Skip to main content

Advent Joy

This month is the twentieth anniversary of my father’s passing on December 1, 1997. His death certainly changed our celebration of Christmas that year, and in some ways, it has colored every year since. Ever since his passing, Christmas has been for me a bittersweet time of year.

In preparing this message, a story my mother told me in the months following my father’s death came to mind. I don’t know what you will think of this story, but I have been a pastor too long, and have heard too many stories like this, to remain a doubter.

Of course, my mother missed my father terribly after spending fifty years of her life with him. Thus, a psychologist might explain away such a story as a mere quirk of grief. However, sometime in the winter following my father’s death, my mother told me that she woke up in the middle of the night and heard my father’s voice. She saw no apparition; she simply heard his voice, shouting one word: Rejoice! My father could be very loud, and this voice was loud, so much so that my mother thought my brother, who lived next door, could have heard it. As might be expected with such things, no one else heard the voice.

But something about my mother’s experience strikes me as being quite true to the reality of joy. What most of us long for, actually, is denied us in this world for any length of time, namely: settled happiness. But joy punctuates the human experience—especially the experience of the followers of God.

C. S. Lewis put it this way in his book, The Problem of Pain

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
We are in the season of the church year known as Advent. And this particular Sunday is known as Joy Sunday, represented by the pink candle with the Advent Wreath. We have already heard a little bit about joy from Isaiah 35:1. Now I would like to read the rest of the passage to you. Listen for God’s Word to you….
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 
it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,[
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,[
    but it shall be for God’s people;[
    no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
    but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

This text actually begins with one word in Hebrew that translates into three words in English: shall be glad. Literally, the first verse reads: “Shall be glad the wilderness, and the solitary place shall rejoice, and the wilderness blossom as the rose.”

The writer of this beautiful poem is speaking to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon. Hardly a more depressing situation could be imagined. The Psalmist remembers it this way:

By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows[a] there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.

Exile was not a time of joy for the Jewish people, but the writer of this poem in Isaiah 35 prophesies a time of rejoicing that is coming for the people of God, when the ransomed of the Lord shall return to Jerusalem with singing; everlasting joy will be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness; sorrow and sighing will flee away.
This prophecy from Isaiah 35 was fulfilled, in some ways, when the Jewish people returned, physically, from exile in Babylon. However, there was a spiritual return from exile that only the Messiah could bring about. Behind all of the stories of Jesus in the Gospels runs this theme of return from exile and the joy that goes along with that return.

Matthew 11:5-6 is one such passage that echoes Isaiah 35.

John the Baptist is in prison and though he doesn’t know it yet, he will be executed. He sends word by his disciples to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Can you hear the note of despair, almost hopelessness? John the Baptist spent his life preparing the way for the Messiah. He thought that Messiah was his cousin Jesus. But now, as he is languishing in prison, he begins to have his doubts.

Jesus answers John with a joyful, rallying cry that echoes Isaiah 35:5-6. He says:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

Tom Wright points out that the Dead Sea Scrolls contain a portrait of the coming Messiah that, like Matthew 11, looks back to Isaiah 35. In number 521 of the Cave 4 collection we read:

He will…free prisoners, giving sight to the blind, straightening out the twisted…and he will heal the wounded and make the dead live, he will proclaim good news to the meek, give to the needy, lead the exiled and enrich the hungry.

Tom Wright goes on to say,

These ideas were clearly ‘in the air’ at the time of Jesus: when the messiah came, the lavish programme of healing and restoration outlined by Isaiah would be put into effect.

Nobody knows, of course, just how literally people took it. Scholars debate whether, for instance, the Qumran community expected the literal resurrection of the dead. But nor can anyone doubt that Jesus’ reply to John was about as clear a messianic claim as could be made without spelling it out explicitly inch by inch.[1]

Why, you might well ask, does Jesus speak in such cryptic terms to his cousin John? Why does he not come right out and say: “I am the Messiah”?

Well, as the Gospels make clear, there was already another king of the Jews. And Herod did not have a very good track record when it came to tolerating other would-be kings. We must remember, that John was in Herod’s prison when he sent word to his cousin.

