Saturday, December 18, 2010


We will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name. Restore us, LORD God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved. (Psalm 80.18-19)

Confession, Prayer, and Promise

“Revival” is a loaded word for me, remarkable for its distinct meanings in several circles. To Fundamentalist family and friends, it’s a term for spiritual course correction. In that circle, “revival” means “back to basics.” Among creative colleagues, it means using an outdated medium or marketing technique for novelty’s sake. We file “revival” under “Everything Old is New Again.” When I’m with theater people, “revival” means restaging a previously produced play. Their revivals—the best of them, at least—uncover current relevance in outdated works. The underpinning concept of renewal applies all around. Yet nuances in each usage contain starkly unique implications. Broadly put, Fundamentalist revivals reverse; marketing revivals reintroduce; theatrical revivals reimagine. So, when "revival" turned up in tomorrow's readings, I needed to step away from the phrase and reconsider it in a new context.

The Advent thread is apparent in the readings. The Old Testament texts anticipate the coming of “God’s Son,” while the New Testament declares Jesus is God’s Son. Isaiah and Matthew (quoting Isaiah) have the Christmas edge: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son.” But Nativity’s nexus is tucked into Psalm 80’s prayer for revival. The poem repeats one chorus three times, each in subtly altered form. At first, it’s “Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” (v3) The second calls on “God Almighty.” (v7) The final chorus begins, “Restore us, LORD God Almighty.” (v19) On its surface, the poem is a plea for salvation, not much different from other laments crowding the Psalms’ pages. Still, the refrain’s evolution tells us something is going on. The cries sound more desperate as the appellation for God gains gravity.

The poet’s energy flags as he goes. In verse 2, he writes, “Awaken your might; come and save us,” essentially asking, Don’t You see we’re in trouble here? Then, in verse 3: “Restore us, O God.” In the verse preceding “Restore us, God Almighty,” he complains of being under attack: “You have made us an object of derision to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us.” The last cry, to “LORD God Almighty,” follows the confession he's got nothing left—no confidence or strength of his own—and can’t make it without a Savior: “Let your hand rest on the man at your hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself. Then we will not turn away form you; revive us, and we will call on your name.” (v17-18) Here, “revival” transcends reversal, reintroduction, or reimagination. It begs God to reenergize our faith and stamina. Pondering the psalmist’s plea, we realize “revive us” is the Christmas message. It’s the Christmas confession, prayer, and promise.

Refuge, Rescue, and Redemption

With his circumstances growing grimmer between choruses, we question why the psalmist revises his description of God instead of revising how he describes his immediate fears. Dissecting his names for God holds the key, because changing God’s name changes the request. In verse 3 he calls on God as elohim, a plural noun portraying God as Refuge. “Restore us” and “Make Your face shine on us, that we may be saved” ask for clarity to find refuge in chaotic times. Modifying elohim with “Almighty” (tzevaovt: “hosts,” to mean “Lord of hosts”) in verse 7 adds a not-so-subtle militaristic tone imploring God to rescue us from adversaries and abusers. The third chorus invokes the ultimate, universal Power: “LORD God Almighty” (Yahweh elohim tzevaovt)— Creator and Ruler of the world and humankind, the God Who speaks light into existence and breathes life into us. Thus, the third prayer cries out for redemption by encompassing the earlier pleas: “We’re in trouble. We’re under attack. We've got nothing left. Restore us. Shine on us. We’re desperate for the clarity, safety, and certainty of Your light. Send a Savior to revive us. To renew us. To redeem us.”

We Need a Savior

Advent is, above all else, our hour of confession. We need refuge. We need rescue. Most of all, we need revival. On our own, we have nothing left—no confidence or strength to continue. We live in a disorderly, unpredictable, troubled world. We are beset by adversarial attitudes and abusive behaviors. Doubt looms on every side. The work of living depletes our reserves. We need a Savior to reenergize our faith and stamina, One Whose light will restore our clarity, safety, and certainty. The Christ Child is our Redeemer. The Babe in the manger signifies the Lord God Almighty has answered our prayer.

