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Prepare Him Room: Hopeful Joy

Scripture: Isaiah 2:1-5 Romans 13:11-14

Happy Advent, y’all!

Today, we begin a season to “get ready” for the coming of Christ, which is what Advent is all about, by challenging each other to **walk in joy**.

Three hundred years ago in 1719, Isaac Watt penned his triumphant carol, Joy to the World. The first verse goes:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room

I am challenging us over these next four Sundays to prepare room in our hearts for Christmas Day, for the good news of God coming to us, and these strange gifts of joy that come our way.

Joy, I know, is a loaded word.

Joy is more than happiness. 

Theologian Miroslov Volf says that “happiness generally is today understood as a kind of pleasurable feeling of whatever sort that (we) might get.” But Volf says, “Joy has something specific about it. We rejoice when we are united with the object of our love, with things that we love. Joy is elicited when something good comes our way and, for the most part, … when it comes in a kind of gratuitous way.”

We recognize that our culture around us is interested in selling us happiness — shopping til we drop, eating our weight in Christmas cookies, gift giving, and holiday movie watching. All of these things CAN bring us that temporary lift of our spirits that we call happiness — but joy, real joy, cannot be bought on Black Friday or even on Amazon. (And to be clear, I checked.)

Joy is much more elusive. Joy cannot be forced. Joy emerges from deep within us in response to an extraordinary turn of events.

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The prophet Isaiah’s message in Isaiah 2 describes such an extraordinary turn of events.

“In days to come”, the prophet says, “the mountain of the Lord’s house
    shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
         and shall be raised above the hills.”

“In days to come” already suggest to us that current days are hard. Most of the time in the Old Testament, when prophets spoke their their words of judgment and strange tidings, life was pretty awful. There wasn’t much hope for the future. The leaders were not courageous or wise. War threatened the people. There was little reason to be joyful.

So in that sense of despair, Isaiah tells us that change is on its way, but, like the gift of joy, it will arrive in a surprising, gratuitous way.

For example, Theologian Michael Chan writes that the holy mountain of Jerusalem is an unlikely place to gather the worlds elite. It’s no Mar a Lago. It’s hardly the largest mountain in Israel. It is certainly not the most impressive city. But God dares take the small and makes something big out of it.

The people of the world who gather at the holy mountain come to learn the ways of God, to walk the paths of God, to draw upon God’s commandments.

And the ways of God lead people to peace that we can barely dare dream of:

He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
 they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
    and their spears into pruning-hooks;
 nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more. 

While the Hebrew word “shalom” does not appear in this passage, Isaiah’s vision for our world contain the essence of what shalom or peace would look like - a time when tanks and guided missiles and aircraft carriers and handguns get beaten into tractors and spades and ploughs and scarecrows - and nations of the world live with justice and care and concern for each other. This is a time when there is enough to eat for all, and the wounds between peoples are healed.

It is a hopeful future, a future worthy getting worked up about, a future that comes like a thief in the night, according to Isaiah and Nadia Bolz-Weber, Jesus sneaking in and jacking our human desire to kill and harm each other.

Isaiah ends this section in Verse 5, saying to his people - this isn’t just some glorious future that God is gonna do someday - it’s a future we can start living in now - 

 O house of Jacob,
    come, let us walk
    in the light of the Lord! 

To walk in the light is to live into that future, or as one of my colleagues put it last week, to lean into that hope. We can’t just sit on our hands and hope it comes - Isaiah invites us to get onboard and start making it happen when we can and where we can, however we can.

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Granted, I get it - there is plenty of reason to dismiss any sense of hope or joy right now - or to feel frustrated that it’s even possible in our lifetime.