And that begs the question: why was John still in prison? If Jesus really was the Messiah, why didn’t he free his cousin John from prison, like the Messiah was supposed to do? Or going back further, one might ask, “If God is still on his throne, why do his people sometimes languish in exile?”

As Tom Wright says, “There is a dark mystery here.” It has to do with the “now but not yet” of the kingdom. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has won the decisive battle of the spiritual war between good and evil. But the war is not over yet. And it will not be over until Christ returns to set everything right.

That’s why James, the brother of Jesus, gives us these words of encouragement:

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! (James 5:7-19)

Just because Jesus has won the decisive battle, don’t expect everything to be sorted out in the present. That is both the glory and the frustration of Advent: Jesus has come, but he has yet to come again to bring his kingdom to full fruition.

In the meantime, we need to be about Jesus’ joyful kingdom business. Tom Wright sums it up this way:

The New Testament writers believed that Isaiah 35 was in principle fulfilled in Jesus, who brought the ransomed of the Lord back from the Babylon of death itself, opening up the new day whose watchword is “Be strong! Don’t be afraid!” His healings, and his call to a new and joyful holiness, have set up the highway to the true Zion, and he invites all and sundry to follow him along it. Don’t follow the Herods of this world; they are just reeds shaking in the wind (Herod Antipas had chosen a Galilean reed as the symbol on some of his coins). Follow the prophetic pointings of Isaiah and John, and come to the kingdom that transcends them both.

Have you ever felt like you were in exile—cut off from home, family, friends, your true self, God? Jesus has come to bring you home. And when you come to him, you discover the source of joy itself.

C. S. Lewis had a recurring experience of joy throughout the first thirty-three years of his life. He searched relentlessly for the source of that joy, first trying this, then that, all to no avail, until he found Jesus, or until Jesus found him.

He concludes his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, with these words:

But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, “Look!” The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. “We would be at Jerusalem.”

[1] Wright, N.T., Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year A, London: SPCK, 2001, p. 6.


Popular posts from this blog

C. S. Lewis on Homosexuality

Arthur Greeves
In light of recent developments in the United States on the issue of gay marriage, I thought it would be interesting to revisit what C. S. Lewis thought about homosexuality. Lewis, who died in 1963, never wrote about same-sex marriage, but he did write, occasionally, about the topic of homosexuality in general. In the following I am quoting from my book, Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C. S. Lewis. For detailed references and footnotes, you may obtain a copy from Amazon, your local library, or by clicking on the book cover at the right....
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis claimed that homosexuality was a vice to which he was never tempted and that he found opaque to the imagination. For this reason he refused to say anything too strongly against the pederasty that he encountered at Malvern College, where he attended school from the age of fifteen to sixteen. Lewis did not rate pederasty as the greatest evil of the school because he felt the cruelty displayed at Malver…

A Prayer at Ground Zero

Fact, Faith, Feeling

"Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods 'where to get off', you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith." Mere Christianity

Many years ago, when I was a young Christian, I remember seeing the graphic illustration above of what C. S. Lewis has, here, so eloquen…

Christmas Day Thought from Henri Nouwen

"I keep thinking about the Christmas scene that Anthony arranged under the altar. This probably is the most meaningful "crib" I have ever seen. Three small woodcarved figures made in India: a poor woman, a poor man, and a small child between them. The carving is simple, nearly primitive. No eyes, no ears, no mouths, just the contours of the faces. The figures are smaller than a human hand - nearly too small to attract attention at all.
"But then - a beam of light shines on the three figures and projects large shadows on the wall of the sanctuary. That says it all. The light thrown on the smallness of Mary, Joseph, and the Child projects them as large, hopeful shadows against the walls of our life and our world.
"While looking at the intimate scene we already see the first outlines of the majesty and glory they represent. While witnessing the most human of human events, I see the majesty of God appearing on the horizon of my existence. While being moved by the ge…

Sheldon Vanauken Remembered

A good crowd gathered at the White Hart Cafe in Lynchburg, Virginia on Saturday, February 7 for a powerpoint presentation I gave on the life and work of Sheldon Vanauken. Van, as he was known to family and friends, was best known as the author of A Severe Mercy, the autobiography of his love relationship with his wife Jean "Davy" Palmer Davis.

