Monday, December 16, 2013

Where is this joy we keep hearing about? A sermon for the third Sunday of Advent

Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.
This time of year is often joyful and festive.  Everything is covered with pure white snow, ice crystals glitter by day, holiday lights glitter in the gathering darkness.  Our homes are filled with Christmas trees and decorations.  Our days are filled with holiday parties and children’s Christmas programs. It’s easy to get swept up in the flurries of the Christmas season in preparation for the birth of Jesus.
However, this time of year it is also easy to feel lonely and anything but joyful. When it seems like everyone around us is filled with joy and we are facing the holidays without a beloved spouse for the first time…or wondering how to pay the mortgage AND the heating bill this month…or when the dark veil of depression threatens to swallow us in the shortest days of the year. We want to shout, “God!  Where are you?!  Where is this joy that we keep hearing about?!”  But in a season of preparation and festivities, these cries are lost like words whispered in a blizzard.
Culturally, we tend to pass value judgments on ourselves and others if we don’t feel “all in” with Christmas spirit…whatever that is!  Suddenly you become a holiday Grinch or a Scrooge.  Someone whose actions and attitudes drain the joy right out of everyone else.   We pass judgment on others but we save the worst judgment for ourselves. Asking, “what’s wrong with me?”  “Why am I not happier that it is Christmas time?  “Why does the breaking in of God into my life feels like it means nothing?”  There is tremendous pressure to keep up an appearance of happiness lest you ruin the magic of the holidays for someone else.   We keep all of this to ourselves because we do not want to let people know that we are hurting in what is supposed to be the happiest time of the year. I suspect that every single one of us has these feelings in one way or another, so let’s agree to collectively let our guard down. This morning, let us take the time to hear these parts of ourselves that don’t feel ready to sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come.”  And look at the parts of ourselves that we leave at home, because they aren’t nice enough to bring along with us to church.   Or the parts of us that are exhausted and over-committed, overwhelmed, and wanting nothing more than to take a very long nap because the month of December is exhausting! We are surrounded by demands of “be joyful”, “praise God” and “count your blessings!” because Christmas is coming, and WHY AREN’T YOU FEELING HAPPIER ABOUT THAT!?!
        At first glance, the words we hear from the prophet Isaiah in today’s reading seem to be part of this same set of demands.   God provides, so we must be appropriately joyful and thankful.  We hear about a God who brings joy and abundance to a dry and desolate landscape.  The regions mentioned in this text, the lands of Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon, were known for being among the most fertile and lush agricultural lands in the ancient world, and serve to show just how gracious God is and how the people should respond in praise.  The poet goes on to write, that streams of water will gush from the desert, burning sand will become a pool of cool water and the dry and desolate land of the scavengers will become a swamp overgrown with plants.  We hear these flowery words from the poetry of Isaiah and they might ring hollow for us because they sound like they belong anywhere else besides the real world.
        But it is a mistake to read this text from Isaiah at a superficial level , as merely a song of praise to God to celebrate the joy we anticipate with the coming birth of Jesus.  In fact, for any of us who are struggling with wanting to sing praise to God at all because we feel like we are living in hell, this text might come across as meaningless. However, there is a much deeper story behind this text and it merits deeper reflection.
If we look at this text from a historical perspective, it comes out of the first part of the book of Isaiah, which tells a story of political strife, war, and fear of the unknown.  The Israelites lived in fear of an invasion by the powerful kingdom of Assyria that would destroy their holy city, Jerusalem, and the stability of their kingdom, and separate them from everything they had known as they were thrown into exile. The chapter that we read today from Isaiah comes right in the middle of these accounts of war.   Fear was the norm, violence was a regular occurrence and hope was in short supply if not entirely non-existent.  The poem from Isaiah is NOT a song of praise for overwhelming blessings, but a description of who God is and a defiant statement of hope despite all evidence to the contrary.
To say that the desert would be like fertile land is to say that there is possibility for new life in the midst of what seems like a place where nothing grows at all.  Here in Minnesota, we certainly do not live in a desert, but we do know what it is like to be in a place that feels entirely devoid of life, the sub-zero temperatures of the last week have really made that clear for all of us.  But it is this imagery about the crocus that strikes me.  A crocus is a humble little flower, usually purple or yellow.  It is one of the first flowers that heralds the coming of spring and is often seen pushing through the snow.  It is a stubborn declaration of hope that says, “Something new is coming.”  When Isaiah uses this imagery of promise, it is a ray of life shining into a space of darkness and death.  It is a song of hope for the future.  
What does it look like to sing praise to God in the midst of what seems like overwhelming hopelessness? On July 20, 2012, a Friday, I was living in Denver, Colorado. So was a man who decided to bring a gun into a movie theater for the midnight showing of the newest Batman movie.  In the chaotic hours that followed the shooting, I would learn that several people that I knew were in that theater.  They were spared harm, but many others were not.  And in an instant, an entire city was forcefully thrown into the reality that violence is senseless, unpredictable, and can happen anywhere at any time.  We were scared, we were angry, we were not sure what to do with our overwhelming grief.
That evening my home congregation had a special event scheduled, Beer and Hymns, it’s where about 100 of us would cram into the basement of an Irish pub to…drink beer and sing hymns.  We debated for a time about whether or not to cancel this event.  Would it be disrespectful?  Would people be afraid to gather in a public place just hours after this tragedy?  After some discussion, we concluded that we would go on with Beer and Hymns as planned, because to change our plans would mean to give in to fear.  We also decided to close the night by singing Holden Evening Prayer together.  That night, the words of praise sung in the Magnificat, when we tell one another the story of the coming of Christ, took on a meaning of an entirely different level.  We sang them defiantly, in the face of fear.  In the face of grief.  In the face of darkness.  Stubborn hope. We were, and continue to be, a people who sing praise to God not as a way of saying, “Thank you God for allowing all these horrible things to happen, they sure test our faith and build our character” but rather a way of saying, “Evil does not have the last word.  God has the last word.”
Today’s text from Isaiah speaks that same sentiment into a time and place torn apart by violence and fear.  We have this text in Advent because it is a statement about who God is and what God does for us.  God comes into a broken world.  A world filled with fear and violence. We only need to turn on the news to get a sense of this. Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the devastating school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary and on Friday, horrific gun violence came once again to a school in Colorado.  This text from Isaiah is a statement of hope, saying, “Please God, let it be so.  We need you in this broken world.”

The fullness of the coming of the kingdom has nothing whatsoever to do with how we feel about it and if we are capable of summoning the right amount of enthusiasm.  This text tells us that there is hope and promise and new life in unimaginable grief and struggle.  That we are not in charge.  This is what it really means to confess that Jesus is Lord and is coming into our world. That God has the final word.  And when we hear these words with this spirit, we experience them as a statement about God’s activity in the world.  Like a crocus blooming in a barren desert, the hope that comes in Jesus for wholeness and life is stubborn and persistent. Evil does not have the last word.  Suffering does not have the last word.  Grief does not have the last word.  This is what we celebrate as we anticipate the birth of Christ. And THIS is the Gospel of our Lord.

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