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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,[
a]
    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,[
b]
    but it shall be for God’s people;[
c]
    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.

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