At last – something anticipating Christmas Joy! Indeed we are invited to prepare ourselves for eternal joy and gladness starting now despite whatever situation we find ourselves and our world in. (Advent Three. Matthew 11:2-11; Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10.)
The readings for Advent would be rather bleak if not for the passages from the prophet Isaiah and this week’s choice is particularly uplifting and encouraging. “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way ... no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray ... and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Words first spoken over a people exiled and with every reason to feel abandoned and without much joy coming their way are promised that as God’s chosen people they are called to a highway that will lead to their joyous return.
Maybe for me the most comforting part of the promise is that even fools shall not go astray so there is hope for me and all those I love yet fear for. It is not just that foolishness will not exclude us but the inference that it is in the travelling of the way, of the Holy Way, that we shall be redeemed, enlivened, restored to joy and gladness. It is not so much that joy is a reward for making the right decision about which path to travel on but that the travelling itself is the work. Like any who have walked a physical path of pilgrimage we know that the journey includes some of what we expected but often the real lessons and gifts come from the process of becoming open to the places and people one encounters. So for those of us who hear the promises of God and enter into whole of life, full bodied (even if old and feeble kneed) commitment, whole (even if faint) hearted following the Way then we shall be made new in the process.
Joy is something we taste now at moments but is also something that we are patiently waiting for, are travelling toward, and like the farmer in the image James shares we both wait for that which we cannot provide – the early and the late rains – but we also play our part as farmers do, working in harness with nature and the Creator.
I think it is also important that we do not delay joy until all is well for in this world it may never be during our life time. Also joy is nourishment as much as reward, medicine for the soul as much as time out from harsh reality, an essential element in the fabric of life now that shall only become more apparent with time and grace. When I worked as a social worker with refugees who were survivors of torture we came to understand that people needed not only serious therapy but also the release and joy of sports, of opportunities for cultural gatherings that included dance and singing, to write poetry as well as journal nightmares. Joy is essential to the thriving and healing of the human soul. It is not mere frivolity to seek joy.
So what joy did John the Baptist have? I don’t think John had much fun, certainly not in his last days, but I think that in his prison cell when he sent his question, that we all ask at some point, “Are you the one or should I look for another?” and Jesus sent an answer in the words of Isaiah, that John knew that his life had been on the right path, that he had played his role, and that all he had been through had great meaning. I hope that brought him great peace and deep joy to know that he was who he was called to be, that his faithfulness had helped announce and make possible the anointed one of God and therefore the good news for all. And as one who loves the wilderness myself, I trust that John experienced the deep joy of being in communion with nature and the Creator for most of his life.
It is confounding that some people’s lives seem so easy and richly rewarded while others seem to have much struggle and suffering for reasons that are not fair or even discernable. So these promises of God that even fools shall not lose their way and will come to know joy and gladness requires great hopefulness and daring on our part. Indeed maybe only our whole hearted participation shall ensure that such joy comes to pass.
So as we approach the season of celebrating the coming of God among us as one of us, let us open the eyes of our hearts to the goodness and gladness that is already here and take courage to journey on through what is hard; let us open the eyes of our hearts to the suffering of others and take every opportunity to bring relief and joy to others; and let us persevere in working toward the restoring of God’s precious world where joy and gladness have reason to abound. For each of us that may look a little different but it may help to literally look around your life and your neighbourhood and see what is good, giving thanks and adding your energy and applause to amplify what is good; it may mean searching your heart and your address book to remember who might be in want of a word of kindness and encouragement – a phone call or a card or better still a visit; and where in the world needs your generous attention with prayer and donation, volunteering and promoting; and most of all maybe we need to open our hearts and our longings and fears to the God of promises inviting in the one who is gift.
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, come gladden our hearts with joy.