Third in the Advent/Christmas Series, “What Has God Wrought?”
Isaiah 35 (NRSV)
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And 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.
In chapter 35, Isaiah continues with images of healing and holiness, and again, this promised time seems to benefit not just humanity, but all of creation. And of course, as we have discussed already, Jesus Christ provides the path to this great act of restoration.
The closing words of this chapter remind me that while there are great changes to come, the greatest of God’s restorative work may be the one wrought within us. Have we not prayed for such work in the deepest recesses of our souls? Oh, to have everlasting joy and gladness; oh, for sorrow and sighing to flee us forever.
These are all expressions of the heart. Our choices, our very lives, are driven by the pursuit of gladness and the avoidance of sorrow. Joy and sighing also can be quite literally matters of the heart, directly affecting its rhythm and longevity for better or for worse.
Most of us have lived in broken creation long enough to know what it is like to sigh and even sob. As we draw near the close of 2016, I as a pastor know the pains my congregation has experienced. Yes, we have had great joys, too, but the pain has remained. I also have been a pastor long enough to know that many people wrestle with private pain too deep to reveal, even people in the close community we call church.
The little holiday moments certainly help. When Our Girls recently brought us their Christmas music special at Luminary, we collectively paused and experienced a kind of joy we did not want to slip away.
There have been and will be similar moments as we move through Advent toward Christmas. Fleeting or sustained, they are powerful, and can be like glimpsing God’s face.
Yet, in the midst of all of those moments, there also have been events that seem to re-tarnish the world God is polishing. Tragedy and suffering both locally and globally can seem overwhelming at times. For people experiencing recent pain, the contrast during Advent and Christmas can be too much. The lights and laughter, the word “merry,” even the notion of a better day to come—it all can seem meaningless or even unintentionally mean.
Whether it is this season or a season to come, we all have to learn to cope with the stark contrast between joy and pain. Short of Jesus’ much-anticipated return, we have no way out.
Here’s the helpful lesson I take away from Isaiah 35. Those joyous moments are permanent. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, God will retain them for all eternity. Those sorrowful moments, as painful as they are, are fleeting, and will vanish like mist in the light of God’s truth, grace and glory.
It helps to make a conscious decision to call joy permanent and sorrow temporary. For example, when a great hymn or other piece of Christmas music stirs you, whisper to yourself, “This glory goes on forever.” When there is death or suffering, remember to say, “This pain will have an end.”
When we respond to life in such a way, we get to the same place the Apostle Peter tried to take us in his first letter to the churches.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3-9)”
Remember, those of you who are Christians, such promises from God go to the very core of your faith. Church is a lot of things, but we should never lose sight of what is central to being the church.
We do good works, but we are not simply a group of people gathered to do good works. All sorts of civic clubs can do that.
We perform rituals when together, but we are not simply a people going through some motions. Cults and the very worst religions lean heavily on corrupt rituals.
We are a people who seek justice and equity in the world, but those efforts alone are a poor way to define us. People have done the same through governments and revolutions for centuries.
We certainly are a place for fellowship and friendship, but again, fellowship and friendship are not primarily why we exist. The local bar, gym or sports team can offer you that.
We gather because we believe everything is changed through Jesus Christ. Because of the cross, joy is everlasting and sorrow will flee. To quote Revelation, every tear shall be wiped away. Even death shall be undone, and there shall be much to sing about.
A prayer to live by: Joy, I accept you as my permanent state. Sorrow, while I may have to live with you for awhile, don’t expect me to embrace you, for you will vanish, thanks be to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.