Matthew 1.22-23 summarizes the Nativity: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” The Infant revives our faith in a God Who is with us in every circumstance. Mary’s Baby reenergizes our confidence and stamina to press on. The Christmas revival rekindles God’s light in our hearts. We find refuge. We are rescued. We have been redeemed!

We need a Savior—and one has come to reenergize our faith and stamina, to revive us.

Postscript: “Revive Us Again”

Ashley Cleveland, a multiple Grammy-winning artist, puts a ferocious country-and-blues spin on the old hymn “Revive Us Again.” She shakes us to remember that Christ came to reenergize our faith and stamina—and her conviction springs from having struggled with addiction until she turned to the Savior for revival. (See the second video for her story.)


We praise Thee O God

For the Son of Thy love

For Jesus, Who died

And is now gone above

Hallelujah, Thine the glory

Hallelujah, amen

Hallelujah, Thine the glory

Revive us again!

We praise Thee O God

For Thy Spirit of light

That has shown us our Savior

And banished our night

Hallelujah, Thine the glory...

Ashley’s story.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Joy After Pain

A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. (John 16.21-22)


I once asked an obstetrician why doctors in old movies always send the father off to boil water while they tend to the mother. I suspected it had to do with sterilizing instruments. She laughed, “Who knows?” Barring complications, she explained, childbirth requires no more than a scissors to cut the umbilical cord. Since that’s immediately tied off, risk of infection is close to nil. She theorized the convention was meant to divert attention from the delivery. “The last thing the studios wanted was a movie goddess panting and sweating. In the time it takes a kettle to boil, the baby could be born, bathed, and blanketed, the room tidied up, and the star’s make-up reapplied. For glamour’s sake, off-screen worked best, I suppose.”

Movie mentality leads us to glamorize the Nativity. (Matthew and Luke help by discretely ignoring the delivery.) After Mary and Joseph find shelter in a stable, we fade to black to indicate passage of time and fade up on the Babe in the hay; Mary refreshed and rested; Joseph calm and collected; livestock lowing while the couple hosts a bizarre group of surprise guests. Our hearts sing, “Joy to the world! The Lord has come!” We extol the “miraculous birth of Jesus,” when it’s nothing of the kind. It’s like any other birth: painful, prolonged, and—because Mary’s away from home, without a midwife or female relatives to coach her through it—an agonizing ordeal. Oh, and there’s one more thing. Since she and Joseph are well aware of the Baby’s identity, the prospect of losing Him surely terrifies them. Those off-screen hours must be their darkest, loneliest, and most tentative. Yet injecting a harsh dose of reality into the Christmas story ultimately amplifies our joy and wonder, because every birth brings joy after pain. Every newborn is a miracle.

Greater Joy

Strangely, the best description Scripture affords of Mary’s delivery is found in a comment Jesus makes at the Last Supper. He prepares the disciples for His execution by comparing His absence between death and resurrection to a mother in labor. “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come,” He tells them. “But when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.” (John 16.21) Irony colors the remark coming, as it does, from the Child born to die to bring life to a dying world. One can’t help wondering if Jesus says this with His mother in mind, knowing His crucifixion will plunge her into a second labor while she awaits His rebirth as the Risen Christ. Although the Gospels single out the twelve male disciples at the Passover meal, it’s not unreasonable to imagine Mary and other women disciples are also present, opening the possibility she hears Jesus say this and understands Him more clearly than the rest. She alone knows the joy after pain of giving birth to God’s Promise. Only Mary could grasp the full extent of what Jesus is predicting and what He’s asking His followers to do. As Luke 2.19 so splendidly summarizes her Childbirth experience, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

Jesus tells the disciples, “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (v22) If Mary indeed hears Him say this, her mind flashes on her struggles to safeguard her joy. The movie moment imprinted on our brains—the bucolic tranquility of the star-lighted stable—is short-lived. Big trouble brews in Jerusalem. The Magi have tipped Herod off that a potential challenger has just been born. His astronomers verify the possibility. It’s quickly apparent Mary and Joseph are at the center of a political crisis that could end tragically for their Newborn and them. They can’t go home. They can’t remain in Bethlehem. At the urging of an angel, they seek asylum in Egypt until the storm passes. They make huge sacrifices and take enormous risks to prevent Herod from stealing their joy. It’s unlikely they realize it amid their chaos, but in retrospect, they may figure it out: while the Child Who brought them great joy also jeopardized it, His presence with them inexplicably secured their joy from loss. That’s what Jesus wants the disciples to see. Because He’s with them, their joy is at risk. They will suffer pain and grief. Yet their anguish will give birth to greater joy that no one can take from them.

