Summary: This sermon was preached on Gaudete (Joy) Sunday (3rd sunday in Advent). I wasn’t feeling very joy-filled, though I felt called to preach on joy (and used that hesitancy as part of the sermon focus). It’s my best "grumpy sermon on joy" ever.
It’s been a rough couple weeks for me. My wallet was stolen last Wednesday. My step-grandfather died – two days ago. I woke up feeling sick and lost my voice - yesterday. Almost got stuck in the snow last night. Had to park around the corner and traipse home in the deep snow with the wind whipping around me. So it’s safe to say that today, I’m feeling a bit down in the dumps.
In today’s first lesson, the prophet Isaiah is writing to people who are nearing the end of the Babylonian Exile. This Exile was terrible, way worse than my bad couple of weeks: Israel was stripped of its best and brightest citizens, the people were removed from their land, and their established religious center was destroyed. The temple was looted and the people were transported away from their homes, away from their promised land. The Babylonians made fun of them, taunted them, and humiliated them. Besides feeling like trapped animals, like strangers in a strange land, they also couldn’t shake the feeling that God had abandoned them.
Into that context, the prophet Isaiah writes this message in Isaiah 35. Returning home brought more than a little anxiety for the Israelite people. What will we find, they might wonder? Strangers living in my house? Strangers living on the land where I, my parents, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents had all grown up? Isaiah speaks to a people who are broken, humiliated, destroyed, and barely feel like being freed. They need a word of hope, something to sustain them as they endure one of the most challenging times in all of Israel’s history.
Isaiah’s words from God offer the exiles something to hope for: the desert will rejoice and bloom abundantly; be strong, do not fear; God will come to save you; the eyes of the blind shall be opened; the ears of the deaf will be unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer; the tongue of the speechless sing for joy; waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; no wild beasts will even be there; the ransomed of the Lord shall return.
If the prophet Isaiah were looking at the visible signs all around the exiles, he would not have been able to speak such hopeful words to the people returning from exile. From every outward appearance, the exiles had lost everything: their homes, their nation, their temple, their very society. Everything had been decimated. And here comes Isaiah talking about streams in the desert and blind eyes opened! Either he is completely out of touch with reality or Isaiah knows something that we do not know.
In our four-week Advent journey, today is called Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of Joy. If you have an Advent wreath with three purple candles and one pink one, today is the day that you begin to light the pink one. Advent, though not in quite the same vein as Lent, is a season of penitence and preparation, usually symbolized by blue or purple. It is meant to slow us down, to give us time to prepare, and also to wait with anticipation as Christmas draws nearer. Joy goes against the traditionally penitent feeling of this season, so this candle is usually either rose colored or pink. Although the rest of Advent seems to be pointing us toward a future fulfillment of God’s promises, usually having a wait-wait-it’s-coming-soon feel, the lessons today see these promises of God more immediately on the horizon.
Isaiah 35 assures those returning from exile: “Here is your God”, not “here is where your God will be”, but “here is your God”. In Matthew 11, Jesus sends a message to the imprisoned John the Baptist that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus doesn’t say that those things will take place, but presents them as already accomplished tasks of God. How can we keep joy hidden away when we hear that God is here and God’s reign is breaking out in so many small and large ways? In both Isaiah 35 and Matthew 11, God is all about bringing about the impossible, healing the broken, and redeeming the lost. Joy oozes from the pores of today’s lessons, in between the terrible situations of exile and imprisonment.
Problem is: most days it doesn’t feel to me like God’s reign is breaking through or like joy is just about to bubble up. People are diagnosed with cancer; others lose their jobs; others face insurmountable family relationship challenges. Children are hurt by violence and abuse; financial woes trouble us all; the world’s powers seem to only seek solutions through revenge and intimidation. And lest you forget where I started (though these are small burdens, they are real to me): my wallet was stolen, my step-grandfather just died, and I feel a bit under the weather. Right now, I don’t feel like jumping for joy! So how can you – and I - live into this Gaudete Sunday of joy?