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Against All The Odds: Joy!  

Advent 3, Common Lectionary Year A

Isaiah 35:1-10

©Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Scripture and Sermon audio files

I am grateful to all of you who worked
so hard this morning with this text from Isaiah
to put your bodies into this task
of joyful transfiguration,
I don’t know about you,
but I’m not quite ready for Joy this Sunday. (Slide of crying!)

I shake my head at, and feel paralysed by
the murky, truth-less depths
to which political life has plummeted
in recent months, days,
in our own province and nation,
in my native land,
and in the land of our neighbours immediately to our south,

My heart has grown fearful for a planet in peril,
as we see the hopefulness of
the young, and the faithful,
and of small island nations
dashed against the granite indifference
of the high and mighty nations
?who hold in their change purse
more than enough wealth to promote
true and effective climate justice?
but who lack the courage and political will
to unshackle themselves and us
from cancerous, fossil-fuelled lobbyists.

I am wearied by the incessancy of
the micro-erosions of our
individual or collective ability for
gratitude, goodwill, or peaceableness,
that happen even or especially
among those of us who are, globally speaking,
among the most privileged.

And yet, as another text of Scripture says
“it is for such a time as this” [1]
that this interruption from Isaiah was
penned and placed.

Walter Brueggemann reminds us,
these interruptions of hope or joy from Isaiah
run “characteristically against the data.” [2]
Against the data that comes in through our newsfeeds;
or more personally,
the data of our own decline or decay;
against all the odds.

These interruptions– and Isaiah has a handful of them-
are not verbal photographs of the world as it is,
but rather they are graphic intrusions of joy
into the landscape of despair.

Now, hard-nosed and egg-headed scholars
will explain away today’s reading
as a mistaken misplacement of a much later text
into the cold hard world of first Isaiah;
it’s as if someone dropped
the unnumbered sheets of Isaiah’s work
and re-collated them out of order.

But I like what Barbara Lundblad, more mystically,
more faithfully, more hopefully imagines happened;
“The Spirit hovered [brooded] over the text, and over the scribes:
“Put it here” she breathed,
“before anyone is ready.
Interrupt their narrative of despair.
A word that couldn’t wait
until it might make more sense. ”[3]

A word that by its very interruption,
catches our breath mid-wail, with a “what if?”
Because if truth be told, we all long for
this out of place interruption of joy
into the narratives of our own despair, don’t we?

One thing that strikes me on second or third reading,
is that it while it is amazing, startling, awe-inspiring,
with its ridiculously graphic exuberance,
it isn’t fantastic or impossible at all.
Super-blooms do happen in the desert.

What I discovered this week about s
super-blooms is this:
they don’t happen every year;
they are unpredictable and rare;
they require just the ‘right’ combination
of harsh undesirable pre-conditions:
prolonged dormancy usually of many years,
followed by a prolonged rainy season, fundamentally rare in deserts,
followed by prolonged cold weather. [4]
And yet, as one photographer describes,
when one happens,
and you’re sitting still in a field of flowers,
you can literally hear the flowers popping open
“like tiny champagne corks popping all around you.”
Joy shall come to the wilderness!
-all the more exuberant for its
unexpected interruption
into the narrative of dormancy, or worse, death.

And no sooner is the vision cast,
than the word of God intrudes
with a set of imperatives that includes us.
Did you notice?

“See this, now,
strengthen the weak hands,
bolster wobbly knees,
and speak words of courage
and just restitution
to those with fearful hearts.”

Oh, crikey!
How typical of this God of ours
to implicate, to involve us
in God’s interruption of creation’s despair
with an alternative, God-given
narrative of hope, and of joy!
…and to do so, almost always precisely when
that word of hope and joy is painfully out of place.

But then again,
look at what happens when God’s people
speak this word out of place, and against the odds?

I think of a Sojourner Truth,
illiterate, slave, and yet who galvanized
others with her fierce advocacy for emancipation
and women’s rights.
Joy shall come to the wilderness.

I think of Greta Thunberg, Jo Mountford,
Nakabuye Hilda Flavia, and other youth
who are calling for courage and action for climate justice,
when all around them people are telling them it’s a word out of place.
Well so be it, from such words and action,
shall joy spring in the wilderness!

And I look around here and see so many of you who have
done your part to strengthen weak hands, bolster weak knees,
and speak courage and God’s justice to those with fearful hearts,
through caring ministries, healing ministries,
through the persistent practice
of public, accountable gratitude,
through social justice action and advocacy.
I think of Lisa’s capacity to sing joy into any room,
or Ian’s determination to participate in the pageant,
or Najah’s smile at the airport;
or everyone pitching in after the flood
to re-write hospitality on the sun-spangled
but bent-a-bit floor of a sanctuary.
Joy shall come to the wilderness.

I wonder, if you were to take a moment or two, now, or during the anthem, or the offering
to think of those who for you have interrupted
your despair with a word of courage, truth, joy?
What stories you would tell,
and how filled with joy your hearts and lives would become,
just with the memory?
Like for instance, the word of pregnancy with triplets,
after a season with cancer?
Joy shall come to the wilderness.

This advent, so far,
Isaiah has peeled our eyes and ears
to help us to become more acutely attentive
to the tiniest signs of hope, peace, and now joy,
in the not-yet, and expectant,
and wilderness places
of our world and time.

Now, it seems we have a job to do;
to interrupt the narrative of despair
with God’s lively, surprising, joyful Word of hope:
to speak, comfort to every trembling heart,
“Fear not, be strong!”
God’s Dream, if we are willing, is that yet again,
Joy will come to the wilderness.

[1] Esther 4:14

[2] Brueggemann,  Isaiah.  And various places, e.g. From Judgment to Hope.

[3] Barbara Lundblad,  WP Advent 3A December 2013.

[4] Cf Casey Thornburgh Sigmon WP Advent 3A 2019.

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