a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent on Isaiah 35:1-10 and James 5:7-10
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on December 12, 2010
This is a special Sunday for us in these Advent days, for today on the third Sunday of Advent we light that strange pink candle that stands so lonely among the deep rich blue of longing and hope that marks these days. Like that pink candle, today is a bit of a suspension of the introspective mood that marks most of Advent, for this is Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for “joy,” a time for celebration in the midst of a dark and uncertain season.
Our text from Isaiah suggests a bit of that joy for us, too. In the midst of the prophet’s relentless attacks on the people of Israel for their disobedience, simple stubbornness, and deep injustice, we find this little glimpse of hope for something new, a claim that one day things will be different and all people will cry out with a new song of joy and hope. The prophet makes it clear that things will be strangely different in this day to come. The wilderness and the desert will no longer be places for the outcast but will instead be filled with the glory of God. The weak and suffering will long for wholeness no more, for they will be made strong by the power of God. In this day to come, human bodies will work as they were intended as God eases pain once and for all. This way of life will not be difficult to find – it will be easily accessible by the best road imaginable, with God’s people always welcome and safe there, rejoicing and giving thanks to God at every step of the journey, with “everlasting joy… upon their heads” for all time thanks to the provision of God.
Now this joy that Isaiah describes is a bit beyond our imagination, let alone our immediate understanding – but we surely have had glimpses of this kind of joy here and there in our lives. As I think back over the last year, I must say that one of my greatest joys came back in July when Julie and I spent a week at St. Olaf College for their Conference on Worship, Theology, and the Arts. I’ve long admired St. Olaf from afar, but the sheer joy we found as we walked into that incredible place and shared such wonderful experiences of worship and music is some of the deepest joy I have known in a long time.
But what about you? Where have you seen joy at its fullest in these days? Where have you come closest to the kind of joy that Isaiah promises will mark all of our days? Take a minute or two to reflect and share your joy with someone near you, then we’ll come back together with a bit of singing. For blog readers, post in the comments!
(pause for conversation, concluded by singing “He Came Down” by John Bell)
Today, when we celebrate a bit of our joy in this season, we remember that even the greatest joy we know now is not complete. There is something more ahead. God is not done with the world quite yet. As amazing and joyous as Christmas is, there is more joy to come. But therein lies what makes this joy all the more difficult – it is not here yet. The world does not work as God intends all the time. Pain and sorrow and suffering and sighing are very much before us. Sometimes when it does come, joy disappears all too quickly and leaves us wanting and waiting for more.
And it is for moments like these that our reading from James this morning speaks so loudly to us: be patient. In fact, he says it four times in these four verses: be patient! He and his first readers knew that there was something more ahead, but like us they all too quickly recognized that something was missing from the world. In days of waiting, it is easy to give up, but James urges us to wait patiently, “for the coming of the Lord is near.” All the things that Isaiah promised and more will come true soon. Things will work as God intends. Pain and sorrow and suffering and sighing will be a thing of the past. And joy will be at its fullest, for God will be among us once again as Christ returns to live and reign among us forever and ever. But in the meantime, we must be patient.
It’s not quite as easy for me to be patient as it is for me to be joyful. Sure, it’s hard to wait on Christmas sometimes, but I think this kind of patience and waiting is even tougher than that. As I think back on the Advent season in recent years in my life, I remember so often waiting for something or other to come along – and year after year I find myself still waiting for so many of the same things, still frustrated by things too absent or too present in my life, still longing for that promised joy to become real – but it doesn’t.
What are you waiting patiently for this Advent season? How can you be reassured in the coming of the Lord that this need will be fulfilled? Take a moment and think on these things, and share with your neighbor again if you like before we come back together with a bit more singing. For blog readers, post in the comments!
(pause for conversation, concluded by singing “He Came Down”)
In these Advent days, I think we find a strange mix of patience and joy, a blend of these very different emotions as we walk with anticipation and hope into the incredible fullness of life that God intends. Our third text this morning blends patience and joy as well as any I know as it looks forward to that new thing that God is doing even now. We didn’t even really read it, but we sang it in our last hymn – this beautiful hymn is actually a powerful setting of the great, joyous text of Mary’s Song, an outburst of praise offered after encountering the angel who told her she would bear a son and name him Jesus and after sharing a sacred moment with her relative Elizabeth who was also bearing a strange and unexpected child.
Mary’s Song, in this great setting by Irishman Rory Cooney, shouts forth immediately with great joy for the many blessings God has showered on Mary and the people – but then it reminds us that “wondrous things” come “to the ones who wait.” Mary sees things changing – but they are not fully real yet.
“Could the world be about to turn?” she asks in the words of our song. There are incredible marks of God’s justice ahead, worthy of great rejoicing even now, even though they are not all real yet. There are amazing possibilities for God’s way to take hold, so awesome that she can sing praise for them even though their fullness is still far off. And even amidst the turmoil and waiting of the world, Mary rejoices because God “holds us fast” as we bear the promise from generation to generation until we must be patient no longer.
And so my friends, it is this kind of joy we find before us today – joy not fully revealed, joy still strangely incomplete, joy still awaiting its full revelation in Christmas and to the end of the world. But this joy nonetheless breaks into our waiting – our stubbornness, our frustration, our despair, our pain, our doubt, our certainty, our uncertainty, all the things that mark this season and all our days – and then this joy starts to turn things around. We know that Christmas and all its glory and hope lies ahead, but we must still wait for the even greater glory yet to come, when all things will be made new, the world is turned around, and rejoicing will be all we do.
May God strengthen us in our waiting and sustain us in our rejoicing until we know the fullness of God’s joy each and every day. Lord, come quickly! Amen.