Advent 3 – Series A (December 11, 2016)
“Joy” (Isaiah 35:10)
The first two weeks of Advent have a penitential mood. Jesus is coming. So repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. But this week is all about joy.
Listen to today’s readings:
From the Introit: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4).
From the Old Testament reading: “And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isa. 35:10).
The pink candle is lit, reminding us of the joy we have in Christ. With each successive candle lit on the wreath, the light becomes brighter. Even the shade of the candle is lighter than the others. Another celebration of our Lord’s First Advent is approaching. That means we are another year closer to the Second Advent of Jesus. And that gives us joy. Restrained joy, for sure. It’s not Christmas yet. We’re still waiting for Jesus to return. But joy nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the closer we get to Christmas, the more we tend to think about the joyful promise of “presents” under the tree and less about the “presence” of God. The gifts we get might be the only joy we will experience at Christmas. For many people – perhaps for some of you here – underlying all the decorations of the season are a host of emotions other than joy. Like Adam and Eve trying to cover up their shame and guilt with fig leaves, you and I try to hide our innermost feelings with festive lights, shiny tinsel, pretty paper, ribbons and bows. Intruding upon our celebrations are loneliness, uncertainty, anxiety, sorrow, grief, bitterness, and pain. And no amount of brightly lit trees or homes can lighten the darkness of your depression or gloom. “Joy to the world” sounds like a cliché.
One of the purposes of Advent is to give us the “presence” of mind to be thinking about the right “presents.” So you see, it’s okay to think about the joyful promise of “presents” … the gift kind. Joy is a present … a gift of God’s grace. It is a fruit produced in you by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22).
Time for a little linguistics lesson. The words for joy in the Bible are varied. One Hebrew word (simchah) means to be glad with your whole heart and soul. It carries the sense of “to shine” or “to be bright.” That might remind you how we say that someone or something has “brightened your day.” Another word (ranan) means to shout aloud because of the joy in one’s heart. There’s also the word sason which means “gladness, rejoicing, or mirth.” Another Hebrew word (gil) has the sense of “to circle around,” indicating that joy often leads to enthusiastic expressions … jumping around, laughing, dancing, shouting for joy, fist pumping, and high-fiving. Well, I don’t know if the Israelites knew about high-fives, but if they had, I’m sure they would have high-fived each other on certain occasions … like when Gideon defeated the Midianites, when David defeated Goliath, or when the exiles in Babylon heard that Cyrus the Persian was going to let them return to their homeland.
That’s the joy of which Isaiah speaks. God promised that a highway would be prepared for his people to return safely from their exile in Babylon. The hot, dry desert will gil – rejoice – by blossoming and gushing forth with refreshing water. It will be as if the effects of sin in the world have been reversed … the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap like a deer, the tongue of the mute will sing for ranan. No hungry lions or other ravenous beasts will attack along the way. But the ransomed of the Lord will return and come to Zion … to Jerusalem, the Holy City, the place where God promised his presence would dwell. Everlasting sason would be upon their heads. They shall obtain sason and simchah. And sorrow and sighing over their helpless condition would flee away. God’s rescue has come!
Isaiah’s words reach beyond the exiles returning from Babylon. They reach down the centuries to you. When Jesus came as the promised Messiah, he showed his power to reverse the effects of sin in the world. He healed the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the mute. But more than that … he went all the way to the cross, carrying our sins with him to rescue us, to redeem us, to save us, to purchase us with his own blood. Apart from God’s love for us in Christ, you and I are in exile, far away from God’s gracious, forgiving presence. We feel the effects of sin … the desert-like dryness of a spiritual life hampered by “sorrow and sighing” … by physical calamities and emotional agony and guilty consciences. But the Holy Spirit came to you in the Word and water of Baptism. The refreshing forgiveness of sins was personally applied to you. “Rivers of living water” now flow from your heart filled with faith in Christ (John 7:38). You are the “ransomed of the Lord.” You come to Zion … not a city or a mountain, but a people … the Holy Christian Church, the assembly of all who are declared holy and righteous in Christ. God dwells among his people here. He is present everywhere, that’s for sure. But you can be sure to find him where he has promised to be graciously present for you … in Word and Sacrament.
In Psalm 16, David says to the Lord, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Ps. 16:11) In spite of what is going on around you or within you, you can find joy in God’s presence. You can come here to hear his Word and to receive Christ’s body and blood, which assures you that he is present to forgive you and bless you in your sorrow and sighing.
You see, Christian joy does not mean that you are always going to feel like jumping up and down and hooting and hollering and high-fiving each other … like crazy fans at Century Link field after the Hawks score a touchdown. Christians are aware of their sin and are ashamed of it. Christians still get sick and die. Christians still get depressed. “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy” (Prov. 14:10).
But Christians also know that the joy this world offers is fleeting. The presents under the tree are going to break and wear out. Sometimes the opposing team shuts you down. Being a Christian is no guarantee of a constant, ongoing, happy-clappy life. We may be tempted to get jealous when we see unbelievers living it up while we suffer. But remember the words of Job: “Do you not know this from of old, since man was placed on earth, that the exulting of the wicked is short, and the joy of the godless but for a moment?” (Job 20:4-5) At his first Advent, Jesus rescued us from our sin. At his second Advent, he will once and for all rescue us from all our suffering. Psalm 126 says “those who sow in tears shall reap in joy!” (Ps. 126:5) And Psalm 30 says “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Ps. 30:5) Joy comes with the morning because of the joy of Easter morning, when Christ rose from the tomb, proving his victory over sin, death, and the devil … that greatest killjoy of them all. That’s why Peter could write to those who were suffering for their confession of faith in Christ, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Pet. 1:6-9)
“Joy that is inexpressible.” That really is the case, isn’t it? It’s like old Vacation Bible School song says, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” It’s so deep down in there that it doesn’t always manifest itself in a smile or otherwise. But it is there, and our hearts can rejoice in what God has done for us in Christ and joyfully anticipate our final release from the effects of sin which we still endure in this life.
In two weeks, we will gather together once again on Christmas to hear the angel’s message to the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). Good news of great joy. A Savior is born. A Savior whose heart was filled with so much joy over us that he was willing to become one of us and to give his life for us.
Where do you find your joy? By “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Until he comes again, rejoice in his “presence” in Word and Sacrament today, and enjoy his “presents” of love, hope, joy, and peace.