December 15, 2019

Joy Shall Come in the Desert

Passage: Isaiah 35: 1-4; Matthew 11: 2-6

Synopsis: The Advent theme of “joy” is complicated by the underlying despair in our scripture texts and in our world. Advent joy is not a fake happiness but rather a joy that is deeper than the good times and the bad times that life metes out. Such joy lies in God and strengthens us in our love for the world. 


Our Advent theme of joy always gets more complicated than I assume. I look forward to preaching on joy but our lectionary texts pose a challenge, which I tend to forget from year to year. Ah yes, Isaiah, your image of the desert blooming and rejoicing is preceded by your description of how a fertile land ended up being a desert in the first place. And the text in the Gospel of Matthew begins with John the Baptist being locked in prison by cruel King Herod.


And this is supposed to be a sermon about joy. It’s not only those difficult scripture texts that create pause, it’s also the despair we struggle with in our lives and in our community. Health-care chaplain Celeste Kennel-Shank confides, “Hope and despair dance cheek to cheek around me often. I work with people who have been harmed by trauma from various sources, and recent months have been intense.”[1]


She knows that, as a caregiver for others, she needs to also care for herself. She explains, “When I begin to feel despair close by, I know the recommended practice is to find reasons for joy and gratitude, however small and temporary.”[2] She has led workshops on caring for oneself while caring for others and she reads and rereads books on preventing burnout. But she confesses:

Lately, if I’m honest, it’s not enough. God will bring the fullness of justice someday, yes. God is with us today, yes. But I confess that my hope begins to flag when gun violence continues despite grassroots prevention efforts, when members of my church are deported despite our protests, when the proposal to build a new ICE detention center is defeated in one town only to be accepted in another.


Celeste struggles with despair because she longs for such atrocities to end. Advocating for social and political change can feel futile. Too often, even the victories we do see are later reversed. It goes beyond that. We want our efforts to yield good results, yet we come face to face with our own limitations. But there’s hope—even in this.


We recognize that we need a power beyond ourselves. That’s what it means to place our trust in God. It also means we have not given up or become jaded and cynical. We’re still in the fight. We are not completely self-centered and do not exude a fake happiness that ignores the despair around us.  As pastor Barbara Gerlach explains:

I have little patience for the blind joy of those who fail to see the sufferings of the world. I am skeptical of those whose joy seems forced, happy no matter what befalls them. But there is another joy—deeper than the good times and bad times life metes out, stronger than our best attempts and sorest failings—a joy that lifts us when we cannot lift ourselves, a peace that grasps us and returns us renewed.[3]


I long for this kind of joy to center my life—a joy that’s deeper than my good times and bad times. As the pastor of our church, I have walked with many of you through good times and bad times. I have learned to know many of the personal struggles as well as the victories in our lives. Some of us have gone through deep valleys together.


Among the memories I’ll take with me are times when I hardly knew how to respond pastorally. As I look back on those times, several things especially stand out. One is that such struggles have drawn us closer together. Another is how resilient you have been. Yet another, is that you often ministered to me in my feeble efforts to be a caregiver.


Let’s put ourselves in the place of John the Baptist when he told his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah or if they should look for another. What was going on here? At Jesus baptism, John had declared, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Now he has questions.


John had always been blunt and called things as he saw them. He, therefore, bravely confronted King Herod about his cruelty and infidelity. Herod responded like bullies do; he arrested John and threw him in prison. Now, languishing in prison, John has doubts. Jesus doesn’t fit his vision of a messiah who will set things right and separate the wheat from the chaff.


Jesus doesn’t answer John’s question directly. Jesus tells John’s disciples to go tell him what they hear and see: “the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.” In a way, it’s not really an answer because John had already heard about Jesus’ healing ministry.


Given John’s notion of a messiah who will set things right, it may only have added further to his concern and confusion. Given his own precarious situation in prison, it definitely didn’t give him the security of certainty he may have been seeking. We don’t know how John responded when his disciples came back with their report. Did he have a premonition that he wouldn’t get out of prison alive? Did it change his understanding of Jesus and his messianic mission?


It’s not about asking God to set things right or trying to do it ourselves. Some things can’t be fixed no matter how hard we try. It then gets so tempting to apply persuasion and force in our effort to make things come out like we want. That’s our messianic temptation. It’s a lesson we need to learn as parents in our relationships with our children. They are their own people and not extensions of ourselves.


Taking this to a whole other level, I’ve been reading the recently released analysis about American mistakes in our 20 year war in Afghanistan. The takeaway is that one cannot impose democracy or good governance through military force. Even the strongest military in the world can’t do that. There’s so much ignorance and arrogance wrapped up in such efforts.


I began this sermon by commenting that Isaiah’s depiction of the desert blooming and rejoicing is preceded with an account of how a fertile land became a desert in the first place. There’s a deep wisdom in this, a wisdom that refugees and others who have had to completely start over can especially understand.


Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, a Catholic theologian, fled Cuba, along with her family when she was a teenager. She has known what it’s like to live as a foreigner in a strange land and to be afraid that your children will forget precious things about your native land and culture—that you will become a stranger to yourself.


She says she learned an important lesson from her mother who always reminded her family, “All we need to ask of God is to have health and strength to struggle. As long as we have what we need to struggle in life, we need ask for nothing else.” She says this has allowed her to be realistic—to understand that, for the vast majority of people, life is an ongoing struggle.


But above all it has made her realize that she can and should relish the struggle. The struggle is our life and God does not abandon us. It’s God who enables us to rebuild that which has been destroyed—to start again. This fits with Isaiah’s vision of the desert blooming.


Isaiah is writing to the Jewish exiles in Babylon who understand about starting over again from nothing. He tells them that in the desert there’s a highway, called the Way of Holiness. The redeemed shall walk on it with singing, “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (35: 10).


In this we see an intimate connection between joy and our capacity to enter into the suffering and struggles that people experience. As Barbara Gerlach explains:

Our deepest joy lies not in our circumstances, but in God. . . To know the joy that comes from God is not to be carried away in blissful happiness, but to be strengthened and deepened in our love for the world.[4]



[1] Celeste Kennel-Shank, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, (December 4, 2019): 18.

[2] Ibid.

[3] As quoted in Imaging the Word, vol. 1 (Cleveland, Pilgrim Press, 1994), 86.

[4] Ibid.

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