Yr A ~ Advent 3 ~ Isaiah 35:1-10
I should probably begin by telling you that this chapter in Isaiah, this profoundly joyful and optimistic chapter, is both preceded and followed by chapter after chapter of unrelenting doom and gloom. I mean, it’s really nasty. It’s bad enough the Israelites are in exile but to add insult to injury they are getting a real pounding from the prophet. And then, out of nowhere, like an oasis in the middle of a barren desert, we find chapter 35.
To be exiled is to be displaced from your homeland and heartland. Exile is equated with being in the desert – the wilderness. It’s a dangerous, risky place to be. Resources are scarce. The future is quite uncertain.
But it’s also liminal space! Those uncomfortable places are also places of tremendous potential – for growth, for transformation.
Jacob in the wilderness had a dream and realized that God was with him all along.
Jesus, driven to the wilderness after his baptism, emerged transformed for his public ministry.
Faith United started out in the wilderness.
There was a joyful dream of a new future, but it began in the risky wilderness of selling buildings and meeting in an elementary school for a season. That’s like exile – displaced from your heartland, yearning for a return, not necessarily to exactly the same place but a return to normality, to civilization, out of the wilderness.
I bet you heard more than a few words of hope, and peace, and joy in the midst of your exile in the wilderness of the school where you worshipped until this building came to be.
Some of us, maybe most of us, can speak of a time when we walked away from our church for whatever reasons. A time when we personally experienced exile from our faith life. And over time, considering that you’re here today, you found God’s highway home. Somehow your desert blossomed and water flowed in your wilderness. Somehow there was healing. And in the return there was joyfulness.
That’s what Isaiah was preaching about. He spoke of the tremendous gladness and joy of coming out of exile. That your place or situation can become transformed and the world would be filled with joy and gladness and leaping and singing.
And I hope you noticed that right in the middle of this joy-filled chapter are some of my favourite faith words:
Isaiah 35:4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.
Don’t be afraid. God is here. God is present. Surely God is in this place. But when you’re in exile sometimes you forget that.
Or worse still, what if you’ve never heard that before?
People out there may feel exiled for all sorts of reasons. Life can be complicated, and tough at times. Some may even feel exiled from this place. Maybe they had a bad church experience or maybe they were forced to go as kids and it bored them out of their minds. And that makes me sad, because they were once here, or in a place just like this, and we had a chance, and we blew it.
But what makes me even sadder is that large and growing group of people who have never gone to church or really even considered it because even though they’ve never been here they have a clear vision in their minds of what they think goes on here and what they think we might believe. And from everything they’ve heard (or chosen to hear) they’re convinced that even though they instinctively know they need something spiritual there’s nothing here to help them as they struggle to navigate this seemingly cold and dark world.
You can’t be exiled from a place you have never been connected to.
The Israelites were lamenting the loss of their homeland, their heartland, their spiritual centre.
Folks “out there” don’t have a deep, heartfelt connection to this place, but in a way they’re still exiled from it, from God, and I think it’s largely based on a misconception – and it’s the same misconception that the Israelites had.
The Israelites felt like they were in this situation because they had sinned against God, and God was looking on them disfavourably and so was punishing them via an invading army. Now, we know that is incorrect. It’s simply flat out wrong.
God doesn’t punish.
God only loves.
Assigning divine intent to the negative things that happen to you is a very sad and extremely damaging theological concept. With the ancient Israelites this can be understood because their metaphysics were not well developed and their sense of the world was very limited.
But what about today?
How did the folks in our neighbourhoods and our families acquire that same misconception? – that God is judgmental and punishing? How did they form such a clear picture of what we aren’t about?
Could it be because we’ve done such a terrible job of telling them what we are about?
Could it be that given our silence they had no choice but to fill in the blanks with the worst of what they see grabbing the news headlines?
Could it be that WE exiled them – not with sins of commission but with sins of omission?
And what’s even worse than all that, when we did summon up enough courage to say something about faith, or church, or theology, we tended to lead with fear and the judgmental morality police telling everyone they were going to hell if they didn’t toe our line.
I wouldn’t want anything to do with that god either.
For far too long the only thing we were selling was a transactional God who looked a lot more like Santa Claus with a bad attitude, judging who’s naughty and nice, than anything resembling the God of Infinite Love that we should be talking about.
We’re not about judgment – we’re about joy!
