Sunday, December 8, 2019
Second Sunday of Advent, Year A

Prayer of the Day
Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming nurture our growth as people of repentance and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 11:1-10From David’s line, a ruler bringing justice and peace
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13  – Live in harmony, welcoming one another
Matthew 3:1-12A voice cries: Prepare the way of the Lord

Title:  Advent:  Journey in Joy

It is a dangerous word these days.  So dangerous that I am reluctant to even mention it or discuss it this morning.  I fear that it is so charged, and want to be avoided, that my mere mention of it will turn off ears and send your attention to all those distractions that can easier draw your thinking.

That word is joy.  One syllable, a mere three letters, yet so dangerous.  Has the potential to garner a strong reaction.  Especially these days.  Because if you are not feeling joyful, this word can cause feelings of “burden” and “supposed to,” fill the joyless with feelings of failure and regret.  All this being quite contrary to the lightness and life that are at the heart of joy’s truth and its gift-i-ness.

How am I supposed to feel joy-full?  Might be one response at the mere mention of this dangerous word.  And one wouldn’t blame you if that question is yours this morning.  Let me affirm your joy-less feelings or be a kill-joy if you’re joyful.  Our nation is in crisis, your political leaning might affect how you describe the crisis, but wherever you sit, however you vote, we all can agree that we are in the midst of a crisis. Oh, let’s be honest:  multiple political and leadership crises.  And then there are those flash points not in the beltway of DC.  Those events that keep flaring up that remind us of how troubled our society is.  Two more shooting events on naval bases just this past week.  Speaking of the navy, history is not even helpful this morning, no joy in remembering “the good ol days” as we come off of yesterday’s remembering that horrific day in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and world war intensified.  And suddenly we are thinking about war in general, we humans just can’t escape it.  And how about more history, yesterday our synod remembered with a gathering the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves being brought to this land and the legacy of hate and fear, racism and disenfranchisement, that are its legacy.  Where is the joy?  How can we even hear that word today?  How can we claim it for our Advent journey?  How can we prepare to sing “Joy to the World” or any other joyful carol?  Maybe this is the year to stick to Coventry Carol, What Child is This, and the like?

Our distance from joy, our fist shaking at its mention, is not helped by just turning off the news or shutting out the past. Even in our own small community, some are feeling that joy is too, too far away to even catch a glimpse.  Devastating loss of loved ones, continued health challenges, job stress and dissatisfaction, prolonged unemployment, stress-filled transitions, and I am sure there is more that I don’t even know of but are weighing heavy on some hearts this morning.  Where is the joy?  Yes, even the mention of it reminds us of just how distant it is.

And it doesn’t help that we have the Advent agitator, that camel-skinned curmudgeon, making his annual pre-Christmas visit this morning.  (This morning’s gospel reading is one of those rare ones that does not include any description of an event from Jesus’ earthly ministry or any quote from his teachings. Except by indirect reference, Jesus is not even mentioned.)  Its all John the baptizer today, shouting in the wilderness.  REPENT!  Repent, he cries to the people.  Greeting those religious leaders, okay maybe they were collaborators with the Romans, but Matthew tells us that they, too, have come to be baptized.  But what does John do?  Welcomes them by calling them a “Brood of Vipers.”

We hear this REPENT, and perhaps it only distances us further from the sought-after joy because it causes us to focus on how bad we are, how much confessing we must do, repent means to list all our sins, right? Lie in the dirt and the ashes because that is all we really are in the long run. All this bad stuff is just what we deserve.  We berate ourselves for the sour fruit that our tree is producing.  Where is the joy in the face of these convicting shouts of REPENT!

Lutheran theologian Martin Marty invites us to:  see repentance as a gift that involves a break with the past, God’s turning of ourselves to God-self, and the new life in Christ.  (Repeat)

A break with the past.  That joy robbing past, all those weight-adding “should of’s” and “if only’s” and “why did I’s.”  Repent invites us to break from the past, not wallow in it.  John assures us that the one who is coming will burn away the chaff and gather up the precious wheat.  We each are chaff and wheat, we each are saint and sinner.  Jesus will deal with the chaff.  Burn it away, so that your wonderful wheat might flourish.  A favorite song at our Saturday night Inspirational Gospel Showcase reminds us that “the battle is not ours, it’s the Lord’s.”  A paradox, there is joy in surrendering when it is to the Lord of Love that we surrender.

See repentance as a gift. God’s turning us to God.  Repent actually means to turn around, re-orient, change your point of view.  And the good news is that, while John might be suggesting that it is all on us to do the work, Jesus comes reassuring us that he comes to bring repentance.  For John the kingdom of God is near.  In Jesus, the kingdom of God is here.

Following my own advice from last week, we are wise to keep our eyes on the hope-filled, joy-inviting, words of the prophet Isaiah.  Today’s reading beginnings with a picture of both hopelessness and joylessness.  Isaiah calls our attention to a stump.  Jesse, the father of David, Jesse’s family tree has been cut off.  The royal lineage that brought forth great King David and Solomon.  The rulers during those glorious and golden days of the past, has been cut off.  Where is the hope now?  Where is the joy of being God’s people?  It never was in the king or any other ruler. That shoot growing out of the stump is a reminder that hope and joy are in the actions of God.  For where the world sees death, finality, devastation, God brings forth that new shoot, a new beginning, new life.

And better still, it will not be a restoration of that which was, it will be greater.  David was a great king, but he had his flaws.  But this new shoot, oh this luscious, green, filled with life shoot coming up from that dead stump.  Isaiah assures us that:

2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

(This is the passage that Jesus reads when asked to read in the Nazareth synagogue at the beginning of his ministry. And he says that in him, this prophesy has been fulfilled.)

Frederick Buechner writes that: “happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to- a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation.  Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.”  Isaiah continues to highlight this unpredictable nature of joy, as he describes those unlikely pairings of predator and prey.  Imagine the shear joy blossoming in the prey when they no longer must live in constant fear of their life-threating adversary.  Think of the joy that is offered to us when we repent, when we surrender to God’s turning us around, re-orienting, changing our thinking, changing our point of view.  And thus we see that the joy of the Lord, truly is our strength.  Because this is the one who welcomes us in the water, who heals our brokenness, who weeps us when we are broken with grief, who walks with us when we are weighed down with despair, who feeds us when we are hungry for his presence, who speaks to us in the word, who hears us when we pray, who strengthens us in the community of his body.  All this not because we deserve it, but because we are loved.  Oh, what joy is ours.

So, repent.  Turn around and see.  Change your point of view and behold.  And receive the joy God is giving us in Jesus Christ our new-born savior.  Breath in the sustaining power that is flowing from the Spirit.  We’re not talking happiness, no, this is the grace-filled gift of true and eternal, surprising and unpredictable joy.

The Rev. Mark Erson

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