There Will Be Joy

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
December 15, 2013
Isaiah 35:1-10 

There Will Be Joy

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’ 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 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.

As many of you know, I’ve been training for a marathon for several months. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I will run the Disney Marathon on January 12 with my brother. The training for a marathon consists of several shorter runs each week and one long run. A week ago the long run was 18 miles, and this Friday is supposed to be 20 miles.

You guys haven’t known me for all that long, so that may not seem incongruous or out of character for me. But it is, trust me. I had never been able to run longer than a minute as of about three years ago. I ran when I had to, in PE class. The only team sport I took part in as a young person was Academic Decathlon! So the last few years has been a wonderful journey of doing something I told myself my whole life that other people could do but not me.

As some of you know, I woke up Friday morning almost unable to move, having injured my back earlier in the week. Almost every position I got into was excruciating. Sitting, standing, lying down. I could barely walk. Even a sneeze sent spasms into my lower back.

I’ve still in some pain, but I’m doing a lot better today, and I’m standing here largely through the miracle that is naproxen sodium, otherwise known as Aleve. But on Friday the pain in my back was so severe and so scary that I feared that my dream of finishing the marathon, this thing I’ve been working so hard on, was in serious jeopardy. Even now I’m not sure when I will get back to running, or even if I will in time to finish training for January.

I’ve received a number of supportive comments, texts and phone calls from friends this weekend, and you know, don’t you, how important that is when you’re in pain and not well.

Well, one of the comments I received was not so helpful. It came pretty soon after I hurt myself and was worried about the marathon, and it went something like, “Why don’t you focus on the journey? It’s more important than the conclusion.”

Now that seems like good advice. But anyone who’s trained for a marathon knows—you’re in it to run the race, to finish! The miles leading up to it are a means to that end, that conclusion. Your focus is on the goal, the excitement of race day, the feeling of crossing the finish line and doing what you thought you could not do. That’s the point. So telling me to focus on the journey rather than the conclusion just completely deflated me. I was already in pain, and the comment made me feel worse.

I will admit that I gave a rather snippy response to this friend. I wasn’t ready to give up the goal. I wanted to grieve and be sad and moan and groan for a while. I wasn’t ready for the silver lining.

And let me say to you, a pledge if you will, that as a pastor, I can often help you find your own silver lining, but I try not to impose them on people. And I will never say to you, “Aren’t you over that yet?” In fact, I am a big fan of lament, of feeling all the feelings and not trying to put a happy face on stuff. The scripture is full of lament—in the psalms, the prophets. (Hey, there’s an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations! This is our spiritual birthright!)

So—on Friday MaryAnn was not ready to be philosophical and accepting of her back pain.

But wouldn’t you know that time and again over the last couple of days, God provided me with glimpses of grace. It came in a spouse who rearranged his morning schedule without a moment’s hesitation to get the kids off to school. It came in a daughter who took it upon herself to bring me breakfast in bed, and a mother who spent the weekend and got us caught up on our laundry and dishes so I could rest.

Now I tell you all this not because my pain is all that extreme—it’s really not—or because I’m some paragon of strength and virtue—I’m really not. Remember, I’m still feeling sorry for myself, right?

The story, I think, is a parable of how God works God’s wholeness in this world. Which is this—
God doesn’t wait for everything to be back on track.
God doesn’t wait for the crisis to be over.
God doesn’t hold off on the good stuff until the bad stuff is gone and done with. 

God inserts Godself right into the middle of our heartbreak and spasms of pain. And God doesn’t do this tentatively. God does it wholeheartedly, with a vengeance, according to Isaiah.

My back is not cured, yet I received God’s care.

That’s the kind of God Isaiah testifies to. A God who comes right in the middle of the wilderness, right there on the burning sand. Notice what Isaiah doesn’t say. Isaiah doesn’t say, “God’s going to transport you out of the wildnerness and only when you’ve reached Zion will everything start coming up roses.” Isaiah says, God is the kind of God who does not withhold joy. Joy and restoration can begin right now, even in the wilderness.

