Finding and Feeding Joy

Marcia Harrington

December 15, 2019
Texts:   Isaiah 35
            Psalm 146: 5-10
            Matthew 11:1-11
            James 5:7-10

Hope, Peace, Joy and Love: the Advent themes are ones that invite us to reflect and go deeper.  They are threads that move through our lives as followers of Jesus.  Three of them are what Paul names as the fruit of the Spirit: love, peace and joy (Galatians 5:22-23).  They invite us into the reign of God, into God’s tapestry.  We are to take up our needles and threads and weave our lives as people of God, hard and never-ending work.  Our scriptures for today call us to Joy, but we can’t honestly reflect on joy without naming its opposite--suffering & tragedy.

In January of this year, Fred Taylor asked if I would like to be in conversation with him on a regular basis.  I said, “Yes.” I knew he was moving toward his death, but I also knew that I was in a place of needing wisdom since my ground was shaking.  So, over the next nine months we met every other week when we were both in town.  We always talked about theology, how we understood God and God’s actions in our lives, in the community’s life, and in the world.  That meant focusing on the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and the sweeping and profound story those scriptures unfold.  This story really animated and engaged Fred; always he wanted to plumb its riches, both the shadows and the light, and the mirrors the biblical story holds up for our individual, communal, national and global reality.  Fred knew that our theology of who God was and is in the scriptures was compelling.  Compelling because the story it told was the story of humanity struggling toward the vision laid out in texts such as Genesis, Isaiah, the Psalms and in the stories, teachings and life of Jesus.  It was being challenged by how Jesus understood his call and his passion for living out God’s vision for humanity in life on earth.

During my last visit with Fred, we talked about the weakening of moral and ethical values and courage in our nation’s common life and the stark realities humankind is facing.  I asked Fred about what we are to think and talk about this perilous journey we are on?  It seems like an endless cycle of rebellion, more rebellion and redemption; that’s a theme that cycles through the Hebrew Scriptures.  And, then Fred said that some New Testament scholar had described the “Gospel as synthesis of tragedy and joy .  .  .  and that to be relevant today, religion must translate into a contemporary idiom the “foolishness of the cross.” By synthesizing joy and tragedy in a new way, a person could become at home in his or her world, even while remaining forever a sojourner and a pilgrim (in the midst of his/her fondest, this-worldly achievements and values.”)  I wanted to talk more with Fred about this and about how the faith of Jesus was connected to the biblical and theological understanding of joy.  That meeting, sadly, never happened. 

So, the task today is to go deeper with Joy as we look at our scriptures.  What is Joy in these passages?  If we think about Joy as a theological and biblical concept, how does it differ from our more common understanding of it?  We begin with Isaiah 35.

Isaiah 35:1-10 [The Return of the Redeemed/Exiles to Zion]

Chapter 35 plays a key role in Isaiah: laying out a visionary return of the exiles from Babylon in the 6th century BCE; it is a cosmic and eschatological vision, a vision of end times.  It is a poem, composed but meant to be read.  No prophet or messenger is named in the poem.  “Its central theme is the proclamation that the natural order will be dramatically transformed and that the ‘ransomed of the Lord’ (verse 10) will come in joy to Zion.” (NIB, vol.VI, p.  281; author Glenn Tucker)

The words “redeemed/ransomed” are important in this scripture.  In the Hebrew scriptures, redeem and ransom have political and economic meaning.” (p.  282)   In the Exodus tradition, salvation meant actual release from physical slavery.

What do these words refer to given today’s common realities: Who are today’s captives?  I invite your short responses. 

My list includes: exiles, slaves, prisoners, immigrants, refugees, the wounded, the distressed, the traumatized, the economically vulnerable, persons with various handicaps and challenges of all kinds.

How would captives feel having been released, having gained both physical and spiritual redemption?  Likely, joy, gladness, relief, perhaps anxiety about the future.  Verse 10 describes the physical response to release.

“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness.  (35:10)

Though the ransomed, released folks in this poem might have been model captives, it’s clear that .  .  .  The people of God will not redeem or ransom themselves.  In this text, redemption and ransom are effected by God, and God, alone.  Through divine action, the people of God become the redeemed of God, and that transforms their lives in every possible way.” (p.  283) Joy is redemption and release!  That is “the good news of God’s care for the people of God.” (283) 

However, lurking in this poem is a dark and troubling reality: the poem was addressed to those who haven’t yet seen their bottomless sorrow and distress flee away: the weak, the feeble, lame, the fearful, the blind, the deaf, the speechless.  We know these distresses in our hearts and minds as present and persistent realities.  Thus, we need hope, we yearn for an end to the sighing and sorrow.  We live with the tension of balancing God’s good news with the reality that suffering persists (283).  We have to synthesize tragedy and joy. 

