Saturday, December 28, 2013

ADVENT 3 - There will be Joy in the Morning

My mother had a blood condition which meant that she would have difficulty having babies.  The first one would be all right, the second one might be tolerable, but more than that she should do her best to avoid.

After my brother and sister were born, she did her best for a couple of years but eventually it was clear that a third baby was on the way.  Mum did have difficulties but she carried her baby full term and when she was born my parents gave her just one name – JOY.  I think they felt that they had nothing else to say.

I might add that I was born 5 years after Joy and my mother did not carry me full term.

But there is something wonderfully joyful about the birth of a child.  We are enjoying reviewing last year’s TV series “Call the Midwives” – and every birth scene is just wonderful – a minor miracle, every time.

JOY is the blindingly obvious theme for all the selected scriptures we have this week and for the third week in a row the selection from Isaiah is one of those glorious hymns of the ancient prophetic writings of Israel.  The selection today, from Isaiah 35 is perhaps the superlative example of it.

The imagery of a desert place gushing with amazing signs of life and abundance is stated and restated in so many ways that when the final verses come we will understand when they are talking about:

But only the redeemed will walk there,
   and the ransomed of the Lord will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
    everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
    and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

This is an image of a future time when desolation and sadness will be a fleeting memory and when in many senses we could say that JOY RULES the universe.

A question immediately arises for anyone who hears these words – just a word really:


When will this kind of unsurpassable JOY be our experience?

Well I think some of us resort to being satisfied with this as something that will happen in the far-off distant future, perhaps even in the life to come, but that is not being consistent with the intention of Isaiah in this song.  Bruce Prewer puts it this way:

“As far as the prophet could see, that joyful promiser called Isaiah, it was to be fulfilled here on earth, in ordinary time.”

So maybe we should look elsewhere for some indication of the answer.

Let’s scroll forward some 3 or 4 hundred years.

Life in Israel was no less politically turbulent than in the days of Isaiah.  The people were experiencing unrelenting oppression from foreign powers, and the people must have felt like they were living in a desert place – barren of all things that might bring joy.

The Romans were particularly nasty to any rabble-rousers who seemed to be bucking either the political or the religious system.  They took particular care to appoint High Priests who would keep the people under control. 

John the Baptist very quickly gained the reputation of a rabble-rouser, upsetting the religious leadership particularly as he drew people away from their influence.

So King Herod decided there was only one place for him – in prison.  John could still be visited by his followers, but he was not free to wander around whipping up the crowds.

No one knows how long John had been exercising his ministry – perhaps it doesn't matter – but he was certainly aware that his cousin Jesus had followed in his footsteps in calling people back to God, and he had heard some amazing stories about him.

So he sent his friends off to just double check:

“Are you the one who was to come, 
or should we expect someone else?”

If Jesus was the one, then it would clearly be the time for us all to be JOYFUL.  But how were they supposed to know.

Jesus’ response to the friends of John, I think, is something we all need to hear, and if we hear it rightly then we have every reason to be JOYFUL all the time.  Jesus simply said to John’s friends:

“Go back and tell John what you see and what you hear.”  In other words, “The signs are all around you if you have eyes to see and ears to hear.”

“The blind receive sight,
the lame walk,
those who have leprosy are cured,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised
and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

If this word from Jesus to John and his friends is a word for us today, what does it mean for us?  What are the things we can see and hear that are signs that the reign of God is here right now, that despite the desert places in which we feel we live, there are unmistakable signs of life which call out of us joyfulness?

Shall I begin with signs of simple goodness? 

There is a world-wide army of people of good will who have dedicated their lives to creating the kinds of joyful things that Isaiah dreamed of in his song.  Bruce Prewer again makes a list of them in these words:

Joy to the people who make the bionic ear.
Joy to those who create the new generation of artificial limbs.
Joy to people who, like those in the Fred Hollows Foundation, give sight to the blind in many third-world countries.
Joy to those who cure lepers, nurse people with aids, or immunise against disease.
Joy to those who dedicate their lives to medical research.

And what about the signs we might see right here within our own community?

Joy to those whose lives are dedicated to the care of children and the elderly.
Joy to those who believe in the fundamental good of young people and work to give them ways of contributing to our community.
Joy to those who work to repair fractured communities so that people can live in harmony again.

But even more beautifully:

Joy to those everywhere who call people into faith and who believe that this Good News transforms people and the world in which we live.
Joy to those whose lives have inspired us to live by faith.
Joy to the people of faith with whom we live and work in this Community of the Holy Cross.

All these are signs that are there for us to see – if we have eyes to see and ears to hear – that the Holy One of God is indeed among us and in this Good News we can live each and every moment of the day in JOY.

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