Monday, December 15, 2014

The Challenge of Joy

Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11
The three books of Isaiah beautifully bind together into one book that tells of God’s presence and the lives of the people of Zion or Israel.  It wasn’t an easy time in their mutual covenantal life together so they really did need a prophet, someone who could be the ‘go between’ if you will. 

Isaiah was their prophet!  First he warned them of God’s impending judgment, then in the second book he spoke words of comfort to God’s people while they were in exile in Babylon.  The third book addresses the dire situation that they found when the finally returned home to a devastated land.  And this is where we find ourselves today in our scripture.  We will hear in our passage today three voices that of Isaiah, God and the people.

Isaiah speaks from the aftermath of exile:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations….

And now the divine voice of God speaks:

For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.

And Zion’s joyful response:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

From good news to joy, it doesn’t get any better than that!  Isaiah says that all who are oppressed from whatever bondage or slavery they were in will be set free and that they will be comforted in their newly found freedom.  God proclaims a passion for justice and then promises that they will be able to rebuild their homeland not only restoring those crumbled ancient buildings but once again who they were as a people, their heart and soul.  And of course Zion cannot help but ‘greatly rejoice’ in all of this. 

Herein lies the promise of scripture this third week of Advent, this week of pink candles and joy.  We are heard and God is present even in adversity, even in darkness, even when the winds threaten to blow away our very existence; in this we can find joy and rejoice.

But it’s challenging isn’t it?  Life today is really not all that much different than then but I think that our lives are more complicated so it’s possible that joy can be more of a challenge to find or even understand.  Systems continue to keep decent people down, relationships fall apart, folks find themselves imprisoned by more than just bars, tragedy befalls a community like Newtown, children are killed and lives are changed forever.  It’s hard to keep a ‘chins up’ attitude when so much threatens to destroy but this is exactly what we are challenged to do; to find and live into the joy that God intends for us because God is present and has heard our cries.

So maybe we need to have a different understanding of joy in this instant and face paced world. Joy is one of those elusive emotions that can be fleeting at times or it can be a soft undercurrent that is hardly recognizable.  It’s what we feel when our eyes gaze upon a magnificent sunset, or you are captivated by watching a sleeping infant, or you are assembled around your dinner table and are filled with happiness just because you are surrounded by people you love and who love you back.  Joy is a positive feeling not to be confused with being happy but an overwhelmingly satisfying emotion and for us based in faith.

Recently I saw a short video of noted theologians and professors talking about what joy was for them, it was entitled, “The Theology of Joy”.  Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis believes that joy is the combination of happiness and gratitude; it is connection and relationship of a transcendent nature.[i]  It is so much more than being happy. It is being happy and being filled with deep gratitude to our eternal God for presence, sustenance and contentment.  We are never alone and herein we can feel joy.

Ellen Charry, theology professor at Princeton Theological Seminary believes that joy is to be content with your choices and the paths that you wish to pursue and those also that you decide not to pursue.  It is, she says, a deep-seated sense of well being with one’s self and with ones life.[ii]   You can and do often know joy when your life is in-sync.  It is contentment and accepting that you are right where you are supposed to be at this very moment in time.

Yet in the context of Advent joy is so much more.  Joy challenges us to go very deep into our souls in the midst of the darkest and coldest nights and find warmth and light.  And then to give thanks in that light.  At the heart of joy is believing and knowing that God is with you and by your side through tragedy, loss and darkness and then being ever so grateful.  It is a ‘resistance against despair’[iii].  It is deciding that, after considering all of the facts and circumstances, you choose to overcome the darkness, not let it overcome you.  It is choosing to believe in the inherent good of humanity because that is what brings you hope. Hope for the world. Hope for your life. Hope for this baby who is soon to come. 

Yes, joy to the world the Lord is come. Soon, very soon, God’s reminder of love, compassion and hope will be with us once again.  Once again we will no longer have to sit and wait in darkness that the light of the world has come.  Rejoice.

I leave you with a poem and blessing by artist, poet and pastor, Jan Richardson, Blessing to Summon Rejoicing”
When your weeping
has watered
the earth.

When the storm
has been long
and the night
and the season
of your sorrowing.

When you have seemed
an exile
from your life
lost in the far country
a long way from where
your comfort lies.

When the sound
of splintering
and fracture
haunts you.

When despair
attends you.

When lack.
When trouble.
When fear.
When pain.
When empty.
When lonely.
When too much
of what depletes you
and not enough
of what restores
and rests you.

Then let there be
Then let there be

Let there be
laughter in your mouth
and on your tongue
shouts of joy.

Let the seeds
soaked by tears
turn to grain,
to bread,
to feasting.
Let there be
coming home.[iv]


[i] “The Theology of Joy”, Yale Center for Faith and Culture, 2014.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Willie James Jennings, Professor of Theology, Duke Divinity School.
[iv] Jan Richardson.

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