God does not throw bad stuff at us to make us stronger.
God does not punish us with bad things happening to scare us into behaving better.
God does not cause our darkness.
What God does is speak love and light into the darkness that is part of human life.
God speaks Presence into loneliness.
God speaks hope into struggle.
God speaks peace into the busyness and overwhelming-ness of life.
God speaks joy into suffering – and remember, a really helpful definition of suffering is when you feel like you are not in control – so when you’re suffering, when life is feeling beyond your control and everything seems stacked against you – like the Israelites, like being in exile – God speaks joy into you and draws you home.
Joy doesn’t mean to put on a happy face despite dire circumstances – it means that deep in your Spirit you are in communion with the Holy Mystery we call God and that communion fills you with love, light, hope, and peace and fills you with joyfulness regardless of your circumstances.
After chapter after chapter of hearing about doom and gloom Isaiah speaks a word from God about joy. A joy so all-encompassing that even the environment is healed, people are made whole, and the way home to the heart of God’s loving Presence is made easy.
Unfortunately, that word didn’t magically remove the Israelites from exile. There were still several chapters of doom and gloom to live through.
But it is a reminder in the darkness that the darkness is not the final word.
Love and light and communion are the final words and remembering that they never disappear even when the darkness seems stronger at the moment is what joyfulness is all about.
Now, what do you think would happen if we talked about that “out there” with people?
What if we centred our faith-talk (our faith-vertising!) on joy instead of judgment?
Don’t you think they’re immersed in doom and gloom already?
Don’t you think they read the news, follow world events, feel the struggle in their own day-to-day living?
They’ve had chapter after chapter of tough stuff, and more is on the horizon. I guarantee you the last thing they’re looking for is a word of judgment from the morality police.
And I also guarantee you that a word of joy would bring them the same light that it brings you.
Somehow you lot have battled through the negativity and found a way to hear joy instead of judgment.
You gather here each week and you are renewed, and filled with more light and love and hope and peace and joy and it lifts your Spirit and energizes your journey.
Don’t you think “they” would benefit from those things too?
Don’t you think this might be what Isaiah was talking about when he prophesied about people returning (or turning) to God, to come to God’s Presence with singing; that everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; that they shall obtain joy and gladness, and that sorrow and sighing shall flee away? (v.10)
The thing is, the bottom line is, they’re not going to come to that realization on their own. We’ve been here almost 20 years now – we built it – and they came, well, some did, but not most. And if they do come we don’t want them to come just to get their “fire insurance”, or to pay our bills – we want them to join us as fellow journeyers, and for this place to be a hothouse for spiritual deepening for the benefit of the world.
Here it is. If we want the tone of the discussion to change from judgment to joy, you and you and you and you and you and you and I are the ones who are going to have to change it.
Like Isaiah, we are called to speak God’s joy into the doom and gloom of the world. To remind the people that they are not alone.
They live in God’s world. And that world is love and light.
The government is building a highway a couple hundred metres from here. It doesn’t look like much now – mostly dirt and mess – but in time it will be a sight to behold. And it will enable people to more easily make their journey.
Who’s going to build the highway to Faith?
And we are!
And as we learn how to do it, as we learn how to speak joy to the world, it will be pretty messy. But it will be a sight to behold!
Let this season of anticipation and wonder move your Spirit and your awareness to look for ways where you can be Isaiah – bringer of a word of joy amid the darkness. In fact, now’s the perfect time – because they’re already speaking our language at Christmas time. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat muted by our Frankenstein monster.
It’s no wonder that Santa Claus, who rewards the good and punishes the bad, has emerged as the icon of Christmas. We did that when we emphasized judgment instead of joy. So maybe we can be the ones to change it again. If we can speak of the joy we await and celebrate this season – of God’s constant presence embodied and incarnated in Jesus that is in turn embodied and incarnated in us – perhaps we can move from dreaming about joy to living it.
The season of Advent reminds us of how our Christian journey starts. We acknowledge our sense of exile, we acknowledge the darkness around us, and into that darkness we wait for God to speak light and love. And Jesus comes, and he too speaks light and love into us and leads us on the highway to God’s Presence. And we follow.
And now, once exiled but now filled with Presence and joy, it’s our turn to speak. Someone out there is waiting for you to speak a glimmer of light into their time of exile.
Choose your words joyfully!