Third Sunday of Advent: Is. 12:1-6, Phil. 4:4-7
I said last week that we aren’t particularly good at being serious because we’re concerned about being thought of as grumpy or difficult. There’s a similar dynamic with joy. Depending on who you are, you might gravitate toward a certain censoriousness and resent all the smiles. Our fathers in the faith knew these temptations and recommend that here in the midst of meditating on the serious business of Advent, we also do some meditating on the serious business of rejoicing. Why are we suspicious of joy? Because it feels like we’re not taking the horrors and evils of the world seriously. Perhaps it feels like we’re not taking pain and loss seriously. It can seem unkind, unfeeling. This is why true Christian joy does not rise from ignorance or naiveté. Christian joy rises from the comfort God gives: “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me” (Is. 12:1).
Comfort in the Ashes
There was a man named Job who was a great king in the east. He was wealthy and his family was happy and he was well respected. And one day the Lord let a horrific series of calamities fall upon him. A raiding band stole his 500 oxen and 500 donkeys and put his servants to the sword. Fire consumed his 7000 sheep and the servants that cared for them. And another raiding band surrounded his 3,000 camels and carried them away, putting those servants to death as well. And finally, a tornado struck the house of Job’s oldest son who was hosting a great feast for his six brothers and three sisters and their families, and everyone was killed. When Job heard these things, he “arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ (Job 1:20-21). Then a few days later, the Lord allowed Job to be struck with painful, agonizing sores all over his body, and he sat in the ashes scraping himself with a pottery shard (Job 2:7-8). If anyone had the right to be bitter, it was Job. If anyone had the right not to rejoice, it was Job. And while Job is full of pain and misery, and he is not shy about it, the center of his defiant lament through the rest of the book is a plea to speak with God. And when the Lord finally does appear at the end, Job says that even though he despises his life, he is comforted in the dust and ashes (Job 42:6). This is the soil where Christian joy grows.
The Joy Command
It’s interesting that Isaiah’s prophecy is of a time in the future when the people of Israel will give thanks to God and call everyone to rejoice with them (Is. 12:1, 4-6). In that day, they will command all their neighbors and friends to “shout and sing for joy” (Is. 12:1, 6). What day is that? When is that? The immediate context indicates that “that day” is when God brings Israel back from exile in Assyria (Is. 11:16). I think if we’re honest, Paul’s command in Philippians may seem a little overdone. Rejoice always (Phil. 4:4)? Do not worry about anything (Phil. 4:6)? How is that possible? But this seems to be exactly what Isaiah foretold. He said that a day was coming in which God’s people would know beyond all doubt that God’s anger was past and they would be comforted by Him (Is. 12:1). And in that day, they would trust in God and not be afraid because God has become their strength and song and their salvation (Is. 12:2). In that day, they would command God’s people to sing praises, to shout, and sing for joy because God, the Holy One of Israel, has come into their midst (Is. 12:4-6). Paul is insisting that Isaiah’s prophecy has come to pass. He is insisting that the Lord has come near (Phil. 4:5), and that the peace of God is right there and ready to guard our hearts and minds (Phil. 4:7). This is why Paul is bold to command us to rejoice. He is bold because God’s anger has been completely satisfied in the death of Jesus, so that we may be comforted. And if that is the case, then we must rejoice. But we still must be commanded because it doesn’t come easily or naturally. And when we are commanded to rejoice always, joy is frequently something we must fight for.
Lord of It All
Ultimately we rejoice in the dust and ashes of life because Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Jesus is Lord of the dust and ashes. The command to rejoice is the command to pay Jesus homage, to submit to His reign. Is Jesus King? Then praise Him in the dark. Christians rejoice always because Jesus is King always.
Christian joy carries within its soul the sharpness of the fallen world. But for the Christian, every dark night of the soul carries within it the joy of knowing the One who rules all things. In fact, you really can’t have one without the other. There is no Christian joy that does not simultaneously mourn over the lost, the broken, the hurting, and there is no Christian sorrow that does not simultaneously fight for joy.
Many people feel that they must choose either joy or sorrow. Some people are afraid of facing the darkness and pain, and they put up a wall against it, preferring to remain in the land of superficial smiles. Others are afraid of dishonoring the reality of pain and loss. It may feel like joy and gladness don’t take the pain seriously enough. So they build a wall against joy, deciding to remain in the house of mourning. But Jesus is King of all these things. He stores up all your tears, and at His right hand are pleasures forevermore. You may not know how to rejoice in the dust and ashes, but God does. He is Lord of it all. He was born into our dust and ashes in order that we might draw water from the wells of salvation with joy (Is. 12:3).
Conclusion: Joy in the Plural
It’s striking that Isaiah’s prophecy is in the plural, and so is Paul’s command. All of you rejoice. Let all the inhabitants of Zion sing and shout for joy. Let your gentleness be know to everyone. Let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds. Plurals everywhere. This is because God delights to be known and experienced in community. And therefore Christian joy does not primarily spring up from a solo effort. Christian joy grows out of shared grief and shared comfort in Jesus Christ.