Joy is the sneaky preview of the Kingdom of God.
It’s a moment of accepting the gift of being alive, reveling in it, trying it on and feeling its fabric enfold you. It is perspective and gratitude, but not the thoughtful, serious kind, the kind that makes you want to burst out in exuberance and throw yourself at God for a giant bear hug.
Joy is the experience of total alignment and delight that makes you want to erupt into unsophisticated laughter. We once talked together aboutjoy as “premembering” – remembering the future. It only comes upon you when you’re right here, fully present, and then suddenly it takes you by surprise, grabs hold and pulls you to the window and says, Look! Look how beautiful it all is! Isn’t it amazing?! Joy is a brief anchoring in the Big Picture, a sudden, unexpected taste of the real reality.
This Advent, each week we are contrasting the Way of Fear with the Way of God. The two competing scripts, narratives that vie to direct our lives, that we’ve been witnessing in struggle throughout the whole Old Testament. So to remind ourselves – the way of fear, we’ve also called the dominant script that we live by in our time, says that:
The powerful matter, the weak do not. Having more makes you better, your worth is earned, others are nothing more than a competition for resources or an obstacle in your way, they should be used to further yourself, or eliminated. Life begins in self-sufficiency, and you’d better not screw up. You will be judged and ranked, and dismissed if you make mistakes or are no longer productive. There is not enough to go around so take what you can get before someone else does. God is keeping score; we should be too.
There is no time to stop or rest or let up for even a moment, or you will get behind, you will lose your place, and just have to “catch up.” The goal is security at all cost, and almost all of the time the world is dangerous and urgent. This script shapes life around the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of personal gain. That’s the Way of Fear.
The other Way, the Kingdom of God Script, we said, says that it all begins in gift, and abundance. You are made by God for connection and communion. You are loved just as you are. You are not meant to be perfect, (there’s no such thing); you are meant to be you. On this journey of life that begins in gift and ends in connection and communion, the people journeying alongside you are neighbor, friend, brother and sister, not threats, rivals or competitors. You need each other to be whole, and what we have is for sharing. Life doesn’t make sense alone and isolated and against; you are created for relationship with God and with each other, and there is no such thing as one without the other. The goal is wholeness, connection and joy, and the world and those of us in it, are wired for this. We have everything we need, and would remember that, and live in that if we regularly stopped everything long enough to let God remind us. This script shapes life around “everyonehaving what they need” justice, “standing with you” kindness, and “attentiveand open” walking humbly with God. (Micah 6:8) This is the way of God – the big picture.
So as we sit here tonight on the brink of Christmas, preparing to welcome God with us, we feel the pull again between these two competing narratives, and it may be helpful to pause to remember why God came to be with us.
God didn’t come in to punish. Didn’t come in to rescue certain ones out. Didn’t come in to teach us how we should be in order to be accepted by God. All of these would put God comfortably in the way of fear. They’d make sense to us in the way the dominant script says life works.
But, of all the craziness, Jesus says that he came that we might have joy, God’s joy, and that the things that keep us from joy would be stopped. God’s intention for us is to bring us back in alignment with the creative maker of the world, to sync us up with the one whose joy spilled out and gave life and breath to a universe. God came in Jesus that we might live fully the real reality, the Kingdom of God, the truth of the Big Picture, life as God means for it to be lived, here and now.
But we resist that. In our everyday lives, in our communities, in the Church itself. We resist the absurd Way of God in favor of the rational Way of fear.
There’s a word for resisting the way of God and living in the way of fear: Sin.
Sin is the lie that tells us who we are and who God is and who others are instead of the truth, the barrier between God and us, between ourselves and others, between ourselves and our true selves.
Sin is what separates us from God.
Sometimes we join in sin by the overt choices we know we are making, that come from belief in the way of fear- that my desires justify harming another, that my own self-preservation demands dishonesty, that something you have will make me happy or secure so I need to take it for myself. Sometimes our participation in sin is inadvertent, accidental, or apathetic acceptance that allows the way of fear to dictate our time, money, relationships, and actions. Going along with what’s easy and wrong instead of seeking what is difficult and right. Trying desperately to earn what is a gift. Sinning is choosing to live as slaves when God has made us free.
We are all impacted by sin, and we all sin, all the time.
But God’s way keeps inviting us back to the big picture. Into the Way of Joy. God’s way invites us to live in the real reality- that we are already set free, that we belong to God and not to sin. That we are secure in the promises of God and not in whatever we can make or build or prove. In Jesus, God came into this world of sin, into this world of separation, God entered right into the way of fear, to share it with us, so that we are not alone in struggling here.
