Word of the Week

Imagine Joy

Imagine Joy: Isaiah 35:1-10

We reversed the typical Advent order at Washington Plaza this year, doing joy last Sunday and will do peace this coming Sunday. The following is my sermon given on Sunday. The audio recording had a malfunction this week so I thought I'd post it here. Normally, if you are interested in any of the sermons, you can check this link to actually hear them. Blessings!

On this the second Sunday of Advent, we welcome JOY into this New Year, just as we welcomed hope last week.  There are several popular images of this word that you might have in mind upon learning that today is “Joy Sunday.”

 There is the concept of joy as circumstance producing happiness.

The feeling that comes when we reach that long-awaited wedding, or graduation ceremony, or milestone anniversary at work (when we thought we would never make it this far) . . . .  joy as an achievement of perfect circumstance. 

“I made it to this day!” we exclaim.

Then, there is the idea of joy as a feeling of the purest gleeful happiness.

Being happy is one thing, but being joyous is defined as an over the top level of this euphoric feeling. Joy as personified as that perky high school cheerleader that just has a plastered smile on their face at all times to the degree in which you wonder if she had Botox to keep it there because how could anyone possibly be happy all the time?

Joy also understood like the popular song that we often teach to our children (sing with me if you know it): “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, down in my heart? Where? Down in my heart. Where? Down in my heart.  I’ve got the joy, joy, joy down in my heart to stay.” Joy is that feeling that bubbles over in us to make us really, really happy.

And, in addition, there is that the idea of joy as selfless love.

This concept is perpetuated in some Christian circles like the one I grew up in where the acronym for the word Joy is spelled out J, for Jesus. Jesus first.

O, for others next.

And, last Y stands for yourself. You are last.

I remember a Sunday School teacher telling me once that “Jesus first, others next and yourself last” is the key to living a life of joy. If you want to be joyful, this concept says always put everyone else first, no exceptions. Joy is 100% about service of others.

Yet, if any of these three statements are indeed true to our experience, then Isaiah 35’s writing about joy in our lection for this morning might then seem a bit off-putting to us from the start.

Because in this word of prophecy, Isaiah’s audience is not experiencing a life climatic circumstance and they are not being advised to just being happy for the sake of being happy, nor are they engaging in self denigrating behavior on the behalf of others; instead this passage paints a picture of joy as a complete re-orientation of a worldview.  Joy comes as good news, yes, but also as a transformative process.

To really spend some time at this juncture in Isaiah, we have to understand a bit more about this transition in the book and how Chapter 35 fits into the larger message of the prophet.  Though we can’t tell from merely picking up our Bible and reading Isaiah from cover to cover, Isaiah is not one cohesive book, rather it is a collection of writings scribed at unique points in Israel’s history.

While scholars debate whether or not Isaiah is indeed two books in one or three, one thing that most agree on is that a huge break or shift in theme happens between Isaiah 39 and 40. With the first part of Isaiah being about judgment and the coming of exile, the second part of Isaiah focuses on a vision of restoration after exile has passed and beyond.

What we need then, to understand is that chapter 34 and 35 are bridges from the pre-exilic prophecies to the post. Or in other words these are two chapters that are really important because they speak to some of the most important truths about both who we are as human beings and who God is as well. Chapter 34 concludes the judgment oracles about those who chose not to walk in the ways of the LORD and Chapter 35 begins for the first time in Isaiah to talk about God’s intervention on behalf of all of humanity.

Thus, the significance of chapter 35 emerges as it becomes THE bridge text connecting Isaiah part one to part two—it’s the first sign of some new direction for this very lost group of people to begin to find their way back to what could restore them to wholeness. It’s a word about re-framing their lives in God’s story, not just what they saw right in front of their eyes.

Some of you might have heard me tell about me and Kevin’s great adventure last October when we traveled through the deserts of Nevada and Arizona to see some of the great southwest. One of the most memorable moments for me on the trip, as a southwest novice, was the car trip we took from the Hoover Dam to the Grand Canyon. The thought of such a road trip was exciting because I had never spent an extensive amount of time in the desert. Though the scenery was beautiful and the vastness of the landscape was overwhelming to see from one horizon to the next, I have to admit that I was sort of scared to be making such a trip.

As a person who likes to be prepared, it completely freaked me out to read a road sign that said “50 miles to the next road stop”. Kevin can attest to the fact that even though we had a GPS in our car pointing us in the only direction that we could possibly travel with a full tank of gas, I was still worried we’d be on the wrong road.

I kept asking him, “Are you sure? Are you really sure we are on the right road?” (As if he knew anymore about the desert than I did). Because really, I had visions of us ending up acting out one of those western movies being stuck on the side of the road in the middle of the night trying to sleep while keeping watch for coyotes at the same time.

So, there was one thing I really wanted to make me feel better. And, it was a map. With this, I boasted, I could orientate us to our surroundings. We could see the bigger picture of where we were once again. And, though it took another 100 miles to find a stocked gas station, I insisted when we found it to stop (even though we were at that point only 10 miles from the major highway) to get one. I was finally so happy . . . .

In the same way, the beautiful poetic word of Isaiah 35 was this much craved road map that Israel needed. It was a clear view of what life could be like if they just hung on and kept connected to God’s presence among them.

