Joy…to get me through the tough days
During the Advent Season we always hear a passage or two from the prophet Isaiah. It is in this prophet’s writings that we learn about the suffering servant, the promise of the Messiah, and a phrase many of us have heard during this season, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” Isaiah was a prophet to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the book of Isaiah is really like two books under one name. Chapters 1-39 are from the ministry of Isaiah and chapters 40-55 are from the same school of Isaiah's teaching but came along at another time. This is why it is referred to as Second Isaiah.
The passage I read today is chapter 35 and so it out of the first part of the book of Isaiah. During this time the kingdom was being ruled over by the Assyrians and before the Babylonians took over and moved everyone out in the Second Exile. What this means is that they were being governed by an occupying nation. This happens a lot to this Promise Land. Israel is right in the middle of the intersection of the Middle East, Africa and Europe. It is ideal land for anyone trying to spread their empire into these areas. This means that Israel was taken over a lot and during the time of Isaiah there is no exception.
In Chapter 34 Isaiah is speaking out against their enemies and telling them of the judgment that is coming. It is dark language and heavy to read. But it sets to tone for the joyous return of the redeemed nation that Isaiah talks about in the chapter I read today. In chapter 35 instead of being doom and gloom there is a promise of transformation; a promise of rebirth and of hope. There is a sense of joy that comes from reading this chapter and it is these promises that Isaiah is known for. “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” It sounds very Jesus doesn’t it?
These chapters in Isaiah are written as poetry. Poetry has a way of sinking into our subconscious and sticking there. I am sure if I read some lines from popular poetry some of you could finish them. There are poems that make us laugh and giggle…
• Ickel Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too went for a ride in a …(flying shoe.)
• One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, black fish, blue fish, old fish…(new fish).
Some poetry is dark and we can instantly be transported to a place and time.
• But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered- not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered, "other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said,…(Nevermore).
See even Edgar Allan Poe can sneak into our hearts and minds. And still some poetry gets are hearts pounding and our toes tapping.
• She's got a smile that it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Where everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky
Now and then when I see her face
She takes me away to that special place
And if I stare too long, I'd probably…(break down and cry)
Poetry, like song lyrics from 80s rock bands, can stick with us through the years and they hang on in places we sometimes forget we have. They can bring us sadness, make us laugh, scare us, and provide a sense of joy. That is what the 35th chapter of Isaiah did for the Israelites back then, it provided them with a sense of joy. A joy they could hold onto when things got really rough; when another world power took them over and they moved to another part of the world. The promise of a redeemed nation gave them a sense of joy no one could take away.
We sometimes think happiness and joy are the same thing but they aren’t. Happiness is like a YouTube video. I love to watch a cat play piano, or a kid come back from the dentist, or a dog dreaming, or finding out how many different things really will blend. Those short, under 10 minute, videos make me smile and some make me laugh so hard I cry, but it is all temporary. Happiness is a fleeting feeling. It is there one minute and then gone the next. Happiness is getting a good grade on a test. Happiness is celebrating the weekend started.
Joy on the other hand is more substantial. It is something rooted somewhere deeper than a moment. If happiness is getting a good grade on a test, joy is receiving the degree. It is something you can look at and know it will last and that nobody can take it away from you. In the book of Isaiah, especially in the 35th chapter, we receive a gift of joy. Something we can grab onto that is not fleeting but eternal. It isn’t just a moment but a promise of fulfillment and transformation.
When we think of this time of year we think of joy. We think of happy times and great family traditions. We think of cookies and toys, laughter and presents. But if you remember there were five members of our church that passed away this year. This means five families will have their first Christmas without their loved one. There are even more than just five families that will experience a sense of loss this Christmas because many of you have lost relatives, friends, and neighbors. There are those in our lives that this season only brings heartache and sadness. We cannot escape that and nor should we push it under the rug.
For some Christmas is not a time of great joy. For example on one website I read this week the author wrote, “Every year around this time, I spiral into a bottomless pit of anger and depression.” For some people this season will only bring more struggles and frustration. There are some who have lost their job and what they want to do this Christmas and what they can do seem to be very far apart from one another. With benefits being cut off and all the commercials we see to buy this or that, it adds salt to the wounds reminding them that they should feel like a disappointment and a failure. But then there are also those who don’t feel well this year and will celebrate Christmas by suffering the pain of terminal diseases. Others will share their children for the first time on that day, they will start at one parents house and end at the other. Joy, for some this year, will seem like something far off in the distance.
Mitch Mitchell is helping provide joy during the season. He keeps up his 100 year old church but then heads out in his magic sleigh to bring joy to the faces of so many. Sure the ride is just a momentary kind of happiness but the reason why he does it is rooted in joy. He said in the video, “Every time I wake up I thank the Lord above for the talent he gave me to be able to use my hands. And it is a pleasure to use these hands to help others.” That is an understanding of joy because Mitch can look past himself and know the joy in helping others. Helping to make “the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.”
This season I hope you find joy. The type of joy that makes desserts start to bloom and Holy Highways lead us to God’s city of Zion. But how do we move from despair and grief, sadness and pain to a place of joy? Remember joy and happiness are not the same. If you want to walk around this Christmas with giggles and smiles then you might be looking just to be happy this year. Joy is something deeper and can be had without even a smile.
I have noticed that as people go through rough patches of their life they think they have to go through them alone. They will stop coming to church and being fed by worship because there is this notion that we have to have it all together before we come here. But the truth is Church is a place to be comfortable being uncomfortable with life. It is here that it is okay not to be okay. It is hear that we can help you deal with what issues you have, we can pray with you, cry with you, hold your hand and whisper you are not alone. It is by being Church that we point to the light of hope and joy and enable people to experience peace and love.
In this Advent season we get ourselves ready to celebrate and remember the 1st Advent. But it really only gives us a taste of what is to come. The elements we partake receive at this holy meal are another way to get a taste of the heavenly banquet that is coming. These are places we can put our anchors down on. As storms of life push us around, if we have an anchor on the promise of what is coming we will survive any storm that comes our way. If we anchor ourselves to the notion that joy is not happiness, joy is a promise of redemption and transformation. It is the promise that is found in knowing what is will not always be.
For those who went to Babylon under the second exile they listened to Isaiah’s prophetic promise and said them over and over. The exile was only 78 years but that was two or three lifetimes back then. Older generations had to pass on their joy of the future to the younger ones so they could understand that what IS will not always BE. This enabled them to move back to the promise land later and rebuild their culture, their city and their temple.
There is nothing more painful than watching the world move on while you are stuck in a dark place. If you are in a dark place this morning please hear me, you are not alone. I promise you things will change. It may take a very long time but it will come and we can find joy in that today. Joy knows that you can move past this moment in your life. You can grow beyond this change. You will, at some point in the future, be made whole again and will feel better. We can find joy today knowing that the bread and wine we receive gives us a joy we can anchor to and enables us to survive anything.
And all God’s people said...