The Candle of Joy (Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11)
On the Third Sunday of Advent, we light the only candle on the circumference of the wreath that isn’t purple–it’s pink–and it represents that which stands out on the wreath and in life. It’s for joy. That’s because joy, though not the same as silliness and giggles, often shows up “on our outsides.” That’s also one reason we celebrate Gaudy Sunday by wearing bright clothes; to emphasize that we do intend our inner joy to be outwardly obvious. That joy and joyful energy are important is shown by the fact that, in the Old Testament alone, there are more than 27 Hebrew words that describe some aspect of joy or rejoicing, to which the New Testament adds about a half dozen more in Greek. One of my favourite statements about joy is found in the words we used earlier from Jeremiah 9, which makes a statement about what’s usually translated as “boasting,” but which doesn’t mean, “bragging,” but rejoicing, delighting, glorying, or being energized in something. It’s that which we bring from inside out.
He said: Thus says the LORD: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD.
Jeremiah contrasts the source of joy and energy for some folk with the source of God’s delight (or even “pleasure,” the word is so-used elsewhere). Jeremiah counselled against allowing what we’ve accomplished be the source of our inner energy (joy) that presents a public face in our world; it’s not our success, not our wisdom, not our might, not our money. Jeremiah says that these will, eventually, fail us. He counsels that understanding and knowing what God is up to in the world need to energize us and bring us joy. Jeremiah summarizes God’s mission as being God’s steadfast love, justice, and righteousness on the earth. God both champions and embodies fidelity, equity, and loyalty to people in the community, and such values, enacted by God, are intended to be the source of joy and energize us in the world as the visible mark of God’s people. These things are known in actions God takes, and that we take as we imitate God. This passage introduces our thoughts about joy today.
The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 35 is a symphonic poem that previews some themes that we find later in chapters 40-55. One of these themes is God’s coming to people in need. God’s coming or advent sets off a series of events for those who need change in their lives. This symphonic poem has three movements, and all of them are in aid of needy people finding their joy in God and God’s work in the world. In the first movement, wilderness places rejoice, and deserts exult and blossom at the coming of God. Parched, dry places become moist and generative.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.
This is poetic, of course and not to be confused with the language of bookkeeping. In the second movement God parallels this blossoming desert, with enabled and steadied bodies for alienated, isolated, fearful people.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear!
Your God is here!
Finally, in the third movement, the transformed desert rises up to form what is, very literally, a “high-way,” an elevated road (as were known in the ancient world), for those enabled folk to find their way home.
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…And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
All this creating follows the path we have followed this advent. First comes the permission for hope to blossom in desert places, followed by the peace of God’s advent to weak, feeble, fearful, lonely people. All this issues in the deep joy of finding home. The earth itself rejoices with the people of God, and indeed, with God, when justice is done and people are loved steadfastly and treated with the equity that is God’s own standard. These poetic words are intended to fire our imaginations of how it is when God is truly “with us” (the Hebrew for which is Immanuel, a fitting “advent word”).
When God’s place of holiness is opened up and all those with open eyes, open ears, strengthened limbs and singing tongues go into it, the places in which people live become places of unspeakable joy, satisfaction, and contentment. This joyful habitation isn’t only for the beautiful, the privileged, the swift, the mighty, but for the tired, the poor, the lame, the weak-handed, and feeble kneed. God’s holy place includes those who have failed and been counted out. The last stanza of the poem begins quietly with a homecoming welcome to Israel’s exiles, and then, extends welcome to the ends of the earth. In words by Ralph Vaughan Williams that we sing at another time of year: “From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl, stream in the countless host.”
That sounds great, but it also sounds like fantasy doesn’t it? Well, of course it’s poetry to feed our souls, not religious “bean counting” for the afterlife to feed our pious curiosity. Our response to these poetic words allows us to become convinced of the way in which God imagines the world. Can we live inside God’s imagination? What I mean is attempting to develop the spiritual vision that enables us to see the newness that God is creating among us in this same old world of weak hands and feeble knees, so that we begin to see bits of God’s new world here among us, as we inhabit God’s values and imagination for the renewed, remade world, and find our greatest joy in living according to the values that bring that new world into view. All this, in my view, points us straight to the coming of Jesus.
