Those the LORD has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. (Isaiah 35.10)
It sounds trite to say Maria, our housekeeper, is like family, yet she is. She’s shown up every Tuesday for the past 16 years to set our house straight. With Walt and me both working from home, she seldom has the place to herself. Over the years, Tuesdays have evolved into a wonderful sort of unhurried family time. While the three of us go about our respective tasks, we stop for long chats about how her family's doing, what’s going on with us, current events, and so on. We ride out the seasons together: the school year, holidays, and my work’s annual cycle—which invariably speeds up between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day.
Last week, Maria came in to find me already in the second hour of a conference call. I’d been at my desk since 4:30, playing catch-up on what time didn’t permit me to finish on Monday, hoping to get a jump on Tuesday’s madness. After the call, I dashed through the kitchen for a fresh cup of coffee en route to a fast shower before running off to a meeting. Maria said, “Oh my God”—her favorite pet phrase—“every year like this, it’s so crazy for you!” We laughed when I remarked that growing older doesn’t help. “Everything is harder,” she said, shaking her head. I took a deep breath. “I’m weary, Maria. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll make it.” Only Maria could tell me, “I know,” with enough empathy and reassurance to convince me she understood, but more than that, had faith in me. She went back to what she was doing. So did I. Yet somewhere between the kitchen and shower, my steps picked up. The weight of another grueling day lightened. “I can do this,” I told myself. The joy came back to the job.
Today’s Advent readings invite us to contemplate joy—to expect it, prepare for it, and practice it. After wrestling with hope and peace these past two weeks, one imagines thinking about joy would be a respite from the heavier stuff. Not really. Advent sets joy in a context where none seems to exist. It dares us to ride out our seasons, having faith while we await the promise of joy together. Both the Gospel and Old Testament texts feel particularly poignant by calling to us from very dark, grim places where weariness and the weight of what lies ahead offer no sign of joy. Nonetheless, they teach us it's there, ready to happen when we say, "We can do this."
Matthew 11 starts with John the Baptist in prison. His ministry has reached its nadir. It’s tough for him to accept, especially since Jesus’s reputation as a Healer and Teacher continues to grow. Questions that never would have taunted John in his glory days echo in his head. Was he too hasty in declaring Jesus the Messiah? Has Jesus become enamored with popularity and lost His way? Why hasn’t He intervened? John sends his disciples to ask, “Are You the Promised One, or should we wait for another?” Jesus overlooks the question’s impudence and responds to its despondency: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (v4-6)
Jesus chooses His words so John will recognize their source: Isaiah 35’s great promise of joy to a people under siege. Trapped between warring enemies, they’ve lost their land and many of their family are imprisoned in exile. “Your God will come,” verse 4 pledges. “He will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Verses 5-6 predict, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” Jesus asks John, “Remember this? It’s happening,” prompting John to recall the entire passage and claim all of its promises, down to the final one: “Those the LORD has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” (v10) Jesus wants John to realize the promise is being fulfilled even as he waits. Joy has come.
Let Joy Happen
Isaiah 35 merits attention for its candid conclusion. Until its last sentence, it reads like a Disney spectacle. The wilderness blooms into a flower field. Disabled people regain their faculties and break into song and dance. Fresh springs burst through sun-baked ground. Lions, jackals, and ravenous beasts vanish. A new road paves the way for the exiles’ return. They enter Jerusalem singing happily ever. If this were a Disney film, that would be that. Yet Isaiah’s final statement wants to tell us something very real about joy. The Jerusalem the exiles enter won’t be what they left or dreamt of during captivity. They’ll return to ruins. Restoring its pre-war beauty will be a grueling task. Weariness from the season they’ve just endured will be amplified by the hard work ahead. Joy will dissipate swiftly. That’s why Isaiah ends with one final promise: Gladness and joy will overtake them, proceeding ahead of them to drive out sorrow and despair. The exiles’ eyes will be opened to see joy in devastation; their ears will hear joy in clamor; joy will heal their city’s paralysis. As living proof of God’s faithfulness, they’ll expect to be overtaken by joy and, as they work, they’ll let joy happen.
This is Advent’s message to us. Expect joy to overtake you. Let joy happen. Weariness isn’t for the weak. They give up before things get truly exhausting. As it turns out, joy isn’t for the weak, either. It takes tremendous courage and fortitude to ride out the season, holding with all one’s strength to joy’s promise. It demands great vision to face disappointments and losses with confidence we’ll be overtaken by joy. Advent’s message goes beyond the promise of joy. It assures us joy is already in front of us to restore our sight and hearing, to heal our paralysis and revive our spirits. When we’re weary from yesterday’s toil and disheartened by today’s tasks, we remember God’s promises are true. Joy has come. It has overtaken us. Let joy happen.
Though we may be weary from what’s behind us, God promises joy will overtake us, going before us to restore our senses, heal our paralysis, and revive our spirits.
Postscript: "Center of My Joy"
THE CENTER OF MY JOY
Jesus, You're the center of my joy
All that's good and perfect comes from You
You're the heart of my contentment
Hope for all I do
Jesus, You're the center of my joy
When I've lost my direction
You're the compass for my way
You're the fire and lights when nights are long and cold
In sadness You are the laughter that shatters all my fear
When I'm all alone, Your hand is there to hold.
Jesus, You're the center of my joy...
You are why I find pleasure
In the simple things in life
You're the music in the meadows and the streams
The voices of the children, my family and my home
You're the Source and Finish of my highest dreams
Jesus, You're the center of my joy...