Saturday, 11 December 2010

Inexplicable joy

Readings: Isaiah 35 v 1-10

                 Matthew 11 v 2-11

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

Once again, we have beautiful, hopeful images from Isaiah in our lectionary reading this morning.
Images of transformation.
All through this season of Advent, Isaiah has brought us hope.
His words, when they were spoken, to a people in exile, would have sounded every bit as strange as they do now.
His hearers then, as now, were weighed down, overwhelmed with bleakness, and needed encouragement.
Isaiah’s message was balm for hurting spirits.

Usually, in advent, I am drawn to the gospel readings, but this year, it is the prophecies from Isaiah that have sucked me in.
Not just with the beautiful images they have portrayed but also with their ability to speak through the centuries right to the heart of a world that needs to cultivate hope today.

Let’s hear again those hopeful words for today:

The desert shall rejoice and bloom, like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly…
and rejoice with joy and singing…
Strengthen the weak hands
make firm the feeble knees
Be strong, do not fear…
Here is your God
The eyes of the blind shall be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped
the lame shall leap like a deer
and the tongue of the speechless shout for joy
Waters shall break forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.

That image of the crocus blossoming abundantly stuck me this week – as I could just picture it.
Last spring, quite a number of you told me, to take a walk down to the park at Corsehill.
And what a sight there was there of crocuses in blossom.
I walked down Monument Road, accompanied by the noise of traffic – but, as soon as I stepped through the gates of the park, it was as though a hush fell over the world.
The sight and the atmosphere, for me, at that moment, was truly electric.
There was simply quiet peace and amazing beauty.
The dead leaves and bare patches of soil under the trees had been transformed into a carpet of crocuses.
That sight affected me both physically and emotionally.
That sight spoke to me of hope, of peace AND of joy.
It didn’t seem enough to simply breathe a prayer of thanks – I wanted to sing my heartfelt praise to a God who could cause such beauty.
And it’s those emotions that rushed back for me this week as I’ve sat with this Isaiah passage.
Hope, peace and joy – and an urge to sing!

The prophecy today speaks not only of hope, not only of peace, but also of joy - all three seemingly elusive qualities in our world today.

It’s a strange thing – we get the notion of hope fairly easily – we’d probably counter that we all need hope in order to survive.
In our darkest moments, in the dark corners of our world, hope is that light that flickers and sustains life.

And peace – we all long for peace – for a world free of conflict – and the freedom that can only be experienced through peace.

But joy seems to go a step further.
Joy, it seems, is a luxury, not an essential element for our well being.

So many people just now are going through the motions. putting a brave face on things, doing what is expected of them, but not really experiencing joy in the process.
- a bit like the Charlie Brown cartoon:
- “I think there must be something wrong with me, says Charlie Brown to Linus.
- Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.”
- “ I like getting presents, and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees, and all that, but I’m still not happy.

But the ancient prophecy speaks of joy and singing.
The crocus will not just blossom abundantly but the desert will rejoice with joy and singing.
The tongue of the speechless will not just be loosened but will sing for joy.

And those last words that we read – I’m going to revert to the words of a chorus we used to sing in Youth Group:
Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return
And come with singing unto Zion
And everlasting joy shall be upon their head
Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return
And come with singing unto Zion
And everlasting joy shall be upon their head
They shall obtain gladness and joy
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away
Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return
And come with singing unto Zion
And everlasting joy shall be upon their head

Everlasting joy.
That is what the prophet promises.
Strange as it may seem
As luxurious as it sounds.
That is the promise – of everlasting joy.

But what about now?
We long for a world where the blind can see, where the deaf can hear, where the lame can leap and the dumb speak.
And of course, when we see those things come to pass, we will rejoice.
How can we do otherwise?

But what about now – in our world as flawed as it is?
What about now, with the burdens and anxieties that weigh us down?
What about now, when we feel the chill of loss or fear the unknown?

How can we experience hope – or peace – far less joy – in daily life?

Maybe, just maybe, that picture of blossoming in the desert might give us a clue as to how joy gets in.
The prophet tells us that the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad and the desert shall rejoice and blossom.
Even in their desolate state, there will come forth something good.

The joy of which the prophet speaks – that joy that comes from God – is not dependant on all the conditions being just right.
But it comes nonetheless.