Psalm 146: 5-10 - Justice for the Oppressed/Care for the Defenseless

Psalm 146 is a song of reorientation in Walter Brueggemann’s framework of the three kinds of psalms: of orientation, then disorientation, and reorientation.  It couples well with Isaiah 35 since joy is described in terms of God’s attention to the defenseless and his care for them.  Trust in God is essential over and against mortals, particularly rulers.  That might speak to us these days.  The psalm contains a beatitude.  Happy or blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; .  .  .  Happiness is a result of whom one trusts.  And, then the psalm lays out a description of God’s actions on behalf of the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the heavily laden, the orphans and widows, strangers with the assurance that these value-laden actions comprise the platform of the Reign of God.  It is an embodied platform, provision for basic human needs against circumstances that seem to deny it.  (see Psalms 2; 93, 95-99).  (1264)

Praise the Lord!   Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.   Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.  The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind, The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.   The Lord will reign (1265) forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations.  Praise the Lord!

Walter Brueggemann, a noted scholar and teacher of the Hebrew Bible described Psalm 146 as a call to praise.  It anticipates Jesus’s preaching of the reign of God (Mark 1:14-15) as well as Jesus’ teaching about happiness (Mt.  5:3-11, the Beatitudes) and [anticipates Jesus’] enactment of God’s will in a ministry of justice, feeding, liberation, healing and compassion (Mt.  11:2-6; Lk 4:16-21). According to Brueggemann, “Israel holds doxology [praise] against the powerful staying force of the rulers of this age.  Israel sings and we never know what holy power is unleashed by such singing.  One reason we may not sing is that such hope is intellectually outrageous.  Another reason we may not sing is that such an alternative is too subversive.  But the Church and Israel do sing!   This singing is our vocation, our duty, and our delight.  We name this staggering name--and the world becomes open again, especially to those on whom it had closed in such deathly ways--the prisoners, the blind, the sojourner, the widow, the orphan.  The world is sung open.  Against this Holy One and this song, death cannot close the world into injustice again.” (Walter Brueggemann, “Psalm 146: Psalm for the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost,” No Other Foundation 8/1 [Summer 1987) 29.)

Psalm 146 is an encouragement to God’s people to sing and to pray as Jesus taught, affirming ‘thine is the kingdom’ even as we pray ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (1265)

In Psalm 146, joy is the presence of and the trust in God; the response is exultation, praise and singing. 

Matthew 11:1-11 (Who is John?  Who is Jesus?)

We enter Matthew’s story years after Jesus was born, after his baptism by John, his temptation in the wilderness, after his early ministry of proclamation and teaching.  He has shared his vision of God’s reign in the Beatitudes (Mt.  5-7), spoken about his mission to and from the House of God, a house not limited to blood relatives.  He has been healing and teaching.  And, then comes the resistance--doubts and questions about Jesus’ identity.   The Message: Matthew 11:1-11 - John the Baptizer 11 1 When Jesus finished placing this charge before his twelve disciples, he went on to teach and preach in their villages. 2-3 John, meanwhile, had been locked up in prison.  When he got wind of what Jesus was doing, he sent his own disciples to ask, “Are you the One we’ve been expecting, or are we still waiting?” 4-6 Jesus told them, “Go back and tell John what’s going on: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side. “Is this what you were expecting?  Then count yourselves most blessed!” 7-10 When John’s disciples left to report, Jesus started talking to the crowd about John.  “What did you expect when you went out to see him in the wild?  A weekend camper?  Hardly.  What then?  A sheik in silk pajamas?  Not in the wilderness, not by a long shot.  What then?  A prophet?  That’s right, a prophet!   Probably the best prophet you’ll ever hear.  He is the prophet that Malachi announced when he wrote, ‘I’m sending my prophet ahead of you, to make the road smooth for you.’ 11-14 ”Let me tell you what’s going on here: No one in history surpasses John the Baptizer; but in the kingdom he prepared you for, the lowliest person is ahead of him.   John and Jesus know each other, each has their own disciples, each of them has a calling, each of them has a vision whose foundation is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, certainly in this week’s scriptures from Isaiah 35 and Psalm 146.  Tragically, each will lose his life at the hands of the Roman Empire.

While in prison, John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Jesus responds, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: there is evidence, ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who hasn’t fallen away from me.”  Since Jesus’ acts/deeds in the previous chapters have been ones of compassion, not fiery judgment; perhaps John’s confidence in Jesus has been shaken or his doubts are growing.  If John is wavering, this, too, is, at times, “the nature of faith and discipleship which must be constantly renewed.” (NIB, VIII, 270)

Jesus sends John’s disciples back to report.  Then, he asks the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the wilderness to look at?” Now, there were blowing reeds and palaces along the Jordan River (NIB, VIII, 267), but people in soft robes wouldn’t likely be venturing out into the wilderness to look around; it is rough.  So, the answer to Jesus’ rhetorical question is obvious: “to see a prophet?” Yes, says Jesus and more than a prophet.  This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you’.” (NIB, VIII, 267)

Jesus is affirming John’s role as a prophet and as more than a prophet.  He stood against the stream; he called people to repent, to turn around because the kingdom of heaven was near; he baptized people of Jerusalem and all Judea, including Jesus; he railed at the religious authorities; he was sent by God to prepare the way for the messiah.

