This week is marked "joy" on the advent calendar. Joy is such a weird concept, so hard to define.
Is joy the feeling you get when everything is in its right place, nobody is sick, and the bank account is full? Is joy circumstantial? Where is the hinge on which joy swings?
This Sunday we will look at Isaiah 35, a joyous passage in the middle of turmoil. The preceding 34 chapters have been full of war and rumors of war, of unholy alliances with whoever happens to have the biggest army and sexiest gods, of stumbling and falling left and right. After chapter 35 is exile. Homelessness. Temple destroyed. All of the strong and young carted off to another land with another god. A wilderness between home and Babylon. So if Isaiah 35 is concerned with joy, it has to be a joy that recognizes the reality of wars and homelessness.
Isaiah's joy is "joy in the midst of…"
This type of joy seems appropriate in the advent season. After all, with all of the holiday frolicking, it is easy to pretend that the heart does not break a million times a day. Spending time with family is often a reminder that those who have died are no longer at the table this season. Or being forced to share a table with people you tried so hard to escape is often an exercise in survival. For all of the good cheer, there is a hidden despair lurking. Yet we are supposed to be a joyful people.
Our joy cannot be the shallow happiness of the world, numb to the sadness that is always around the corner.
Our joy has to recognize that Babylon is not home, even when its bread and circus feel so good.
Our joy has to pass through the cross to the empty tomb. There is no way around it.
Our path is straight into the darkness with a flicker of light upon our tongue, whispering about another kind of world bursting forth in the midst of this sad one.
Our hope is wrapped in rags and stuffed in a dusty manger.