Awaken to Joy
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, December 15, 2019, third Sunday of Advent, “Awaken!” series.
Text: Isaiah 35:1-10
I have a weekly covenant group, monthly clergy group, annual 8 day silent retreat—and I pay a therapist a lot of money—all to help me keep perspective. I need the help. Because I can lose perspective at the drop of a bomb or at news of another brutalized body. I can lose perspective when another real fact is treated as “alternative.” I can lose perspective when another species is thoughtlessly voted off the survivor island. Heck, I can lose perspective at much less: my overstimulated, overscheduled life paired with the truly ridiculous expectations I place on myself and pretty much everything and everyone around me is plenty to skew my vision of what is.
In the Bible, chaos (tohu) in is understood as formlessness, confusion, unreality. I think it’s safe to say there’s plenty of that to go around these days. When chaos threatens to draw me into a vortex of confusion, numbness, fear, or life-sucking overfunctioning, I get my money’s worth through a therapeutic vision shift. The gentle nudge comes: What is the frame through which you are perceiving this moment? What image is driving the reptilian brain reaction? Often, the question interrupts the inner spin. I try to identify and hold a different—more true—frame or image. And that shift in my “seeing” helps me shift my “being.” I awaken to what’s more really real.
Perspective is how we “hold” reality, how we frame it and understand it in any given moment. If, for example, our framework is God’s saving love always at work for the healing and wholeness of the world, we hold moments of chaos differently than we might within another frame. It is profoundly helpful for us as human animals to have words or images or narratives that—as we identify or connect with them personally—provide a sense of connection when we feel untethered, a sense of freedom and agency when we feel bound and powerless, a sense of purpose when we feel apathetic or adrift. As Jesus followers, we have a story, we have words from the prophets, we have images—burning sand becoming a pool, the desert blossoming, a humble baby whose life and love save the world. All these things provide a frame, an anchor to hold onto in the chaos all around. //
About a year ago, I encountered a poem by Jewish poet, Yehuda Amichai, that has been knocking around in my head ever since.
The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy. I'm thinking how precise people are when they describe their pain in a doctor’s office. Even those who haven't learned to read and write are precise: “This one's a throbbing pain, that one’s a wrenching pain, this one gnaws, that one burns, this is a sharp pain and that––a dull one. Right here. Precisely here, yes, yes.” Joy blurs everything, I've heard people say after nights of love and feasting, “It was great, I was in seventh heaven.” Even the spaceman who floated in outer space, tethered to a spaceship, could say only, “Great, wonderful, I have no words.” The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain–– I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness and blurry joy. I learned to speak among the pains.
I don’t believe the poet is alone. Don’t we all learn to speak among the pains?
Longing, pain, and joy are all jumbled up in our human experience. And what of those gets most of our collective psychic attention? I don’t believe it’s joy. It’s not that we don’t appreciate joy when it appears or that we intend to race past the grace of joy as if it were a thing of beauty outside a racing train. It’s just that there’s so much of everything else clawing for our attention. And, in the mix, we somehow find all sorts of ways to name, describe, catalogue our pains. Most folks I know would admit, if they’re being honest, that the painful stuff in life provokes their inner spin cycles much more than the graces and joys. I have been known to cogitate for days on the things that are broken, unfinished, unjust, failures in my life and work—all the while largely ignoring the extraordinary beauty, power, grace and new life all around me. But really…
I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness and blurry joy.
// From DC, to the middle of the country where I was raised, to all the far-flung places my colleagues and friends now reside—most people I know are deeply disturbed by the current state of our nation and world. Here at Foundry, I hardly need name all the tragedies, absurdities, and specific systemic sins that leave people weary and worn and angry and afraid and sad and numb. People all around us—and especially the young and marginalized—are more vulnerable than ever to poverty, violence, loneliness, mental illnesses, and addictions. It is important for us as followers of Jesus to stand in solidarity with all who suffer and are oppressed and to name the pain with all the precision and boldness we can muster.