Isaiah’s vision seems like a pipe dream in our world and our situation:

- According to News Week, it was reported that our government detained and held over 70,000 children who came to our country seeking refuge in this past year.
- Additionally, we have witnessed at least 8 mass shootings at schools or universities and 2 at places of worship - and many more elsewhere in communities and neighborhoods. Some of these are being investigated as hate crimes.
- Our world continues to be mired in ongoing conflicts which offer little hope for peace, including instability in the Middle East, among neighbors in Central and South America, and Hong Kong and China, many of which have forced families to flee for their lives. In 2019, there are estimates that 70.8 million people have been forcibly displaced around the world.
- Our climate crisis remains the most central threat to our lives and our civilization and our future, and our leaders seem to lack the conviction to act.
- And while even here in the US our economic situation may be better for some, too many of our neighbors are facing eviction. Too many families are paycheck to paycheck. Too many people can’t afford to live where they work. Right here in Hyattsville.

Do we truly have any reason to be joyful? Are heaven and nature really singing in this season? Can we be hopeful when things are bad for so many people? Isn’t it inconceivable for the nations of the world to lay down their weapons and find peace when our own Congress can’t seem to find unity?

And I haven’t even touched upon those personal places of suffering and despair for each of us, losing family members, the long seasons of grief, the doctor’s diagnosis we are waiting to receive, the looming decisions in our lives, the cycles of conflict that we don’t know how to escape.

What difference does it make to walk in the light when we seem to be walking alone?

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And yet, Isaiah’s words ring loud, don’t they?

 O house of Jacob,
    come, let us walk
    in the light of the Lord! 

The invitation isn’t for just individuals on their own to walk this way of God but for us as a community to walk it together.

The reality is that right now is the moment when the world needs joy - when we need joy - when you need joy - when I need joy - the most. We don’t necessarily need joy when everything is good, when life is clicking, when our bank account is full, or when our Christmas cookies come out of the oven all perfect.

We need a joy that shoes up in the darkest of days, when we or our loved ones are suffering and hurting.

We need a joy that gets us out of bed in the morning, that moves our feet and compels us to walk in the light even when our culture tells us that morning has been cancelled.

We need this hopeful joy.

In their book about Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama write that one of the pillars of joy is perspective. Being able to open ourselves up to someone else’s perspective can bring a sense of hope in miserable times. We can see the world anew from a new angle. We can imagine possibilities when none before existed. We can find joy creeping in once again, like a thief in the night, snatching away our pain and fear of our future.

We can hear, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans, the voice of God crying out to us, “Wake up! There is much worth fighting and living for! Our salvation is near - if we can but hold on a little longer. The sun IS going to shine!”

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At the beginning of November, one of my shifts of perspective began when we welcomed 40 marchers to stay in our church overnight. These were young people - but also people of all ages - who themselves were DACA or TPS recipients, individuals who had been given temporary status to live and work and be with their families in the US due to executive decisions. Unfortunately, some of those privileges are in the process of being revoked, placing their lives and their family’s lives in danger. These young people marched from New York City to the Supreme Court, to cry out for compassion, to cry out for justice, to represent friends and colleagues who have known only one country - our country - as their home. Without these protections, they could be deported.

What is desperate about their situation is that our government hasn’t been able to work out an agreement or legislation to help them, despite the backing of so many faith communities and corporations. And some experts say that because of the makeup of the Supreme Court and the deadlock in Congress, there is very little hope for these remarkable young people.

And yet, they march anyway.

They walked anyway.

They sang and supported each other and believed anyway.

And along the way, these young people were able to receive the gifts offered to them - of warm places to sleep and hot meals and kimchi bokkum bap and fresh tamales and friendly honks and companions for the journey - with hopeful joy, that maybe the darkness would not overwhelm the light.

This is the kind of Advent shift that I need - that we all need.

Your Advent assignment this first week is to find a new perspective to see what God is doing in the despair and suffering of our world - to look and make room for a hopeful joy that reveals how God is coming to us and showing up in ways we cannot expect it.

Maybe it means for you to seek out that friend who is battling cancer or that worker who is standing with Union colleagues demanding better working conditions or that family member who can’t find employment or that loved one struggling with depression or that neighbor who is afraid of ICE coming into their community. Maybe it means sitting down and finding out what gets them out of bed each morning, what propels them forward with all of the hurdles they face, and finding a way to walk in the light with them toward an improbable dream.

And if we can, make that dream a reality.

May we walk in the light of the Lord… together.

Come, O come, Emmanuel.

(posted 12/1/19)

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