Pregnant with Joy

The parallels between Mary’s labor and the disciples’ anguish awaiting the Risen Christ’s return illuminate our awareness that lasting joy entails gestation. The joy Christ gives isn’t a by-product of happy coincidence. It’s seeded in us and takes time to develop. A number of times we hear Jesus mention this. In John 15.11, He says, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” When He prays in Gethsemane, He tells God, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” (John 17.13)

We are pregnant with joy—complete joy, the full measure of Christ’s joy. It is in us. While we marvel at this, we’re also aware joy’s delivery doesn’t come easily. We will labor to bring it to life. There will be dark hours of pain and anguish. And once we give birth to joy, its presence in our lives will stir jealousies and paranoia in others that will inherently create risks. We will struggle to safeguard our joy, making unforeseen sacrifices and perhaps even moving far from what we know to see that it survives. But once joy is born, its presence guarantees it cannot be stolen. The whole thing is a mystery. It makes sense until we try to make sense of it. Subjecting it to logic tears the concept apart. Joy after pain; joy in jeopardy is joy that endures. Cinematically, it doesn’t play. But somehow in Christ's reality it does.

We will labor to bring joy to life. There will be dark hours of pain and anguish. Once we give birth to joy, we will struggle to safeguard it. But no one will be able to take it from us.

Postscript: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

A Christmas favorite beautifully performed by Celtic Woman: Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy. (Isaiah 60.2-3,5)

Arise and Shine Now

Yesterday I spent a priceless half-hour on the phone with a young hip-hop artist diagnosed with a debilitating condition. I entered the conversation in my capacity as a healthcare writer inquiring about his progress on a treatment my client manufactures. But our talk soon surpassed his resurgence after starting medication. Despite setbacks and sorrows—his crowd rapidly thinned once it became apparent getting his health restored would delay his success—he kept returning to a theme: “It taught me a lot about my circle, my family and friends, and me.” With his career back on-track, I asked if he had a message for younger fans with similar illnesses. “I want to tell them this is the first of many challenges they’ll face,” he answered. “But if they learn from it, they’ll wake up grateful for each day, just like me. It will keep them glowing.” Not “going." Glowing.

After the call, I closed my notes to find my browser open to Isaiah 60. I’d had the passage up for some time without getting to it. The first few verses took my breath. “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” verse one reads, “and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.” That’s the verse we know—the one we sing and recite at this time of year—God’s glistening promise to restore Jerusalem’s glory after decades of debilitation. Yet revisiting the text in the wake my conversation startled me. Its message is not a forecast. It’s an invitation to arise and shine now. Its promise hinges on courage to defy circumstances—to keep glowing: “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but LORD rises upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” verses 2 and 3 say. Verse 5 declares, “Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come.” Just as the musician’s attitude chastens us for nursing self-pity and pessimism when life takes a cruel turn, Isaiah challenges our belief that light and joy are contingent on God’s blessings and goodness. Both insist we’ve got it backwards. Blessings, healing, and deliverance don’t make us shine. We don’t wait for brighter days before stirring from our stupor. First we glow, and then we grow.

Taking Back the Night

We jump on Advent’s juggernaut, hurtling through darkness with eyes trained ahead. Salvation is coming. We long to be there when it appears. We ache once more to see nascent glimmers of redemption in Christ’s newborn eyes. Finding our hope cradled in Bethlehem’s manger, we instinctively raise our sights to Calvary’s cross. The moment hums with excitement about the future: this changes everything. In our forward-focused enthusiasm, however, we can’t forget there’s more to Christmas than a new dawning. It’s also about taking back the night. Fears and dangers that left us scrambling for shadowy corners or trembling behind bolted doors can torment us no more. Injuries and injustices that haunted us shrivel under our radiance. That’s right, our radiance—the glory of God that rises upon us in darkness. The Christ-Child is our light. John 1.4 tells us in Jesus “was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” Christ’s gift of redemption pivots on enabling us to perfect God’s reflection in our lives and world. We are created to glow. The glory rising over us gives us power to destroy darkness in our present, future, and our past.

