Finding Joy Even Now

“In This We Rejoice”
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2020 Rev. Dr. John Henson

This past week has had some good news, even amidst skyrocketing COVID numbers here in our nation. Vaccines for our nation are rolling out as we speak and on their way. Earlier in the week, people in the UK started getting them. Perhaps you saw the first person, a 91 year old woman, get hers. Or you may have seen the man, William Shakespeare, after he got his, sounding so delightful as he spoke of it. These first Brits getting their vaccines went viral because they gave us a sense of relief. It lifted our spirits to see a glimmer of joy breaking through the darkness. We know the pandemic is getting worse but that we can see that something is here now to save us.

Our scripture readings this morning describe a joy like that, one that’s emerging but not fully realized. We’ve heard from Isaiah already during this Advent season, words of prophecy for Israel as they had been exiled to Babylon for fifty or so years. The Isaiah we hear from today, known as third Isaiah, are for them as they are now back home in Jerusalem from exile. Even though they are home, their city is still in ruins and in need of restoration. They are a divided nation, existing in the grief and chaos of destruction and the uncertainty of how to move forward into a better future. Isaiah seeks to encourage them, to give them good news, “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” His words to them are a recognition of where they were in their loss, a reminder of who they were now, and a vision of where they would be in the future. The last part of the chapter is a description of the joy there was for them in their salvation from God, portrayed as new clothing, a beautiful wedding, and a garden in bloom. Just when they thought all was lost, God shows up with salvation. Just when things can’t get darker, the light of joy starts breaking through.

I’m thinking we can relate. We’ve been in a long period of darkness, a kind of exile shared by all humankind for most of this year. Even before it, we may have experienced darkness from grief, financial challenges, broken relationships, racism, addictions, and from many other sources. Perhaps in all of this we’ve felt the need for our salvation, wondering what to do with the mess we are in, what the future will be, and how we can begin to recover. We, like Israel of long ago, are in need of encouragement. The words from Isaiah (from The Message), can do just that for us, informing us that salvation isn’t just for the hereafter but now as God is replacing our ashes with “a bouquet of roses,”” messages of joy instead of news of doom, a praising heart instead of a languished spirit.” These words will encourage us even now  if we are willing to receive them. Will we allow them to enter into our hearts and minds today, to alter our thinking in such a way that we can experience the joy they surely give?

The words are not only to be received, but lived. That’s what Israel was to know about them. They would not only help them in their misery, they formed their identity as a people of God in the world. They were words of salvation but also mission, defining not just who they were but what they were to be in the world. As Scott Bader-Saye writes about their mission in his commentary of this text, it is,

something that defines God’s people, as existing for the sake of the oppressed, brokenhearted, imprisoned, and mournful” and that a “restored Israel, living as a jubilee community will stand as a sign of God’s blessing to the nations around it, a kind of sacramental enacting of the salvation to which it points.

(Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, p.p.52-54)

As we’ve heard in our other readings, this is what John the Baptist knew. It’s also what Paul discovered and wrote about in Thessalonians. Who they were in God determined how they should live in their world.

The same is true for us today. Has the joy of our salvation changed how we live? Have we allowed it to define who we are in our world? It’s one thing for us to celebrate our salvation, it’s  another to live it out for the sake of people in our world. It’s great to find joy in the midst of our own darkness, it’s even better when we share it with people in our world who desperately need it too. In fact, our joy is limited to our ability to share it until it is good news for the brokenhearted, liberation for the oppressed, healing for the sick, and comfort for the hurting. We have a lot of opportunities to do that, especially in this time when there are so many people in need. What can we do to make this world a better place for them? How can we infuse joy we have in God to create a jubilee of restoration they can experience? As we look around us, there is much to be rebuilt and restored right now. We would do well to be like the people Isaiah encouraged, turning out attention to the need with the vision of a better world, a community where everyone is included in the jubilee God has created.

This third Sunday of Advent, known as Guadete Sunday, is represented with a pink candle, a break from the penitential purple of preparation. It was a way for Christians to remember that there’s joy, even in a long time of waiting in darkness. We know it now and we will know it more in days to come. In this we rejoice.

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