I’ve Got the Joy!
Grace United Methodist Church
December 5, 2010
Isaiah 35: 1-10
|The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
|7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
8 And a highway will be there;
There is something that has been bothering me all week, and I want to share it with you this morning. I have to make a confession. On Monday of this week, as I was sitting in my office working on the Luke Bible Study, the phone rang. When I answered the phone, a woman on the other end of the line asked if we did any kind of assistance for Christmas. Now, one of the things about being a church is that people are calling the church all the time needing help. And the simple fact of the matter is that it is impossible to help every single person that calls. With that in mind, I asked the woman what kind of assistance she needed. In a now quavering voice, the woman explained that she was a single mother trying to “do” Christmas for her children. She told me that she had called the police department, but because she lives outside the city limits, she does not qualify. I listened to the woman, keeping in mind Grace’s commitment to the Angel Tree families. When she was done, I tried as gently as possible to tell her that we were already committed to helping several families for Christmas and our little church just isn’t in a position to take on any more at this time. On the other end of the phone, I heard the woman begin to cry, and then she hung up.
It’s been a long time since I’ve wished I could take something back. But I’ve wished all week I could take that phone call back. I’ve wished over and over and over again that I hadn’t been so concerned with what we were already doing that I forgot what is possible for a Christian community to do when someone is in need. Our church could have helped that family. Really, as I think about it, Ken and I could have helped that family. I wish that I had answered her differently, we would have found a way to make it work; I know we would have. But now it’s too late. I don’t know the woman’s name, much less her phone number. There is no way I can undo that sad mistake I made on Monday.
As I mentioned, I’ve thought a lot about that phone call this week. At first, all I thought about was how sad it is that I turned that woman away. But then I started thinking about how disappointing it is that she, in such a sad state, had to call churches to begin with. It is an extremely unfortunate sign of the times. If our culture wasn’t so off-track about what Christmas is about, that woman never would have been so upset about having difficulties providing “Christmas” for her children. But she knows that if there aren’t toys under the tree for her children this Christmas, it will be devastating. She knows that her children will return to school after break only to be shown all the latest and greatest toys and gadgets that their friends got for Christmas. Then the kids will be sad, and upset, and angry that they didn’t get the same awesome toys as their friends. And the kids will feel resentment toward their mother who didn’t give them a “Christmas” as great as their friends had. So the mother cries. All because when it comes to Christmas, we are looking for joy in all the wrong places.
We’ve come to measure Christmas joy according to how high the stack of gifts is under the tree. Yet, the forced expectations of joy at this time of year often highlight what is wrong or missing in people’s lives, as it has with the young woman who called this church on Monday. She saw a stark contrast between the life of her family and the “cultural norm,” and as a result she felt inadequate, isolated and depressed. Whether we acknowledge it or not, such isolation and depression is widely felt at this time of year, for a lot of different reasons. Some people, like the mother, are upset because they are unable to provide “Christmas” for their family. There are those who each holiday miss their loved ones: spouses, or children, or parents who are no longer living. Then there are some whose loved ones are somewhere far away, perhaps serving in the military overseas. Maybe some feel an isolation of living in a new town with no friends or acquaintances, and no one to go home to on Christmas day; not even friends with which to have a Christmas gathering. Indeed, it is difficult to show Christmas joy under such circumstances as these.
But the “Christmas joy” we expect to see from all people at this time of year is not real joy. Joy is not a surface-level happy; it is deeply seated in one’s character. You see, true joy may not always manifest itself in smiles and laughter, but rather in grace and assurance. Real joy might be described as knowing that something better exists, and holding onto that which is better. If we remember that Christmas is about God’s moment of incarnation, taking the flesh and living among us, might we not feel joy even when there are no presents under the tree? When we remember that because God in Christ Jesus came on Christmas day, our lives are filled with his love, might we not know joy even in the midst of our longing for loved ones? When we remember that Christmas is about Jesus Christ coming to walk beside us, might we not know joy even when we sit alone during the Christmas season?
The promise of Christmas is that God is with us. The most wonderful thing about Christmas is that because of Jesus Christ, joy can prevail. And that is what Isaiah is reminding us of in this passage we heard this morning. He is writing to the Israelites in captivity. Exiled from Jerusalem and their promised land, God’s people are in a miserable state under Babylonian rule. Into this situation, Isaiah speaks a message of promise and hope to the captive children of Israel. God is going to free them from their oppression and open a road through the parched desert to the holy city of Jerusalem. The image of this redemption of God’s people is described by Isaiah as a desert springing to luxuriant life, free of ravenous beasts. The beautiful vision is meant to bring strength and hope. God is present with his people and will shortly reveal his saving might!
The parched land will be glad! The wilderness will blossom! The feeble will be strengthened! The blind will see and the deaf will hear! Where there was only misery, there will now be hope! Where there was only despair, there will now be joy! And that’s what we celebrate at Christmas as well. We may not be able to find joy in gifts or in the company we miss during the holiday season, but we can find joy in the Christ-child! We can find joy in the grace and love that is showered upon us because Christ was born on Christmas day! And that is true joy!
At the end of this passage, Isaiah describes the “Way of Holiness.” He says, “…a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way…No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there.” Does anyone know why some roads are called highways? It is because the road is elevated above the surrounding terrain. This makes the road visible, it makes travel easier, and it helps assure the survival of the highway. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still bogs, or animals, or any number of other hindrances that could impede travel. But such a “high-way” transcends these things and makes it possible to travel past such obstacles without any trouble.
The same is true of the “Way of Holiness” that Isaiah describes. Our lives are filled with things that leave us despairing. We miss our loved ones. We struggle in the face of unemployment. We are broken in the midst of divorce and changing relationships. We are mired by the pain of disease. But the “Way of Holiness” transcends these many challenges. It is a “high-way” that carries us through all the difficulties and straight to the true source of joy! And Jesus Christ has made this way possible! God in Christ Jesus who came among his people on that first Christmas so long ago; this is the great source of true Christmas joy!
Wherever we travel, God is present. What makes the Holy Way different is our intention to follow the path that Christ has set for us, keeping us in conscious relationship with God’s sustaining grace in the midst of our everyday struggles. God’s promise, suggested to us through Isaiah’s beautiful words, is that on the Way of Holiness we discover a joy that is deep, so deep that it renews our souls in holy gladness. Then, walking in holiness, we find a path to reunion with God.
This is what Christmas is really all about. Christmas is a celebration of the good news of God’s care for the people of God. Christmas is a celebration of Jesus Christ who came to make a path for us, a high-way leading to the Promised Land of God’s love. Even in the midst of loss, even in the midst of disease, even in the midst of hard economic times, there is joy! For those who experience their lives as exile, those who pass through a wilderness, those who are weak or even disabled may shout for joy, because God will transform all things!