Sermon December 17, 2017 Advent 3

Isaiah 61:1-11 December 17, 2017 Advent 3

The take away with you image for our 3rd Sun of Advent is joy.  It is the joy of home coming , but it is a joy not unacquainted with suffering for Isaiah the prophet speaks of his people’s homecoming out of exile in a foreign land to desolation and having to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and especially the temple.  This rebuilding is actually one of the final images towards which our faith travels– a vision of the rebuilt heavenly city, Jerusalem, descending from heaven to dwell on earth.  Would be nice wouldn’t it for Jerusalem, and the Middle East in general are not places on earth we automatically associate with joy.  And our focus has been firmly placed on the ancient holy city of Jerusalem – named as the capital of two nations – Israel and Palestine – this month as President Trump nominates Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

I read during the week that they get a lot of letters addressed to God in Jerusalem.  Most of them are getting stuck into God, blaming God either for their own personal misfortunes or castigating God for not doing more to intervene in the woes of the world and the Lord knows there are many of them.  Although last week they received a nice letter from a grateful man just letting God know  that things were going OK for him and he was grateful.  Good job, nice wife, happy family.  Yeah, life was pretty all right and he was at peace with himself and hence God.  They stick all these letters into slots in the Wailing Wall, the only remaining section of the second temple over there in Jerusalem. It is not the temple that Isaiah was calling his people to restore, but a second and later one. They are a little confused about what to do with these letters.  Where is God in our world?

But Isaiah does call upon his people to strengthen their arm, to begin the work of rebuilding.  And this from a presently dispirited people.  The way the prophet tells it –this rebuilding it is to take on the nature of a joyful celebration. Now we know from history the building program was not quite the immediate and resounding success Isaiah was speaking of.  Perhaps they forgot that this was a church renovation project on a heritage site and invariably takes many times the length of time as first prophesied! 

Today, we build the kingdom of heaven, not a physical Jerusalem and there is a lot of work to be done

Bind up! Build up! Raise up! Release! Repair! Restore!

Bind up! Build up! Raise up! Release! Repair! Restore!

And according to Isaiah what inspires this call to action is the joy of God’s presence.  Joy is one of the, if not the hardest, things for us worshippers to do.  Other notes we strike in worship can be done. I think praise, confession, intercession can be done readily enough. Lament is not easy but can be done after some reflection.  Joy, well it is harder to get in touch with, hard to reproduce on demand.  Perhaps impossible.

CS Lewis called his autobiography Surpised by Joy in which he describes the relentless pursuit of God of him and how he attempted to flee, but was overwhelmed by the Grace of God and finally knelt and admitted God was God.  .. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”  He also makes the interesting comment that very often our pursuit of pleasure is a substitute for, or an unconscious seeking after Joy, or an clumsy compensation for the lack of Joy in our being.

This is all too apparent at this time of year when joy is attempted to be turned into  a marketable commodity and pushed to us by every Christmas advertising campaign. Joy can be reduced to become an annual charade, a tinselly veneer draped over our lives for a few weeks before being quietly put out on the nature strip with the dead Christmas trees at the end of the month. The church has no monopoly on hypocrisy! True joy, prayerfulness and thankfulness are the fruits of an ongoing immersion into the life of God.

Come, says the master to his servants, come and enter into the joy of the kingdom.  Not much more to it than that really when you consider it all.  Oh, of course there is more to it, but the point is, it will pretty much work itself out if you have “entered the joy”.  Joy does not depend upon what you do, but upon what you receive.  And what you receive is the grace of God.

Perhaps the greatest natural enemy of joy we will have to deal with is clutter.  Clutter in our lives.  Clutter in time from busyness, clutter in our heads, clutter in our diaries, clutter in all sorts of spaces.  Clutter produces stress and stress stretches its bony hands around the throat of joy and mercilessly squeezes the life out.  Joy needs space and time to flourish.  Joy walks and walks slowly and only runs when greeting a friend.  Joy breathes deeply and slowly. Joy delights in simplicity – not simplistic answers to complex issues but the older I get the more I realise simplifying your life inasmuch as you are able is a worthy goal.

In all of this we are stressing the giftedness of joy.  It is what is given to you and you can’t bestow it upon yourself.  Which is not at all to say there is nothing we can do to place ourselves where joy may find us.  There is plenty we can do.  Perhaps a good way to think of it is in terms of what we read last week about Isaiah and John the Baptist.  That line about building a royal highway across the wilderness so the king, or the people, may travel upon it. For us that would be the work of taking time, space, simplifying our lives.  It is building a road upon which we may travel to joy, or joy may search us out and come to us.

Funny, here we are talking about joy as a hallmark of authentic Christianity.  Funny then that we have bible readings from Isaiah prophesying to a community coming home to a desolate ruined city, a prophet dressed in animal skins out in the wilderness who had his head chopped off whose task was to be a witness to another person who was nailed while still alive to a wooden cross, and whose chief witness in later years became the other author of today’s epistle and he was imprisoned prior to being executed by the state.  Joy all around it seems!  How can it be!  If you can still find joy in that and it will be authentic joy, by which I mean joy that arises from the depths rather than avoids the depths.  Joy that is joy precisely because it has experienced the worst life can dish out and knows it was not killed off.  This is joy that travels along a highway made through the desert. Joy that carries within it the spark of resurrection.  That is why we were so impressed by the joy of the Sth African anti apartheid campaigners,  they had experienced the worst, had stood tall, and then said, and still we know the grand and glorious day of the Lord is to come.  Great freedom in that; it means you don’t have to know all the answers, don’t need to turn yourself inside out being “relevant”, don’t have to carry the unbearable burden that it all depends upon you.