“The ransomed of the Lord shall return…to Zion with singing;everlasting joy shall be upon their heads…” Isaiah 35:10
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 18 December 2011 by the Rev. Ewing W. [Bud] Carroll, Jr. The scriptures reading that day were Psalm 89:1–11, Romans 16:25–27 and Luke 1:26–38.
A woman spent hours looking for the perfect birthday card for her husband. Finally she picked one with these words on the outside cover: “Sweetheart you’re the answer to my prayers.” The inside? “You’re not what I prayed for, but you’re the answer I got!”
Five hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people were living in exile in Babylon – what we know today as Iraq! They prayed that God would return them to Jerusalem and restore them to a place of pride, power and prestige. They prayed that their Messiah would be a strong warrior, powerful and influential throughout the Middle East. Like the woman with the birthday card, their prayers were also heard – and answered. But God’s answer was totally different from what they prayed for. Instead of a mighty warrior-soldier Messiah, the world got Jesus, a carpenter, prince not of a warring nation, but a prince of peace. Some answer to prayer! Advent is a reminder that God turns the world upside down and answers our prayers in ways seemingly so strange and different from anything we expect – or might hope for.
In today’s Gospel Lesson, Luke records Mary’s praise – the Magnificat. What a story! A young teenager, engaged to marry the carpenter Joseph. She’s economically dirt poor; pregnant and unmarried: already three strikes against her. And yet…and yet…God chose this seemingly insignificant girl; a girl facing great risks from society, to be the Mother of Jesus. When her tummy began to show, what would she tell her neighbors? Joseph? Her parents? But look at Mary’s response. No embarrassment or hesitation: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
The gift that God promised to the Israelites in Babylonian captivity is the same gift God offers to us in this Season of Advent: New Life; New Hope. And like Mary, we’re invited to rejoice in God our Savior. Or as Isaiah wrote, to “live with everlasting joy on our heads.” Advent is a time when God calls us to be filled with gladness. Not slurpy happiness; but pure joy. For Isaiah such joy meant the physically blind and deaf would see and hear. The physically lame would leap like a deer and the desert would blossom like the flowers in Kowloon Park. I believe Advent offers us two gifts. Gifts from a gracious and loving God who wants us to be people of joy, hope, light and love; people who will tend to and care for the needs of the world, even as God cares for us.
First, there’s the gift of restoration. Recall the Psalmist’s words, “he leads me beside still waters…he restores my soul…” Restoration is God’s way of putting us back together again. As children, many of us sang “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the kings horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” But in God’s joy, we are restorable. We are not cast offs or throwaways. We can be re-cycled. God’s not finished with us yet. Yes, some people give up on God saying, “I’ve no place for God in my life.” But never forget, God is forever saying, “I can fix you. Just give me the chance.”
Maybe you’re not blind, deaf or physically lame. Maybe you can speak non-stop about everything – or anything. But each of us stands in need of restoration. Some of us are spiritually thirsty. Some of us feel our lives have just dried up, barren as a sandy desert. For others, maybe you’re just going through the motions of living. I’ve got good news for you! Advent is a time to remember that in Jesus Christ, God is both able and eager to restore us. In Christ, we can be put together again.
Secondly, there’s the gift of anticipation. The Israelites couldn’t wait to get back to Jerusalem. Mary couldn’t wait for the arrival of her son. This simple village woman was filled with joyful anticipation. Often little, if nothing happens during our worship or daily lives. Why? Because we show no sense of urgency, expectancy or anticipation. We simply refuse or ignore the gifts God wants to give us. But recall and re-claim these words from Isaiah : “Those who wait [anticipate] for the Lord, shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint.”
A pastor was visiting two church members in hospital. The first one had what might be called “routine surgery.” Certainly not life-threatening. But to hear her talk you would have thought she had gone through triple heart by-pass surgery! The doctors were no good; the nurses all mean; hospital food terrible; other ward patients too noisy. She had no sense of anticipation. To return home, recover and get on with her life. No, her complaints were non-stop; her gratitude attitude nearly zero.
The second woman was pleasantly different. She greeted her pastor with a smile, saying, “Pastor, you know I’m here to have one of my legs amputated. Now the doctors tell me I must have both legs amputated. But as I’ve been lying here, I’ve been thinking about all the wonderful things I can do with my hands. I can write letters, sew, paint and bake. Why, the first thing I’m going to do when I get home is bake you a cake.”
Be careful! Joy is not an escape from the realities of pain, suffering and difficulty. It’s not some spiritual aspirin to chew and suddenly life is wonderful. Joy doesn’t remove us from the hurts, hatreds and hungers of the world. Joy in Christ doesn’t change our circumstances or situation. Joy in Christ changes us! Joy in Christ helps us to pass through any kind of desert; to be released from any kind of captivity or imprisonment, imposed from without or from within.
Advent is a time of New Beginnings. Coming into the world again and again, Christ invites us to anticipate and accept God’s healing, restoring love. He comes to equip us to both speak of and live lives of justice, honesty and integrity.
What’s that on your head? I hope it’s everlasting joy. Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Amen!