Advent Devotion – Wednesday December 12
The Rev. Michael A. Smith, McGee Avenue Baptist Church, Oakland, CA, ABSW ‘2010; President of the Berkeley Black Ecumenical Ministerial Alliance (BBEMA) and the Executive Director of The Center for Food, Faith & Justice.
The Shifting Sands of Restoration
3 Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”
5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (New Revised Standard Version – NRSV)
Several years ago during an Advent Bible Study lesson, I noticed a friend uncharacteristically subdued as the group began engaging a lively discussion about the themes of anticipation and expectancy. Later I facetiously asked, “Where is your joy?” She exclaimed “What’s wrong with you? Have you looked at the world lately? Who can be happy in times like these?” My friend’s cynical outburst led me to take a harder look at joy as opposed to happiness. For many people happiness is fully dependent on whether life is “all good.” Happiness goes up and down based on our perception of the difficulties we encounter at the time. Problems rise; happiness goes out the window. Troubles begin to go away; the happy scale starts to climb. Conversely, joy is not held hostage to situation and circumstance. In fact, joy can become strongest when trouble comes.
Unlike happiness which is often temporal, Joy locates God’s promise within every human lack, every deficit and every desolation. Joy locates God’s promise within a complex history of oppression and redemption, failure and faith. This is the message of Isaiah 35. Prophesying about joy to an oppressed people in exile may appear empty on the surface. Like my friend, I can envision people screaming at Isaiah, “What’s wrong with you?” Yet, Isaiah stands in the moment looking back on what God has done and proclaims what God will do again. Take a moment to read again vs. 5–7 above.
The future time of Isaiah’s vision is also a shift from the past of despair to the present of restoration. The Joy of Advent lives in the knowledge that our God is the one who moves us from pain and sorrow to peace and singing. Tell them, says Isaiah, “Be strong, do not fear.” And the prophet gives a reason, drawing attention now to the one source of strength and salvation. If you open your eyes and look, you will see that right here is your God (35:4a). Lord as we anticipate and expect your coming joy lives in our souls despite life’s disillusionment, despondency and despair, O Come, O come Emmanuel!
Come and dwell within me that I might know the everlasting joy that comes from you, my God. Amen.