Organizing Around Joy
Isaiah 35.1,3-10 and Matthew 11.1-6
December 11, 2022; Third Sunday in Advent
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus. … 3Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees. 4Say to those who are panicking: "Be strong! Don't fear! Here's your God, coming with [requital, recompence, redemption]; with divine [justice and restoration] God will come to save you." 5Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. 6Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing. Waters will spring up in the desert, and streams in the wilderness. 7The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water. … 8A highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way. The unclean won't travel on it, but it will be for those walking on that way. Even fools won't get lost on it; 9no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it. None of these will be there; only the redeemed will walk on it. 10The LORD's ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads. Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away. - Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 27681-27706).
1When Jesus finished teaching his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. 2Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ, [the Messiah, the Human One] was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, 3"Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" 4Jesus responded, "Go, report to John what you hear and see. 5Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Happy are those who don't stumble and fall because of me." - Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 38242-38249).
In the ancient traditions of Advent today is “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete, the Latin word meaning “Rejoice!” This is the Sunday of rejoicing! Rejoicing even when we see so many shadows of sadness and grief in our world. We light the candle of Joy in the face of sadness and grief. Not because we are denying the sadness and grief, but because we know a bigger story. We know this story because of the testimonies of our ancestors in faith, like the prophet, Isaiah, because of the life and love of our pioneer and perfecter of faith, Jesus of Nazareth.
Isaiah and Jesus knew the bigger, resilient story of the Holy ONE’s presence and work in the world. With his people Isaiah was facing a world going up in flames as the Babylonians attacked and conquered neighboring countries, threatened Israel, eventually conquering it as well. The chapter preceding the joyful one we just heard together is dire, full of doom. It reminds me what we hear from climate change activists. Dire and immediate warnings…. and necessarily so! May we listen and act accordingly! It reminds me of what we hear and see from Ukraine and other war-ravaged nations in our world community. The devastations that we human beings wreak upon one another. May we listen and respond compassion! I am also reminded of the first stanza of the poem that is the centerpiece of our Advent devotional for this third week. It is Maya Angelou’s poem, “Just Like Job.”
My Lord, my Lord,
Long have I cried out to Thee
In the heat of the sun,
The cool of the moon,
My screams searched the heavens for Thee.
When my blanket was nothing but dew,
Rags and bones
Were all I owned,
I chanted Your name
Just like Job.[i]
In the face of all this grief and sadness and destruction, hearing and living the promises of God from the prophet in Isaiah is a stronghold and refuge. “Be strong! Don't fear! Here's your God, coming with [requital, recompense, and redemption]…” Healing will happen, the blind will see, the lame walk, the earth will be healed with streams of living water and the desert will bloom! There is a highway called the Holy Way to walk towards healing, a way to walk in healing. Even fools will see the way! Happiness and joy will overwhelm; grief and groaning will flee away.”
We also take heart from Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 11, echoing the ancient prophets, Isaiah and Malachi. John the Baptizer sends him a probing question from the depths for a prison cell. “Are you really the One sent from God? “Jesus says to John’s disciples who are the messengers of the question, “Go, report to John what you hear and see.” (Notice, not who you think I am or might be, but what do you see happening in the world!) “Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them.” Trust what you see and hear. Happy are those, says Jesus, who do not stumble because they second guess what they are seeing and hearing. They trust.
Jesus reminds John that dire times have been upon God’s people before, yet God brings a resilient cycle of redemption and renewal. God’s kin-dom is now and in coming and will continue to come! There is joy even in the midst of dire times. Look for it! Recognize it! Rejoice! God’s work in the world is full of joy and it is resilient. The Merriam Webster dictionary tells us that resilience is: “The ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens. The ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, bent, etc. An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Justice activist, Corina Fadel speaks about resilience like this: “The way water knows just how to flow, not force itself around a river rock; then surely I can stretch myself in the shape my own path is asking of me.”[ii]
These reflections on resilience spark in me in a quiet, confident joy as I consider them with the words of Isaiah and Jesus. When bad things happen, when life goes awry, when we are faced with sadness and grief, we push back and say, “No!” “No, life! You are not doing this to me! How can I escape? How can I make this go away? I must resist!” We hurt. We are angry! Normal reactions to abnormal situations. We can, we must, acknowledge the sadness and grief before we can move further. And in the pain, the Holy invites us to sit listening for God. Waiting is not easy. But neither is resisting and refusing to listen. We wait for God, as we are waiting in this dark time of year for longer days to return. I have found that in the waiting and listening something new begins to happen, something news comes slowly, but surely. Living water bubbles up from the dry places of my soul. I learn to see again, to walk again in confidence with God. To find that highway in the desert that even fools cannot miss. And my heart can begin again to organize itself around joy.
The pain might still be there…. but it is now living alongside new life, new growth. When we stay in resistance to the pain, I am stuck in a soul-sucking quagmire. When we stop struggling against it, feel it, acknowledge it, listen quietly to it and to Spirit, then we can see and hear that the desert blooms again, there is new life even in the face of death and joy comes in the morning. Our soul can flow in and around the pain like water over river rocks. We can stretch ourselves with God’s love and compassion into the shape that our paths are asking us to take. Joy comes. Not an easy happiness that depends on circumstances, but joy that runs deep at a soul level.
Maya Angelou knows this cycle of resilience. Quoting her poem again, “Just Like Job,” she sings with the psalmists of old,
O Lord, come to Your child.
O Lord, forget me not.
You said to lean on Your arm...
The wonderful word of the Son of God. [iii]
Joy co-exists with sorrow, writes the late priest, teacher and soul-work author, Henri Nouwen, “because it is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing - sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.” [iv] That can be a tough to trust, can’t it? The world does not often run on unconditional anything, much less love. Everything has a price, doesn’t it?
Yet this is the miracle love of Christmas. God’s unconditional love comes in the baby, the Christ Child, God-with-us in the flesh in the world. God’s love is vulnerable. It invites our love. It grows into the powerful message and model of Jesus who lived God’s love even unto death and beyond.
On the path of Advent, we wait and listen in these darkened times. We wait for the time when we celebrate once again the resilience of God’s love made human. We wait for the light to break through in Hope, Peace and now, today, in joy. Joy, that deep well-spring of Love that fuels the realm of God on earth. Joy that comes in the face of, co-exists with, sadness, pain, and grief. Joy is what we can organize our hearts and minds and lives around as we make our way in the world walking Holy highways of justice-seeking, of kindness, of compassion to make God’s realm visible wherever we might be.
With Maya Angelou, let us cry out to the Holy One, saying,
….I’m stepping out on Your word.
I’m stepping out on Your word.
Into the alleys
Into the byways
Into the streets [poem here]
Friends of God gathered here this morning … let us step out on God’s word this day, Joy!
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] Maya Angelou, The Complete Poetry, (Random House, New York NY: 2015, 168.) Read poem here.
[ii] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press: Chico, CA, 2017, 123.)
[iii] Angelou, 168-169.
[v] Angelou, 169.