The 3rd Sunday of Advent at St Mark the Evangelist Church in Norman, OK
December 15, 2002
Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11 + 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24 + John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Our last Sunday with Isaiah provides a powerful and familiar text known and used by Jesus in his own synagogue. The condition of Israel when Isaiah writes these lyrical / poetical words provides no apparent reason for Joy. They come back from Babylon with nothing but memories. What was not torn down was left neglected. What the Romans did not destroy, neglect, wind, sun, and rain ruined. Cultivated fields were overgrown. Flocks not taken away had run wild. There were times when life looked better in slavery and some looked back with mixed emotions. In the midst of that Isaiah rises up with his song. He sings of Joy and stirs their hopes with memories that tell of God’s presence. The heart of this prophetic spirituality is Joy, and his message to us rings out with the same challenge and hope as it did to those first re-builders. His message of joy is timeless and still speaks to any who rebuild their lives. After the death of a loved one, or the death of a relationship following divorce; it’s time to rebuild. After the loss of a job and all the dreams that the job may have sustained, or some terrible mistake ruins hopes and shatters plans; it’s time to rebuild.
It is Joy that makes that possible. Easily confused by a culture that would dope itself on possessions and pleasure, Joy is not the same as happiness – that fleeting, momentary response to pleasure and delight. Happiness comes from happenings that are positive and pleasant. Happiness never lasts. It vanishes in the face of trouble and trial. This is not the gift of the prophet.
Joy awakens in the heart with the presence of God. The Joyful are those who recognize and perceive that presence and “enjoy” the companionship it provides. Those earliest re-builders faced the challenge and the disaster sustained by Joy as the prophet by his own presence and through the power of his words and images helped them remember all that God had done for them. The believer who holds to the promise that God is present in all things, tragedy and sin included, remains joy and hope filled in the face of any disaster.
God never promised to make or keep us happy. God simply promised to stay with us always. This companionship, this presence is exactly what the Incarnation of God is all about – immediate presence. It is why the Birth of Christ, the beginning of God’s presence among us, is announced as it is time after time: “I bring you tidings of Great Joy.” says the angel to shepherds and to Zechariah. It is why John the Baptist leapt for joy in the womb of Elizabeth. It is why Mary is so exultant, it is why angels and Magi rejoice. They have a spiritual gift bound up with the person of Jesus who is the presence of God. God has come to comfort his people, and all are joined to God in a bond that is unbreakable: unbreakable by sin, by tragedy, by disappointment, by violence, even by death!
Those who believe in what we will celebrate in ten days are the joyful, and they have “tidings” to share. While happiness may evaporate, Joy penetrates, permeates and persists despite everything that can go wrong. That is our song this day. That is our prophetic message. We wrap ourselves in the presence of God who, through, with, and in Jesus Christ is present among us, now and forever.