Isaiah 35.1-10; Psalm 146.5-10; Luke 1.46b-55; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11
Today, the beginning of the third week of Advent, the great theme of joy is emphasized. The Isaiah passage paints for us a picture of joy – a joy that only God could paint. The reality is that the Israelites are in captivity, they long for retribution/vengeance/justice (Isaiah 35.4). In fact, chapters 33/34 have been about judgment. However, beginning with chapter 35, “a brilliant shaft of light breaks through the clouds and all is bathed in splendor again” (Webb, The Message of Isaiah). The bleakness of the deserts and highways of chapters 33/34 are full of foliage and safety in chapter 35. The suffering of 33/34 is not simply turned into joy, but into everlasting joy (35.10).
For Israel in the Isaiah passage, their joy is deeply rooted in the character and actions of God. The character of God – His love, compassion, and mercy – will be experienced in the action of the deliverance and return of Israel to Jerusalem. The exiles that are anxious and spiritually blind, deaf, or lame are to bask in the picture God is painting for them – a picture of flourishing. God will take away the current canvas and create a canvas of peace, sight, hearing, and wholeness. The character and action of God will produce joy. Three times in verse ten the word joy is used. Webb states that Isaiah brings his readers and hearers to a “resting point” where they find themselves once again “at home.” This home is gladness and joy produced by the character and action of God where “sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
Joy today should be the easy part of Christmas. We should see joy in the children, lights, music, and in gathering together with family and friends. But perhaps in the frenzy of the season or in the frenzy of life as it is being experienced by us, joy is temporarily erased from the painting of the lives that God has for us. For some reason, we find ourselves anxious or spiritually we cannot see or hear or we feel spiritually lame. Do I dare make a confession? I had surgery four weeks ago; then, my mother-in-law, who is ninety-six and lives with us, fell a week and a half ago and broke her hip. Hospitals, recovery time, lack of sleep, emergency rooms, rehabilitation hospitals, and life out of the routine can and does create a life canvas where joy and spiritual equilibrium are momentarily erased. In the past two weeks, students here at Northpoint have received news of personal health issues or of family members whose earthly time is coming to a close. Joy can be lost.
But … like the Israelites, our joy is rooted in the character and action of God. Just as God through the prophet invited the Israelites to bask in a different picture, so God invites us to bask in a different picture. If we find ourselves anxious or spiritually blind, deaf, or lame, we need to bask in the picture of flourishing that God is painting for us. Our joy is found in the picture of the manger – God incarnated into a babe. We need to rest in the picture of the manger and discover the fullness of its meaning. I sincerely believe that meaning will create a canvas of joy in our lives. In the Luke passage, Mary exalts God for what He has done in her life and what God will do for her: “For the Mighty One has done great things for me, holy is His name.” Let us remember God has done great things for each of us and will do great things for us! In Psalm 146. 6, we find this statement about God: “Who keeps faith forever.” My God, your God, will not forsake us, will not allow the canvas of our lives to remain without His painting on it. However, we must rest in the picture of the manger. In the action of the incarnation, we find our Healer, Savior, Restorer, Giver of new life and joy. The canvases of our lives are changed (repainted) amid the moments of our lives as we allow the presence of the Incarnated One to bring us our needed equilibrium.
A prayer: God who keeps faith forever, thank you for this promise, thank you that your character is such. Thank you, Father, for the example of Mary who experienced your joy during her trial. For those of us that may find the canvas of our lives not as it should be, help us – overwhelm us, paint a new picture for us as we look to the picture of the manger. Amen.