Resonant Joy: A Sermon for the 3rd Week of Advent
This sermon was preached at our 8:00 service, yesterday, December 16, 2018
Last Sunday a bunch of us went Christmas Caroling over at Kittery Estates. We were about half an hour into our performance there, singing to the diners as they gathered for dinner in their main hall, when we suddenly heard a noise coming from one of the nearest tables to our group, “Boooooooooooooooo!” I was a theater major in college. I’ve performed on street corners. I make a living speaking in public to different sized crowds in different kinds of venues. I can’t tell you how shocked I was to experience my first heckler while Christmas Caroling with the church. He began with little grunts and groans. We would sing a song, and he would quietly moan, “Ugh, no, stop.” And the more we sang, the louder he got. After we finished a rousing rendition of Santa Clause is Coming to Town, the man loudly asked the room, “Do they even LIVE here?” I have to let you know at this point…we were really good. This was a nice-sized group, and the kids had energy and smiles, the adults were carrying the tune and keeping time, there was copious amounts of laughter and many people were singing along with us. And the louder we got, the more joy that filled the room, the more this one particular gentleman became bitter and angry. At one point, Sybil Carven shouted out, “Any requests?” And I was just waiting for this guy to holler at us, “Yeah, go home!” He never actually yelled “Bah-humbug,” but you could tell he wanted to. The Holidays are tough for a lot of people. It was easy for us to laugh at this guy…because he was really bent out of shape about some severely cute and earnest Christmas Carolers…but I touched base with one of the staff before we left, to see if there was anything we could do to bring some joy into his life. The staff person simply said, “A lot of folks are left here by their families. They drop them off, and they walk out the door, and they never come back. It’s not just the holidays…for a lot of these people, life in general is really tough and really lonely.”
As human beings, we can’t help but allow our life experiences to inform our expectations. When good things happen to us, we are more capable of expecting good things to happen down the road. When bad things happen…we expect the worst is yet to come. When life’s greatest tragedies and sufferings come our way, that sadness sometimes resonates with us so deeply, that it changes the contours of our very souls. There is a real danger that our hearts and souls and minds can be so altered by suffering and tragedy…that we lose our capacity for joy entirely…even when a group of 20 people come into our dining room for the sole purpose of sharing joy with us. This is why path of faith is so important. Our path of faith is not just about our beliefs…it is about preparing our souls to experience the full range of our humanity…from sorrow…all the way to joy.
By now, we are very familiar with the story: In the late 8th Century BCE Israel had been devastated by invading nations, their holiest of cities was burned and God’s Temple was decimated. Nothing but violence and death and slavery and exile as far as the eye could see. And in the midst of all this death and destruction, there was s Prophet without a name who spoke these words:
Isaiah 42: 1-11: Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. he will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD…Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice…,let the inhabitants…sing for joy, let them shout from the tops of the mountains.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reflected on these words in his book, The Prophets, “The majestic words of this prophet, whose name is unknown, are found in the later chapters of the book of Isaiah (chs. 40-66). The message of Second Isaiah, as he is conventionally called, is of no age. It is prophecy tempered with human tears, mixed with a joy that heals all scars, clearing a way for understanding the future in spite of the present. No words have ever gone further in offering comfort when the sick world cries.”
The Prophet proclaims that God births joy into this world for all Creation…and the first person to receive that joy is God’s chosen, suffering servant. How is this possible? How is it possible that the person God calls to suffer, is the person God calls to open the eyes of the blind, the person to set free the captives…how is it that the person who God calls to withstand countless injustices for the sake of redeeming humanity is the one who will sing for joy and shout from the mountaintops?
This is a huge question for us, because more often than not, we are taught that very few people deserve to be happy. We are taught that life is all about compromise and hard work, earning and struggling, doing the best you can for those you love…even if they don’t love you back. It’s possible that most of us have given up on having more than a few fleeting moments of happiness in our lives…we expect the worst so that we are less likely to be disappointed. There are, increasingly, studies being done about the effect that social media like Facebook is having on its users. Social media apparently conditions us to think that other people have something we don’t…we see their beautiful pictures, we see their great stories, we look at their friends and their interactions and we think, “Oh my, I wish my life could be like their lives.” We come to see happiness as something that others mysteriously possess, but for reasons we don’t understand…we are being left out of it. But it’s possible that social media is not the source of the problem…it just strengthens the message the world has already taught us: Not everyone deserves to be happy. Some people have a certain brain chemistry that prevents them from experiencing happiness like “normal” people. Some people have difficult families, unlike “normal” people. Some people have jobs they hate or are unable to find meaningful work…unlike “normal” people. We are conditioned to believe that happiness is conditional…that if you don’t check all the right boxes…it’s just not something you get to have in your life.
The words that Second Isaiah speaks to us today challenge our most basic understanding of what Joy is and where it comes from. Second Isaiah proclaims that joy actually has nothing to do with your circumstances…joy is not something you can manufacture yourself…joy is a gift from God…and it rings out into the world like a gong or a bell…and for those with ears to hear…that joyful noise can be heard in the midst of humanity’s worst suffering. In our faith, we sing of God’s “resounding joy,” proclaiming that God so faithfully and powerfully sends out the signal for joy, even on life’s darkest days, that it RESOUNDS…or RESONATES…in our very souls. We can’t think of Joy as a precious, limited resource that we are personally responsible for cultivating…we have to think of Joy as God’s own sonar…God sends out the signal for Joy, and when that signal pings against God’s faithful servants who have prepared their hearts and souls to receive it…that joy RESOUNDS, it gets sent back to God…and it’s shared with everyone and everything in between our Joyful God and God’s Suffering Servant.
Just as our hearts can break when we experience tragedy and pain…it is our call as God’s People to allow Joy to resound, to resonate, to echo through our souls…so that when caring for the world’s suffering has us feeling like we are pressed to the ground…God’s resounding joy lifts us back up. This is not an easy task…it may be one of the most difficult things our God calls us to do. The Good News is that each and every one of us have already been given all we need to fulfill this work. You don’t have to learn anything, you don’t have to develop special skills…you merely have to be willing to receive God’s Joyful signal…to let God’s joy ping against your soul…to activate you for the sake of serving others in a dark and painful world. Christmas Carolers…the sunrise…a baby greeting their parents for the first time…lovers providing for one another…visiting the sick, the lonely, the prisoners…witnessing someone sharing what little they have with others…dogs running on the beach, loving nothing more than the moment they are in. Signals are all around us…receive them…be a part of this resounding joy.