A Dream of Joy

Isaiah 35, Luke 1:46b-55
Today marks the third Sunday of Advent when we light the candle of Joy, so let’s talk about the joy of the Lord. To read this passage from Isaiah is to find such a vision of joy, wonder, and peace that I’m tempted to simply read it and stop, letting it speak for itself. But perhaps I can help it resonate just a bit.

In it, God tells us about a time and place that feel like a distant dream, a desert turned blooming and green; a land of safety, healing and holiness; and a highway so straight and level that not even fools go astray. Redemption glows in the transformation of suffering and fear to health and peace. Fractured bodies, hearts, and families are made whole. Grace is extended, not only to us as a people, but also to the whole of creation. There is still hope. God has not abandoned us, but awaits the right day and time to make everything new and whole again. Then the entire world will rejoice.

These are predictions of what Jesus would accomplish during his time in Israel and will again, even more dramatically and fully at the end of days. Each time he comes, the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame will leap, and the fearful will be saved, reassured by the knowledge of the saving grace and power of the Lord. The hope of the Messiah’s triumphant return outshines the waking trials of life and is a glorious dream from which we have no desire to wake. All of creation will be renewed. Gladness and joy will come running up behind us like happy children who jump up and down wanting to play. It was true when Jesus walked the earth. It is a dream on which we can meditate while we wait for it to become a reality. As Christians, we cherish our belief that this dream came true through Christ to bring us salvation and will happen again even more graciously in the future.

People have been preaching about this dream of joyous renewal for centuries. Each time they must rethink the trajectory of the promise, the time frame God hinted at but hasn’t made clear. I won’t try to second guess God’s plan. While we wait, we can watch for signs that give us hope. God isn’t dead, or even on vacation.

We catch glimpses of this kind of joy in the best and deepest moments of our lives now. Unlike happiness, which depends on what “happens” to you, something you’d expect to feel at a wedding, a graduation or another celebration, joy can be unexpected.  It might come when we suddenly run into a person we love dearly but didn’t expect to see, like a small surprise party. Or when you find a new love when you thought you were past the idea of romance. It might be a thoughtful gift from someone who doesn’t usually buy you anything. Or any expression of love and appreciation, especially from someone you care about. It can come from taking the time to appreciate the blessings we already enjoy, like hot and cold running water, electric lights, and the beauty of our natural world, gifts we tend to take for granted.

Joy descends when you feel grateful, when you focus on your profound belief in a God who loves you and has a good plan for you despite your flaws and shortcomings. Joy can come when you sing praises, when you can be a blessing to others, or when something makes you laugh. It comes when you confess your sins and can let them go, feeling washed clean, truly forgiven.
The joy of the Lord is our strength, and it comes from our relationship with the Creator when we share our lives with God. God still and always cares deeply about us. We can be surprised by joy even in the darkest times when God’s love gleams through the clouds like a sunbeam, often in the form of someone else who is sent by God to remind you of that love.

It’s okay if you haven’t experienced much joy recently, if that dream is so distant that it seems like a fairy tale. It might even sound callous for me to talk about joy in the current state of the world. If you’re hurting and doubtful in the middle of the Christmas season, it can be an especially painful contrast with the cheerful doings around you. As someone who has dealt with sadness and grief in my life, I do understand.

That’s why I invite you to the Blue Christmas Service on Thursday at three o’clock here in the sanctuary. I hope it will be a healing time for those who attend, or at the very least, a relief from hearing Jingle Bells. Christians aren’t required to smile all the time, to have a perpetually optimistic and positive demeanor. Life has its ups and downs. We can acknowledge our blues together and comfort each other.

In the meantime, this passage from Isaiah can be a road sign pointing to the coming of a better day, a dream that will become our reality. Our God, our Jesus, will come to us again, full of grace, truth, and limitless, everlasting joy. Jesus knows us intimately, because he has been one of us, complete with all our bodily aches and pains, heartaches and joys. The day is coming when He will make all things new. We’ll wake up from the dream to find it fulfilled. We’ll enjoy it together, singing and dancing with abandon, no longer limited by our flesh or the concerns of this life. Joy will be everywhere and in everyone.

Because we know that Christ came and was raised to newness of life, we know that our belief makes the same transformation possible for us. That’s our deepest source of joy.

Consider the song Mary sang when an angel appeared out of nowhere and gave her the news that she would bear the Messiah. If her faith had been smaller, she might have reacted with all her doubts about the strange situation, an announcement from a mysterious stranger named Gabriel. To be a young woman in those times who turns up pregnant, even with a fiancé waiting to marry her, was to be the subject of ridicule and disgrace. She knew there was a good chance that even Joseph wouldn’t believe that her pregnancy was a miracle. After all, he thought to “put her away quietly” until an angel appeared to him also to reassure him. Mary was told, not asked, that she would bear a son for God. And how did she react? With worry? With panic? NO! With joy!

She chose to foresee the blessings that would come from bearing such a child, not just for her as a mother, but for the entire world. She had paid attention to the rabbi all her life, and heard God’s promises for Israel. Mary knew, without any doubt, that this pregnancy, this child, this Messiah, would be a great blessing. She sang for joy!

She had a vision, a dream, where she saw the world being turned upside down, the mighty brought low, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled and the rich sent away to fend for themselves. The little people with no hope would be raised to gladness. After all, she lived in a small town in the backwaters of the Roman empire. She was a nobody, one of the little people. And the Archangel Gabriel bowed down to her! If she could be selected for the honor of bearing our savior, anything was possible, and anyone could be blessed, no matter how wretched their circumstances.

Sounds like something she passed on to Jesus. Psychologists say 90% of what children learn comes from role modeling, watching how the adults around them behave. When a parent says, “Do as I say, not as I do,” they fail utterly.

Who knows with Jesus how much came from Mary and how much from God? The point is that God chose a woman to bear and parent Jesus who had the right stuff, a woman of integrity and deep faith, a woman who would demonstrate to her son how to accept God’s gifts and plans without argument, without whining, and with gratitude for the results. Her song contained many of the same ideas that Jesus later preached.

No wonder Jesus was able to enjoy a good meal with his friends, to laugh and take time for others in the midst of his ministry, despite knowing what he would suffer. Like Mary, he saw the end from the beginning, the joy that is available to everyone in the future God has planned. The joy of the Lord. It was His strength, and it’s ours. And it’s more than a dream. It’s a promise.

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