AND it is critical that we also find a way to proclaim with some level of precision and boldness the joy that Isaiah describes in our text today. It’s a vision of hope for Jews who had long been exiled in Babylon. There is promise of sustenance and beauty and a clearly marked path—a “highway”—across the desert. Such a “straight shot” across the desert with the promise of water and safety is no small gift. Consider that it is incredibly easy to get lost in the desert where any “path” is quickly covered over by blown sand and everything looks the same. Consider also that the route from Babylon back to Jerusalem could be up to 1600 miles if you traveled the northerly route that kept you closer to water sources and civilization. But a highway as the crow flies that’s a fraction of that distance—with everything you need?! What a gift! Isaiah says, “no lion shall be there”—a promise that makes even more sense when we realize that the lion is the symbol of ancient Babylon. You see this is a promise that the redeemed will be free from the dangers, humiliations, and oppressions of empire and exile. This is a precise description of hope and of JOY!
And yet this word and promise is out of place. Scholars reveal that these words about a return from Babylon are cut and pasted into the middle of a whole other disaster—the Assyrian threat and conflict that happened hundreds of years earlier. And our text is not only out of chronological place. Imagine you’re watching a movie and you’re in the middle of the scene where everything is falling apart—fear, destruction, chaos running rampant—and all of a sudden it’s like someone has spliced the film with flowering fields and frolicking puppies: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” ??!! Scholars disagree about why this poetic prophecy shows up precisely here. But one suggests, “The Spirit hovered over the text and over the scribes: ‘Put it here,’ breathed the Spirit, ‘before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.’ So, here it is: a word that couldn’t wait until it might make more sense.”
This is what we celebrate in this season: a word that breaks into this beautiful, broken world to “interrupt the narrative of despair.” Oh! Don’t we need this interruption? In my life and work I hear people longing for peace, for a release from the pains of the day to day and the struggle to get by. I observe folk longing for someone to receive them in all their particularity and fullness; for connection, for friendship, for a way to contribute to the common good, to be part of something meaningful. I perceive people longing for beauty, wonder, love, encouragement, justice, liberation, and hope. People long for a world less brutal and broken. These longings are deep and not new. This is the cry of the human heart from the beginning. The story we tell affirms that God receives the longings of God’s people and responds. Prophet and teacher are raised up by God through the ages to show us a way to live in community instead of isolation, with justice rather than iniquity, and with meaning that saves from despair; God’s prophets call us to choose peace rather than violence, love rather than fear, life and not death. The story goes that, again and again, we rejected those whom God sent. And in the fullness of time, God once again interrupted the narrative of despair, speaking a Word into the pain of a raging world and his name was Jesus who came into the world as life and light. And even after we rejected God’s good gift again, the light shines…the light will not be overcome!
This is our story, our song, our hope. It is our anchor. We need this story, this word, this wonder, this counter-narrative to the world’s crazy. We need it and the world needs it. And we are called to share and to live our story, to speak into the chaos of our world, to act in ways that align with God’s vision. Isaiah writes, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, Be strong, do not fear!” We are called to speak truth to power and to powerless alike. To speak words and act in ways that bring hope and encouragement to the downtrodden and impoverished and exiled.
I want (us) to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness and blurry joy.
We who know Jesus know something about blurry joy, don’t we? It is the moment we realize that though we see now in a mirror dimly, then we will see face to face. Isn’t there something of blurry joy in the times when we, like the first disciples, perceive only after the fact that Jesus was with us on the road? Blurry joy is the ark breaking through clouds into rainbow, it’s the Israelites marching from slavery to liberation, it’s a blurry figure dancing in the fire alongside Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, it’s Esther risking her life and saving her people in just such a time as this. Blurry joy is the tax collector—the agent of empire—on the same team as the zealot and freedom fighter because of Jesus. Blurry joy is that time in the garden… when it was still very dark…and, with eyes likely bleary from tears, Mary has a blurry vision of Jesus alive. We are a people who proclaim the promise of new life. And we know that wilderness wandering and incarnate vulnerability and cross and the tomb are the path to get there. We know that we falter and fail again and again. We know that the arc bends toward justice at a pace slower than we think we can tolerate. But we also know that precisely at the moment it seems the world is coming to no good, God comes to the world again. Every single time. We know that God makes a highway out of no way. We know that God brings life out of death. And—if we are able to keep from being lulled to sleep by the pains of this world—we know the good news, the God-with-us, resurrection news, that weeping may last for a night, but JOY comes as you rub the sleep out of your eyes and wake up. Joy comes in the morning…