While living in Oxford, England in the early 1950's, Van and Davy came to faith in Christ through the influence of C. S. Lewis. Van was a professor of history and English literature at Lynchburg College from 1948 until his retirement around 1980. A Severe Mercy tells the story of Davy's death from a mysterious liver ailment in 1955 and Van's subsequent dealing with grief. Van himself died from cancer in 1996.

It was my privilege to know Van for a brief period of time during the last year of his life. However, present at the White Hart on February 7 were some who knew Van far better than I did--Floyd Newman, one of Van's…

C. S. Lewis Tour--London

The final two days of our C. S. Lewis Tour of Ireland & England were spent in London. Upon our arrival we enjoyed a panoramic tour of the city that included Westminster Abbey. A number of our tour participants chose to tour the inside of the Abbey where they were able to view the new C. S. Lewis plaque in Poets' Corner.

Though London was not one of Lewis' favorite places to visit, there are a number of locations associated with him. One which I have noted in my new book, In the Footsteps of C. S. Lewis, is Endsleigh Palace Hospital (25 Gordon Street, London) where Lewis recovered from his wounds received during the First World War....

Not too far away from this location is King's College, part of the University of London, located on the Strand, just off the River Thames. This is the location where Lewis gave the annual commemoration oration entitled The Inner Ring on 14 December 1944....

C. S. Lewis occasionally attended theatrical events in London. One of his favorites w…

C. S. Lewis on Church Attendance

A friend's blog written yesterday ( got me thinking about C. S. Lewis's experience of the church. I wrote this in a comment on Wes Robert's blog:
It is interesting to note that C. S. Lewis attended the same small church for over thirty years. The experience was nothing spectacular on a weekly basis. For most of those years Lewis didn't care much for the sermons; he even sat behind a pillar so that the priest would not see the expression on his face. He attended the service without music because he so disliked hymns. And he left right after holy communion was served probably because he didn't like to engage in small talk with other parishioners after the service. But that life-long obedience in the same direction shaped Lewis in a way that nothing else could.
Lewis was once asked, "Is attendance at a place of worship or membership with a Christian community necessary to a Christian way of life?"
His answer was as follows: &q…

The Shepherds' Perspective on Christmas

On December 21, 2015, the following headline appeared in the International Business Times: “Bethlehem Christmas 2015 Cancelled”. To be fully accurate, religious celebrations of Jesus’ birth went forward last year in Bethlehem, but many of the secular celebrations of Christmas that usually surround it were toned down due to instability in the area. Looking back a decade, there was even one year when Christian Arabs canceled community celebrations of Christmas in support of the Palestinian uprising. However, the Jewish government would have no part of that, so the Israeli military sponsored its own holiday celebrations in the area.
It is also interesting to note who celebrated the first Christmas and who didn’t. The first Christmas was not celebrated by the emperor Caesar Augustus, nor Quirinius, the governor of Syria, nor was it celebrated by the lowly innkeeper. But Christmas was celebrated by a few lonely shepherds along with Joseph and Mary and the angels of heaven.
How amazing that t…

C. S. Lewis's Parish Church

The first time I visited Oxford, in 1982, the porter at Magdalen College didn't even recognize the name--C. S. Lewis. I had asked him if he could give me directions to Lewis's former home in Headington Quarry. Obviously, he could not and did not. (Directions to Lewis's former home are now much easier to obtain. Just click here for directions and to arrange a tour: The Kilns.)
Things have changed a lot since 1982. Now Lewis is remembered all around Oxford. At the pub where the Inklings met, at Magdalen College, and not least--at his parish church--Holy Trinity Headington Quarry. The first time I visited the church I only saw the outside and Lewis's grave, shared with his brother Warnie.
Since that first visit I have returned to Holy Trinity a number of times and worshiped there. Father Tom Honey is a real gem. Under his leadership the congregation has grown and now includes a number of young families. I was overwhelmed by the number of children who came into the sanctuary…