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Joyfully Optimistic
    Good News for Those Who Weren’t Expecting It
[©Eric Feustel, The United Methodist Churches of Pittsburg and Colebrook, NH   December 12, 2021]
Today’s Bible Readings:
Isaiah 35:1-10 [NRSV]
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,  the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 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; 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. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Highway of Holiness; the unclean shall not travel on it,  *but it shall be for God’s people;* no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
James 5:7-10 [NRSV]
Be patient, therefore, beloved,* until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.* 9Beloved,* do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved,* take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
Luke 1:46b-55 [NRSV]
Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
It was at least twenty years ago, maybe even thirty.  I sat in my car waiting at a traffic light in Manchester.  It was about this time of year when it gets dark early in the evening, and it was snowing, about like what we got here on Friday—just a couple inches of the white slimy stuff.  As I waited for the light to change, a young woman—twentyish—crossed the far side of the intersection, pushing a stroller with a child in it, and further burdened with bags of groceries.  She labored to push those tiny wheels through the icy slush, and she struggled to negotiate the curbstones, potholes and puddles hidden beneath the snow.  Gathering by where she was and the direction she was headed, I knew she had quite a trip.  To have come from the nearest market she would already have had to pass through an industrial area, and she had yet to work her way through this commercial section before reaching even the nearest residences.  No doubt the elements had penetrated her coat and scarf, and her shoes had been overwhelmed by the icy slush through which she trudged.   
I wondered about her.  Why was she walking?  Maybe she couldn’t afford a car; or maybe her husband was working and had taken the car; maybe she was walking instead of taking the bus as an economy measure.  To what and to whom would she come home?  Maybe she was a newly-wed coming home to prepare supper for her husband and child?  Or coming home to a boyfriend—a relationship of mutual convenience to cover the expenses of living—and she was hoping that this relationship would last, unlike those previous.  Or would she come home to a lifeless, starkly appointed apartment, alone, with no one to talk to as she heated the food, but a whining child?
Her story is not isolated.  At this moment there are some 40 million Americans receiving welfare benefits, not to mention so many immigrants we call ‘illegal’ or ‘undocumented,’ who are landing in our cities.  Beyond that, there are another 13 million who are below the poverty line, but do not receive benefits.  While there is overlap, the aggregate of all welfare programs is significantly higher.  As I prepare this message the corona virus is entering its third year.  Even as more than 65% of New Hampshire's population is vaccinated, cases and hospitalization are at an all-time high.  Scientists and politicians stumble about, issuing confusing and contradictory statements.  I can go on.  Forty percent of Americans are experiencing anxiety or depression.  Eleven percent of us are abusing drugs; add in alcohol and tobacco and we are approaching sixty percent who are using some substance as a coping mechanism.
Worse, it’s Christmas—that time of year when even the working majority are under stress, fighting traffic, roads plugged with holiday shoppers, and complicated by the weather.  Christmas can be a depressing time of year as we miss those whom we wish were with us but aren’t for one reason or another—other plans, broken relationships, or maybe some have passed on.  We become nostalgic for happier days, and then after Christmas we face post-holiday depression—we even have a clinical name for it, SAD:  Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Here we are celebrating the Advent Sunday of Joy!  The Lectionary passages we read overflow with optimism.  The Isaiah passage is peppered with words such as gladness, joy, and singing, often repeated in a verse, and where not mentioned, the passage still reflects a supremely optimistic tenor.   If we examine the context, we discover that Isaiah was writing to a group of exiles who had been in captivity for more than a generation, and had no expectation of returning home any time soon.
So how do we experience the Joy in the biblical sense?  First, we must need Joy.  Joy comes to the least likely people.  In Mary’s words recorded by Luke, she sings praise because God “lifts up the lowly, and feeds the hungry.”  If you want to be lifted up, you must be lowly; if you want to be fed, you must be hungry.  Happy people aren’t looking for Joy.  If you’re doing just fine, you don’t need it.  I’m not talking about happiness today, but Joy, that deep abiding inner emotion that gives us strength to weather difficult times.  Happiness is dependent on circumstances, joy is not.  Joy endures despite circumstances.  All the good news in today’s readings comes to those who are desperate for it.  If you are feeling trapped, caught, held captive by circumstances--in an unhappy marriage, difficult family relationships, poor health, or an impossible financial situation,  this joy is for you.
