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Sermon “JOY and Belonging to God”
for Northwood United Church
Advent III, December 13, 2020
Psalm 126; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28.
The Reverend Dr. Dorothy A. Jeffery
Prayer of illumination:
God of all times and space, hear my prayer, that
Between the words that I speak
and the words that are heard,
the Holy Spirit moves.
/adapted from the late Don Grayston
When we are living in a time of anxiety and separation there is a tangible tension with the JOY of this Advent Sunday.
We long for JOY yet we miss the way we usually ritualize this waiting for Jesus’ birth.
We long for JOY but feel separated from it, from our family, from our community.
We have virtually reignited memories with the advent candle lighting by the Carter family.
For me, among other things, Joy has come into my life in many ways, including through music and travel.
I invite you to take a moment now to name sources of joy in your life, past joy, present joy, future joy ...
So now I want to raise concrete memories of JOYFUL experiences.
Travel may have been a past experience bringing you joy. I have a friend who has for years gone on hiking trips all over the world. She takes beautiful photographs and in recent weeks she and I have been sharing the experience of these trips through her photographs. I sense a joy of purpose in being able to share her photos with me (and with you). Sharing with others gives JOY.
I have had the privilege in the past to travel to many places including Europe (in the broad sense of UK, Iceland, and continental Europe) and there I have visited many churches. Technology being willing, I wanted to share with you through virtual backgrounds some of these churches. But technology and lighting has not been kind. So what you see behind me is a woven Christmas tree. It is a memory of travel. My husband brought it back from a trip to Peru many years ago. Perhaps I will go on trips again, including to sacred places. Perhaps you will travel too. But for now, JOY comes from the beauty and memory of sacred spaces.
You may say but these are only memories, only virtual.
Many of us may have felt God is absent in the avalanche of bad news and in the lack familiar connections. Feeling an Absence of God can be in tension with feeling the Presence of God. Mystics and ministers, theologians and theoretical physicists, shepherds and exiles have expressed this tension.
The modern mystic, Thomas Keating, expressed this absence early in his life in a poem which was probably a step into spiritual maturity
His silence is a kiss,
His presence an embrace.
But now he is fading, fading.
And I am alone . . .
/Richard Rohr—Thomas Keating, “Loneliness in the Night”
The sense of joyful flowing oneness with God, that so marked the final years of Thomas Keating’s life didn’t “just happen.”
For most of us, including for Thomas himself, this peaceful joy may come at the end of a painful season.
For him, this painful season of stripping and purification has classically been called “the Dark Night of the Spirit.”
In the time of John the Baptist the people (of Israel) probably felt something was missing in their lives – freedom, meaning, food, and even God.
They flocked to a wilderness place to listen to John’s preaching. John was a prophet though people (the common folk) and the leaders wanted him to be more – a former prophet returned (Elijah), a Messiah coming.
In response to this feeling of absence, the people acted. They went into the wilderness.
John acted. He baptized … for the forgiveness of sins.
John the Baptist did not claim to be more than he was, not even a prophet. Sometimes we dimmish who we are and what we accomplish.
But he pointed to the coming of a greater one, a Spirit leader, a Spirit Baptizer.
In so doing he gave hope.
Isaiah (Third Isaiah) was an even earlier prophet. He pointed the way to true joy through justice and peace. The way is not through withdrawal and hunkering down and waiting alone. JOY would come through equity – raising up the poor, healing the sickness of the soul, releasing the spiritually imprisoned and comforting those who are grieving.
JOY will be ritualized like a bridegroom in fine robes and a bride decked with jewels. We can think of our reclaiming JOY with Advent rituals. It is not only humans (and here Isaiah refers to all nations) that will be restored. It is the whole earth that will be saved. How current is Isaiah’s dream for us today in this time of climate crisis, pandemic crisis, and the need for right relationships with our Indigenous neighbours whose land we occupy.
The restoration is likened to a garden, where righteousness springs up.
The Spirit of God restores not with the sword but with the hoe.
The way forward is by accepting the Spirit into life.
God takes action, God summons and God gives authority in this passage.
Over the centuries the Church has treated these particular passages in Isaiah as predictive of Christ.
There is a pattern set in the psalm: problem, promise and presence. Problem – exile, separation. Promise – restoration. We humans are vulnerable before uncertainties and the mystery of life.
The psalmist’s avowal of confidence can be taken as God’s promise.
Psalm 126:3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced
Presence –in community and through God’s presence.
The psalmist see JOY as a kind of transformation in a wilderness return from exile. Times were for them (and are for us) incredibly hard. For the Jewish people in exile due to separation from their homeland, their temple … (for us due to separation from so many things – work, extended family, school, community, our church). The journey of itself is hard.
There is both looking back to past salvation (a homecoming, being brought back) and looking forward in hope from a present anxious situation to another gracious act of restoration.
The pattern (problem, promise and presence)is reflected and repeated in Isaiah and John.
Our current situation may be experienced as alienation from God, but this may be due to immaturity or unreadiness to recognize a need for growth. Our time may be used as a teaching and learning moment /dj). Many have said that CoVid is the great revealer of our short comings, and our vulnerability – individually and as a society. We can grow spiritually through adversity, we can mature because we are needy.
We are helped through this because God is God.
There is a relationship between tears and joy.The psalmist sees restoration as a dream fraught with tears, tears that water future growth.
Restoration is not only a dream though. It comes with real tangible products, a blossoming in the desert. Lynn Bauman in his own translation of this psalm as poetry says
v. 2 And we the dreamers, filled with joy, rose up in prayer to You the God who acted.
Poetry is something both healing and restorative. Without it, we live in a desert land. Poetry springs from a source even deeper than the human soul.It is always a language of the heart.
Psalms bring solidarity across the ages, over the millennia.Now even more Psalms speak with increased volume. We need the song that is the psalm. Through it we are both receptors and reflectors of the good news that we are not abandoned. We both give and receive. Even in our despairing moments when it feels that our voices are fading into nothingness, the psalm, a song, assures a Presence awaits us and always has been with us.
And that Presence beckons us into actions in all three scriptures. In Isaiah
V. 1 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; V. 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
These words are familiar to us in Luke 4:18-19 where Jesus, the Son of God, proclaims his inaugural vision of his ministry, his service to the world.
And it is a model for us, the children of God, the One to whom we belong:In ways of service, in ways of caring, in ways of seeking justice, in times of suffering and pain, we can overcome the separation and absence for in these ways of living we belong to God.
May you sense this joy and belonging in your life now and into the future. AMEN