A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on December 11, 2011

Third Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, a Sunday that is focused on joy.  Joy seems to be a rare commodity in our world these days.  In fact, it seems everywhere we turn, enemies of joy are lurking in every corner.   On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that Americans’ wealth last summer suffered its biggest quarterly loss in more than two years as stocks, pension funds, and home values lost value.  On that same day, there was another shooting at Virginia Tech.  In a world such as this, where is there a place for joy?

Thousands of years ago, our spiritual ancestors faced a similar situation.  The Israelites, who were exiled in a hostile and foreign land, were finally able to return home.  But going home to Jerusalem wasn’t all that was cracked up to be.  For them, going home meant being confronted with the ruins of that once-great city.  It meant being overwhelmed by the devastation of the city walls, their security.  It meant the heart-ache of seeing the charred remains of the Temple, their beloved place of worship known as the house of God.  What remained were the rubble of rocks strewn like dried bones, jagged stumps of once-proud trees, and the picked-over remains of pottery and utensils that even looters didn’t want.  In their exile, and now, in their return, they experienced the loss of their homes, imprisonment, death, broken hearts, fear and anxiety.  In a world such as theirs, where was there a place for joy?

It was precisely in the middle of the ruins of Jerusalem that the divine messenger announced the good news.  This word from God spoke into being a vision of an alternate reality, one that was not based on the constraints of a fallen and broken world, but one that announced the coming of God’s peaceable kingdom.  In this place of despair and loss, this alternate vision showed to the mourners a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.  In the wasteland of burnt and charred trees surrounding Jerusalem, these returnees will be called oaks of righteousness.  In the aftermath of the destruction of war, they will rebuild the city, restore the wall, and renew the Temple that have been devastated for generations.  In giving a vision of a restored Jerusalem, the divine messenger gave an alternate vision of hope, and joyful expectation of a brighter future.

However, God’s alternate vision was not limited to the physical restoration of Jerusalem.  God’s vision was much deeper and bigger than that.  “For I love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity,” declared the Lord in verse 8.  In addition to a physical restoration, of His city, God envisioned nothing less than the moral restoration and the spiritual renewal of the hearts, the minds and the society of His people.  Any kind of physical restoration in the house of God would not be complete without the moral restoration of the people of God.  Renewal in the city of God would not only include the restoring of the wall and the infrastructure, but also the rebuilding of the fabric of society so that the poor were cared for, the captives freed, the grieving comforted, and injustice made right.  And when that kind of renewal occurred among the Israelites, then all nations would see and acknowledge that they were indeed God’s covenant people, a people chosen and blessed by God so that they can bless others.

We often assume that joy comes only when things go our way and we get what we want.  But let me tell you a secret: joy cannot be pursued for its own sake.  Those who chase after joy or happiness are sure to miss it.  Joy is not the product of outward circumstances; it is the by-product of inner transformation.  For followers of Jesus, joy comes from the inner transformation of delighting in the Lord, sometimes even in spite of our external circumstances.  Joy is not dependent on what we have or don’t have.  Joy is dependent on who has us.  When the Lord Jesus has us, we are clothed with God’s garments of salvation and God’s robe of righteousness.  When Jesus is our Lord, we trust that, even in the seasons of winter in our lives, the joy of spring is surely coming.  Isaiah says, “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” 

On this third Sunday of Advent, we see signs of the physical transformation of Main Street with the garland, lights and bows.  We see the physical renewal of our sanctuary with the hanging of the greens and the setting up of the Chrismon tree.  We see the outward transformation of our homes with Christmas trees, lights, nativity sets, and stockings hung with care.  As beautiful as these things are, these decorations will not go very far in causing righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.   

But what if this physical renewal is accompanied by the spiritual renewal of our hearts, minds and hands?  What if God’s covenant people pronounce and work for an alternate vision for those in our community who cannot afford to pay their utilities and buy their children presents at the same time.  One small way to do that is to buy presents for a child on our Christmas Angel tree.  Also, what if God’s covenant people envision and work for a homeless shelter in our community?  A group in town is doing just that, and on January 5, there’s a meeting at the Methodist church to see how local churches can help in this endeavor.  Additionally, what if God’s covenant people envision and work to release those who are captive to a vicious cycle of poor diet and poor health?  Volunteering for Meals on Wheels or FACES is one step toward this alternative vision.  Another is supporting the Heart of Virginia Free Clinic that is housed at the former Daily Grind building.  They will have an open house this Monday afternoon.  An alternate reality for the renewal and restoration of our community is coming, and if God’s covenant people would proclaim and work for this alternate reality, I truly believe that this would bring a sense of joyful expectation from the poor, the exiled and homeless, the brokenhearted and the captives.  As the people of God are spiritually renewed to proclaim and make real the good news of God, I truly believe righteousness and praise will spring up before all the nations.   

When there is inner transformation based on our delight in God, the by-product is joy, in others and in ourselves.  This joy is like being invited to join a wedding feast, where the bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and the bride adorns herself with jewels.  When Katie Hosking decided to break up with her fiancé in June of 2005, it was only 12 days before the wedding.  Along with her parents, Katie had reserved a country club for the reception. With 150 invited guests, the cost was $6,200.  Club policy required 60 days notice for any cancellation, meaning the Hoskings were required to pay the full amount.  So when Katie finally cancelled the wedding, the family decided to have a party anyway.  In place of wedding guests, Katie and her parents invited the residents of the Interfaith Family Shelter to a country club banquet.  More than 50 close family friends joined 40 homeless people, and together they had a joyous time dancing and feasting on beef, salmon, shrimp cocktail, fettuccine, and fruit.  Strawberry shortcake replaced the wedding cake.  Afterwards they packed up the leftover food and sent it back to the shelter.  It was enough to feed the homeless for several more days.

In the midst of a ruined wedding, Katie was able to see an alternate vision that looked beyond herself and her current situation. And a failed wedding feast was transformed into a festive jubilee for the poor, the downtrodden and the outcast.  As a result of that feast, joy returned to Katie and redeemed her own situation, while at the same time, it brought blessing and joy to many where both were in short supply. 

And this morning, Jesus Christ, the bridegroom of the church, invites us to a similar feast.  In the midst of his suffering and pending death, Jesus was able to see an alternate vision of how his broken body and shed blood can be transformed into a feast of forgiveness, and as a result, Jesus was able to bring blessing and joy to us when both were in short supply.  Therefore, the Lord’s Supper can also be celebrative and joyful — not because of our circumstance, not because of what we’ve done, but because of what Christ has already accomplished on the cross.   At the communion table, we are told we are no longer exiles, but we have a home in Christ.  At the last supper, we are reminded that the ruined rubble of our lives can be redeemed, and that suffering and death are overcome in Christ.  At this feast of forgiveness, we are nourished to proclaim the good news and participate in God’s alternate reality that joyfully anticipates the restoration and the renewal of God’s good creation.

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here– until the Son of God appear.  Rejoice! Rejoice!  Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Come, Lord Jesus!  Amen.

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