The Advent of Joy

The morning sun streaming through the trees presaging the Advent of Joy

Arising Unscathed from the Grave

December is full of holidays. The first is Hanukkah, which this year starts on the 18th. It commemorates the success of the Maccabean revolt and the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days. On the Winter Solstice, there’s Yule, which welcomes the return of the sun. On December 26th, Kwanzaa begins. Started in 1966 to honor the heritage of African Americans with symbols of unity, cooperation, creativity, and faith, the holiday includes seven days of lighting candles. Throughout the month, Christians mark the Sundays of Advent with candlelight to mark the coming of Christmas, the day when they celebrate the birth of their King, of their God made flesh.

In the far north, where days are short, we long for light and warmth. Candles and flickering fires are a common part of rituals and festivities. They remind us that dark is not forever, and that hard times will yield to happy ones. There is a cycle to existence.

Christmas has some of this flavor. It is, after all, about joy. Yet the joy of Christmas makes the most sense in the setting of Easter when the deity who dies comes alive again, not as something reborn, like a daffodil flower emerging from its bulb, but as something that has passed through death’s realm and emerged intact. It is a miracle beyond the mundane ones of seeds sprouting and babies growing and life emerging, over and over, from soil enriched by decay.

The Easter story, however, insists that Jesus’s return was not like that. There was no cycle of death and rebirth here. Instead, he woke and was himself, a god risen unscathed from his journey to the grave. Death was vanquished forever.

The Week for Joy

Thus, the story of Christmas and its partner, Easter, is a linear one, unlike the cyclical worldview of the Hindus, for instance, who speak of a universe that is born, ages, dies, and is born again. They see an endless circle of life and death and life. Christians, along with their companion people of the book, the Jews and Muslims, believe there was one beginning and will be one end. Though many people have made conflicting guesses about what that end might look like, they agree that the universe had a beginning and will have an end.

The Christian story began when God created the heavens and the earth, but it also began with Christ’s birth. That’s when God mingled with his creation and defeated death upon his own not-death. He did that not for a season, not for a cycle, but forever. What that means, I’m not sure. We see death around us every day, but that idea is integral to the Christian faith.

That’s what makes the season of Advent, when adherents light candles of hope, love, joy, and peace, so important. We are coming to the beginning, again. We are remembering that Christ was born. For a believer, what could be better than that?

Appropriately, this week’s candle is for joy.

The Lectionary

This Sunday, we can choose from among four lectionary readings. James 5:7-10, is about being patient, even in the face of suffering, for “the Lord’s coming is near” (James 5:8). [1]

In Matthew 11:2-11, Jesus makes cryptic comments about John the Baptist and himself. John wants to know if Jesus is the one they have been waiting for. In other words, is he the Messiah? Jesus tells them to look at what he does. If that is not proof enough, he tells them, remember that he came from the wilderness, and what else do you seek in a wilderness but the prophet? Yet Jesus is “more than a prophet” (Matthew 11:9). How much more, he does not directly say, but this Christmas. We can guess.

Then the worship leader has a choice. Do they want to read Psalm 146, which extols the powers of the Lord, or the Magnificat, Mary’s praise of God and his gifts to her? “My soul glorifies the Lord,” she sings, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46b-47).

The last reading for the day is from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 35, verses 1-10.

The desert and the parched land will be glad;

the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.

Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;

it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

Isaiah 35:1-10

Repentance and Redemption

So much joy. Suffering is not the end, for the Lord is coming. Mary is saved. Jesus is the Messiah. And here, in Isaiah, we see that God will save Israel. Even the desert and the wilderness will rejoice. For Jews, it is the message of a God who redeems them, over and over again.

This song of joy is balanced, in the preceding chapter, with a warning. Isaiah reminds them of what the wrath of God might look like for a wayward Israel. We hear of slaughter and death, the dissolution of the stars, a land “soaked with blood” (34:7) and turned into a “blazing pitch” (34:9). The people will vanish, and hyenas and jackals and owls will flourish. The vision is gruesome, a threat meant to bend Israel to her knees in repentance.

In spite of the warnings of more prophets than Isaiah, Israel fails to be the people God hoped she might be. She doesn’t care for the poor and needy, she seeks out less demanding gods to worship, and she covets, betrays, and complains. When God can stand no more, God gets angry. His wrath can be a fearsome thing. More than once, God cast Israel asunder, letting her enemies overrun and imprison her. In Chapter 35, though, we are told that God always picks her up again.

A Reasonable Commandment

How frustrating it must be for God. He fell in love with this ragtag band of Hebrews, lifting them out of slavery and guiding them to a land of promise. All he required was that they love him with all their heart and soul and might and treat their neighbor as themselves.

To make this easier for the people, he gave them ten commandments that, if followed, would ease their path, strengthen their relationships, bring them peace and purpose. The commandments aren’t onerous, really. They tell us not to kill or commit adultery or steal or lie about our neighbor or covet the things our neighbor has.

That seems like a reasonable list. We all know that murder, betrayal, theft, dishonesty, and greed or envy are wrong. And not just because some god tells us so, but because when we fall prey to doing these things, our hearts wither a little, and our relationships fall apart. In the moment, we might think we’re better off when we succumb to our lustful and angry desires, but in the end, we are harmed.

