, blinding lights, and way too many pushy people. In the middle of the store, a young boy with curls was playing catch with his grandmother, breaking into contagious laughter. “It lifted me out of a long slump,” he said, “and I want to be around happiness like that.”

“The great thing about Christmas,” says writer Frederick Buechner, “is that we've never been able to kill it.” There is something irrepressible about the event, something about the light of God that cannot be extinguished. Jesus Christ has come into the world. It is he who gives sight to those who were unable to see, he who opens the ears of those who stopped listening.

And it is he who offers a home to those who have no home.

So there I was yesterday, on call for a little church that has no pastor. One of the elders called and said, “We’ve had a request for a baptism. What are we going to do?” I didn’t know. There was a time frame; the grandmother is terminally ill and they wanted her to be around to see it. We explored a few possible plans. Then she said, “Could you do it on a Saturday?”

Well, it’s a Saturday in December. I ought to be putting lights on my Christmas tree, but sure, I’ll go up for a baptism. Put on my tie and jacket, got my little baptism book, and drove up there. When I arrived, there were four little kids, not one. They all had the same last name, but I couldn’t tell who was who. It seemed to me that the family situation was a bit complicated (whose isn’t?) and that doesn’t matter to me.

I thought we should make it special, so we gathered in the sanctuary. There were about thirty of us, families and church folk. There was no organist, so I sat down to play “Away in a Manger” for us to sing. I hadn’t planned on a sermon, but I found a quick one on my feet. Then I took the four kids by the hand, along with anybody who wanted to stand with them, and I gave them all a Trinitarian splash.

Then I walked them into the center of the room and said what I often say. I said, “Kids, your family just got a lot bigger. Their name is church. These are the people who are going to remind you of what I’ve just told you, that you belong to God. They’re going to teach you the love of Jesus, and teach you how to show it others.”

The littlest one, Lily, was looking at me with big eyes. I crouched down to look her in the eye and said, “Lily, don’t pay attention to whatever else the world tells you. Jesus loves you, and you belong to him now.” She looks at me, wraps her hand around one of my fingers. Her mother is crying big wet tears, whispering, “Thank you, thank you.” Ah, who am I kidding: I was crying too.

Then I said, “Kids, your big new family wants to teach you a song. It’s number 40 in the blue hymnal.” And we sang, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

To think, I could have been home. It was a Saturday. I could have been decorating my tree. Instead I was telling four little kids that they were loved with an infinite love and that they belonged to God. They were only words . . . and they were the truth.

Joy to the world, I tell you. Joy to the world.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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