Scripture: Isaiah 53:1–13
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart…
Down in my heart…
Down in my heart…
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart…
Down in my heart to stay!
How many of you know the old camp song that proclaims that we are a people of joy?
How many of you have ever sung the song, but weren’t really feeling it?
The Christmas season is supposedly a season of joy, but I won’t ask for a show of hands how many of us sometimes aren’t really feeling it? For many, the holidays can be pretty hard. And if the joy is down in our hearts, it is way down there…
- For those who deal with clinical and/or seasonal depression, it can be hard to sing Joy to the World and feel like you mean it. The holidays can sometimes exacerbate mental health struggles.
- Or for others of us, the holidays bring a feeling of overwhelming grief. We hear over and over again that the holidays are a time for family and friends, but if we have lost friends or family members or spouses, or even feel like we don’t have those relationships but want them, it can be a barrier to joy.
- And if all of that wasn’t enough, we all find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic that won’t go away, with what feels like the whole Greek alphabet of variants coming after us, and we are just tired and weary and ready for it all to end.
And we should admit that sometimes here in the church, we don’t give a lot of space for all of that. It’s Gaudete Sunday! It’s Pink Candle Sunday! It’s Joy Sunday! But not for all of us. With our language of Advent joy and Christmas joy, there are times when some folks feel left out, or even guilty that they aren’t doing Christmas correctly. Let me say it here: 100%, 7-day-a-week feelings of joy are not a requirement for the faith, and I hope that you can feel welcome here, regardless how deep or shallow in your heart you feel joy—or don’t feel it—right now.
I see some parallels with the passage that I read today. Joy is…complicated.
Remember that we have been looking at a string of prophetic oracles, all on this timeline of Exile. We started back with Samuel, setting up this relationship between the monarchy and the prophecy. And since then, the prophets have told the people good news, bad news, and everything in between.
- Amos was likely before the Exile, but he warned the people that everything was going to fall apart if they ignored the justice of God. He was right. It did.
- Then two parallel voices: Isaiah 9 was likely right as the Northern Kingdom was about to be exiled by the Assyrians. Jeremiah was likely right as the Southern Kingdom was about to be exiled by the Babylonians. Both of these voices were an attempt to get the people to settle into this new life and see God at work in the midst of it.
- Ezekiel was likely in the middle of the Exile, when the people were starting to get hopeless and needed God to breathe into them a new hope and expectation.
- And finally today we read from Isaiah 55. I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, but scholars suggest that this part of Isaiah was probably written later than Isaiah 9, perhaps by a prophet or prophetic school that saw Isaiah as their founder or hero, and believed themselves to be a part of the legacy of the prophet. But timeline-wise, Isaiah 55 was probably much later, toward the end of the Babylonian Exile, and maybe even after the Babylonians had been defeated by the Persians and the people of God were getting ready to end their Exile and return home.
Which is where the “complicated joy” shows up. Imagine the cultural and communal reality that God’s people would be experiencing. Jeremiah was right that there have been somewhere around 70 years (depending on how you count it) since the beginning of the Exile. Most of the people who were headed back to the Promised Land had no idea what life was like before the Exile. Maybe the very oldest had been some of the very youngest who had lived in the Promised Land. But for most of them, this return from Exile would not be a homecoming, but a “new-place-going.” Many of them had actually listened to Jeremiah and made their peace with this new land, and had settled in and some had actually done quite well for themselves. There must have been an ambiguity about returning. Of course, there was likely some level of joy in the freedom and opportunity and agency that they would be receiving. But it had to be intimidating—if not downright terrifying—to leave what they knew, even with the promise of something better. Kind of like the Israelites in generations prior, who knew that they didn’t want to be slaves in Egypt anymore, but they kind of didn’t mind the stability and predictability and some even wanted to go back! In a similar way, the Exiles knew that they should feel joy in the opportunity to return, but in their hearts they weren’t really feeling it.
Into that complicated joy comes Isaiah 55. The words of Isaiah then become shot of joy. Can I call it a Joy Booster? They had the joy in there, but Isaiah’s words become this boost to urge them home from Exile. I want to take a few minutes and ask “what is giving Isaiah joy?” This passage gives us a handful of answers to that question. By the way, while we look at Isaiah, the question that I want you to be thinking about is its parallel: “what is giving you joy right now?” First, Isaiah. There are three sections to the passage, that show us three versions of Isaiah’s Joy Booster.