Everything good in this passage springs directly out of a place of struggle.  

From the desert… comes blossoms.
From the dry brown grasses… come the reeds and rushes.
From the burning hot sand… comes a pool of refreshing water. 

I talk to people sometimes in the midst of grief or pain who just wish they could get out of it. Why can’t I get past this? They ask me. I should be over this by now. Which breaks my heart. The grief of loss is awful enough, but then they feel guilty for not conforming to some kind of schedule.

And I feel Isaiah addressing this guilt and pain and saying, “Maybe it’s not about trying to get to the other side. Instead, trust in the God who is with you in the wilderness, and will stay with you as long as it takes.”

Are you fearful? God will accompany you.
Are you parched? Springs of water bubble forth,
not in some hazy mirage on the horizon, but right under your feet.
Are you wandering where the wild beasts threaten to consume you?
God is creating a highway, for that long journey to Zion,
and on that highway you cannot be touched. 

The joy doesn’t come to the people after they’ve arrived. There are moments of joy along the way. I must reluctantly conclude that my friend was right. It is about the journey rather than the destination.

*          *          *

This weekend was the anniversary of the horrific events in Newtown CT. Many of you have probably heard stories of many of these families and how they are coping. Nelba Marquez-Greene lost her daughter Ana Grace that day.

After the shooting, Márquez-Greene put her therapy practice on hold to work instead on a more macro scale — to prevent violence and promote healing.

On Dec. 2, 500 people packed a conference for the Ana Grace Project, aimed at building community, connections and compassion. As Márquez-Greene sees it, these qualities are the antidote is to the kind of isolation that always seems to be the story of deranged mass shooters.

"At the end of the day, I don't know why this happened," she says. "I didn't get to choose it. But I get to choose my response now. I do get to choose now."

They want to remember Ana's life twice as loudly as her death.

Streams of water in the desert of grief and loss.

*          *          *

Linda Carey was diagnosed with breast cancer some ten years ago. It has gone into remission and recurred a couple of times, and she’s had rounds of chemo to deal with.

Linda’s husband Bob found an unusual way to support his wife during this time, in addition to all of the other caregiving responsibilities.

Bob—who is a hairy middle-aged guy and of… a certain girth, started taking pictures of himself, shirtless and wearing a pink tutu. He did this to make Linda laugh in the midst of the traumas of chemo, to make it a little more bearable. Linda would bring the photos with her to the chemo treatments and the women would laugh together and pass the time a little easier.

The Tutu Project, as it was called, has grown and gotten more elaborate. Bob has posed in the middle of a snowy street, wearing only the tutu. On stage with dancers from Swan Lake—wearing only the tutu. In front of the Lincoln Memorial—wearing only the tutu.

As many things do in this age of the Internet, the photos spread, and have touched so many people and given them joy and inspiration. There’s a calendar now, and a book. You can google “Tutu project” to find out more—the proceeds from the sales go to breast cancer causes.

Now here’s the thing about Bob Carey. He didn’t wait until his wife was feeling better to take on this project. He didn’t save up this silly idea until they had reached Zion and could celebrate remission from the cancer. He knew that the time for this kind of unbridled joy is right now, right in the middle of this desert, where the fear is at its most acute, where the wind and sand burn the hottest.

And here’s what he said about that time. “Oddly enough, her cancer has taught us that life is good, dealing with it can be hard, and sometimes the very best thing — no, the only thing — we can do to face another day is to laugh at ourselves, and share a laugh with others.”

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.

A grieving mother will gather 500 people to build communities of compassion in memory of her daughter.

A worried husband will don a pink tutu to make his sick wife laugh during chemo.

And everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.




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©2013 MaryAnn McKibben Dana. These sermon manuscripts are provided here for personal use, and are not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.