Look at verse one: “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.”

Rejoicing? Singing? How could that be possible you might wonder? As you remember, Israel at the time was exile. They were away from home: life felt like being literally stuck in the desert. They were no longer in the religious majority. They were deprived of some of life’s basic happiness without their political freedom. Doesn’t exactly seem like the time when the leaders among them would gather the people together and break out into a chorus of “I’ve got, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.”

Yet, Isaiah is saying through metaphor, “Though you may not feel like anything good can come in the desert of circumstances you are living in, begin to look with me at life from the Lord’s eyes.” Because as they did, they would begin to see, just as we uncovered with our prophetic text last week about hope—a new world order of restoration.

And, this restoration would have two parts. First, it would be a restoration of the physical creation, the earth. In verse six we learn that “waters would break forth in the wilderness and there would be streams in the desert; the haunt of jackals (the most feared animal at the time) would become a swamp and the grass would become reeds and rushes.” 

 No, longer would the earth work against the plans of God. Floods would not destroy homes. Tornadoes would not crush dreams. Fires would not ravage good crops and so on and so on.  All the earth, according to this prophetic poem would work in harmony with God’s good future.

 And, second, not only the earth, but humanity would find restoration too. Those who were normally overlooked, left out or ignored, would be valued. Those who found themselves in “less than” places in society such as the blind, the deaf, the lame and the mute would find healing that restored not only their bodies but their souls. Human constructed emotional roadblocks that keep all of us from connecting at a deep level both with one another and God would be opened up again on roads with straight paths. All people, according to Isaiah, would return to the LORD not because they were forced to, but because they wanted too.

And, this is where the word JOY is inserted first in this story. Verse 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 shall flee away.”

Upon hearing this beautifully composed word, do you think that everything suddenly changed for Israel? Do you think that they started waltzing back home from exile with a permanent smile on their face as if everything was just A OK?

I have to think not. This was a prophecy after all. But, it is one that ends in joy because something has completely changed about their perspective.

Joy, you see, comes to Israel because God has reminded them of who the Almighty was and is and their story forever has been re-written. Sure, there were still lots of things wrong in their life, sure it might be days and days and days before they got to that one moment when everything was perfect, but it didn’t matter.

What was most important was the particular focus of their vision: upon hearing such a word of the Lord, joy came because no longer did their future depend on their strength, their wisdom, their making the right decisions all the time. Their future was full of joy because it was a part of God’s bigger picture of work in the world. Their future was full of joy because its future rested in God’s time. 

In God’s time, they would return home.

In God’s time, the promised Savior would come and show them the way.

In God’s time, Jesus would connect all humanity with the story of God—in ways seemingly impossible in the measure of time before.

In God’s time, you and I would be born and come to be in this place, in this moment, to hear or hear again what is our faith story: a story that did not begin with us, but a story we are too invited to participate in so to see the future a little more clearly too.

So, in this New Year, how is it that more joy comes into the lives of us who seek to follow Jesus Christ? It begins, with a declaration on our part that our lives are not about our circumstances and the quality thereof. Sure, we all have “high” moments in our lives when we feel like things are so good that we are floating on a cloud: the start of a new wonderful job, the beginning of a new dating relationship, or a perfect weekend surrounded by all things that we love and cherish  . . . .

But, I feel, if you and I want true JOY in our lives—joy that out lasts the good moments of our days—then we must begin to get to know God’s story just a little bit better.

And, by this I mean, we have to know the Bible. We have to commit ourselves in the coming year to begin to study scripture on a regular basis so that the stories of our faith have a chance to seep into our consciousness just a little bit more. How could we possibly see ourselves in God’s story if we don’t have a clue what it is about? And, there is no better time to do this than now when there’s so much cultural encouragement  to tell our friends why Christmas means so much to our faith! To have joy, we must know our story!

But, even as we have knowledge of our story, JOY comes to those vessels who are willing receive it (even if the pot of who we are isn’t perfect). I was talking with a friend the other day and she was telling me about how she was struggling to make sense of her life. There were countless things she could say were wrong with it while at the same time, countless things that were more than amazing, even holy. We talked about how it is commonplace in Western cultural mentality when someone asks you how you are doing you have to pick either, “I am fine. Or, I am not.” Somehow having joy in the juxtaposition of all of life’s happiness and sorrows is just not allowed.

But, this, is where we, as a people of faith, get to make straight a different kind of life highway. We can live in this juxtaposition.

We get to say to one another and to the larger community around us that while, yes, it is true, that this and this, and this is just not well in my world, joy is still possible.

Why? It is possible because the worth of our lives aren’t merely wrapped up in how good circumstances we can muster up in the present tense. Our worth is not wrapped up in the accolades attributed to our name during our end of the year reviews. Rather, joy is possible in all things because we are living in God’s karios time, not the world’s chronos, time. 

I’m here to testify today that restoration, healing and wholeness IS on the way to your life and to mine.  Though the process of getting from point A to B might be a rough ride, God’s goodness will see us through. And there’s no ifs ands or buts about it: it is coming and it coming soon!

And, so today, let us come to the table and reenact our story of faith and as we do, let us come rejoicing. As we hobble along, may the joy of the Lord be our strength that keeps us singing about what is present deep down in our hearts.