Homily: Where’s The Joy

    Last week we heard of the glorious homecoming of the Israelites after the exile. The event was beautiful and inspiring, But then ‘reality’ set in. The task of rebuilding their lives in the wake of such destruction was both overwhelming and complicated. Not everyone had been carried off into exile; perhaps only the cream of their leadership in religion, learning, and the arts were taken, but what better way to break an entire people than to leave them leaderless? And what happens when the exiled leaders inevitably find a very different situation upon their return home?

Return, after all, is not the same as restoration, as anyone knows who has tried to heal a relationship, or to rebuild a community after a natural disaster. The people on the East coast after Hurricane Sandy, for example, grappled with the broken remnants left long after the storm itself is over. Just returning to their homes, or the pieces of their homes, is not the same thing as having their lives restored. That required a much deeper transformation, both an individual and a communal effort. Everything had collapsed, and everyone, spiritually as well as physically, felt crushed.

A formidable task of rebuilding lay before them. You see, that’s one good reason that God sends prophets. Isaiah’s task, was to encourage, in God’s name, these defeated people back to power and to spiritual rebuilding.

         Good news in hard times

Preachers in churches around the world will step into pulpits on this Third Sunday in Advent with much the same task as Third Isaiah’s. True, the people of Israel had suffered much longer than many of us, although there are countless others whose deep suffering has gone on much too long. There are systems and practices and attitudes that keep people down if not captive, trapped in poverty, hunger, disease, and war.

This Advent, the pain spreads as one nation after another faces cascading economic problems, not the least of them unemployment or the threat of unemployment.

In the time of Isaiah, debt was the common reason for imprisonment. In our society, many folks feel trapped by debt, by upside-down mortgages and huge credit card balances, and they would love to be set free. Perhaps some of that debt is from our own spending on things we didn’t really need.

But there are plenty of us who have burdensome debt from our schooling, from health expenses, from the costs of raising children, from the basic need for food and housing. Many of us hear talk of a reversal of fortune, as good news, the cancellation of debt, freedom from worry.

Ancient Jerusalem after the exile, damaged and in ruins, in need of being rebuilt, is a powerful symbol of our cities today, and of the world beyond our borders, where nations are held captive by enormous debt that keeps them from making progress toward a better life for their people.

While we observe Advent and the world around us tells us to be joyful as we shop and clean and sign Christmas carols. But all around us are also those who carry heavy burdens of grief, depression, loss, illness, financial worries. The holidays make these problems even more pressing.

Where’s the joy?

Where’s the joy? The psalm promises, “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy”

This is the true ‘mystery of suffering turned to joy’: The natural miracle of God turning seeds into grain would be miracle enough; but the seeds are not ordinary, but seeds of sorrow. The fruit they bear is not grain or wheat, but shouts of joy. We seek joy in this season, but perhaps we look in the wrong places and in the wrong ways: This is no jingle-bells joy brought with a swipe of a credit card.

God is at work in every human endeavor that strives for peace and wholeness, even if that peace is partial and that wholeness only glimpsed. We are leaning toward that day when all things will be whole, not just restored but made new.

The healing and compassion, then, will encompass all those who suffer, and the rebuilding will make our social systems as just as our bridges will be made sturdy. When Jesus, the One whose birth we await this Advent season, began his ministry, he went to the synagogue and took out this very scroll from the prophet Isaiah, and read these elegant and hope-filled words of promise.

That is why we read Isaiah’s “gospel” during this season of hope, and introduce John the Baptizer on this Sunday of joy. Jesus’ ministry of healing and freeing and preaching became the definitive sign of God’s coming into the world in a new and definitive way in Jesus Himself. In Jesus, the messianic age has dawned. And a word of challenge is added within the comfort, and the joy that draws us toward the rebuilding and the hope, not just for ourselves, but for the world God loves: The spirit of the Lord God is upon us; not simply upon Isaiah and Jesus and John. We are called to rebuild the city, working through our personal sorrows, that they might be the seed that inspires us to build a better world, a world where sorrow and pain and hatred and discrimination will be no more.  (Kathryn Matthews Huey)

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