Second, we must desire Joy.  The Jerusalem exiles had to want to return (not all of them wished to, and not all of them did return).  You must desire God’s way so much that you will repent of this world’s values.  Really, the Christian Gospel is best suited to those who have given up on hope in this world.  The path to the Promised Land is a highway of holiness.  Holiness is not golden candlesticks or stained glass, nor is it visiting angels, mysticism, legalism or religiosity, it is a highway.  The highway must be traveled; it is not the destination, but it is the route to the destination.  I've heard it said that "life is a journey, not a destination;" I suggest to you that for the Christian believer, "life is a journey with a destination." To be holy is to live a special style; behaving honorably in every respect.  Notice Isaiah 35:8 “the unclean shall not travel on it; it shall be for God’s people.”  I hope you see the contrast between being “unclean” and being “God’s people.”  If you want joy, you must desire God’s path of holiness—not just publicly, but in your private life as well.  I’ve heard it said, “Character is who you are when nobody’s looking.”  Sometimes you have to do the right thing, even if no one notices.  A Methodist preacher of a century ago, Charles Tindley, was born the son of a slave and died during the Great Depression.  His life was not an easy path.  But before he died, he left us with some beautiful songs.  Likely you recognize a song he wrote that became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s We Shall Overcome.  He left us with many others, some are in our hymnbook, and one is Nothing Between.  I share his words with you.  
Nothing between my soul and my Savior, Naught of this world’s delusive dream;
    I have renounced all sinful pleasure; Jesus is mine, there’s nothing between.
Nothing between, like worldly pleasure; Habits of life, though harmless they seem;
    Must not my heart from Him ever sever; He is my all, there’s nothing between.
Nothing between, like pride or station; Self or friends shall not intervene;
    Though it may cost me much tribulation, I am resolved, there’s nothing between.
Nothing between, even many hard trials, Though the whole world against me convene;
    Watching with prayer and much self-denial, I’ll triumph at last, there’s nothing between
If you wish to experience joy like his, you need a spirit in agreement with those words.
Third, we must patiently wait for Joy. Everything in the Isaiah reading is in the future tense; it is obvious that all promises are about the future.  In our Epistle reading, James speaks of patience, likening it to a farmer growing crops.  You know you can’t just plant tomatoes in the morning and pick them in the evening.  Nor can you plant an apple tree in the spring and expect to harvest them in the fall. So too with our Christian path toward Joy.  There is no instant solution; there is no <click-thru link>.  We can’t just drive-thru and pick up our joy.  There is no such thing as “McFaith;”  Joy comes through patient endurance.
Fourth, we must respond to the Joy that is offered.  A few years after Isaiah delivered these words, Cyrus would issue his Edict liberating all the captive peoples, the Judean captives as well as all others that the Babylonians had conquered.  I haven’t studied him in detail, but from what I’ve seen, Cyrus is one of those rare figures in history who ruled with compassion and humility.  He dealt graciously with the captive peoples, allowing them to return home on condition they remain loyal subjects.  Once given their freedom, the Israelites had to make the trip back to Jerusalem.  They weren’t magically transported!  God made a highway, but they had to pack their bags, get in their chariots (or more likely walk), and make the trip back to Jerusalem.  The highway is there, but it's meant to be traveled.
Finally, we must accept the Joy. Israel couldn’t liberate themselves.  We see words like "redeemed" and "ransomed of the Lord" in v9-10 of Isaiah 35.  "Redeemed" and "ransomed" imply a transaction.  Someone pays a debt.  Someone must fix the problem.  Just as God made the way, working through Cyrus’ liberating proclamation, Jesus has made a way for us, for you and me, by liberating us from the power and penalty of sin, and countless other problems that beset us along life’s way, by giving his life on the Cross.
Do you need a fresh start in life?  Make the decision to follow Jesus.  Have you gotten off the highway, lost on a side street, or stuck in a parking space?  Get back on the Highway of Holiness by making or renewing your commitment to Christ.  Joy awaits.
Benediction:  I wonder about that woman I began with.  Where has life taken her in the intervening years?  And that baby, probably in his/her 30s by now.  Their situation seemed so hopeless, so helpless.  I doubt they could live a joyful life by any stretch without God’s intervention, without the help of Jesus and his followers.  I hope she found a group of people like we have here gathered this morning—people who will walk with her and that child, who would stand with them, and give them strength and confidence to grow and be successful.  That’s what we’re all about.  We are the dispensers of God's joy in this world.  Maybe God will bring someone like that young woman across your path.  Do what you can, in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
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