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“Sign Posts”– Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11– Dec. 11, 2016

A woman who was cleaning out boxes and closets found her diary from a year that had been particularly hard, full of depression, shame, anxiety, and confusion. As she flipped through the pages she found one on which she had written in big letters– “I WANT MY JOY BACK!” underline, underline, underline. (Elizabeth Gilbert, Facebook post)

“I want my joy back.” My guess is there are a lot of us who are saying the same thing this year. There’s a reason we light candles, sing, and gather together this time of year–December is DARK and cold in the Northern Hemisphere! Our culture counteracts by hyping up expectations of happiness found in piles of presents,”glossy, manipulative TV specials,” [Katie Hines-Shah, christiancentury, 11/11/16] perfect holiday meals, and blissful family gatherings. With those expectations, it’s no wonder we’re stressed and inevitably disappointed. The turkey is dry, travel to relatives is a hassle, the kids (and we) are over-sugared and under-slept.

The church can add to those disappointments too. We get jazz when we long for Gregorian chant flat–or the other way around–, the sermon is flat or too “woo woo,” there aren’t enough kids, the language of the Scripture readings has all been changed, or it hasn’t been changed since the 1600’s. We have to sing Advent carols for weeks when we want to sing Christmas carols. I want my joy back.

Of course, in the scheme of things, those are all relatively minor challenges to contend with. Therapists, doctors, and pastors know that this is a tough time of year for lots of people. The loss of loved ones seems particularly painful, as we adjust the number of settings at the table, or remember celebrations of years past. Debt and job loss glare at us. Our aches and pains and infirmities remind us of our mortality.

And 2016 has been a tough year on the political scene. We have all breathed the toxic fumes of hatred, prejudice, fear, accusations, name-calling, predictions of doom. Friends and family members seem like strangers as we occupy opposite political positions. Places of safety and renewing now seem fraught with tension and anxiety, and who knows what the future will bring? I want my joy back.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,” the prophet Isaiah sings, “the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing…A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.” If only we could program “the Holy Way” into our internal GPS and be led step by step to that highway of rejoicing! The question is, though, do we really want to go there?

For the first time in a long time–maybe ever–I read the two chapters just before this 35th chapter in Isaiah, and I have to say that by the time I got to chapter 35, I heard that good news about the desert blossoming as never before. Isaiah has been talking about utter devastation, about the vengeance of the Lord, about how furious God is with the nations for their faithlessness, their cruelty, their greed, their injustice, their exploitation of the earth. (And who can blame God, then or now?) God will execute a scorched earth policy, Isaiah says, in essence, so that the only inhabitants will be the owls and jackals, and thorns will cover the earth. It’s like one of those dark fairy tales, only who knows where or if the sleeping princess lies amidst the brambles?

“Seek and read from the book of the Lord,” Isaiah says. After all this devastation, God will gather together a remnant. And then,

The wilderness and the dry land shall rejoice…Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God….Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert….A highway shall be there, called the Holy Way…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.”

“In the bleak midwinter,” we sing, “heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign…”

I want my joy back.

Just above that scribble “I WANT MY JOY BACK!” the woman saw that she had written, “…for how long?” For how long will this sorrow or frustration or despair or longing or depression last? “How long, O Lord?”

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” That’s the question that John sent to Jesus from the bleakness of a dark prison cell. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” It’s heartbreaking to hear John ask that, John who was so convinced out there in the wilderness as he shouted until he was hoarse that God’s anointed one was coming, that the kingdom of God was at hand, that there was the fierce urgency of now. That conviction and courage had compelled John to speak the hard truth to Herod, about his philandering ways, and now here was John squatting in a dank, rat-infested prison cell. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” How long?

Had John staked his life on the wrong promise, the wrong person? For it certainly seemed as though nothing had changed. Guys like Herod were in office, still on the throne, and people like John were rotting in prison. [Debie Thomas, journeywithjesus, 12/4/16] This servant of God, prophet of the Almighty, who had seemed so full of certainty now seemed so full of doubt. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?”

Jesus doesn’t receive John’s question with judgment or condemnation, though. One commentator says it’s almost relief. “OK, good. You’re willing at last to let go of your preconceptions. You’re ready for the saving work of disillusionment. Now you can get to know me–the real me.” [Thomas, op cit.] “Tell him what you’ve seen,” he tells John’s messengers. Not some title or slogan or pronouncement, but look at what’s happened, what’s emerging in the lives of ordinary people. Not the fake news, but the real news.

And Jesus says to those around him, “What did you go out into the desert to see, when you went to see the John the Baptist? Someone in soft robes? In other words, a celebrity? They’re in royal palaces, in towers of power. If that’s who you’re seeking, you’ll always be taken in by them and duped. Rather, “this is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’” And even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than this, Jesus said. You can do the same thing. You too can prepare the way of God.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” John’s question from prison haunts us. He would soon be killed senselessly from a ridiculous promise of Herod to a woman he was trying to impress, and Jesus too would soon enough be in prison and killed by the powers that be. But John, and maybe Jesus himself, did not know what we know, which is how the story ends–or rather, doesn’t. That the prison cell and the gruesome platter, the cross and the dark tomb do not have the last word, that our stories only find their completion in the presence of God.

I WANT MY JOY BACK. The woman who had scrawled that in her diary recognized it as “a cry of stubborn desire” in the midst of her anger and frustration. It was that stubborn desire for joy that eventually enabled her to scrabble her way out, to recognize what she needed to let go of and what she needed to cling on to.

Martha Beck, author and life coach, says that “the Universe is constantly trying to use your JOY as a way of communicating your destiny to you.” She explains:

If you feel a hint of joy, that means you’re on the right track. If not, you’re going in the wrong direction. The scattered moments of joy that you feel in your life are meant to be clues. THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING; THIS IS THE KIND OF PERSON YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE WITH; THIS IS HOW YOU ARE MEANT TO FEEL. [Martha says that] if we refuse to seek joy, believe in joy, trust joy, and follow our joy–then the Universe will resort to using pain and suffering to try to get our attention…but God would really rather communicate your destiny to you through joy. So try that first. Look for crumbs of joy, and trust them. [Elizabeth Gilbert, FB]

Look for crumbs of joy. Remember that joy isn’t that trivial, glittery stuff that advertisers would lead you to believe can be bought. My teacher Tal Ben-Shahar says that joy is the intersection of deep pleasure and deep meaning. John the Baptist knew something hard and flinty about joy, left behind all the trappings of what passed for joy in his culture, and, we

believe, at last was received into the Presence of Joy and Love.

The One who did come, and who is always coming into the world, knew that the only joy worth reaching for, worth giving your life for, is God’s joy–that “God’s joy and our well-being are interconnected” [Bruce Epperly, Adventurous Lectionary, 12/16], that there are, indeed, crumbs of joy strewn along our path, if we would only notice them and take them in–the touch of a loved one’s hand, the face of a child caught up in wonder, the company of loving friends, burying your face into the neck of a dog, the smell of balsam, the satisfaction of service, the thrill of doing a random act of kindness, savoring small bites of delicious food, listening to or making music that feeds your soul.

I WANT GOD’S JOY!–which is my true joy. May that be all we really want for Christmas this year. So may we find it. Amen, and amen.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark

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