Anglican Church of Canada
Advent III December 11, 2016
Isaiah 35 Matthew 11:2-11
It’s the third Sunday of Advent. Today we lit the pink candle of the wreath, today our theme is joy. And what more appropriate reading could there be to kick off the lections today than that exuberant hymn from the prophet Isaiah. It is a hymn that uses the word joy again and again – but more than that, it gives us a picture, a vision, of creation redeemed and reconciled, finally set free from all that holds us back, set free just to be what we are intended to be. And that is pure, exulting, celebrating, praising joy. This is what we have been created for – we have been created for joy.
The central image of this joy is the wilderness in bloom. I don’t really know much about desert landscapes, but I’m sure we have all seen pictures of what can happen when a desert receives a rare rainfall. Suddenly thousands of seeds, hidden for years in the dry soil, burst into life in a riot of hasty blossoms. Such is the potential of life, even in the harshest of situations, to burst forth given the right circumstances. Isaiah pictures not just a single downpour, as can happen from time to time, but a desert that finally gets its fill, a steady rain that turns the arid valleys into rich wetlands teeming with life.
And, lest we think this is only about the natural environment, comes the encouragement:
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
These are words meant not just as an empty fantasy – they are spoken to people who are discouraged, who are exhausted, who have been beaten down by life. And that, surely, is every one of us from time to time. In our discouragement, in our exhaustion, Isaiah’s words come as a reminder: this is not what life is all about. This is not what you were created for, for toil and frustration and grief. In the end, your life has a different purpose: you have been created for joy.
The language and imagery of this passage mark it as belonging to that portion of the book of Isaiah we often call Second Isaiah. Second Isaiah was the great prophet of the Babylonian exile| that is to say, he (or possibly she) is addressing these words to a people in exile, a people who have been defeated, who have witnessed terrible violence, who have lost everything, who have been driven from their homes. And to these people, people who must have felt and thought that it was really now all over, that there was no hope for their lives and the life of their nation, come these words of comfort and hope, this promise that it is not over, that God is not finished with us yet – and that this is not how the story ends, in despair and defeat, but that we have been created for something else: the purpose and goal of our life is joy.
Speaking to a people in exile, second Isaiah reaches back, way back in history, to that great foundation story of Israel, the Exodus out of Egypt. The story of how God led their ancestors out of slavery, across the Red Sea and the desert wanderings, to be a free people. It is the same story, but this time it is told differently. Because the people are not in Egypt, but in Babylon; and so when they think of home their mind goes to the great impassible desert that stretches for countless miles between them and their home, a dry land of shattered rocks, of jagged mountains and crevasses, of wild beasts. And so the old story is told anew: this time, God will not make a path through the sea, turning the ocean to dry land; this time it will be the desert that turns to vibrant lush life, and a highway that turns the valleys and mountains to an even path.
And so the image of a highway through the desert, a highway for God’s people to return home. There will be no lions or other dangers; and even fools will not get lost – I love it that there is such a concern for fools here, as we generally don’t get a lot of sympathy in the Bible!
And along this highway,
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.
It is on the one hand a historical promise – the people of Israel would return from exile, though not quite in the spectacularly poetic way Isaiah describes it; but at the same time it is more than that, it is a vision of life and creation come to its fulfilment. We hear about the blind having their sight restored, and the lame walking again, the speechless breaking into songs of praise – a picture that could be applied to all of us: in this redeemed time, we will every one of us find wholeness, we will be freed from the things that limit us and hold us back, we will be set free to fullness of life, to be what we are meant to be. And at the end, there will be joy. We have been created for joy.
The joy that Isaiah describes, the joy that we celebrate today, is not the same as its pale imitation, enjoyment. Because that is the gospel of our present, consumerist age: the idea that we have been created for enjoyment, that the purpose of our life is to have as many pleasant experiences as possible. You may remember the atheist bus ad that made headlines several years back: “There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.” As though that were the highest goal of human life, one we can finally aspire to if we can just get rid of those pesky thoughts of God: to enjoy our life. Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with enjoyment, enjoyment is a fine thing. But it is not big enough to be the purpose of our lives. It is too self-centred, too passive, too pointless, I would think, to make for a full life. We enjoy a product: we enjoy chocolate, or a good wine, or a Caribbean vacation. If enjoyment is the highest goal of our life, we have turned our life into a consumer product.
What the Christian faith has to set against this vision of life is, I think, not ultimately duty, or faith, or love, or any of the other virtues, although they are all part of it. What Isaiah tells us is the purpose of human life – and it is echoed whenever the Bible speaks of the end times, and the final purpose of all creation and so of human life, is joy. Now of course we might say that the purpose of human life is, for example, to love, and we would be right. The joy that Isaiah describes is not instead of love – it is the final consummation of love, it is love redeemed, set free from grief and loss. Because that is the difference between joy and enjoyment: enjoyment is ultimately lonely, it is something we do for ourselves. Whereas joy is joy in one another: we rejoice as a community, as a family. Joy takes us out of ourselves and unites us with all of creation. It is our shared purpose: we rejoice together with one another, and with all of nature. We rejoice with God our creator: our hearts are lifted out of ourselves as we reach out with thanksgiving, celebration, and loving worship.
And so it is in our lives: the moments we touch real joy are moments that take us out of ourselves. The experience of holding our newborn; the giddy joy of being in love; the moments we are touched by nature in a way that we feel at one with everything; the joy of being touched by a piece of music, and feeling something we have never felt before; the joy of friendship, of rejoicing in the complex beauty of another human being. These are the moments when we touch joy; and what we touch in those moments is the reason we are here on earth. We are here to share the joy that God feels in creation.
And in the end, this joy is our destiny. We will not reach it finally on earth; here we see only glimpses. Here we are in the position of John the Baptist in the gospel reading. John is in prison. And he sends to Jesus, asking are you the promised Messiah. On the one hand, it is a strange question: John has proclaimed Jesus from the beginning; if anyone knows the answer to this question, it is John. On the other hand, it is so understandable. John is in prison: of course he needs reassurance that it is not all in vain.
Jesus’s answer: ‘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 offence at me.’ The miracles and healings that Jesus is performing are echoes of the prophesy of Isaiah, they are signs of the promised redemption. Jesus has come to restore us to wholeness, to bring that promised joy. And yet . . . John remains in prison. Release to the captives is also a traditional promise of the Messiah. But there will be no release for john, not in this life. And in some sense that is true of all of us. There is no release in this lifetime from many of the burdens that weigh us down. There is no release from our mortality. And nonetheless, we are called to rejoice and trust in the redemptive joy of Jesus’s ministry. Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me. Even in the midst of whatever holds us and will not let us go, the promise remains: we were not created for this, for death and decay and disappointment. We were created for joy. Joy remains the purpose of our life. And even at the grave we know this, and make our song Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.