Isaiah 35: 1-10

Advent 3A

December 15, 2019

Lincoln Street UMC, Portland, Oregon

Elizabeth Winslea

Do you ever have moments in your life when you aren’t sure why you have acted in the manner you did? When you surprised yourself with an extra expression of compassion for a stranger? Or when you startled yourself out of complacency to smile or offer a word of encouragement when you least expected it? Or when you couldn’t keep yourself from paying for the dinner at the table next yours? And you did it simply because there was this bubble of joy inside you that needed to express itself?

There sometimes comes upon us unsuppressed joy. It rides through us physically - you can feel it sometimes all the way out to your toes and finger tips. Often you just notice a lightness to your step and a quickness to your smile. And you don’t know why - this unabashed joy doesn’t usually make sense, comes in the middle of a hard day, or emotional pain, meets you at the street corners of ordinary and hum-drum. And yet there joy is, waiting to see you, waving its arms about wildly in order to get your attention.

It’s a gift that can come from many corners of life and find expression through each of us in our own individual ways, but we all know when it has struck. You can feel it and there’s something about this unabashed joy that just needs to find a way to be noticed, to dance and wriggle and get a chance to wave hi to the world.

And let’s be clear, this joy almost never makes sense. It comes upon us sometimes even in our most difficult moments - all the stranger for the context.

This morning, our reading from Isaiah 35 sounds familiar. We have heard this reading and others like it, as we dip in and out of this prophetic book throughout the lectionary cycle. The sense we lose, however, with this approach, is that while we are quite at home with Isaiah 35 and its general message, it is not at home where it stands in the text.

Most of the poetry of hope that we read from Isaiah comes from Second Isaiah,

meaning what scholars believe is a different author and a different time from First Isaiah. Second Isaiah is found in chapters 40 - 55.

First Isaiah has a much more grim focus, both foreshadowing and reflecting on the invasions from Assyria and Babylon. In fact, in the chapter just before our reading this morning we hear about

the slain being thrown into the streets,

the stench of corpses,

streams turning to pitch

and soil into sulphur.

Did I say grim? Perhaps apocalyptic is more apt.

In the chapter following is an historical accounting of the Assyrian army invading and conquering all twelve fortified cities of Judah and the following battle negotiations.

So tucked between these two dire chapters is the hopeful vision of all of creation singing for joy. As one scholar wrote it’s as if, “The Spirit hovered over the text and over the scribes: ‘Put it here,’ breathed the Spirit, ‘before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.’ So, here it is: a word that couldn’t wait until it might make more sense.”[1]

And that indeed is a lot of what unabashed joy teaches us. That we can shout for joy even when it doesn’t make sense. We can do loop-de-loop’s, like Berry’s great blue heron, without having to explain ourselves.[2]

When we try to live so that there is some sort of open conduit between us and God, when we try to foster that connection in whatever ways are at hand for us, then we become privy to a bottomless well of sustenance. That fosters deep, courageous, totally unabashed joy.

And friends, this joy indeed is a word, a life, out of place. More than a chapter that seems to have fallen into the wrong book, we will be seen as out of place or ridiculous - at best - by many who do not strive to view the world in this way. But we are rooted in a source that allows us to “speak a word out of place,”[3] to live a life out of place.

When we face hatred, greed, violence, corruption, bigotry, we can go the way of the world, wring our hands, get angry, or give up in despair. And sometimes we do.

But as people who practice Advent - who seek to prepare our own hearts and the world for the return of God, for the restoration of all creation - as people who practice Advent we get to open the lines to joy and opt to speak out of place and live out of place.

We joyfully opt to share more than makes sense to give.

We joyfully opt to open our homes to strangers.

We joyfully opt to spend our vocations bringing comfort and solace to the injured, the homeless, the lonely and scared.

We joyfully opt to meet each person as a Christ-child.

We joyfully opt to seek out moments of grace and reasons for thanksgiving.

We refuse to be cowered by the demons of life that tell us that the armies are at the back door and the rivers are running dry. And instead we tap deep into our Source of Life and find the ways and reasons to speak against the “data of the world.”[4] We get to “interrupt the narrative of despair” because we can’t “wait until it might make more sense.”[5]

That is Advent. We can’t wait for it to make more sense. Unabashed joy doesn’t always make sense. But we can work on our awareness, so that we know in our hearts that joy indeed makes more sense despite what the world tells us.

The time is now, to practice. Practice finding joy, even out of place in our lives. Not in denial of our hardships, but in acclamation of the Great Mystery who helps craft our lives.

How will you commit this week to speaking a word out of place? To living a life out of place? How will your life sing with unabashed joy?

Amen.

This sermon was written by Elizabeth Winslea and delivered on December 15, 2019 at Lincoln Street United Methodist Church. It is published here with the permission of the author. Please link back to this post and credit the author if you reprint or use any portion of it.


[1] Barbara Lundblad, Joe R. Engle Professor Emeritus of Preaching, Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY, as found at

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1941

[2]  From Joy: 100 Poems by Christian Wiman, Yale University Press, page 151, quoting Wendell Berry in The Long-Legged House.

[3] Lunblad

[4]  Adapted from a piece by Walter Bruggemann, quoted by Barbara Lundblad.

[5] Lundblad