Exceeding Great Joy

Prepared for and delivered at First Presbyterian Church of Apopka
Primary Texts: Isaiah 55:6-13 and Luke 1: 39-56

I will confess that, for a long time, I did not give much thought to the idea of joy. I mean, it was one of those church-y, christian-y words that I might use around Christmas, but most of the year, words like pleasure or happiness seemed to do just fine.

But a few years back, my first year of seminary, in fact, I had to write down a one-sentence prayer, something I would want a classmate to pray for me during the coming semester. I had nothing particular in mind, but the little basket that would collect our slips of paper was rapidly approaching, so I scribbled down this phrase:

Joy in the midst of chaos

At the time, I couldn’t have told you why or even what it meant. Looking back, it was what the Holy Spirit had in mind for me, or knew that I would need. But in the moment, I remember thinking how odd that I was even asking for “joy” at all.

Joy pops us in scripture pretty regularly, along with its verb form, rejoice. Today’s passage from Isaiah is a promise of joy for the people of God, particularly the people of Judah.  Though first, it is a call to turn back the Lord, to seek the Lord while he may be found.  Or as some translate the verse, to look while God allows himself to be found.

Isaiah reminds the people that in turning to God, they are turning away from the idols and distractions that have led them astray -and that only then will God’s promised forgiveness be theirs. The word that the Lord has given Isaiah is one that we humans have needed to hear all too often, a reminder of the difference between

God’s steadfast heart and ours which are so prone to wander, God’s desires for justice, and our quest for dominance.  God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are as distant from ours as the heavens are from the earth. That is why we must draw near to God, seek God, turn to God. So that we might experience the reality of God.

Then God says through Isaiah, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Take a look, God says, observe in the world around you, the rain and snow I send bring you sustenance, bring you life. In the same way, my word will come to earth and do what I desire. What I say, I will do.  When I speak, things happen. When I give my word, when I make a promise, you can count on it bearing fruit.

What God desires will come to pass, just as God intends.

Now, that does not mean that what currently IS or in Isaiah’s case was matches God’s intent. Israel’s repentance will bring forgiveness and a new covenant relationship. God’s promises of provision can be trusted, but when humanity’s plans, our desires, our dreams, our governments, our ways are not aligned with God’s ways, they don’t bring about God’s desired results.

Repentance reboots the relationship, re-orienting us –  individually and collectively  – to God.

God longs to bring about peace and restoration, wholeness and prosperity, not just for some but for all. And when God’s vision is realized, when God is able to pour out grace in its promised abundance – through the surrendered lives and good works of the people who have sought and worship Him,THEN we will go out with joy and be led through a lifetime of peace. All that we have longed for and hoped for, all that we have prayed for will be realized. And immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine.

Isaiah speaks of mountains and hills shouting in joy, of trees clapping and evergreens replacing thorns. Just imagine this beautiful earth, whose resources we have made use of and often overburdened, imagine a time when people live in such a way that the prairies and mountains, the wetlands and swamps, the beaches and forests all stand as a testimony to God’s goodness, rather than humanity’s conquests!

Isaiah delivers this message from the Lord to the people of Judah, the descendants of David, from whose line they expected the Messiah.  We believe this promise was made flesh in Jesus, who came not to condemn the world, but to save the world, and not only the Jews, but the gentiles as well. We also believe this promise became flesh through the obedience and courage of Mary.

I have to say, it’s hard for me to imagine the prospect of explaining to my parents, my fiance and most of my home town that I was carrying a child by way of the Holy Spirit. And yet, here was Mary, saying the angel who had just explained the whole setup to her: “Yes.  I am a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Let it be with me according to your word… God’s word. The word which accomplishes what God desires.

Elizabeth and Zechariah’s story was one of waiting, hoping and living faithfully.  By the time Zechariah was visited by an angel, they had probably given up hope of having a child. Elizabeth was spoken of as barren and was well past child-bearing age.  But the angel said to Zechariah that through this baby, joy and gladness would come to them.  That people would rejoice because of his birth.  And they did.

And when Mary arrived to visit, that child of promise leaped with joy in Elizabeth’s womb.That moment of revelation was the very first of many times John would announce the coming of the Lord.  That moment also affirmed for Mary that her trust in God, and all the trouble it brought as the people around her struggled to believe and understand, that her faith through all of this would be honored.