And God breaks open the power of sin, to set us free.
One day the whole system will be overthrown, and the poor and lowly will be lifted up and the strong will be made weak, because what we believe makes us strong is all a farce anyway. One day the way of fear will utterly crumble away. One day all time will be different- measured by delight, instead of deadlines, counted out in laughter and tears instead of accumulated accomplishments.
One day the real reality that is breaking through all the crumbling parts will be the only way left standing, the word of God that remains when all the rest falls away. So we are invited right now to live the true script, defiantly and joyfully in the face of the dominant one, because it the truth, and the future is breaking in.
So against this backdrop, comes our scripture addressed to a people in exile. Having lost it all. They'd succumbed to the Way of Fear, and turned away from God until everything they’d known is gone. And now, they're just moving on as though that is the final word about them. It’s over. So live in the now. Adjust to exile; let go of what was and what you thought might be. Accept that you’ve been beaten, and what will define you forever is sin, your separation from God, your choices that led you to here, and the things that made it easy to stay in the way of fear -this is who you are now.
They are bruised reeds. Dimly burning wicks. Done. Not good for much anymore.
And surely that is what a God who punishes, who only rescues certain ones out, who shows us the way we have to be in order to be accepted by God, would have things be. Surely that is “justice”, at least as the world would define it. With God comfortably defined in the way of fear, that would make complete sense to them.
But through the prophet in whom God delights, the voice who wont grow weary God speaks to them, and then three times talks of justice – mishpat-justice, that word we discovered means, “everybody has enough and all are cared for.” It promises this justice to a weary and worn out world that has given up.
And then it invites the weary people to premember. To find their purpose and their identity as the people defined by God’s way of freedom and hope, telling them they are to be bearers of God’s light, the people who remember the future and embody God’s connection and covenant to a world that is hungry to hear this news.
The bruised reed and dimly burning wicks bringing hope to the rest of the world?
Instead of either giving up, or surreptitiously propping themselves up and frantically keeping themselves from flickering out, like they should be?
The vulnerable bringing good news?
In God’s way the ones who most need to hear the good news become the very best ones to deliver it. We saw that last week as well.
Not because they’ve got it all figured out, or are so worthy or strong, or have never succumbed to the way of fear, but because they need the light and the freedom of God as much as the next person.
And because it’s not their news they bear:
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…
That’s whose news it is. You can trust in this news.
And the news is this:
You are mine. I have called you to be a light to the nations. I have given you as a covenant to the people. You are my gift to the world. YOU ARE the good news. Through you I will open the eyes that are blind and set the prisoners free from their dungeons.
You will be the people who tell the truth about the Big Picture. You will be the ones who remind the world that we belong to each other, and that all are worthy of love and respect. You will bring my balm and healing where there is pain and sorrow.
You will be the ones who bravely share when the way of fear says horde, who say enough when the way of fear demands more, who forgive when the way of fear says punish. You will be generous with your kindness instead of stingy with your courtesy.
And I will give you the courage to look past the surface anger or ignorance because you know what fear is like, and you recognize it in all its forms.
You will be the people who live plugged in, ready for joy’s jolts – delighting in the gift of being alive with and for each other and willing to celebrate the wonder of it.
You are the ones who I tell, even before it springs forth, that I am doing a new thing. All around you, new thing is about to spring forth, is already happening, through you, alongside you, between you, and you are the noticers and the joiners, the celebraters and the brave proclaimers in this new thing springing forth. That is who you are.
So sing out with joy! The very next verses say:
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the end of the earth!
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,
the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy,
let them shout from the tops of the mountains.
Let them give glory to the Lord,
and declare his praise in the coastlands.
Joy is powerful, friends.
Boyount, ridiculous joy grounds us in truth.
It shatters the false with real, tangible experiences transcendence. It is light piercing darkness; it is shimmering congruence with the way of God. Joy trumpets out the Way of God, and backs fear into a corner with its overwhelming, unabashed celebration of life and living. Joy summons us awake and gives us strength to stand in the darkness, within and around us, and courage to step out of sin’s definitions and demands, and embrace the deeper truth and reality of the Kingdom of God that holds us all.
O God. Make us conduits of your joy! May we welcome your joy, when it erupts within us. Set us free from the things that rob joy. Deliver us from the way of fear that we might live in the way of Joy. In ordinary and extraordinary ways, may we bear for the world your light, and embody for each other your invitation to freedom and life. May we love so whole-heartedly that it breaks us open. May we really share in each other, in the lives of those we have been given to, so that we can feel the truth. And may we watch for and share the good news that your promise is what endures, and your justice and peace will prevail.