Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 17, 2017

2017.12.17 “Ode to Joy” – Isaiah 61: 1 – 4; Psalm 126

Central United Methodist Church
Ode to Joy
Pastor David L. Haley
Isaiah 61: 1 – 4; Psalm 126
The 3rd Sunday of Advent
December 17th, 2017

Advent 3

When the LORD brought back the exiles of Zion, we thought we were dreaming.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter; our tongues with songs of joy.
Then the nations said: “What great deeds the LORD worked for them!”
“What great deeds the LORD worked for us!” Indeed, we were glad.
Bring back our exiles, O LORD, as streams in the south.
Those who sow in tears will sing when they reap in joy.
They go out, they go out, full of tears, bearing seed for the sowing;
          they come back, they come back, with a song, bearing their sheaves in joy.
– Psalm 126, The Grail Version

The theme of the 3rd Sunday in Advent is joy. For this reason, it has been traditional on this Sunday to light a pink or rose-colored candle, instead of purple as used for the other three Sundays of Advent. Likewise, the liturgical name of this Sunday is Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin “gaudete,” “Rejoice.”

When I was growing up in West Kentucky, we hillbillies had mysterious remnants of Scots-Irish slang still floating around, and one of them was that if you wore something particularly loud or showy, someone might accuse you of being “gaudy”. Have you ever hear that word? Little did I know that it comes from this same Latin word for joy. I guess today – on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, we should all be a little “gaudy.”

What is joy? The simplest definition would be “ecstatic or exultant happiness,” but we all know that words do not adequately describe joy; we know joy when we have it.

The Christian author C. S. Lewis once distinguished joy from happiness in his book about his life entitled, “Surprised by Joy.” There, Lewis called joy “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”  He went on to say:

“Joy must be distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure.  I doubt whether anyone who has tasted [joy] would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.  But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”  (Surprised by Joy, p. 18)

Can you remember a time in your life when you were delirious with joy? For those of us who are older, although we obviously still experience joy, sometimes it may seem more like a memory. Everyone can remember when we were a child at Christmas, or when we were young and in love, or when our children were born, – or, for us adoptive parents – the first time we held them. It was too wonderful to be true, feelings of almost inexpressible joy we will never forget as long as we live.

But then, life beats us down. Such that, for some of us, our former songs of joy may now be songs of lament. Christmas is joyful, yes, but not like when we were children, when we weren’t the ones doing the heavy lifting. Even though we were once “in love,” and may still be, we may be scarred, having endured the death of relationships and even marriages, and we know that even loving relationships can be hard. Even those children we once welcomed with joy, may sometimes drive us nuts or even break our hearts. Others, through no fault of their own, may struggle through loneliness or illness or the dark days and nights of depression, especially during the holidays, when it may be worse, especially if we have lost loved ones during the year. And our songs of joy become songs of lament: “We remember when …“ How do we find joy again?

Some have labeled our ability to do this, as resilience, one of the most discussed and desired qualities of life. Resilience is that quality that allows people – who when knocked down by life – the ability to bounce back, to rise – like the mythical Phoenix – from the ashes of their lives. Yet it strikes me that resilience is like sobriety, you either have it or you don’t, and you may not find out whether you have it or not, until you need it. While what exactly what makes for resilience can be elusive, there are many factors that contribute to resilience in life: good physical, mental, and emotional health, strong support networks of family and friends, and supportive mentors and counselors. However, having observed people’s rising and falling over the years, I also believe that another strong factor in resilience is an attitude of faith and hope, which we find in our faith in God.

Such faith and hope is exactly what the Scriptures provide us on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, some of the very best in the Bible. Their goal and the motive of God who inspired them is not just to survive, but to know joy, especially after disaster.

Consider the word of the Lord spoken through Isaiah the prophet. What had happened was this: In 722 BCE, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. During those years, the first part of Isaiah – chapters 1 through 39 were written, warning of impending judgment. Judgment was not averted, and in 587, Judah was conquered and Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians, with the people taken into exile to Babylon. In 539, Cyrus the Great, King of the Persians, conquered Babylon, and one of the first things he did was to allow the Jews to return to their own land. During that time, 2nd Isaiah wrote the great passage we heard last week:

“Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40: 1 – 2)

Once they arrived home, what they found was discouraging. Even though most had never seen Solomon’s temple, the temple built to replace was pathetic in comparison. They were discouraged with the temple, the city of Jerusalem, and their nation, and they asked themselves: “Is this as good as it is going to get?”

And then comes along the prophet known as 3rd Isaiah, in Isaiah 61. What he has to say sounds like a mother comforting her children:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion.“

No one knows who this powerful prophet was, but his words have remained influential throughout history, especially after a young rabbi named Jesus stood in the pulpit of his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and claimed these for himself. They remain powerful to this day in this congregation and in our lives, still bringing good news, binding up the broken-hearted, proclaiming liberty to captives and release to prisoners, still proclaiming the Lord’s favor. These words are the true work of Christmas.

The possibility of joy after sorrow is also the theme of the Psalm, Psalm 126:

“When GOD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“GOD has done great things for them.”
GOD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

“This,” says the Psalmist, “is what it was like to return from exile.” This is what it feels like to know joy again after sorrow: ‘Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy.’”  It is like being a child at Christmas, like being in love, like holding our children for the first time.

When we are in the depths of depression, it’s hard to believe we will ever experience joy again. When we are discouraged, it is hard to imagine hope lies ahead. When we despair about the state of the nation and the society we live in, it’s hard to believe, as President Obama often reminded us, that progress doesn’t always travel in a straight line, or as Dr. King used to say, that “though the moral arc of the universe may be long, it bends toward justice. And yet the ancient word of the prophets and Psalmists, the Word of God to us in the Bible, tells us that “those who sow in tears will reap in joy,” that those who go out, bearing their seeds for sowing, will come back, bearing their harvests with joy.” As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”

Everyone knows Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) was one of the greatest composers ever. Most people know that he wrote the 9th Symphony, his Ode to Joy, one of the most joyful pieces of music in all time. Yet most people don’t know that in his early life he was beaten by his alcoholic, abusive father, that he experienced unrequited love, perhaps by the one he called his “Immortal Beloved,” that though a musician he was deaf by the age of 31, and died – most likely of lead poisoning – at the age of 56.

In Bernard Rose’ 1994 film, “Immortal Beloved,” Beethoven was portrayed by actor Gary Oldman (now starring as Sir Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour”). During the first performance of the 9th symphony, Beethoven wanders onto the stage, too deaf to hear the music, and as he gazes on the stage’s star-studded backdrop, he remembers his childhood. As the camera focuses on Beethoven’s face, and we hear what he is hearing: nothing. Then, we hear the music playing in Beethoven’s mind and imagination, as he remembers a time when it seemed even the stars sang for joy. Afterwards, when we return to the present, the real music has concluded, and Beethoven stands with his back to the audience with tears in his eyes. Finally, the conductor must tap him on the shoulder, that he might turn to see the standing ovation he cannot hear. [You may view the scene on YouTube here.

May God restore our fortunes. Amen.
May all who sow in tears, reap in joy. Amen.
May all who go forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
return home, harvest in hand, in joy. Amen.


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