Our Gift of Joy

The Sunday Sermon:  December 13, 2020 – 3rd Sunday of Advent

Scripture:  Isaiah 35:1-10

Our Gift of Joy

Advent three, the third Sunday in Advent, and this week – continuing our promise not to wait to open a few of our Christmas presents this year, we open our third gift.  We are receiving these gifts from God, unwrapping them, assembling them, and reading the manual of operations so we can experience them, employ them, and then share them as fully as possible this year.

Our first two gifts are Peace and Justice.  Both of these involve our relationships with others.  We receive Peace so we may be peacemakers.  Justice is only properly employed when there is justice for all.  This morning we open our God-given gift of Joy and, while we will share it with others, let us first consider it for ourselves.

There it is, sitting in front of us.  Joy … it’s ours, but we’re a bit afraid to pick it up, put it together and put it to use.  How in the world can we receive this gift, let alone experience it, when our lives are the way they are and things don’t seem to be ready to change in any significant way anytime soon?  If we are struggling with broken hearts and hurting, or sick, bodies (and we’re certainly struggling with both this year), where is the experience of joy?  And if we are overcome with the anger and meanness of our political and cultural lives, what is the use of rejoicing?

I simply could not unwrap this gift myself, let alone “present” it to all of you on this third Sunday, without confronting these questions, these realities.  We are too far into this Advent season and even further into our COVID, racially, and politically strained year to pretend that our Joy will be an easy gift to receive and employ this year.  But … maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe we can be more intentional about what Joy really means, how Joy really operates, and where Joy really resides this year given our landscape.  Maybe we’ll understand Joy as much more than “happiness.”

Pray with me …

We have been receiving our gifts from God this year through the wrappings, the writings, of the prophet Isaiah.  So it is with this third.  And receiving the gift of Joy from this Old Testament prophet is different than hearing it from Jesus’ mother, Mary, as she sings the Magnificat in Luke 2:  My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”  It’s different than the Joy we receive from Paul in his letter to the church in Philippi:  I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.  It’s easy in these cases to equate Joy with happiness.  Mary’s soul and spirit are “happy.”  Paul prays with a “happy” heart for those he loves.  Surely there’s more to joy for Mary and Paul, as well, but more often than not, when joy is raised in the book of Isaiah, it is usually written for a people experiencing something very different than “happiness.”

The context, the wrapping, that our gift of Joy comes in this morning, in fact, is one of grave danger and intense suffering.  The ancient Israelites are exiled as the prophet offers this gift.  Listen for the Word of God …

Read Isaiah 35:1-10.  The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Take this gift, the prophet says.  Open it in the midst of your reality in whatever time you live and in whatever place you inhabit.  Raise it into the light of your day.  Then lift your eyes and look through it beyond the present.  There is a future which is full of life.  Receive this gift, not in spite of what you are experiencing, but because you are experiencing it.  “The wilderness shall be glad … Obtain joy … and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

True Joy is the experience we have when our relationships with God, with one another, and with ourselves are shaped by the vision of Peace and Justice that are not of this world as it is, but as it should be – as it shall be, says Isaiah.  True joy is much more than happiness.  In the study that we are engaging on these Advent Sunday mornings at 10:30 in our Zoom time together, the Reverend Doctor Cynthia Campbell notes that true joy is far deeper, even, than an emotion.  It is a spiritual practice and, like gratitude, “stems from seeing the world through the lens of Love,” steadfast, covenantal Love.  How often do we truly look through that lens?  We need to look at the world differently than we most often do, then.  With this gift in hand we look through our Joy, through our relationship with Love, to see the world not as it is, but as it was created to be.  We see the world, then, “through the vantage point of God’s promise.”  That is the gift that Isaiah offers.

Joy – unwrapped and set before us with little or no assembly required – is ultimately about recognizing and experiencing God’s presence in your life.  “Joy is trusting in the goodness of God in spite of the meanness of the present age.”  There it is, as simple as that.  We like to complicate this gift because even as we hear that we’re to look through with the eyes of God through this lens of Joy, we say that “in the end” God’s ways are not our ways.  But maybe, just perhaps, they might be if we use our gifts right.

In four short chapters, Isaiah will share the words that, as much as any others, share our task in this season.  Every one of our Gospels writers will include them when they record the Good News that came in Jesus, that comes through us and that will enter our world as long as we believe.  Prepare the Way!  (And) make straight the path!

Our Gospels themselves show us how wrong we are to believe that God’s “good” ways are not ours.  How wrong we are to wait for someone else to cry out in the wilderness of the world.  John the Baptist doesn’t misread Isaiah.  The message from Isaiah was John’s message.  He had no doubt whatsoever that he was dispatched for the task he undertook by God.  The message from Isaiah is our message, too, and the voice that should be crying out today is our voice.  We have been given Good News of Great Joy.  Why aren’t we rejoicing?

As we open our gift this morning, the anxious, confused, and stammering questions that we began with and that mark our lives now, the relationships we have with one another, with God, and with ourselves are re-framed.  This is the ultimate effect of our gift this morning:  If we truly receive it, we have no more unanswerable questions.  We trust fully in the promises of God, which is to say we live “in joy and through joy,” because it is the nature of joy that all our anxious questions are silenced by its presence.

Our gift on this third Sunday of Advent is complicated only by our inability to understand it properly and our refusal to use it appropriately when we do.  Take this gift.  Open it in the midst of your reality in whatever time you live and in whatever place you inhabit.  Raise it into the light of your day.  Then lift your eyes and look through JOY beyond the present.  We see a future which is full of life.  Receive this gift, not in spite of what you are experiencing, but because you are experiencing it.  It prepares the way for our fourth and final gift before Christmas this year:  Salvation.

May the wilderness be glad … May we receive true joy … And may sorrow and sighing flee away.  Amen.

Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor

Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / December 13, 2020