First, Isaiah is receiving joy from God’s party platter. Look at verses 1-2 again. Look at the language of feasting…the language of abundance. God is providing this amazing feast for God’s people. Come and eat, and enjoy bread and milk and wine and rich foods! God provides for the people what they need. Now, we had a long conversation in the Two-Way last week about whether this is an actual, physical food, or a spiritual, symbolic feasting. For those inclined to read through the eyes of Amos, there is a powerful promise here that those who are hungry will be literally fed. But for those of us who have been raised with the language of Jesus, especially in the Gospel of John, God’s provision is through the Bread of Life and Living Water and wine at Cana, which all have this symbolic, spiritual sense.
I guess in the end, I see it like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you remember your Psych 101 class, you will remember Abraham Maslow, who suggested that as humans we have this pyramid of needs that starts with basic needs of food and shelter and rest and clothing. Then once we have those needs met, we can move onto safety needs of security and predictability and structure. Next, we are able to seek love and belonging in relationships. Next, we seek esteem and dignity and value in our eyes and the eyes of others. Finally, we can seek personal fulfilment and growth. You see that these needs get more spiritual and less physical as you make your way up the pyramid. So where is Isaiah 55 on this chart? I would say “yes.” I think that the prophet is talking about God’s provision in all of these ways. God provides the whole pyramid! All our needs are met! We feast on all of these blessings from God, depending on what our need is at the moment. The hungry are fed. The lonely are befriended. Our deepest spiritual needs are met. According to Isaiah, God’s provision gives us joy!
Then we shift to a second section, and a second thing that is giving Isaiah joy: homework. I can hear the groans from our students all around the room (and maybe through the livestream!) “Homework? There is nothing joyful about homework!” But hear me out. Isaiah throughout verse 3-11 seem to talk about God as a teacher. “My word goes out.” “Incline your ear and listen to me.” “My ways and my thoughts are better than yours.” The language here is about Torah, which would not be only the law, but all teachings, all instruction from God. Isaiah declares that God has something to teach us. But it requires some work on our end. There are a lot of voices out there, but just like E.F. Hutton, when God speaks, everyone should be listening to God and following God’s voice.
Richard Foster suggests a similar point. In his famous book Celebration of Discipline, he talks about the practices or disciplines of the faith. Prayer. Scripture reading. Worship. Solitude. Confession. Meditation. Homework. But this isn’t busywork or useless assignments: these are the ways that we learn who God is. And according to Foster, they bring us joy: “Joy is not found in singing a particular kind of music or in getting with the right kind of group or even in exercising the charismatic gifts of the Spirit, good as all these may be. Joy is found in obedience….Joy is the end result of the Spiritual Disciplines’ functioning in our lives. God brings about the transformation of our lives through the Disciplines, and we will not know genuine joy until there is a transforming work within us.” In other words, until we do our homework.
Finally, a third thing that is giving Isaiah joy: God’s creation. The last couple of verses have these great lines about the joy that we experience in God’s creation. Scholar Robert Williamson suggests that consistently, when the Bible wants to talk about God’s power and authority and strength and creativity and blessings, it uses language about nature. So here, when Isaiah wants to talk about God’s joy, it uses language of trees clapping, and mountains singing a choir anthem. And myrtle and cypress! If you have hiked much, especially on an overgrown trail, you know how much of a headache that thorns and briars can be, catching on your clothes and keeping you from walking even a few feet. But here Isaiah promises that the briars and the thorns will be replaced by beautiful myrtle and cypress…struggle replaced with beauty. Pain with joy.
Williamson imagines this nature language into the context of the Exile. He uses the image of a race. If you have ever run in, or even been to a marathon or half marathon or even 5K, you know that complete strangers will cheer each other on at the end, pushing them to the finish line. Williamson imagines the trees and the mountains cheering on the Exiles on their journey home. Clapping their tree hands and singing their mountain songs. “You will go out in joy, and be led back in peace.”
In conclusion, I ask you the question once again: “What is giving you joy right now?” I like the way that Barbara Brown Taylor asks it: “What is saving your life?” In these next moments, consider what gives you a Joy Boost! How is God granting you joy today?