Now we have a choice. Either we treat this metaphorically, which puts it with other prophetic poetry we unpack at Advent. Or we embrace it as a real thing—a phenomenon we experience and practice all year. What does that mean? As far as we run from our pasts, our pasts are never far from us. I suspect most of us seldom finish a day without bumping into a reminder of fears and losses that vexed our nights before Christ illuminated our lives. Holidays and homecomings are notorious for plunging those of us who’ve escaped unhealthy pasts into dizzying darkness. We timidly enter these scenes, needlessly availing ourselves to prejudices and pressures by dimming our lights. But we weren’t created for low light. God made us to glow. We shine because light has come to restore what we lost. Whether darkness invades our minds with a passing memory or surrounds us in settings we’ve outgrown, we keep glowing, never faltering in our quest to take back the night.

No Posturing Needed

But, realistically, how do we manage this? Should we act like memories and night haunts don’t menace us? We’re talking about incredibly mean stuff here. We’ve got scars that brushes with the past repeatedly rip open, wounds that never completely heal. All it takes sometimes is a word, a look, a voice—even a room or smell—to hurl us into the blackest of nights. Are we supposed to adopt an impervious posture to keep glowing? Can we even do that? Here’s where faith in God’s promises becomes critical. Remember Isaiah 60.5? “You will look and be radiant.” Who we were when we lived in darkness is not who we are now. God’s glory has risen on us, shattering our night. Our light has come. We found it in a manger. It changed us forever, enabling us reroute our future and empowering us to reclaim our past. No posturing is needed. We simply have to be. We look radiant when we reencounter darkness because we are radiant. It's that simple. Darkness holds us no longer. And we have only one lesson to retain from its meanness: when we glow its power fails. Through this season and always, be radiant. Glow.

God’s glory rises on us and we glow. Our radiance defeats our darkness. It’s not a posture or pretense. It’s who we are.

Postscript: “Walk in the Light”

I mentioned in an earlier post how this Advent keeps sending me down well-trod musical paths from my youth. As I worked on today’s reflection, I couldn’t shake this glorious rendition of the classic hymn, “Walk in the Light,” by a treasured late friend and musical genius, Thomas Whitfield. I slapped together a quick video, but the beauty—the triumph—is in the song!


Walk in the light, beautiful light

Come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright

Oh, shine all around us by day and by night

Jesus is, Jesus is

The Light of the world.

No need to worry, no need to fret

All of my needs Jesus has met

His love protects me from hurt and from harm

Jesus is, Jesus is

The Light of the world.

If the Gospel be hid, It's hid from the lost

Jesus is waiting to look past your faults

Arise and shine, your light has come

Jesus is, Jesus is

The Light of the world.

Jesus is the Light of the world

Jesus is the Light of the world

Jesus is the Light of the world

He's ever shining in my soul

Monday, December 13, 2010

Repost: The Quiet Man

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1.24-25)

The Strong, Silent Type

“Strength calls unto strength” the proverb goes. Having been privileged to be part of a family of extraordinarily strong women (on both sides), I can attest to this, as I’ve also been blessed to grow up around amazingly strong men. Both sexes in our clan assert their strengths in what one might call classic Southern style. The women are more demonstrative, talkative, and imaginative—always organizing things, starting projects, getting involved, etc., which tends to catapult them into leadership positions. The men exhibit strength in quieter, complementary ways that support their wives, mothers, and daughters. They embody “the strong, silent type.” The outsider naïvely assumes our men play secondary roles, when nothing is further from the truth. Within our ranks, it’s no secret men and women share equal responsibility for leadership, and nothing happens without mutual consent.

