"The Backstory: Misery Seeking Joy"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
December 11, 2016
Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-14
I’ve been noticing a lot of sighing lately. Maybe it’s not happening more than usual; maybe I’m just more attuned to it lately. I hear friends and family sigh. I hear strangers sigh. I even notice myself sigh. Often, I think, sighing is something we don’t notice – our own or others. It’s not like a groan. A groan has voice. A sigh is more like a leak – a simple release of breath, wind, or spirit. Sighing, of course, can arise from pain or pleasure, but either way, there is something melancholy about sighing. There is something sad about sighing. We sigh in response to loss or release – loss of love or opportunity, release of tension or stress. Lovers sigh because the anticipated embrace has been consummated – the waiting is over. But sighing also signals a decision that has been made: at least for a moment, I am choosing to go on, to continue to live, to keep doing the best I can for those I love, to choose life and savor it, even in misery.
Imagine the misery of the Hebrew people in exile in Babylon. The house of their God was in ruins. They had become a servant class. Even their rulers were captive. The text from Isaiah today is an interposition of what was probably a piece of Second Isaiah – written generations later. Second Isaiah was message of hope for the exiles. The relocation of this image of thriving planet and people into First Isaiah was an encouragement from their future that even if disaster and dislocation were looming on the horizon, their loyalty to and observance of God’s ways of shalom – of love and justice – could still lead to a joyous future. Second Isaiah’s litany of misery sounds like this: weak, infirm, fearful – blind, deaf, lame, speechless – dry, burning, thirsty – haunted, treacherous, and unclean. Most of all, dislocation from God feels like being far from home. For some, the greatest misery lies simply in feeling far from home.
Then, imagine what God’s prophetic “school” of Isaiah is saying joy will be like: strong, firm, courageous – visionary, attentive, limber, inspired – torrential, refreshed, quenched – untroubled, fertile, and open. The Hebrew describes the response to the homecoming as an inarticulate ringing cry of gladness, joy, or mirth. In other words, it’s a really big deal, a wonderful upwelling of the spirit, not a simple relief or release. A sigh – even a sigh of pleasure – is not enough. I saw this week that some of the veterans that went to Standing Rock to protect the water protectors knelt before the tribal leaders and begged forgiveness for the misery we have imposed on First Nations peoples over the centuries. When Chief Archambault received the apology and laid hands on the leaders of the veterans, the tribal singers erupted with shrill ululations. The apology and the forgiveness did not erase the atrocities, but they did release an unfettered joy – a joy that will surely be required in the coming days and years.
Ironically, the path of the Dakotas Access Pipeline resembles the highway that Isaiah describes – the holy way that John the Baptizer says to make straight – leveling mountains and hills, raising up valleys, bulldozing everything in its path. It is meant to bring comfort to many in the form of fossil fuels, and profit to a few who already have so much. Though the misery is unintended, the pipeline will bring misery to many today and to future generations. John says that the one to come, the one to follow him, the one for whom we have been waiting, will bring good news to the poor. In this case, the Greek word for poor is ptwcoi. It means destitute ones, wretched ones, miserable ones. It means not just those who are short of change, but those completely bereft of opportunity. It means those who are chronically behind and below. The poor for whom John says the anointed healer will be good news are just like the First Nations people whose rights and culture and livelihoods and sovereignty have been trampled for generations. They are considered to be so low that it doesn’t matter if we carve a scar across their sacred land. The poor for whom John says the anointed healer will be good news are just like the chronically homeless, addicted, and disregarded who we hope to bring in from the cold in our shelter. We are in fact planning to operate the cold weather shelter most of this week beginning tomorrow night, and more volunteers are needed.
Isaiah says that the path that leads to the home that God desires for us – the blossoming, refreshing, protected path – will be reserved only for God’s people. Perhaps that was because the people in captivity had been so miserable because of their status on the bottom rung of Babylonian society and because of their profound longing for home. They wanted to know they would not be followed home by their oppressors.
Now, I ask you, just who are God’s people? Are not all creatures God’s children? I’m convinced that the Anointed Healer – the one whose birth we are preparing to witness again – is the definitive Word that all people are God’s people, regardless of what they profess. I think we have spent too much time worrying about what people think, and not enough time acting according to the example of the Anointed Healer.
When John heard in prison what Jesus had been doing, well, just what had he been doing? According to Matthew, he had been keeping company with the unclean, the very people that Isaiah said could not take the holy way back to the heart of God. Jesus taught them – those considered unclean and unworthy – about the law of love, the rule of compassion, the responsibility of wealth. Jesus healed them – those considered dirty and broken – of demons, shame, lack of vision, inability to hear, and crippling fear. When the followers of John came to ask Jesus if he was the one, he did not simply say yes or no. He said,
“See for yourselves. The blind receive vision, the immobilized move, the falling-apart are whole, those who couldn’t hear now do, and especially, those who are destitute, wretched, miserable have been served with good news.”
The good news that Jesus brings is that the way is open to all.
While we are on the way – Jesus’ path – we know that misery and joy can coexist. We also know that it’s not a one way street. We can rejoice that we are on our way home at the same time we suffer wretched disappointment and defeat. Sometimes there is joy for some and misery for others in the very same occurrence. Take the snow for instance. For some, waking up to blankets of cold, white snow is delightful. For those without a sheltering roof and a warm bed it is probably misery. The Standing Rock water protectors were overjoyed that the Army Corps of Engineers withdrew the permit for the pipeline to be dug under the Missouri River last Sunday. They rejoice in the unprecedented global uprising of indigenous peoples who are coming together in solidarity and sovereignty. But they also knew that there is misery to come. It’s really unlikely that the pipeline – 90% complete – will remain unfinished. In their joy, they are not yet home free.
Many compassionate and justice-seeking followers of Jesus have been thinking and talking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the run up to the election last month, and still as we watch the new political regime taking shape in our nation. Bonhoeffer gave courageous and unflinching witness during the rise of Adolf Hitler. Some believe that Bonhoeffer left God’s holy way when he plotted to overthrow the dictator. Like the Baptizer, he spent his last days in prison. But even in the depths of his misery he offered deep insight into the cultivation of joy.
“A sort of joy exists that knows nothing at all of the heart’s pain, anguish, and dread; it does not last; it can only numb a person for the moment. The joy of God has gone through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but ﬁnds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but ﬁnds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it ﬁnds life precisely within it. What matters is this joy that has overcome. It alone is credible; it alone helps and heals.”[i]
Bonhoeffer went on to say,
“…inwardly we must become very quiet to hear the soft sound of this phrase at all. Joy lives in its quietness and incomprehensibility. This joy is in fact incomprehensible, for the comprehensible never makes for joy.”[ii]
Of the four traditional themes of Advent – hope, peace, joy, and love – joy may be the most elusive and fleeting. All four take work to establish and work to maintain, but joy – especially if we equate it with happiness or satisfaction – comes and goes like sunshine and rain. In our Wednesday bible study we ask the question, “What am I called to do, change, be as a result of reflection on this text?” Isaiah lays it out for us as plain as day.
“Strengthen the weak hands. Make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong. Do not fear. Your God is here’”
Emmanuel – God-with-us! And what will happen when we step on that path?
“No traveler, not even fools, will go astray. God’s people will be on their way home with singing. Joy will radiate like a halo. Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
Beloved, let us be joyful as we travel along God’s holy way.
[i] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Works, vol. 16, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940–1945 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 377–378.
[ii] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, and Jana Riess. God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).