There is shadow and suffering in this story: John is nearing his execution and ceding his mission, but Jesus’s mission as visionary, teacher and healer and sage will go far beyond John’s call.  We aren’t told Jesus’ reaction to John’s beheading, but it must have been deeply sorrowful and perhaps caused Jesus to consider a similar fate, knowing that as one’s power, knowledge and wisdom widen and deepen, that the way grows narrower until there is only one choice left--what one must do.

Where is joy in this story?  I want to believe that Jesus found joy in John’s presence and in his message.  And, joy, for sure is in Jesus’ proclaiming, teaching, and embodying what God intends for humankind and creation. 

So What? 

For some months now, I’ve been engaged with a question that the poet & essayist Mark Nepo asked in his book, Drinking From the River of Light.  The question is:

What stays constant whether you are lifted into joy or thrown into suffering--pain, tragedy, or sadness?  (Mark Nepo).  It’s a question about one’s personal foundation and likely one’s communal foundation.  It is a question about depth, about what we must hold onto to live our lives with hope, peace, joy and love, our Advent themes.  Love, peace, and joy are 3 of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul mentions in Galatians 5:22-23).  Hope is not there, but perhaps Paul assumed that it was part of a given for the people of God, in their DNA.  Hope, also, is a major biblical theme. 

The poet, Wallace Stevens in his poem, “The Way It Is,” has an image/metaphor for the foundation, one of a thread that runs through all of one’s life.  The question this poem asks is: How would you describe the thread that runs through everything in your life as you experience the joys, tragedies, and sorrows of today?  Here is the poem:  The Way It Is by Wallace Stevens)

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among / things that change.  But it doesn’t change. People wonder about what you are pursuing.  / You have to explain about the thread. But, it is hard for others to see.  / While you hold it you can’t get lost.  / Tragedies happen; / People get hurt / or die; and you suffer and get old.  / Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.  / You don’t ever let go of the thread.

One of threads for me is joy; there are other threads for hope, peace, and love, our Advent themes.

Joy, according to the dictionary is an emotion of keen or lively pleasure arising from present or expected good; exultant, satisfied; great gladness; delight.  Now there are all kinds of joys in life, momentary, anticipatory, and deep.  Joy is a pervading theme in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament.  Jesus was a realist as well as a visionary.  He knew life as both suffering and joy. 

Some weeks ago, I sat down to begin to write some responses to the question: What stays constant whether you are lifted into joy or thrown into suffering--pain, tragedy, or sadness?

As I started to reflect on what threads of joy I try to hold constant in my life, my first entry was gratitude and the reality that this is one of the actions, the foods, that feeds joy.  It is an action I/we need to feed consistently.  Gratitude can be momentary or short term, thanking someone for lending you an umbrella or giving you a needed ride.  Those small gestures add up, but the list of gratitudes that feed my joy were what Imani Perry, an author and professor of African American Studies at Princeton, shared in an interview with Krista Tippett.  She shared what she called “resistant joy” as an essential thread in our life’s tapestry.  That kind of joy is much deeper than quick or momentary pleasure or a rush of excitement.  This deeper joy does not live on the surface; it reaches deep inside.  It’s a connection with, if not another person, with the earth, with creation.  It’s not pulling up your own joy-bootstraps and carrying your life and its burdens alone.  “Any of us can’t carry that on any given day.” (Imani Perry, More Beautiful, On Being with Krista Tippett, 9/26/19). 

There are days, particularly during quiet time, when I feel weighed down by the sorrow on earth and grow tearful.  Then, I must remember to breathe in gratitude and hold to the thread of joy in my life; that means gratitude for life, for its blessings, for all creation, for wonder, for relationships, for community, for call, for surprise, for possibility, for mystery, for song, and so much more.  Gratitude feeds “resistant joy”.  That kind of joy, I think, fed and animated Jesus.  In his farewell words in the gospel of John, he shared joy as a fruit of discipleship and a core element of wholeness, shalom. 

‘If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.  I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:10-11)

Let us pray:

Holy One,” in awe we know your heart .  .  .  your astounding generosity.  You are our God, the God with us and beyond us.  We hope to be your joy.” (William Cleary, Prayers to an Evolutionary God, 54)

So, may it be.