Choosing a Journey of Joy

Joy.jpgThis is a version of the sermon preached on December 15, 2019 at BBUMC. It’s the Third Lord’s Day of Advent, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary. It draws from worship resources for the Advent series, “Are We There Yet?

Today’s sermon explores Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11.

Bishop Advent video 2019 from Great Plains UMC on Vimeo.

This season, we’ve been looking at Advent as a journey of faith lived between the Savior’s past coming in Jesus’s birth, and Jesus’s final coming in glory to fully, and eternally establish God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. And like all journeys, there come times when we ask, “Are we there yet?” fully knowing we’re not and pleading for the journey’s end. The prayer and chorus of this season is, “Come, Lord Jesus, come,” but as Bishop Saenz shared in his Advent message, this “doesn’t mean Christ is absent from our everyday lives. Rather, it is our prayer asking for God’s grace to open our eyes to see and our spirits to receive afresh a vision of a future filled with hope that guides us beyond our fears toward the kingdom that Christ invites us to seek” (Bishop Saenz, 2019 Advent message). With this in mind, let’s pray.

Come, Lord Jesus, come Holy Spirit, come, presence of God. Breathe into us and through scripture, that as we listen and ponder, we would hear your voice of courage, vision, and grace this day. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.

ChadronSP_Featured.jpg“Are we almost there?” my friend and I asked each other repeatedly. One hot, late spring day, many years ago, we lost our way while biking through Chadron State Park. We’d set out on the right trail, according to the map, but soon the single-track blended with stock trails. We were exhausted and thirsty, having drained our water bottles hours before. We hoped with every hill we crested that we’d see signs for the end of our trail. At one point, we saw a windmill with a stock tank, and we thought we’d found a way to quench our thirst. But, the blades stood still on that windless day, leaving us with a choice: go on without water, drink from that dirty, mossy stock tank, or find a way to get the blades turning.

Sometimes in life, we feel like we’ve truly arrived, like we’ve found exactly what we’re looking for – an oasis of water in the parched hills. From such points, we build our lives, fairly certain that we’re on the right path, the God-honoring path even. Perhaps we even have moments, like Methodism’s founder John Wesley, when our hearts are strangely warmed by the Holy Spirit – when we know and accept that God’s grace, love, forgiveness, and new birth are for us. For moments or even seasons of our lives, we feel like we’ve arrived, like God is with us, and things make some semblance of sense.

But…then the less great of life seems to happen. We find ourselves lost, confused by crisscrossing trails. Perhaps there’s a fall back into some older pattern of sinful behavior, or maybe we follow a new one, or maybe it’s nothing to do with our choices at all. Sometimes the brokenness of the world just pops up into our lives, making us feel lost, or leading us to question if we were ever on the right path at all. Maybe it’s the news of an illness, or the death of a loved one. Perhaps it’s changes in our jobs or relationships, with or without our express choice. Perhaps it’s struggles of faith in which we sense God revealing something new to us that challenges our past assumptions and ideas. When things like this happen in our lives, we can find ourselves crying out, “Are we there yet?” but really meaning, “Where in the world are we, and where are you, God?”

This is about where John the Baptist in our passage from Matthew finds himself. He’d been on fire for God, preaching life-changing messages to the whole region. He’d led people to turn away from their past lives and orient themselves toward God in what seemed like entirely new lives. He’d even baptized Jesus, telling the people around him that Jesus was the one he’d been sent by God to prepare the way for. He’d been certain of his journey with God, but then he landed himself in prison for speaking the truth to power – for criticizing Herod too loudly. And so he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one God’s sending, or should we wait for another?” It’s like he’s saying, “I thought we were there. Are we there?”

The people of Isaiah were in a similar situation in Isaiah 35. They held fast to their identity as God’s chosen people, living in God’s Promised Land, within which was God’s dwelling place, the Temple: they had arrived. But, in the midst of Isaiah’s life, foreign powers – Assyria and Babylon – would come knocking on the walls of Jerusalem with threats (Is 36 & 39). The people of Judah knew the threats they were under, and it must have been terrifying to put it mildly. How lost and helpless they must have felt. I wonder if some would have, like John, sent messages to all spiritual authorities saying, “I thought we were there, in the presence of God. Where’s God now?”

