The desert and the dry land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus.
They will burst into bloom, and rejoice with joy and singing.
They will receive the glory of Lebanon,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the Lord’s glory, the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees.
Say to those who are panicking: “Be strong! Don’t fear!
Here’s your God, coming with vengeance; with divine retribution
God will come to save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
and the ears of the deaf will be cleared.
Then the lame will leap like the deer,
and the tongue of the speechless will sing.
Waters will spring up in the desert,
and streams in the wilderness.
The burning sand will become a pool,
and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.
The jackals’ habitat, a pasture;
grass will become reeds and rushes.
A highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way.
The unclean won’t travel on it,
but it will be for those walking on that way.
Even fools won’t get lost on it;
no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it.
None of these will be there;
only the redeemed will walk on it.
The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing,
with everlasting joy upon their heads.
Happiness and joy will overwhelm them;
grief and groaning will flee away.
“Each year, it seems to get worse. The build-up to Christmas becomes more frenetic, more stressful, and more expensive with each passing season, and the observance of “Advent”–even the word itself–seems to get lost in our secularized holiday outburst of consumerism.”These words come to us today from the pen of Kathryn Matthews whose scathing observance of the post-modern Christmas Season seems to challenge the very notion of hope; of joy.
“And yet,” she continues, “each year, the hope is the same. Each year, underneath the fast-paced, media-driven, frantic preparations for ‘the big day’– the shopping, the family gatherings, the arrival of Santa and the opening of gifts, so many people express a yearning for something else, for something more.”[i]
“A yearning for something more.” Perhaps that’s the greatest hope of this season we call “Advent.” Perhaps Advent isn’t about looking back at the nativity to see a little baby in a manger, so much as it is to remember the incarnate presence of the Divine that the Christ-Child represents. A memory, by the way, which can propagate within us a reason to be moved toward hope. The kind of hope that challenges us to look forward to the healing Reign of God in all its wholeness even while we are in the midst of brokenness; even as this pandemic rages on, even as injustice continues, even as our very planet is in peril. It’s a hope not only that things might change, but that they will change.
Now, as people of faith we have come to understand that hope and the beginning of that movement toward Justice and Peace have indeed arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. And as the Body of Christ today, we continue to embody hope even as we look longingly toward a time when there will be a fullness of justice and peace and healing in this world. And not just some pie-in-the-sky, faraway in heaven after death kinda peace, but real peace and genuine transformation, right here, in this time and this place, and for all of God’s people and creation.
Now, we’re not the first to long for this peace, justice, and healing. The prophet in today’s reading looked forward to “signs of healing” or what I call “a movement toward wholeness” within creation itself. He wrote of a parched earth that would be transformed by streams of water breaking forth in the desert and of burning sands in the desert becoming pools of refreshing water. Beautiful imagery to be sure.
Imagery that invites us to recall the Peaceful Reign also from the Book of Isaiah. A Peaceful Reign where swords are pounded into plowshares and weapons of war and death are transformed into tools of agriculture, tools of life. A Peaceful Reign where lions and lambs coexist and no one will be held back by weakness of body or spirit, for God, whose power makes all things possible, will hold them up and carry them through.[ii]
And again, beautiful imagery. But then, Isaiah unloads on us with this matter of “vengeance”. Vengeance isn’t something we like to think about at Christmastime, is it? So, what gives? Well, this is a place where the great United Church of Christ theologian Walter Brueggemann helps us out a bit. He expands upon this idea of God’s “vengeance” by transforming it into something “positive.” He says, “..that God will come to right wrong, to order chaos, to heal sickness, to restore life to its rightful order” and all of these things are encapsulated by Brueggemann in a single term: “transformative compassion” And here’s the really awesome part! This compassion can be expected to transform the lives of those who are “overwhelmed” or incapable of “living effectively or joyously.” People we all know. People we love. People like us.
But what did all this mean to Isaiah? Well, it meant that the lame would not just walk but would leap, and perhaps even dance with joy! The speechless would not just find words but music and a song of joy. “People are given back their lives,” Brueggemann notes; and “humanity is restored to its full function”[iii]
Do you see where I’m going here? The image of a lame person walking is awesome, I’m sure that person would be happy. But to leap and dance, that’s joy. Isaiah wants us to understand that joy, unabashed joy is what lays at the very core of God’s coming wholeness to all the earth.
Now, you might say, that’s great theology, but what does it mean for me? Well, when December 26 rolls around, I think we must ask ourselves these questions: Where am I today? Where’s my hope? Where will I continue to find joy? I mean, will we continue to be disappointed because we didn’t get to gather with family or at church, or will we be let down because these modified holiday celebrations that didn’t quite measure up to expectations, or will we be just plain exhausted as we’re forced to face our troubled world once again? I don’t know what your answers to these questions will be, or mine for that matter. But perhaps Dr. King was on to something when he said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” …never lose infinite hope.
And even if our new holiday traditions were lovely and did live up to our expectations, is there not more to our hope than just a lovely holiday? Where do we find Dr. King’s “infinite hope”? Where’s that unabashed joy that supersedes mere happiness? And looking at Advent itself with an even wider lens, how is God still speaking to us today, in the church and in society, about our expectations?
Well, as I see it, this is something we must struggle with right here in our churches. We must challenge ourselves on a personal level as we move beyond the societal expectations of the holidays and begin to discover that deeper joy that Isaiah so longed for us to indwell. And on a communal or societal level, how will we as a church community continue to innovate, to work toward social justice and systemic change, and to engage all kinds of people as we begin to journey together, toward wholeness, by becoming a reflection of this deeper understanding of joy.
And again, there are no pat answers here. Even within the structure of community we’re all individuals with individual callings and talents and challenges and we’re all on our own journeys of faith. My friends, God is calling each of us to BE the Church in our own unique way; we’re a patchwork of characters if you will. But here’s the thing. It’s from a diverse patchwork of colors and patterns that the most beautiful quilts are created. So, the great hope for us today, the unabashed joy for us as we continue this journey, is that we are engaged in an on-going process of co-creating with God a beautiful quilt that will be marked by the peace and justice that Isaiah speaks of here. Not as individuals, but as a collection of individuals, a chorus of voices, neighbor with neighbor and friend with friend.
This is the deeper vision of Isaiah that we’ve been considering this Advent season, a vision that has the ability to move us beyond the mundane trappings of the holidays, to discover the “transformative compassion” of being in service to others, of welcoming and inviting all people to God’s table, of sharing the unconditional love of God and yes, the Unabashed Joy of Christmas with all whom we encounter in this world.
So, my prayer for all of you, as we approach the manger once again, is that you will open yourselves not only to the presence of the Sacred, but to the deeper joy and relentless hope of the season and that you will be compassionately transformed into instruments of peace and justice and healing as the on-going process of God Reign continues to indwell all of creation.[iv]
May it be so for you and for me. Amen and Amen
[ii] Ibid Matthews
[iii] Walter Brueggemann Isaiah 1-19, Westminster Bible Companion found at
(www. ucc.org/Samuel/ sermon/seeds) 2019