3 Advent A—12/15/19
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Pr. Scott Kramer
wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom.
Recently my wife and I made a visit to the Amazon Spheres. The Spheres sit in downtown Seattle–glass and steel geodesic bubbles that house four floors of subtropical garden. Admission is free but they are so popular that you have to book well in advance.
I love green living things, so I love the Spheres! But what I enjoyed just as much on our visit was planting myself in one of dozens of chairs there and watching people. Parents and children, older and younger, of all shapes and sizes and colors, strolling along paths winding through the Spheres with wonder, and a smile on their faces. I’ve seen this in other plant places, too: the Washington Park Arboretum, the Japanese Garden, the Chinese Garden, the Bellevue Botanical Garden, Kubota Garden, the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in February. And, I’ve become aware that I’m one of those people walking around with the silly smile on their faces!
I doubt that the Amazon Spheres would be as big a deal in some place like, say, San Diego. But here in the Northwest, when the days are shortest and the skies are cloudiest, they are a treasure!
The Third Sunday in Advent sticks out. Today is not a “blue candle” Sunday. Today, as we approach the shortest day of the year, we light the rose candle, a symbol of joy!
Joy for many is unexpected this time of year. It can seem out of place. When there’s so much in our lives and the world that feels frightening or discouraging, joy can seem forced, superficial, artificial. “Ho, ho, ho!”
But the stories of our faith, maybe especially during the season of Advent, push back against that. Our faith stories push back against superficiality, fear, resignation and despair. They do so, in part, by taking us deeper in our experience and understanding of joy.
Almost sixty-five years ago, C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled, “Surprised By Joy.” It recounts the story of his personal spiritual journey from atheism, to theism, to Christian faith. Lewis’ definition of joy is this: a deep longing for something so good and so high up it could not be explained with words. Christian joy is beyond words.
But we try! Listen to Mary’s song:
51You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit,52casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. 53You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
Now, think about that. How much of this describes Mary’s actual life? She’s young and she’s a girl–two strikes against her. Being single and pregnant doesn’t help. Her country is occupied by a brutal Empire. Her own king would end up hunting her down, until she escapes as a refugee to a foreign land. Eventually, she would witness the state execution of her oldest son.
The song that Mary sings is not a description of her life, or the reality in which she lives most days. Her song of joy is a vision of hope beyond words, which is nevertheless so close that she can taste it! It is a vision repeated in today’s psalm.
The prophet Isaiah captures a similar vision, beyond his people’s experience of captivity in Babylon: 1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom [there are those green living things again!]… 5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
John the Baptist’s life was no picnic. In today’s reading, John is languishing in prison. Discouraged and despairing, he nevertheless hears about Jesus and his work. “Are you the one who is to come, or, are we to wait for another?” he asks. Jesus replies, Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. John, the one who was called to prepare the way for Jesus, receives a gift: signposts of joy along the way!
Christian joy is not dependent on the circumstances of our lives, but on the God-given longing of our hearts–a longing beyond words. Like Mary, we catch glimpses of God’s vision. If it’s not something we can glimpse on our own, we ask for others to help us see. “Are you the one who is to come, or, are we to wait for another?”
In the life of Jesus, we find not the promised fulfillment of a world at peace, but a powerful glimpse of that vision in the life of one person. As we learn from the faith of Isaiah, Mary and John the Baptist, a glimpse can be enough. Not just a glimpse of some hoped-for future, but a world we share in building now.
Our longing for a world beyond words, as our scriptures declare, is nurtured through glimpses described in our Advent readings for today: glimpses of healing of human lives: in mind, body and spirit (Jesus). Glimpses of transformation of political and economic structures (Mary). And, glimpses through miracles of the natural world (Isaiah).
In this is a key to Christian joy: Joy for us is not simply the longing for something higher and better, beyond words. It is a glimpse of that vision in our own lives, and the world God loves.
This time of year, when I visit the Amazon Spheres, or the Garden Show or the Arboretum, I experience a bit of longing beyond words. The world outside hasn’t changed. The days are short. The nights are cold and long. The leaves are mostly gone. But as I glimpse living landscapes so full of life, I am part of it. I catch a sense of wonder and anticipation of a season beyond winter, beyond what I can see. And, long before then I am not merely waiting, but hard at work in our yard, experiencing the joy of getting my hands dirty, soil under my nails, digging, hauling manure and compost, planting, pruning and all the rest–even in winter!
Christian joy is a longing for—even a glimpse of–something so good and so high up that it’s beyond words. Here’s C.S. Lewis: Joy is like a “signpost” to those lost in the woods, pointing the way. The appearance of joy is not as important when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles.
May God’s beloved people today follow this “royal highway” and—like Isaiah, Mary, and John–recognize signposts of joy along the way!