In response to their fears, God inspires Isaiah to share a word of hope that is overflowing with joy.

“The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus. They will burst into bloom, and rejoice with joy and singing. […] Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing. Waters will spring up in the desert, and streams in the wilderness. The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water” (Is 35:1-2, 5-7, CEB).

For people who know deserts, and are now feeling like their very souls are deserts, this image of joyfully singing life is almost overwhelming. In the midst of desert places – both physical and spiritual – God gives the people vision and imagination to see a joy-filled life with God, a transformed life. God inspires the people, so that they can live with joy and hope even in the midst of struggle and fear.

In a way, Jesus does the same thing in response to John’s questions. Jesus doesn’t come out and admit that he is, indeed, the Messiah, the Savior. Instead, he gives John the tool for joy: vision. He tells John’s disciples, “Go, report to John what you hear and see. Those who were blind are able to seeThose who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them” (Mt 11:4b-5, CEB). Do you hear the echoes? Jesus quotes Isaiah 35:5-6 to John as proof that he is fulfilling God’s promise: he’s made God’s promise incarnate, fleshed-out. In the midst of John’s faith struggle, Jesus gives John vision to see God’s promise come to life. In this, Jesus invites John to choose a journey of joy, even in the midst of despair.

If, today, we’re feeling a little like John, for whatever reason – a little lost, a little disconnected from God, a bit far from God’s presence and path – Jesus offers us the same tool for joy in the midst of life. Jesus says, “Look and see.” Jesus empowers us to choose a journey of joy by giving us vision of God’s presence revealed in Jesus and conveyed through the Holy Spirit.

Bishop Saenz’ video message did a marvelous job of putting flesh on Jesus’s message to John and to us. He shared ways through which Jesus’s “look and see” message of hope is being made incarnate through the ministries of the United Methodist Church in the Great Plains and beyond. In Jesus’s name, people are being fed, rescued from flood waters and tragedies, and healed. In Jesus’s name, people are being transformed: equipped and empowered to change their hearts and lives, and to live in ways that bring glory to God and shine God’s light. Like Jesus, Bishop Saenz’s message invites us to “Look and see.” And when we do, we see Jesus, Savior of the world, building God’s kingdom in our midst, giving us vision to see and follow Jesus even when the path is challenging.

We may be crying out with fear and frustration, “Are we there yet?” But Jesus gives us vision of God’s not-yet, future kingdom breaking into this life, so that we can live with joy. Of course, we know God’s flourishing-desert kingdom is a not-yet reality, but in Jesus, we also see that the not-yet is blending into the here and now. And seeing God’s now and not-yet kingdom of flourishing fills us with joy that gives us courage for the journey. By showing us the flourishing transformation of God’s kingdom, now, Jesus emboldens us to choose a journey of joy, so that others will see God’s kingdom in us.

And Isaiah and Jesus subtly reveal that choosing a journey of joy is especially focused on serving others. Isaiah tells the people, not as a recommendation, but as a command – to

“strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees. Say to those who are panicking: ‘Be strong! Don’t fear!’” (Is 35:3-4, CEB).

“Then,” he says, all the healing and wholeness will happen. Isaiah doesn’t say, “Fix people.” Isaiah doesn’t say, “Go build God’s kingdom yourselves.” Isaiah, instead, says, essentially, “Support each other, strengthen each other, encourage each other, and walk with each other through dark valleys. This will be how God’s kingdom breaks into the world.”

In all of Bishop Saenz’s ministry testimonies, we see brothers and sisters in Christ, other churches, and us, doing just this: offering Christ-like support, presence, and encouragement, through which Jesus’s kingdom is born anew. And in this, it’s like Jesus is saying again to us and to the world, “Look, see. I’m the one you’ve been waiting for. You know it because you see the fruit of my followers.” Jesus empowers us to choose a journey of joy by serving others, so that others will see God’s not-yet kingdom breaking into our now. Jesus calls us to live into God’s not-yet kingdom he revealed, to get to work.

Back in Chadron State Park, such a vision led my friend to climb the tower to spin the windmill blades. How might Jesus be empowering us to spin the windmill blades in the lives of others, so God’s not-yet kingdom of flourishing may become a joy-filled now? May it be so.

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