The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people who had the luxury to not listen. After all, it would probably not be them who would suffer when Babylon conquered Judah, when the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, when the Israelites would be taken away from their homes into decades of slavery – no, it was not them, but, it would be their descendants.
Even though they would be able to escape the brunt of the pain and misery, they would not be able to escape the blame. For they had warning, they had decades of warnings. Isaiah was one of those who made a full time job of warning the people who paid little attention to his message. Isaiah warned them of the siege and the desolation, he warned them of their pain, he warned them of hopelessness and desperation. He warned them, all the time, over and over. Sadly, even though the people thought they were avoiding the uncomfortable, annoying, and unpopular words of Isaiah, they were also missing the purpose and the hope of the coming events.
The words that God gave to Isaiah to prepare the people so that they could then prepare their descendants, were not only words of doom, they were also words of survival, of life, of redemption, of restoration, they were words of hope.
So, as we arrive at Isaiah’s prophecy of the final section of the Israelites path, the path of restoration and hope – the people, who were not prepared for hope by their elders, were overwhelmed and devastated instead of the intended state of hopefulness. They saw the destruction of everything they defined as home, the saw the desolation of the land, the ruin of the temple, they saw the vulnerably of Jerusalem, they saw pain and misery, they saw a lot of work to be done and a lot of sacrifice to be made, they saw the surrounding nations that hated them as a people, they saw a necessity of their own unity where unity was nonexistent. They needed hope.
It was in this time of time, a time of despair, that Isaiah calls out to God.
Oh, that you, God, would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence — As when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot to boil — To shock your enemies into facing you, make the nations shake in their boots! You did things we never expected, descended and made the mountains shudder at your presence. Since before time began no one has ever imagined, no ear heard, no eye seen, a God like you who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who happily do what is right, who keep a good memory of the way you work.
Isaiah, was calling out God, begging him to break into their world, to make his presence known, to do what only God could do. The ironic thing was that the people had just seen God act in this very manner. God had previously placed them into an environment where they were given the time to recognize and remember God. Time is not a deterrent to God so waiting was not a problem. During God’s wait on the people, God had revealed his patience for them to not only remember God, but to begin to function as his people, to begin to be A people. In this foreign land in a foreign status, the people had been without a temple, a visible presence of God. The religious practice of their past was no longer an option, they had been forced to figure it all out. In traveling this unfamiliar path, they had begun to be reunited with God. In the absence of the Temple they begun to practice their faith locally, in the midst of others. Synagogues had become a thing, relating to God everywhere and all the time rose as their religious practice, looking for God everywhere became their norm – they remembered their hope, they experienced God’s peace, inside they had changed, a miracle had taken place, God had ripped open the heavens, God had broken into their existence and they, miraculously, welcomed him in.
The people had waited, they had remembered their hope, nations around had seen the work of the God of the Hebrews, a work and a God that was totally foreign to these enemies.
Sometimes, before we can trust God for the now, we have to remember God that was for the past. Before we can grasp the fact that God will do as promised, that God will carry us through the unseen and the unknown, before we can stand peacefully on the hope on our path for the destination that is now in front of us, we have to remember that God has. He has already proven his faithfulness, he has already shown how our path is not untrod, it is not a path out of his jurisdiction. We can head forward knowing that God will because we are able to look back and see that He Has done, how He Has worked.
Then, as we remember, we can return to the mission, to the promise from God. In this week, Isaiah sets up God’s call on the Israelites who had returned home.
You will rebuild the old ruins, you will raise a new city out of the wreckage. You will start over on the ruined cities, you will take the rubble left behind and you will make it new.
This takes us to Mary, this teenager facing a dilemma that was unparalleled before and it remains unparalleled today. While there are echoes in Mary’s path of the paths of others and elements familiar to the journey’s of others, but Mary faced a destination that none others every had nor ever will travel. Mary was about to birth the Son of God, the eternal King, the Messiah. There is no way for us to be truly empathetic or sympathetic. For Mary it was not only a path unknown, it was a path that would never be known to anyone but this young girl.
