Isaiah 35.1-10; Psalm 146.5-10; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11
+ In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.
Today, as many of you know, is what we call Gaudete Sunday. It’s the Sunday when we move from the more somber themes of repentance and preparation towards joyful expectancy. Our dark violet vestments and altar frontal lighten to rose as we wait in hope for the light which will lighten the darkness of our world. It’s a day when we rejoice.
And yet there is a wistfulness to our readings which keeps that joy in check. Suffering, sorrow and sighing have not yet fled away. Isaiah’s poem of restoration, of a desert flourishing and God’s people dancing and singing as they return to their homeland, beautiful as it may be, is still a future promise not yet realised. The letter of James urges patience and endurance in the midst of very present hardship, again promising a future justice and judgement yet to materialise. ‘Don’t grumble against one another’, James commands. ‘Don’t complain’, ‘Don’t sigh’, it could be translated. And we can hear John’s sighs from prison as he sends his messengers to ask Jesus: ‘Are you really the Messiah, or is it someone else we should be waiting for?’ In this long, dark wait, where is the joy we have been promised?
My 6 year old niece said recently that Christianity is nothing more than a fairy tale. And as we wait, the prophetic promises can have a similar feel of unreality about them.
JRR Tolkein wrote about fairy tales: The fairy tale ‘does not deny the existence of … sorrow and failure … it denies (in the face of much evidence…) universal final defeat … giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.’
‘Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.’
There is a sense of the liminal about the Christian life which is always there but which we (I?) feel much more acutely at this time of year. We become more aware of the threshold at which we stand. It’s almost as though we are stranded in this place, in time, mid-stride. Like Lucy as she takes those first few steps through the wardrobe into Narnia, the snow crunching under her feet. Like Alice as she draws close to examine the looking glass melting before her. Like Dorothy as she slowly opens the door and the realisation dawns that she is no longer in Kansas.
We are still in this world, but also we find ourselves peering out onto a landscape which is unfamiliar.
We sense a similar disorientation in today’s readings.
The Israelites try to keep faith, clinging to the prophet’s promises but still they wander war-wounded, confused and lost in a ravaged land.
James acknowledges the difficulties of this in-between time, the way tension can build in the community as hope fades and visions clash and the people look in all directions for the Christ who still has not yet returned.
John realises that something is not right. Jesus’ acts of healing, of eating with tax collectors, of teaching in the synagogues don’t match John’s expectations. There’s no sign of a power struggle or liberation, no judgement, no burning of the chaff.
And what about us? When we talk about hope, joy, what are we looking for? What is it we expect?
Darkness can hide what lies beyond the threshold. The shadows – both real and metaphorical – of this season loom large. The world around us becomes more suspicious as our vision dims. Our eyes, like John’s slowly become accustomed to the dark and we become blind to the signs of the kingdom which are all around us.
The old hurts and sadness which lie dormant throughout the year begin to haunt us once more. Our legs grow weak as we wander lost in the desert carrying the weight of our grief. And our heads are bowed so low we can’t see the clouds gathering to bring rain and with it new life.
Jesus, in answer to John’s question tells his disciples: ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them’.
Joy. Joy beyond the walls of this world as poignant as grief.
Frederick Buechner, responding to Tolkein’s writing, writes himself: ‘The world where this Joy happens is as full of darkness as our own world, and that is why when it happens it is as poignant as grief and can bring tears to our eyes. It can bring tears to our eyes because it might so easily not have happened…Yet the tears that come to our eyes at the joy of the fairy tale are nevertheless essentially joyous tears because what we have caught a glimpse of, however fleeting, is Joy itself, the triumph if not of goodness, at least of hope.’
The question we are asked during Advent, and particularly on this day is: Can we recognise Joy when it is there in front of us?
One of the most powerful images of this past week has been the photo from Kiev of a pianist playing alone in front of a line of riot police. The triumph of hope indeed.
But joy, the triumph of hope, lies also in all kinds of gestures we share with one another – the ones that gently guide us toward the light, ease our burdens, raise our heads – the acts that make us – everyone – feel a little more human, a little more whole, a little less alone.
These signs of hope are often as simple and as moving and as real as the darkened morning sky slowly being painted rose in that lingering moment before the sun breaks through and the world turns golden.
These are the moments which are so beautiful they seem otherworldly, only they are very much of this world and we realise that this is not just another fairy tale but is very true indeed, and that the joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief has already broken through the walls of this world.
So maybe Advent is a season not so much of disorientation as it is reorientation. Maybe the sighs of Isaiah – and James and John and of us – aren’t only the sighs of weariness and exhaustion, of the pain of battle and the suffering of oppression. Maybe they are the sighs of longing, the longing for an end to this liminal time, the longing we feel as we wait and watch for the ‘joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief’ to come again, this time breaking down entirely the walls of the world.
Once again I have drawn inspiration from Frederick Buechner, whose short commentary on depression and joy I stumbled upon at just the right moment. That led me back to one of my all time favourite books by him, Telling the Truth: Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. What I said in my sermon is said so much more beautifully by him there.
The photos are ones I took on an early morning train journey to St Andrews last winter.