Guest: Mike Newcomb
This year during Advent we are focusing on some ministries that we think exemplify the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy and love. During this season we anticipate that the Christ who came once as a baby will one day come again in glory. Not to take the good people to the good place, but to make this place good again. To restore shalom, to make it whole. To remake the world so that it is once again as God intends it to be. We long for that day. But we don’t just sit around and wait for it to happen. As people who realize that we are blessed to be a blessing, we know that God invites us, asks us, even requires us to get busy right now doing all we can to spread God’s hope and peace and joy and love. We will never make it all right. Only God can do that. But we do it anyway because it matters here and now.
This morning’s theme is joy and in a few minutes Mike Newcomb and I are going to talk about joy and Habitat for Humanity. But before we do I want you to hear a chapter from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. As always, we’re going to spend more time on theme than the text itself. So I offer this to you as background, as foundation, as a way to set the stage.
These verses are from Isaiah 55. Isaiah is a long book and most scholars agree that it’s probably actually three different authors from three timeperiods. Maybe they were all named Isaiah, or maybe the second two were disciples of the original Isaiah and were writing in line with what he started. First Isaiah is written to the southern kingdom of Judah before Jerusalem is destroyed, so it is urging the people to change their ways before they really have to suffer the consequences. Second Isaiah is written to people who were in exile, waiting to come home, wondering if it would ever really happen. Third Isaiah, which is by far the shortest section, is written when the people in exile have started to come home and is full of encouragement and hope for the future.
Chapter 55 is sometimes put with Second Isaiah and sometimes with Third Isaiah. It kind of bridges the gap between the two. Which means that it was either written just before the exiles began to come home, or just after they started coming home. So it’s either anticipating something that hasn’t quite happened yet but it’s just about close enough to be able to see it. Or these verses might be celebrating something that has just started happening but hasn’t quite taken hold yet; there’s still a ways to go. Either way I think it feels like where we are right now: we can see the good thing that we long for but it’s not yet fully real for everyone everywhere.
Listen now for the joy of the Lord in Isaiah chapter 55.
All of you who are thirsty, come to the water!
Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat!
Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk!
Why spend money for what isn’t food,
and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy?
Listen carefully to me and eat what is good;
enjoy the richest of feasts.
Listen and come to me;
listen, and you will live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful loyalty to David.
Look, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a prince and commander of peoples.
Look, you will call a nation you don’t know,
a nation you don’t know will run to you
because of the Lord your God,
the holy one of Israel, who has glorified you.
Seek the Lord when he can still be found;
call him while he is yet near.
Let the wicked abandon their ways
and the sinful their schemes.
Let them return to the Lord so that he may have mercy on them,
to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness.
My plans aren’t your plans,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
Just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my plans than your plans.
Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky
and don’t return there without watering the earth,
making it conceive and yield plants
and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater,
so is my word that comes from my mouth;
it does not return to me empty.
Instead, it does what I want,
and accomplishes what I intend.
Yes, you will go out with celebration (or JOY),
and you will be brought back in peace.
Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you;
all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
In place of the thorn the cypress will grow;
in place of the nettle the myrtle will grow.
This will attest to the Lord’s stature,
an enduring reminder that won’t be removed.
This the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Joy is word that gets used a lot this time of year. It’s an Advent word, a Christmas word. We don’t talk about joy with any of our other holidays, whether they are sacred holidays or secular holidays. But this time of year, joy abounds. Or at least it’s supposed to.
When people try to distinguish between joy and happiness, they often say that happiness is depending on what’s happening, that it comes and goes. And I think that’s actually a pretty good description. Happiness based on what’s happening. But then the natural question is what it joy based on? There’s no easy clue based on a word that sounds the same. So I offer you this. Joy is our embodied response when we recognize grace at work in the world. Joy is grace recognized. The spiritual discipline then for us is to practice recognizing grace. If we want to be more joyful, we focus on getting better at seeing where God’s grace is active in the world. Because grace is present regardless of what’s happening. Grace is obviously present when good things are happening. But grace is also present when bad things are happening. And as we get better at recognizing grace, we will be more joyful. Make sense? I offer you that as a starting place, as the background and with that in mind, I’d like for Mike to come up so that we can talk a little more specifically about this.
<Newcomb and Beth conversation on the stools>
How do YOU think about joy?
What are you paying attention to?
Are we positioning ourselves in the world in a way that allows us to recognize grace?
How do we keep joy? How do we sustain it? By recognizing grace and by enacting grace.
Grace changes the system. Buying milk and wine and food when you don’t have any money – that’s grace. That’s not how things work in the world’s economy but it is how things work in God’s economy. Habitat changes the system. These folks cannot be approved for mortgages in our current system, even though they can pay them, and Habitat changes the system so that these folks get the homes they couldn’t get otherwise. Their response to that grace is joy. And our response is also joy. Especially when we get to participate in it.
Fundraising goal for Habitat next year: $3,000. Let’s see if we can meet that by changing the system. Not just digging deep in our own pockets, but finding some creative ways to draw those resources out from unexpected places.
Wrap up: one other thing we say about joy around here is that when we fulfill our mission of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God, the results of that will be that we find lasting joy and participate in God’s plan to heal the world.