Joy Anyway

Isaiah 42:1-9

As we prepare for the arrival of Jesus this year, we are taking a look at our growing edges, the places where we long to see new life in ourselves. We’re paying attention to the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love, and how we can choose them anyway when situations don’t seem to call for them. On the first week we considered how we can choose to hope anyway when all the evidence says there’s no reason to hope. Last week we considered how we can choose to have peace anyway even in the midst of threats. This week is joy, how we can choose joy anyway.

I want to set the stage by telling you that on Tuesday, I went to the Methodist Theological School to have lunch with a friend and wound up staying for the weekly chapel. I was on the fence about staying because I had so much to do this week. But y’all, going to worship is never a bad idea. It was a service full of joyful music, familiar carols rewritten to include more emphasis on justice and liberation, images by indigenous artists, and a sermon by Rev. Dr. Valerie Bridgeman to remind us that joy is an act of resistance to death-dealing systems. Choosing joy is an act of resistance to death-dealing systems. That’s a good word. And one we find throughout the Bible. So this morning we’re going to weave together a few different ideas as we consider how to choose joy anyway.

Let’s begin in the book of Isaiah chapter 42, page 1124 in your pew Bibles. We suspect that this portion of Isaiah was written to the people from the southern kingdom of Judah who were living in exile in Babylon. The city of Jerusalem had been conquered, the temple had been destroyed, the king was captured, and many people were carried off to live in a foreign land. The exile was the worst thing to happen to the ancient Hebrews and it made them ask two big questions: 1. Has our God Yahweh been defeated by the gods of Babylon? 2. Does our ancient covenant with God still stand? The prophet Isaiah decisively answers these two questions. Let’s read chapter 42, verses 1 through 9. 

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
    or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
    he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
    In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
    who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
    who gives breath to its people,
    and life to those who walk on it:
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
    I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and I will make you
    to be a covenant for the people
    and a light for the nations,
to open eyes that are blind,
    to free captives from prison
    and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

“I am the Lord; that is my name!
    I will not yield my glory to another
    or my praise to idols.
See, the former things have taken place,
    and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
    I announce them to you.”

From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.

The first question that is usually asked about these verses is “Who is the servant?” In the first verse where God says, “Here is my servant,” who is this passage talking about? Bible scholars like to argue about this but I don’t think it’s just an academic question. It’s a question for us regular Christians. Some say it’s the ancient Hebrew people, all of them together. Some say it is a yet-to-come Messiah. Frankly, neither fits perfectly with the text. But this morning I want to suggest that it’s both and a little bit more. Perhaps the servant is the ancient Hebrew people and Jesus and us? The New Testament says that by faith we Christians are grafted into the original people of God, and so we can accept their mission and calling as our own as well. Christians as an addition to the original people of God, not Christians instead of Jews, OK? That’s important. What if this is a description of the calling of Jesus and all the people of God?

The first thing we see is that we are filled with God’s spirit for the purpose of bringing forth justice. And that as we bring forth justice, we are gentle with people who are exhausted and fragile and at the end of their rope. Apparently God is not in the business of breaking sticks that are bent and snuffing out candles that are just smoldering. This is good news. If you’re exhausted and fragile and at the end of your rope this morning, God is not here to put the smack down on you for not being stronger. The Christ who shows us what God is like, comes to be gentle with those who are hurting. So even as we do justice, we are called to be gentle with people who are hurting.

The other thing that stands out to me is that God says of the servant, “I have given you as a covenant to the peoples, a light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” If you’ve been worshipping with us this fall, you may remember that we talked a lot about covenant. 

A covenant is a sacred commitment to relationship, initiated by God for the sake of people, and it shapes their identity and their behavior. We don’t earn our way into covenant; in a covenant, belonging shapes behavior. We belong first, and then that changes how we live. When we live faithfully in covenant with God and each other, our way of life shows others what God’s way of life looks like.

But these verses say NOT that God makes a covenant with the servant, but that the servant IS God’s covenant with the whole world. The servant, in their own body, is God’s commitment to be in relationship with the whole world. The servant themselves embody that God welcomes everyone into relationship, that no one earns their way to God. The servant demonstrates how all people belong to God. The servant shows everyone who God is. The servant is God’s covenant with all people everywhere. 

Is Jesus the servant? I think yes. And so are we. So am I. And so are you and you and you. Not because we are saviors but because the Church (capital C) is called to keep on living out all the things that Jesus taught and did while he was here in bodily form. We are now the body of Christ in the world. We are now the body of the servant, given as a covenant to the world.

The next verses in Isaiah say what the covenant is for: a light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. Those are images that are used in other places. Those are images that Jesus himself quotes when he begins his ministry. Those are images of opening and freedom and light. As God’s covenant with the world, we are called to bring openness and freedom and light. 

And, y’all, we don’t bring openness and freedom and light by being grumpy. We don’t do it by being cynical. We don’t do it by being motivated by anger. We may be angry about the state of the world. But our anger does not bring openness and freedom and light. If we are going to bring openness and freedom and light, if we are going to demonstrate who God is, with our bodies in the way we live our lives, we are going to need to choose joy. We are going to need to look evil in the face and have joy anyway as an act of resistance.

We may not be happy about certain situations. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still be joyful. My personal definition of joy is that joy is grace recognized. Joy is what we feel when we recognize the grace of God at work in the world. And friends, grace is at work everywhere, even in the worst situations. Not that we have to find a way to say that everything is good, but if we choose joy we are choosing to find grace, favor, redemption at work in everything. That is an act of resistance. Everyone can choose joy. You don’t need money to recognize grace. You don’t need stuff to recognize grace. You don’t need power to recognize grace. You don’t need comfort to recognize grace. You don’t need safety to recognize grace. In fact, wealth and comfort and safety and power might actually make it harder to recognize grace. 

Easy for me to say, right? I have quite a bit of privilege. I’m white, I’m American, I’m straight, I’m cisgendered (which is the opposite of transgendered; it just means that my presentation of gender matches my biology), I can pay my bills, I’m educated. Easy for me to say that you should choose joy when things are hard. So don’t take my word for it. Take the scriptures. The call to bring openness and freedom and light was originally given to a people living in exile. A people whose country had been decimated, who had been bodily dragged from their homeland, who were an ethnic and religious minority, economically disadvantaged. Take their word for it. To choose joy, to be joyful anyway, in the face of those circumstances, that is an act of resistance. It says to the domination system, “You don’t own me. You don’t get to control me. You don’t get to dictate my choices. You may be able to hurt my body but you can’t hurt my spirit. There is a level of me that you cannot touch. I get to choose. I have spiritual agency. And in the face of the worst you can dish out, I will resist you. I will find the chinks in your armor, the cracks in your system, and every time you try to break me, I will choose joy anyway.” 

The gospel is good news for the poor; grace is most evidently at work where it is most needed. Recognize the grace, choose joy, not because everything is good but because we are called to bring openness, freedom, and light. The spirit of God is on us. God has taken us by the hand and kept us. God is doing something new, again and always, so let’s look the bad stuff in the face and choose joy anyway. Amen.

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