Our Gospel text confronts us with an example of how one set of characters reacted to grasping a bit of God’s imagination for transforming the old into the new in the world. I think, also, this story of Jesus and John shows us ourselves. How do we deal with our own commitment to find our joy, our energy, in the possibility of the radical newness that the coming of God in Jesus brings? Bluntly, do we think it can happen to us? Do we accept those glimpses of that joyous highway home, or are we reticent and why? The story is about John the Baptist, well-known as a fierce preacher and faithful forerunner of Jesus. This stalwart of the faith is locked away in Herod’s jail, why, we won’t learn for several chapters. Earlier John had named Jesus the Messiah, called some of his co-religionists a “brood of vipers,” (we saw that last week) and seemed to be sure about it all. Now, here he is in prison, full of doubt. “Are you the one who is coming or not”? What happened to him?
It’s easy to imagine that his depressing situation in that jail caused him to become plagued with fear and doubt about who this Jesus was. Shouldn’t Jesus have bailed him out? It would be understandable had he thought that, and I’ve heard some folk conclude that this was the source of John’s depression and doubt, but the text itself doesn’t say it. If anything, the text of the Bible softly and indirectly suggests instead that what Jesus was up to wasn’t what John thought the Messiah should be up to. Perhaps John would have been happier with a Messiah who, like himself, majored on telling people what was wrong with them, with fierce denunciation of sin and wrong (that “brood of vipers” thing again). In other words, John wanted a Messiah that looked more like him than like Jesus. Sound familiar?
Here was Jesus – teaching in synagogues, healing the lame, the blind, the deaf, and preaching release to the poor. Perhaps Jesus was not turning out to be the kind of Messiah that energized John’s joy. Can we see a bit of ourselves in him? In spite of the fact that we’re always supposed to like what Jesus does, are you occasionally surprised that he is more gracious than you are, and more loving, and more inclusive, and more concerned? Would you rather have a Messiah that looked more like you? Me, too! And, yet, there are these pesky stories.
It’s interesting how Jesus addressed John’s issue. He did it by clarifying who John is and who he is. As to the first matter, he asked the crowd what they expected to find when they went out to the boondocks to see John. Certainly not one who was genteel and refined, certainly not royalty, certainly not the latest super-star. The reason they went to the wilderness was to find a prophet who pointed to God the way prophets always do: they say that God is ending the old world and beginning a new one. John, as a prophet was a great man, Jesus says, but as a prophet he is not the centre of attention. That honour belongs to God and what God is doing. Really, as an aside, he adds that, therefore, any humble disciple who recognizes in Jesus what God, in fact, is doing, is greater than John. The new that God in Jesus is bringing is greater than the old that is ending.
Can we find ourselves in any of this? What do we expect to see when we come to church at Advent? Do we expect to see a good show? Do we expect to find a super star? Now, as then, what we can expect is, at best, a sign post in the desert pointing to the Messiah. A voice crying, “in the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord.” That’s who John was. Don’t expect more.
Then, Jesus actually clarifies what the real role of the Messiah is. To do that he points back to our Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 35 (and to another text in Isaiah 29) that talk about what happens when God brings newness, and people decide to respond to what God is doing. It’s God’s imagining that the blind, the lame, the lepers, the dead and the poor are all healed. The dry land is remade into pools of water. That’s what the Bible says the Messiah is all about. And Jesus asks John’s disciples to tell John that these are exactly the things that are happening in his ministry. Don’t expect the sky to light up with a big show. Expect parched land and poor people to be healed. Such a Messiah may bring judgment, but it is the judgment that comes of people wanting to make the Messiah in their own image rather than understanding that the Messiah’s proper and primary role is restoring the needy and energizing the lifeless by giving them new joy. If John expected the Messiah to look just like himself, no wonder he had doubts and, I would say, no wonder he had no joy. Again, do we find ourselves looking out of John’s eyes this morning? Perhaps to find joy in our lives we need new eyes to see and understand the work of the Messiah in line with what the Bible says the Messiah really does. And that’s hard. Jesus himself recognizes the hardness by pronouncing a blessing on the one who is not offended by what he is doing. To see and hear that Jesus is concerned with people who have been marginalized especially by those who do it in the name of God, and is not primarily coming to make the religious feel good or to make sure they never suffer and always win, may, indeed, offend us, and cause us, like John, to doubt God’s ways. It will also greatly impede our joyful energy at Advent or at any other time.
We need to return to the little bit from Jeremiah with which we started this morning. Our joy, our satisfaction, our delight should not be in how healthy, wealthy, and wise we are, but in how faithful, just, and humane God is, and just how we can live into what God is dreaming and doing: that is, bringing fidelity, equity, and loyalty to our world.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.