God does not wait until we have stilled our fears and overcome our anxious thoughts.
God does not wait until we have emerged somehow from our sorrow or loss.
God does not wait until our hearts and lives are ready and fertile.
God bursts in anyway – with an inexplicable joy.

That’s why the image of the crocus blossoming in the desert is such a perfect picture.
After the snowdrop, Crocuses are among the first bursts of hope and colour to appear – sometimes even through the winter snow.
The crocus doesn’t wait until the frosts have gone and the ground is more welcoming.
The crocus simply appears and transforms the landscape.
It’s that kind of transformation that God cultivates in us.
A joy that’s not dependant on external conditions.
A joy that bubbles up despite our heaviness and oppression.
A joy that comes, unbidden, and changes things for us.
Not wiping out tragedy.
Not restoring loss.
Not turning the clock back to better times or rushing us forward to healing.
But a joy that just is – in the midst of whatever challenges
or sorrows afflict us.

May you be afflicted this week, whatever your lot in life right now, with that inexplicable joy that God promises.
And may the prophet’s words – of hope, of peace and of joy, bringing healing to your Spirit.
For the glory of God.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The magic kingdom

Readings: Isaiah 11 v 1-10

                 Matthew 3 v 1-12

It was tempting, this week, to simply project those images portrayed in Isaiah and let the text – and the images – fire our imaginations and speak for themselves.

For the vision of community portrayed in Isaiah is so compelling and so attractive:

6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
Advent is a time for getting ready, for looking forward to Christmas. But it is also a time for imagining. Imagining what that kingdom that God sent his son to usher in would be like. 
In our reading from Isaiah, we have a picture of that kingdom. 
And what a picture.
Of peace and harmony never seen before.
A peace and a harmony that even goes against nature.
What is it we are preparing for this advent?
We prepare for Heaven touching earth.
The picture Isaiah paints is one of Heaven truly touching earth.
Wolf and lion and lamb and bear and small child – all playing peaceably together.
It is tempting to just stop there, with that image in our heads, with an indulgent smile on our face, tempting just to drink in that vision and long for the day.
But then we read Matthew’s gospel and are called to a very rude awakening.
Because into this picture of peace and calmness romps John the Baptist, trailing his own peculiar form of madness and austerity. 
Demolishing the tranquillity.
Calling us back to reality.
John is heralding, not the baby Jesus about whom we can all get quite sentimental but the man about to begin his ministry.
John is preaching in the wilderness, not about a baby who is to be born, but about a full grown Messiah who is about to embark on a ministry that will change people’s lives.
A ministry that will liberate a people.
And just as John attempted to alert people in the wilderness to the enormity of what Jesus had come to do, so he crashes with just as little subtlety into our Advent preparations and calls on us to wake up.
John the Baptist calls us out of our cosy reverie and confronts us with the stark reality that the baby we prepare to welcome grew to be a man who calls us to a very different way of living.
Calls us not just to imagine that wonderfully perfect kingdom but to do our best to create it alongside God. 
John calls us to hold a mirror to our intentions, to examine our motives in welcoming the Christ child.
To shake off the cosiness, just for a moment and ask ourselves – what is it we think we are welcoming.
Is it a little child who will plaster over the cracks and make everything better?
Or is it the challenger who calls on us to act, who makes demands of us not just to dream but to change?
John the Baptist’s words are very harsh.
He pulls no punches, calling the religious of his day “a brood of vipers”.
He is uncompromising.
But his last words are not words of condemnation.
He speaks boldly and starkly.
But alongside his condemnation, he offers words of hope.
The hope that, if we are ready to look at ourselves, if we are prepared to wake up and shake off our complacency or our romantic notions about Jesus’ birth.
If we are prepared to own how much of a part we play in the injustice that plagues our world, that traps people in poverty, that denies all equal chances.
If we can open our eyes to all that in honesty, then there is hope for us.
And there is hope for our world.
Because the child born in the stable, who grew to launch a challenging ministry offers us a way to join in restoring what he came to establish.
Jesus comes to change our lives.
And to give us hope that we can make a difference.
That that kingdom that Isaiah pictured will one day be a reality.
Heaven comes to earth – that’s what we prepare for in Advent. 
Are we prepared to change to make that a reality?
As we share in the sacrament of communion today, may the grace of God, conveyed through the simplicity of bread and wine bring us hope.
Hope that we can change.
And hope that God’s kingdom can be born in our midst.