God was indeed honoring her, even as Elizabeth spoke blessings over her.  God would continue to care for and to provide for her and the child she carried. Mary’s heart was filled with joy. The words we read reflect a heart that has been trusting, hoping and waiting, words that could just as easily have come from Elizabeth who was also trusting, hoping and waiting for the birth of her child, to hold the evidence of her faith in her arms in the presence of her community. and for the promises long-remembered to be fulfilled.

The words are a prayer spoken in past tense in anticipation of the future.  And isn’t that where joy lives- In that deep core of us, where it mingles with faith and hope? Where deep calls out to the deep mystery of a God who was and is ever will be. Where our souls, if not our minds, embrace the reality that Christ has come and the Kingdom is here… even as the fullness of that Kingdom will not be seen until Christ comes again.

All of our praises straddle that space between the past and future tense, rising from the tension of the present.

Perhaps that is the key to finding joy in the midst of a chaotic world.  In the years since I scribbled that prayer on a slip of paper, life has been, well…

Chaotic is the best description for this mixture of parenting a child through high school and into a slow-motion launch, while juggling a two-profession household with grad school, internships, volunteer work and part-time jobs… and dealing with the typical bumps in the road – broken bones, minor surgeries, dead vehicles, the loss of family members and friends who move away.

And yet, in every circumstance, I have known joy.  By the grace of God, I never lost my sense of wonder, taking note of the beauty of nature while driving and riding all over Central Florida, marveling at the way the scriptures I was assigned to study were often the very words my heart needed to hear, laughing and crying with dear friends who would never have entered my life had I not embraced the chaos God had called me into.

In the happiness and sadness, in moments of tremendous grief and great pride, in the late nights and early mornings, I learned to rest on God’s promise: There was no place my family could go beyond God’s presence. There is no way for me to wander outside the reach of God’s love. And when we give up on aiming for happy and re-orient ourselves to God’s desires for us, our family, our neighbors, and our world, the joy of the Lord becomes our joy and our strength.

The joy of Advent isn’t like the joy of Christmas, when we sing carols like How Great Our Joy or Joy to the World that revel in the arrival of the Christ child –  The joy of new life that embodies the hope of the world.

Nor is advent joy like the joy of Easter, with alleluias giving glory to God for the risen Christ. The joy of resurrection that embodies the power of life over death and sin.  Advent Joy is less showy, is rooted in persistence, is as deeply rooted in remembering as it is in anticipating. Advent joy looks back, even as it looks ahead.

In fact, the joyful feast we will share at the Lord’s Table is a beautiful picture of the extraordinary ordinariness of Advent joy.  The elements are simple, just bread and wine.  They are what the disciples would have shared time and again around tables, at campfires, in the towns they visited, on lakeshores and in the hills they walked with Jesus.

On that night when Jesus was betrayed, the bread and wine were part of the passover meal, a tradition that commemorates the story of the captivity and liberation of the Hebrew people. The disciples were familiar with the words and the rituals, having celebrated with their own families before choosing to follow Jesus. But then, as he so often did, their teacher changed the script.

Knowing that his body would be broken and his blood would be spilled, Jesus prepared them for a new meal of remembrance, one that would commemorate the new covenant between God and us. Thus, even as we face reality of his suffering and death in our eating the bread and drinking the wine, there is joy.

Joy –  because without the cross, the empty tomb would be empty of meaning. There would be no shouts of joy on Easter morning, no ascension, and no hope for the return of our King who will bring restoration and the ultimate reconciliation of all creation.

That is why – as respectful, decent and orderly as our rituals surrounding the Eucharist may be, I often can’t help but smile as joy fills my heart over the truth of the mystery of faith:
Christ has died,
Christ has risen
Christ will come again.

In the same way, my heart leaps with joy when we return each advent to the front of the hymnal.  These songs of longing, written in the past and future tense give us words for our present reality – welcoming the presence of Christ in our lives, awaiting the presence of Christ in the world, and experiencing joy in the waiting.

May our coming together to pray, praise, feast and sing fill our hearts with exceeding great joy.  Rejoice Rejoice Emmanuel shall come to the O Israel!

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