Isaiah 35:1-10 90 "Joy to The World" (1,2,4)
Mtt. 11:1-11 109 "I Know A Rosetree Springing"
3rd Advent Sunday
Rev. Kit B. Billings
What is it that has led you to Christianity or this church? What is it that, perhaps, has reached down deep inside of you and pulled at your spiritual affections and moved you to come? If you're like me, then part of that tugging comes from experiences in your life where you've felt a Presence of Love greater than yourself plucking at a certain deep-down part of you, which I call my "JOY CENTER." Can you relate to this? Is joy one of the reasons you come to church?
I remember my first corporate, or church, gathering I attended as an adult. It was in Tacoma, Washington in 1987. Two several years prior to that convention, my entire nuclear family had been experiencing within us the internal spiritual equivalent to Isaiah's words we read from earlier (in chapter thirty-five). But it wasn't until that first national convention we attended in Tacoma that my experience of spiritual joy lit up like Disneyland at night inside me, and then I truly found my joy center! It happened during the opening ceremonies that first evening when the then president of our church, Randy Laakko, gave his opening of convention address.
It was then that I fully realized that there truly were a significant number of other people who spoke the same religious language I did, who valued the basic tenets of this church as I did, and who displayed their faith in living word and deed as I tried to do. For me, it was the combination of experiencing the living God within the context of spiritual community that touched me at a depth of spirit I'd never known before. I knew it was beautiful. I knew that I'd truly come home. Not long after president Laakko began his speech, I wept in my pew. And then I sat their quiet and still just soaking up the moment. It was a great and powerful moment of "being." I didn't want to think and do anything-I simply wanted to "BE."
The Lord's good tidings entered my spirit in "Advent" fashion that evening in late June, 1987. What moments in your life remind you that heavenly joy is not a fantasy?
This experience taught me two vital things: First, that I had a beautifully deep, fundamental spiritual need to be in relationship with like-spirited human beings other than my family of origin who love God above all else. And second, that the Lord loves to meet our needs! And he does so because he wants us to have experiences of heavenly joy-the sort of joy that God feels and simply wants to share with us!
Have you ever thought about the truth that the Lord is joyous-I mean really joyous!!-that He's full of joy about being in relationship with you? It is this aspect of the Lord, in part, that wondrously connects us with the many passages in the Old and New Testaments where the Lord is referred to as our Bridegroom. God is so happy about knowing you and being known by you…about personally connecting with you…that one of the accurate ways of talking about the Lord is as our Divine Bridegroom. This is why we find John the Baptist telling his disciples before John was cast into prison:
"You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, `I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.' He who has the bride is the Bridegroom. The friend of the Bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the Bridegroom's voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease."
In Matthew's eleventh chapter we find Jesus talking almost all the time. Prior to this point in the Lord's ministry, Christ had been baptized; he gave his ministry illustrating "Sermon on The Mount" within the Beatitudes and many more sayings; and he began proving his words by showing them in deeds of healing and love! Also prior to chapter 11, John the Baptizer had been cast into prison.
I would imagine that, at times, it was a terribly difficult time for John in that prison. He must have ached down in that dark dungeon, for he was a child of the desert. He had spent years out in the open stretches of the desert, with plenty of fresh breezes flowing over his face and the glory of the open skies hovering peacefully above him. Now he was confined in the rat-infested stench of the fortress of Machaerus in the mountains near the Dead Sea. Herod Antipas knew where to put people who had castrated him with their words. William Barclay tells a little story that helps us empathize with John's experience.
In Carlisle Castle there is a little cell. Once long ago they put a border chieftain in that cell and left him there for years. In that cell there is one little window, which is placed too high for a man to look out of when he is standing on the floor. On the ledge of the window there are two depressions worn away in the stone. They are the marks of the hands of that border chieftain, the places where, day after day, he lifted himself up by his hands to look out on the green dales across which he would never ride again.
