A Joy That Bears Witness
Cassopolis/ White Pigeon, December 17, 2017, THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Text: Isaiah 61:1-11; John 1:6-9; 19-28
The Big Lots commercial begins with a voiceover chorus singing Joy to the World. Of course, it’s not the same Joy to the World we’ll be singing here on Christmas Eve—rather it’s the Three Dog Night song from the seventies which begins with the solemn proclamation, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog—was a good friend of mine. I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine.” But regardless of that, the “Joy to the World” reference and the activity in the commercial make it clear that it is a Christmas advertisement for Big Lots. Children and adults are seen on what is assumed to be Christmas morning ripping open packages to joyfully discover presents (assumedly from Big Lots) with expressions on their faces which suggest that what they have just opened is what they have yearned for since the day they were born. One little girl in particular stands out with a wide toothy grin as she holds the whatever-it-is above her head much as the new heavyweight boxing champion of the world might hold aloft the honorary belt in triumph. And as the commercial ends, a phrase displays across the screen—“Share the joy!”
That sentiment, if without the accompanying hoo-ha, lies at the heart of Isaiah 61, our opening reading this morning. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” the prophet opens the passage, “anointing me” to a task. And that task is precisely one of sharing joy. “God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners,” the speaker announces—“Joy to the world!” And the result of this good news he is sent to spread brings about a total change in spirit among those to whom he is sent—where they have been struggling along in “ashes of grief,” this will dress them in “a garland” of celebration—where they labored with a “faint spirit”, now they will be able to don a “Mantle of praise.” Those who have oppressed Israel in the past will now have become shepherds and vine tenders, a part of the community, allowing the Israelites themselves to attend to the work God had created them for—being priests of the LORD, ministers of God’s will. What has been wrong in society will be righted, for “I the LORD love justice,” and justice—right relationship between God and people and people and people is what God will finally bring about, sparking a revolution in which their society will become a joy in which to live.
And the one who brings this good news—who shares this news of joy with the people, finds its a joy to do so, according to the text. Because of this task God has privileged him to be anointed for, “ I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,” the writer says—“My whole being shall exult in my God for he has clothed me with the robe of salvation.” Being able to bring this good news to people, to bear witness to the fact that “the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations,” seems itself a joy to the prophet so gifted—that he is a part of it is grand and glorious. And as he passes on this news, those who hear it also become part of the revolution—part of the joy-spreading process. For when they hear and believe what this messenger tells them, they will be given what they need to grow up in a new way, becoming “oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD to display His glory.” Rather than being caught in the muck of despair that had previously been their lot, oppressed, captive, and brokenhearted, they will now be stirred to joyful action of renewal by God’s Spirit, to build up ancient ruins, to lift what had been formerly devastated and who have been formerly devastated—they will be repairing ruined cities and healing broken people, becoming co-creators with God of streets fit to live in. There is a lot of joy in this text, and as far as we can tell, the Big Lots ad is correct—the joy is for sharing.
This dual joy in having good news and having a part in its announcement figures largely in the story of John the Baptist as John the evangelist tells it in the first chapter of his gospel. John is introduced in the opening few verses of the book, as a “man sent from God,” in this characteristic, sharing with the writer in Isaiah the role of being assigned the divine task of sharing news, good news. And again, as in Isaiah, this is a task to which the messenger gladly assents. Although John the Baptist is not, as the text tells us, the light that is to come, he will be nonetheless a vital part of the process of spreading that light—he is to be, as the words says, “a witness to testify to the light,” the “true light coming into the world which will enlighten everyone.”
And John seems to be quite happy with this role, quite willing it take it on. And he is very open about it. When religious officials from Jerusalem take note of his baptizing and preaching activity out in the wilderness of the Jordan, they send emissaries out to talk to him and find out why he’s doing what he does. These emissaries question John—“Who are you? Are you the Messiah, or the reborn Elijah, or the prophet like Moses who Moses promised would come? Is that why you’re doing all these things?” But John answers plainly—“I am none of the above. What I am is a voice calling out—‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ What I am, if you must know, is a witness to what God is about to do and will do, but not through me—rather in the One I share, One who will come after me. And I do this with joy. ”
This joy is foreshadowed in a story Luke relates in the early chapters of his gospel about the Baptist’s pre-infancy. There, Mary pregnant with Jesus, has come to visit her relative, Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, who is also pregnant, remarkably so despite her seemingly barren old age. Elizabeth’s pregnancy, which will give birth to John the Baptist, is a gift from God—Mary’s pregnancy which will give birth to Jesus is a miracle from God. And even as Mary, coming to visit, enters the house where Elizabeth and Zechariah live, Luke tells us that “the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt” in joy, apparently ready now to begin the task that will be his later. Even before his birth, Luke tells us, John was filled with a Spirit-given joy that was bursting to bear witness. And that joy did not diminish later on as he pointed beyond himself to the One through whom God was at work to save the world, setting his own reputation aside to have the greater privilege of sharing good news.
Luke is also the one who tells us, in chapter 4 of his gospel, that when Jesus—the One to whom John was pointing—came to begin His own work of sharing the presence of God with the world, He announced that beginning with the same words spoken by the prophet in Isaiah 61. Very deliberately choosing the words of scripture He would read one morning in a Nazareth synagogue, Jesus spoke for Himself those words from Isaiah—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me for He has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor—sent Me to proclaim release to the captives—made it My work to bring sight to the blind.” “And now,” Jesus went on, as He laid the scroll of scripture aside, and as all eyes were on Him to see what He would say about this passage, “these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus, the One John came to share and to bear witness to is also the One who fulfills completely the promise of Isaiah that God will bring salvation in One who will share joy. Jesus brought that joy to burdened and opressed hearts, to those who were bent over, straightening them, to those who were sick in body and spirit, healing them, to those who were hopeless, giving them life. And although His message and His ministry would lead at least temporarily to death, Jesus did all freely, willingly, and even joyfully—as the writer asserts in Hebrews 12, “enduring the cross and disregarding its shame for the sake of the joy set before Him” –the joy of sharing joy—of bearing witness to the salvation that God that Father had brought into being in Him.
Joy is made to share. Any joy worth the name demands sharing—it refuses to be held in if its real—it wants to be talked about, and lived in. The receiver of joy wants to let other people know what has brought such zest into life. And the joy that has come to us in God’s word in Jesus should be the joy above all others, one that demands bearing witness. Paul wrote to his friends in Philippi, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, if there is any compassion from sympathy, make my joy complete by being in unity—by being together with the same mind.” He might well have added to that, “If there is any joy to be had in Jesus, share it with the world—let it flow out of you to them. Tell the people know what you know, and help them come to feel what you feel. Share Jesus in your words and your deeds and invite those touched by Jesus in your words and deeds to discover their own part in the joy-sharing process.” For we have all been called—we have all been sent—just as much as Isaiah and John to point at Jesus and let the world know how in Him we have the privilege of being repairers of division, binders of broken hearts, builders of ruined cities and ruined spirits. We have been anointed in Christ to create societies fit to live in, an echo of the eternal city of the Triune God. This is our job and our joy, but not one for us alone—it is a “Joy to and for the World,” a promise to share. It is joy fully worth our bearing witness in all that we say and do, in kindness and in love, in spirit and in truth. +++