More Complicated Commandments

Other commandments are more complicated. What does it mean, for instance, to honor our parents if they were angry and lustful and hurt us? Does it mean we must obey them, as some claim? Or is it not honorable enough to recognize that they, too, are human and fallible and wounded, while also setting boundaries so they abuse us no more?

We’re also supposed to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, which is difficult in a modern world where commerce never stops. Religious leaders, health coaches, therapists might suggest we take time off to rest and renew ourselves, and what better way is there to do this than to set aside a day every week that is sacrosanct?

Yet it’s not easy to resist the pressures of the world, to withdraw from social media, to give up a day’s wages, especially if we need the world and our wages to survive. Can we blithely trust in God to provide when our boss tells us we must work on our holy day? How many of us can rest in stillness an entire twenty-four hours, shunning electronic stimulation and the blaring of lights, the distraction of parties and restaurants? Can we spend time in quiet communion with our family and the holy?

It’s a powerful commandment, but we’re not so great at carrying it out.

Then there’s the commandment not to take God’s name in vain. In other words, don’t make wrongful use of it.

We could take an entire column to unpack what that means, but let me suggest it means we shouldn’t claim to know the mind of God. We shouldn’t justify our actions or condemn others by claiming to know God’s will. Imagine if we did this. Maybe we could actually live in peace with one another.

The morning sun streaming through the trees presaging the Advent of Joy

Making a Covenant

But perhaps the first commandment is the most important. We are to have no other gods but God. We are to make no idols. That means, instead of lusting after wealth, status, and power, we should seek spiritual wisdom and a connection with the holy. Indeed, I think that, beneath the surface, all the commandments are asking us to do that.

After all, that’s what God hoped for when he chose the Hebrews to be his people. He wanted someone to love, and he wanted to be loved. Even God has human-like desires, I suppose.

Unfortunately, the Hebrews didn’t understand what it meant to make a covenant with this holy being. How could they? He offered them freedom from slavery, and they rushed to accept it. They would have agreed to anything to be saved from the Egyptians. Wouldn’t you? I imagine I would.

But how could they understand the consequences of their covenant? They’d never had the kind of relationship with anyone that this god was offering.

Think of it from Yahweh’s point of view, though. He offered them freedom, love, and life, asking in return only that they honor him and honor one another. That didn’t seem so hard. Not to a god, anyway.

But it was hard, and if he was a god, he should have known it.

So I don’t expect he was truly surprised when the Hebrews betrayed him and betrayed their friends. He must have known they couldn’t follow through on their part of the bargain. We are so insufferably human.

Even a god has limits, though, and time and again God gave the Hebrews into the hands of their enemies. That’s what Isaiah 34 tells us.

Such Joy

And then, without transition or warning, God repents. Just as he expects us to repent and change our ways, so does he. He forgives. He brings his beloved children home, wrapping them in his wings, sheltering them from the rain, suckling them at his breast. God’s love is wider than the universe, and when we feel that love, how can we respond with anything but joy?

This is the joy of Advent, that this abounding grace and forgiveness take human form. Jesus will soon be born, and nothing will be the same again.

It’s a paradox. The world is no less violent or cruel. We haven’t learned to worship a god of love, nor to treat one another as if life mattered. Over and over, we break the covenant. We disobey the commandments.

At the same time, hope is everlasting, for we can see now that all the pain and ugliness are but illusions. Suffering and death come to all of us, but they are meaningless now because Jesus accepted the burden of being human, imperfect, and broken. He felt the agony of the terrible things we do to one another, and though he died in body and spirit, he never lost that spark of holiness which ignited and flared and brought him back to life. Evil festers, but has lost its power. How joyful.

Or so it sounds. But in the moments when we face evil and feel its sting, when our urges overwhelm us and we forget the sacred nature of our own soul, such joy seems absurd. But Isaiah 35 contains the promise that if we can learn to live as one forgiven, to walk on the “Way of Holiness” (Isa 35:8), to renew the covenant, to repent and make restitution, such joy will make sense.

A Joyful Spirit

Isaiah continues:

Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.

The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

Isaiah 35:6-7

We need not take this literally. God won’t give us grass, reeds, and papyrus. Not really. Nor does God promise us wealth, beauty, or vibrant health. We don’t feel joyful because we’re famous or powerful, but because we’re aligned with the sacred. When we feel connected to the stars, the earth, the source of love, and when we obey the commandments because we feel grateful rather than fearful, our hearts will become light, our minds peaceful, and our spirits will know joy.

We need not wait for the end of the world to feel this. Nor must we wait for streams to flow in the desert, which is a good thing since we are making more deserts, not fewer.

No. We can be joyful today.

Perhaps the Christmas story and its Easter partner tell us of a deity who became human not to save us from his father’s wrath, but to remind us that we are divine. We have the power to find joy, not in the trappings of society, but in a truth bigger than our petty, human one. During Advent, we can choose to prepare for the coming of something miraculous, a miracle that lives outside of us, but inside, as well.

A sacredness we did not create fills the universe. Perhaps it is the universe. The promise of Advent, the story of Christmas, and the surprise of Easter, tell us that we can align ourselves with that holy thing, and by doing so, we can find peace and joy.

In faith and fondness,



  1. All Scripture quotes are from the NIV Bible.

Photo by Simon Wilkes on Unsplash

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