In Luke 1:46-55 we see how Mary deals with her path. Mary’s path begins with faith, the place where all of our paths begin. Mary, before we are ever introduced to her, has stepped on the path by faith, having no idea of the details, and definitely having no grasp of the enormity of the destination. She was faithful, she had listened since childhood to the stories of how God Has done, how God has been faithful. Her path, just like our paths, began with stepping on to the path with no guarantees except that God already Has.
Second, we know that the Hope engulfed Mary as she willingly took step after step on the path – that is what steps do. We can look at the explanation from the angel to see that Mary was already a willing participant in this plan. ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’ Mary had a choice, just as all humans have been given a choice, so, for the angel to say this, the choice had been made. Mary traveled in hope.
Third, Then an ever increasing hope, step by step, brought Mary to peace by the time she reached her destination – that is how hope grows, step by step. She had grown up hearing the words of truth, she then heard from an angel, there was affirmation through her relative Elizabeth, she now stood, and stepped on her path with a confirmed hope and peace.
This is the reason for peace, peace eliminates the power of chaos and fear, it restricts the control doubt can have over us – doubt will probably always be around when we live in a world with doubtful choices but peace allows us to confidently coexist. Peace however, allows doubt to be the catalyst for seeking and searching truth, but removes the power that doubt can hold over us.
This brings us to joy, possibly one of the most difficult words in the Bible. Joy is a word that has to be defined by its context, and often times, those differing contexts can cause the word to have differing meanings that can confuse and conflict.
Author Ann Lamott said, ‘I think joy and sweetness and affection are a spiritual path. We’re here to know God, to love and serve God, and to be blown away by the beauty and miracle of nature. You just have to get rid of so much baggage to be light enough to dance, to sing, to play. You don’t have time to carry grudges; you don’t have time to cling to the need to be right.’
Three Dog Night popularized the words of Hoyt Wayne Axton, singing ‘Joy to the world all the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, Joy to you and me.’
Henry Van Dyke wrote, ‘Joyful, joyful, we adore You, God of glory, Lord of love; Hearts unfold like flow’rs before You, Op’ning to the sun above. Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; Drive the dark of doubt away; Giver of immortal gladness, Fill us with the light of day!’
The apostle Paul, when writing to the church at Philippi said, ‘I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.’
But then James wrote, ‘whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy,’
‘The Angel proclaimed ‘Don’t be afraid for I bring you good news of great joy for all people!’
And returning to our first writer, Ann Lamott, ‘Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means that you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.’
Joy is what happens when we take residence in Peace. A peace based on hope which stands strong on hope. A hope that takes us back to the reminders that God is faithful in the past, God is faithful in the present, God will be faithful in the future. Joy is what appears when we live in that peace. It was where Mary was living when she able to sing,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.’
This Joy reminded her of the affirmation of her hope and peace, it is what gave her the capability to take up residence in God’s peace, that let her sing,
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy according to the promise he made to our ancestors.
Joy is the catalyst of our actions, our attitudes, our emotions, our responses, our lives. Residence always require intentional actions, allowing in, restricting entrance, critiquing every aspect of what we permit to impact us. Joy is what enables us to hear the audacious instruction and comforts to the believers at Thessalonica,
Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live. Don’t suppress the Spirit, and don’t stifle those who have a word from the Master. On the other hand, don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what’s good. Throw out anything tainted with evil. May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!
Christmas is about Joy. This is the reason that Jesus was born a baby in the lowly manger, it is the purpose behind the journey to Bethlehem. The journey of Jesus, was our journey, it was a journey that involved inconvenient journeys, frightening seasons, beautiful moments, loving relationships, devastating set backs, loyal friends, loyal friends that sometimes are not so loyal. Joy is a constant journey of vulnerability that permits us to be dependent on a God who gives us the power to survive and thrive in a world where we often feel that we do not belong.
Christmas is faith, hope, peace, and joy path, and next week we will see how that path is bound together to take us to our final destination – forever.