I suspect that John must have been just like that poor chieftain. And who could blame him sitting there in despair in the dark where fears, doubts, and questions are often the food for thought. No wonder we hear about John in Matthew's eleventh chapter feeling unsure about Jesus, needing overt confirmation of whether or not Jesus was the Messiah.
How often do we find ourselves in a corresponding condition within our spiritual minds, surrounded by walls of doubt or bewilderment as to whether Christ is our Savior for real? How often do you question the Lord's character and ability to accomplish His mission?
The Lord knew what would best heal John of his doubts or questions. Rather than engage in intellectual debate, Jesus tells John's friends to share what He was doing with people as a healer and harbinger of good tidings! Ultimately the legitimacy of Christ as God in Human form comes not from debate, but from our personal experience of what He can do in our own lives if we but allow Him to work within us.
Jesus lists the messianic "proofs" to John's disciples found in Isaiah and more-he adds that the lepers are being cleansed, the dead are being resurrected, and the poor are receiving good news. By doing this, we hear the Lord displaying His own accent of confidence as "the One" who was to come. But even more important, He wanted to convey to John the Divine depth of joy that Christ was bringing into the world! When I choose to get in touch with the reality and meaning of Jesus' life and mission, my "joy center" starts to vibrate like a tuning fork being struck! While Christ was a healer of physical proportions, the depth of joy He brought to people came through the inner meaning of His physical miracles.
For example, with the inner meaning of the Word opened to us by means of God's servant Emanuel Swedenborg, we can see that our blindness to the literal and internal levels of truth within the Word gets turned into clear-sightedness and renewed faith as we walk with the Lord using sound New Church doctrine. Those who were once blind to the truth about themselves, about their common brothers and sisters and about God have their internal eyes opened! Those suffering with spiritual deafness, which corresponds to willful disobedience to "hearing" about and then doing what is good in life, become healed through devoted discipleship and deeper connections to God's will for them.
Where some folks once walked lame internally, their spiritual paths misdirected and lacking purpose, Christ enables them the ability to walk in the light-sure-footed and confident! Those suffering with guilt in self-centeredness and sin after profaning God's Commandments, which leprosy corresponds to, are cured by God's grace; becoming unselfish gives them new spiritual power following the example of Christ. Those once dead to the life-giving Source of love and the root of joy discover new life and resurrection with the Incarnate Word…….Jesus Christ……Immanuel, "God with us," as He proved that love and spiritual life are eternal and unconquerable that first Easter morning.
And those ignorant and in need of the comforting and healing truth of God born into life at the manger will hear good tidings of joy that the Lord has come to heal and strengthen those with weak hands, who have felt afraid to put their God-given talents to work in the world. The Divine wants to make firm those feeble at the knee. For as we fully embrace the truth of God's success in Human form, Isaiah's words from the Divine come alive, "Be strong, do not fear!"
You are a child of God, and the law of love will triumph over vengeance and military force. No wonder Jesus ended his message to John by saying, "And blessed is the man who does not take offence at me."
The depth of joy Jesus brought lies within the Divine goodness and truth the Lord offers each of us in the literal and internal levels of the Holy Word, which are felt most powerfully within spiritual community, and by reaching out into the community! The Lord wants to help you lift your spirit from inner deadness to new life, from ignorance of spiritual goodness and warmth and understanding to hearing and seeing it like a person given new hearing and new sight. Advent joy is born out of hearing and believing that the Lord's mission and ministry is alsoYOUR MINISTRY! You are destined for spiritual greatness in Advent by waiting for and letting God's new life be born from within you-that is, life and power that overcome evil not by means of physical force but through unanswerable love.
Are you interested in a God of joy working through your spirit? Joy that is founded on the caring and humbleness that Jesus' teachings lift up in reference to John the messianic forerunner: "the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he."
May your Advent and Christmas be full of the new and coming Life of the Holy One, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.