Advent, Reflectionary

Released for Joy

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Isaiah 35:10

When I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis in 2008, I felt like life as I knew it was over. The stiffness and pain in my hands impacted daily activities, like preparing vegetables for dinner, or holding a pen to write a check. I had trouble squeezing the handle of the pump to put gas in my car. There was one morning when I couldn’t turn the knob to open the door and get out of my own bedroom. Creative pleasures like knitting and playing the piano seemed sure to be over for me.

I felt trapped, waiting to learn if medication would help, unsure of the long-term prognosis.

A friend who had been living with the same chronic illness since childhood pointed me to this section of Isaiah. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees,” I read in verse 3. Was this a commandment or a prophesy? Strengthening my weak hands and firming up my stiff and painful knees seemed unlikely, even impossible.

Isaiah points to the time when all the things holding us captive will be reversed, the prison doors opened, the locked windows thrown wide, the time when joy deferred becomes joy unstopped. Both Psalm 146 and its alternate choice, the Magnificat, lay out God’s plan for upsetting earthly power structures. And in Matthew 11, an indirect conversation conducted by messages to and from jail shows how the expectations John the Baptist had for the Messiah have been upended by Jesus.

Most of the time we are in the prison cell with John, feeling the limits on our power to affect change, wondering if any of the things we planned will ever come to fruition, waiting on God to show up in the form we expect and prefer. To that, we are all captive. And yet here we have this promise of God’s Holy Way, running like a ribbon of road through scripture. The reversals we hope and pray for are the will of God, who will bring wholeness, freedom, and joy.

Sometimes I am immobilized by a sense of my weakness, my feebleness, my “what I do doesn’t matter-ness.” My illness feels like a trap. I feel a kinship with Mary and wonder if she felt captive to the appearance of the angel and the overshadowing power of the Most High. She wondered how it could be possible, this commanding prophesy, this prophetic commandment.

Still, she said yes to it. She embraced God’s reversal of her life, of the expectations everyone else had for her, of the limits she held for herself. If you preach the Magnificat, I hope you will add the three words the lectionary leaves off, “And Mary said…”

Those words remind us she was a prophet.

Whatever is binding us, stalling us, holding us captive, may we, too, embrace the reversals promised by God and be released for joy.

Purple and orange crocuses bloom from dry leaves. The text is "Advent 3. The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom. Isaiah 35:1"

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