Recapturing Joy -- A Sermon for Advent 3B
The theme of this Advent season is “restoration.” Each week we are hearing a word from the Psalms that speak to God’s work of restoration in the world and in our lives. If you go to the Somerset Collection this afternoon – if you’re brave enough -- you can go to the Restoration Hardware store. There you will find many high end home furnishings, from brass doorknobs to fashionable window coverings, to beautify your home. That’s not what we have in mind this Advent season.
Instead, the restoration that we have in mind here is the restoration of our relationships with God, with one another, and with creation. In the Psalm we read the first Sunday of Advent, we hear the Psalmist declare: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:3). This work of restoration is God’s work, not ours. It is a work of salvation – a word that includes both healing and reconciliation. During this Advent season we are lifting up God’s work of restoration that mends hearts and minds and spirits and bodies so that we might enjoy the blessing of living in God’s holy presence.
Restoration is the work of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, but Advent reminds us that God used John the Baptist to prepare the way for the one who reveals God’s work of restoration in the world. John the Baptist is the one who is charged with removing the barriers to God’s work of redemption and salvation.
In John’s Gospel, we hear John the Baptist claiming the mantle of Isaiah and declaring that he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23). In other words, John is the one who points us in the right direction so that we might experience the grace of God moving in our lives through the Spirit.
In previous weeks we have heard words about hope and peace, and today we’re invited to recapture joy. I realize that this Advent-Christmas Season isn’t a season of joy for everyone. Wednesday evening’s service of remembrance is a good reminder that there are people who need to do some grief work before they can rejoice in the Lord.
With that in mind, Psalm 126 invites us to look back to the way God restored the fortunes of Zion. The Psalmist speaks of those who dreamed that God would restore their fortunes. Dreams are important, because they help us look forward into the future.
Martin Luther King had a dream, which he shared with the nation in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s been more than fifty years and we’ve not yet fully realized the content of that dream, but the dream keeps pushing us forward. While racial divisions continue to exist in our nation, and much work needs to be done before the divide in our country is healed, there is a dream that can guide us on the journey forward.
This Psalm looks back to the end of the exile. It speaks of God’s people laughing and shouting with joy, even as the nations declared that “the Lord has done great things for them.” Yes, even those looking on from the outside could see that God had been at work freeing the people from their captors.
In trying to visualize this event, I thought of the joy that must have been present when word came to the slaves being held in the Confederacy that Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Most assuredly that was a day of joy and even some laughter.
Of course, even though the people of Judah left Babylon with hearts filled with joy and laughter, they returned to a city and a Temple lying in ruins. Yes, they were free, but not everything was as it should be. There were obstacles that still needed to be removed. The way of the Lord needed to be made straight.
In verses four through six of Psalm 126, we move from remembrance to imagining the future. When John cries out from the wilderness, he is crying out from the midst of the Negeb desert. This is a dry and weary land that needs to experience the life-giving and life-restoring power of water. Yes, the people cry out: “restore our fortunes like the watercourses of the Negeb.”
As anyone who has spent time in the desert knows, they are rather dry, and the Negeb is one of the driest on earth. After all, it borders the Dead Sea! But if you go into the desert you will find dry river beds. While they are dry most of the year, they can become raging rivers in a matter of a few moments. When rain comes to the desert if often comes in torrents creating powerful rivers that bring the desert to life. What seems to be dead and barren will spring to life, with the desert floor turning into a colorful blanket of flowers. Pools of water form and quickly teem with life. Of course, these rivers can prove destructive if you happen to be living in their midst, as many in drought stricken California have been learning in recent days. Yes, it may not rain very often in Southern California, but when it does rain, it comes down in buckets!
In the Psalm for today, people are sowing the seeds of grain in tears, but they reap the harvest with shouts of joy. Yes, joy often begins in sadness and tears. Talitha Allen puts it this way:
This is no jingle-bells joy brought about with a swipe of a credit card. The seeds of this joy have been planted in sadness and watered with tears. This is the honest joy that often comes only after weeping has tarried the night. [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, p. 58].
On Wednesday the city of Detroit exited bankruptcy. As you know, this was the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. The city and the region entered this process with great anxiety and many tears. There was great fear that people’s lives would be destroyed and that the city’s treasures would be plundered to pay off debts. While not everyone is completely happy with the result, for the most part the exit from bankruptcy is a moment of joy for the city and the region. It has given the city the opportunity for a clean start. With the exit from bankruptcy the people of the region have the opportunity to dream new dreams. The city might not return to what some remember as its glory days, but together the city and suburbs have the opportunity to create something new and exciting.
Downtown Detroit is alive with business. The M-1 light rail project is well underway. Abandoned buildings are being re-purposed or removed not only along the Woodward Corridor, but also out in the neighborhoods. Streetlights are being replaced and relit. The police and fire departments are responding more quickly. There is work being done on developing a high quality regional transit system that can get people to work and to school, to the doctor and to places of entertainment. They might even get people to church! While Detroit is far from being fully restored, we can see things moving forward. Life-giving waters are coursing through the deserts.
As a congregation we are not simply observers of this work of restoration. We’re playing a part in it. Through MCC, we’re involved in the development of the regional transit system. Through the work of Gospel in Action Detroit and Rippling Hope we are engaged in rebuilding neighborhoods. It might involve mowing a field or picking up garbage or painting a porch. It might seem small, and yet if you’ve participated in this work, you know that these gestures bring joy to the lives of those living in these often neglected neighborhoods.
Yes, “the Lord has done great things for us and we rejoiced” (Psalm126:3). For, as Paul told the Thessalonians:
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)