Heritage surely colors my image of Joseph. Yet there’s no arguing he indeed is the strong, silent type. His strength leaps out of the story. Here’s a young, self-employed man from a solid family—the Biblical equivalent of “Mayflower bluebloods” that traces its genes back to Abraham. Joseph’s parents arrange his marriage to a local young woman. Everything’s going along as planned, when the rug is yanked from beneath them. She gets pregnant through none of her doing. Acting as though nothing’s wrong is not an option. Joseph can rush into marriage, which effectively casts him as the child’s father and ruins his and Mary’s reputations. Or he can cancel their engagement, discreetly sending her away to deal with the baby and shame on her own. Loathsome as the second choice is, it’s the better of the two. Then a new wrinkle appears in their situation. An angel, perhaps the same one that visits Mary, tells Joseph to stand by her and consummate their marriage after she delivers. Such a tactic invites huge risk and demands enormous strength. But that’s what Joseph decides to do.

The Only Word

Many voices filter through the Christmas story—Mary’s, several angels’, Elizabeth’s, Zechariah’s, Herod’s, the Wise Men’s, and the shepherds’—but not one statement comes directly from Joseph. We don’t know what he says to his angel. We’re not privy to his conversations with Mary or his family. Everyone else talks; Joseph listens. He doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t reveal feelings or thoughts. All we know about him emerges in what he does. As the single unquoted person in the story, he’s definitely its most intriguing character. Yet, since we live in an age severely lacking spousal and paternal models, not hearing Joseph convey his inner thoughts and emotions is unfortunate.

Now brace yourself for the most delectable irony of all time. While the Gospels fail to record Joseph word-for-word, he becomes history’s most oft-quoted individual. In the half-second needed to ponder that, a thousand people (at least) spoke the only word ever attributed to him. After the Christ Child is born, Matthew 1.25 says Joseph “gave him the name Jesus.” The moment Joseph names the Baby he provides the world its most precious—and most abused—word. Billions around the world say “Jesus” daily, many of them several times a day. Some utter it in reverence. Others use it casually. Still others spit it in anger and frustration. But as the first human to say it, had Joseph not called Mary’s Son “Jesus,” we’d be no more likely to call that name than any other.

Preferences Aside

Joseph might have gained prominence by actually choosing Jesus’s name. But as the Baby isn’t his, he has no paternal naming rights. The angel gives Joseph Jesus’s name in advance. A weaker, less astute man would bristle at being told what to name the Child, resenting it as one more thankless task in an overall thankless job. Not Joseph. He sets his preferences aside to support Mary and follow God’s direction. Thus, on that frigid night, in a dim and gamy stable, when Joseph says, “Jesus,” the only word attributed to him forever shatters darkness and radiates warmth.

There’s a wealth of knowledge to glean from the Quiet Man. Listening, trusting, and obeying are far more important than speaking. Seeking God’s will is nobler than looking for recognition. Setting personal preferences aside to support those selected for more substantial duties is an equal honor and responsibility. What we say, not how much of it, is the measure of our character. Courage and leadership are revealed in our willingness to accept what we don’t understand as well as in our persistence when logic insists we give up. One word, two syllables—Jesus—is all we have from Joseph. Yet when he says that, he says it all.

Originally posted December 17, 2009.

There is much we can learn from Joseph’s compassion, trust, and obedience. Though nothing he says is reported, when he calls Mary’s infant “Jesus,” he says it all. (Image courtesy of Tarzen.)

Postscript: “I Surrender All”

Many years back, a writing partner, Patrick Henderson, and I wrote a traditional “book” musical about the Nativity that focused on Joseph. The first act ended with the Christ-Child’s birth, and after composing and tossing out a half-dozen original lullabies for Joseph to sing to Jesus, we settled on a well-known hymn that captured everything we imagined he might say at that miraculous moment. Here is a video of the hymn we chose, “I Surrender All.”

Sunday, December 12, 2010


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"

This is, for me, the greatest gospel song about joy ever written. It's more of an anthem, actually, a testimony of confidence in Christ's joy. Written decades ago by two favorite composers, Bill Gaither and Richard Smallwood (who sings the lead here), it's timeless. And this video has special meaning for me, as the chorus is comprised of dozens of Chicago gospel legends I've loved all of my life. Many have gone on, yet much of what they gave me as a kid who listened and learned at their feet lives in these pages. These great lions of faith were tested in every way by racial hatred, religious opposition, and social stigma. Yet here they are, many in their 60's, 70's, and 80's, singing of joy! Oh yes, they surely knew how to let joy happen.


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...