Joy, Out of Place
Isaiah 35:1-10 & Luke 1:39-56
December 11th, 2016
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This passage from Isaiah shouldn’t be here. I mean it shouldn’t be right here between chapters 34 and 36. Scholars think that it got moved…see the book of Isaiah, they believe, is at least three different prophets’ work over a long period of time. And this chapter, 35, seems to be from the second prophet, rather than the first voice we had for Advent readings so far. If you read the whole chapter, it is full of rumors of war and ecological destruction, and then without warning or explanation comes this:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad.
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing…
There is an interruption, a surprise, an out of place vision…
Like a community garden rising out of a vacant lot, once full of broken bottles and used syringes…
Like an unconventional family knitted with love out of broken responsibilities and abuse…
Like an apology given by veterans to a room full of native peoples, for histories and actions not their own, but done in their name, and in their uniforms…
One Saturday a few years ago, I was at the Homeless Alliance downtown Oklahoma City, where my previous church served a meal like we do here at the Day Center. We’d say a prayer before we began as part of the regular list of activities, a prayer that always asked us all to love each other the best we could. It was usually done by one of the pastors, if we were there, but one Saturday, someone else wanted the mic. She was a little agitated, we knew her to have many health issues, physical and mental, and to sometimes be disruptive. So when she asked for the mic to pray, almost begged for the mic to pray, I had a serious debate going on in my head. What would she say? And how? And how long? It’s a general rule of mine – don’t give people open mics – especially the drunk uncle at the wedding reception or pastors on any occasion, or this woman. But I watched myself hand it over to her, like it was part of a hostage negotiation. And it was a train wreck. The most profound, beautiful and sincere train wreck you might ever hear, full of pain and promise, hope and heartache.
This was a woman who had no reason to be joyful. But what she spoke of, what animated her and filled her heart amidst the struggle wasn’t happy. It was something that I think now, looking back on it, is the same kind of “happy” that fills the pages and narrative of the Jewish experience – a sanctity that comes from knowing great pain, and knowing how momentarily strong and ultimately inert that pain can be. That was the joy. And her joy interrupted all of our regularly scheduled programming, it came out of place in the narrative we all had in our minds for her life. Here she was, not waiting for things to change, for her meds to kick in or her life to take some turn, instead she just spoke her joy in the overwhelming face of the data, like a dance in the middle of a rainstorm. Hers was joy out of place.
For she was not happy. But happiness and joy are not the same thing. It might make you happy to have the warm sun on your face on a cold morning, but joy comes from knowing that the sun will rise again the next day. The hebrew from the Isaiah passage doesn’t help us, either – for the words we woodenly translate as “joy” and “happiness” mean so much more. In the Jewish history, complete with slavery, exodus, oppression and oppressors, suffering and genocide, exile and restoration, the ideas of happiness and joy necessarily take on new depths. There is an awareness of a satisfaction, or a calm or a gratitude that can be found in the bleak moments, a way of feeling peaceful or, as the Hebrew word for “happy” is also translated – blessed.
So where does joy fit into our Christmas? Is it found in receiving that perfect gift, just the thing I wanted, in accumulating more and more? Or is joy instead what happens when we give something, when we hang the mittens on the tree for the children of DVIS, or buy some food for someone else, or live sacrificially, connecting ourselves, if only for a moment, to something bigger than us, something beyond just me and my wants. For joy, I think, has an object – it reaches for something. It is an emotion of activism, projecting itself into the future, by delighting in and celebrating the good that is, right now, and proclaiming implicitly, that it is good for that good to continue to be.
That is the joy that Mary sings of in her hymn we call the Magnificat, an imagination of her soul magnifying God, of her life radiating the divine, giving way to it, even, as she celebrates the happiness of this child, yes, but as she embraces the joy of this connection, her to Elizabeth, Jesus to John, humanity to divinity, celebrated in this out of place story about a helpless baby born to an unwed teenager in the countryside of Judea…a baby who is the Savior, though Mary really doesn’t yet know what that will mean…and I’m still not sure we know what that means.
The poetry of Isaiah and the music of Mary have the same joyful objects – water in the desert, healing for the sick, a balance of power instead of oppression, and end to sorrow and sighing. But they don’t look to just quench one person’s thirst or get some human rights, the joy is found in the dream that is on it’s way, the great reversal of Mary’s song and the Glory of God from Isaiah’s poem, the joy is found in knowing that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it does indeed bend towards justice and that the victories and defeats we perceive along the way are part of the journey towards the kin-dom. Now, if that seems a word out of place perhaps, like singing “Gloria” when you’re not feeling “gloria”, or like a nagging little voice that keeps whispering the promise in your ear when you’re trying to stay ticked off, or a feeling that in the midst of your current struggle there really is a bigger picture, a force at work mightier than whatever it is you’re going through now, don’t worry…we have a name for that.