Scripture - Isaiah 35
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, December 15, 2013

Patti stopped by the nursing home one afternoon to visit members of her congregation. It was about an hour after lunch, the time when eyelids get heavy and cozy beds beckon. She arrived as several residents were dragging themselves down the hall to the activity room. Most of them would have succumbed to the summons of their pillows if the day's activity had been the showing of "The Sound of Music" for the 27th time!

However, the title of this day's activity sounded intriguing enough to lure 30 of them in. The day's program was called "Drumming with Connie."

The chairs were set up in a circle and there were spaces for those who came in wheelchairs. Patti said it began as usual with very few people speaking to each other. Most simply sat in silence waiting to see how today's diversion would pass the time until dinner.

In walked Connie, a short, round woman who was pulling a good size cart loaded with drums. She picked up tall drums like this one next to the communion table. She sat them on the floor in front of people with two good hands. She gave smaller drums to those who could hold them between their knees and for those paralyzed on one side by a stroke, she had drums that hung around your neck by a strap. For those who could not handle a drum, she had maracas, those gourds filled with pebbles that are easy to shake. As she handed them out, people began to perk up and admire their instruments.

Then, Connie began to teach them to play. She said, "Let's start with the sound of your own heart." "Lub, dub, lub, dub." Everyone found they could make that sound with their drum.

"Now," she said, "while you play I'll add a note. But keep up your beat." And the people played their heartbeats and she added a beat here and there and soon this incredible throbbing filled the place and they were drumming! They could not believe how good they sounded.

When the leader drummed louder, all the drums got louder. When she drummed softly, they drummed softly. And when it came time to end the song, she would count down: 4 - beat, beat, 3 - beat, beat, 2 - beat, beat, 1 - beat, beat, and everyone stopped ... and then broke out in joyous applause!

We have had drum circles here at church and some of you have had a similar experience. Despite never having drummed before, you catch on, and in a short time you actually make music. Even if it is not great music, it is great fun.

In the drum circle at the nursing home a woman with Alzheimer's, who sits most of her days in her room in silence, was shaking her maraca in time and grinning from ear to ear. People with strokes were dancing in their wheelchairs and drumming out the rhythm and smiling for the pure joy of it. The drumbeats lured other staff members into the room and the activities director grabbed the hand of the maintenance man and started dancing. A man blind in one eye, who normally shuffles down the hall, took to the floor and gyrated in reckless abandon. It was exuberant and energetic and joyful!1

The third Sunday of Advent is all about joy and today's reading from the Book of Isaiah is a classic text on God bringing joy out of sorrow. Written to the people of ancient Israel who were being held captive in Babylon, people who had seen family members killed, their homes demolished, their way of life shattered and their future erased, the prophet speaks words too good to be true. What appears to every reasonable person to be the end of their culture and the demise of their religion is not the end. The prophet has had a vision. God will redeem the people.

To provide the people with a glimpse of what is to come, the prophet employs poetry to paint the scene. Lodged in the mind of each person was the story of the Exodus. They knew that, centuries earlier, Moses had liberated the people from Egypt and led them through a harsh wilderness before reaching their destination. Further, they knew that if they were ever able to escape the clutches of Babylon and make their way back to Jerusalem, they would have to traverse the harsh, barren landscape of the wilderness. However, the prophet says that a day is coming that will be so glorious, that even the wilderness will flourish and participate in the celebration.

Listen again to the first two verses. "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing."

But that is not the whole story; not even close. Because the weak will become stalwart and the fearful will become fearless. Isaiah says, "Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, €˜Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God." He continues, "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy." To defeated people who could not see beyond the nightmare they were living, Isaiah divulged a dazzling dream.

I suspect not everyone embraced what Isaiah had to say. There must have been skeptics who scoffed at Isaiah's poetic vision. But history proved them wrong. Despite the long odds, those who lived in hope saw their dream come true. The people were liberated, they returned to Jerusalem and they rebuilt their lives.

Isaiah's vision is not limited to ancient times. It serves as a timeless message of hope to people of faith because God always seeks to lead us to a better day.

If you choose to be a cynical intellectual, you can stack up plenty of evidence for despairing about the future. Loved ones die and so do we. Family can disappoint and friends can betray. Yesterday was the one year anniversary of the brutal massacre of those precious children in Newtown, Connecticut. In the one year since their slaying, there have been more than 11,000 gun deaths. Sometimes our country appears to be some backwater nation that has yet to be civilized.

God neither determines the course of our lives nor the events of the world. We are free to make choices that lead us closer to God's dream or further away from it. God calls, urges, challenges us to lean into a new future whose foundations are compassion, beauty, justice and peace. God whispers in our depths of new possibilities for transforming our lives and transforming our world.

Those who live in hope experience greater joy and joy actually makes us more receptive to new possibilities. University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has discovered that when we are joyful our brain's left prefrontal area becomes more active and that area of the brain holds the circuitry that opens our minds to new possibilities.

That day in the nursing home when the activity of the afternoon became a joyous celebration was a reminder that just like Isaiah said, joy can blossom even in barren situations. There is a deep longing in the human heart for the day when all will be set right; when all will be as God intends for it to be; when illness and suffering and despair will be no more; when all will live together in harmony and all will be at peace. God wants us to celebrate those moments in life when we experience a prelude of what is to come.

The nursing home residents had good reason to be depressed - why were they so joyful? Because they were making music and music speaks to your heart and soul. Music can express feelings that you cannot capture in words. Alzheimer's patients whose thoughts are scrambled and cannot put together complete sentences have been known to sing every word of a song when the music begins.

Why were they joyful? Because they were making music. They were not slumped in their chairs simply observing. They were creating sound and rhythm, and God creates us to be creative and to express ourselves. When we create, it generates within us a feeling of satisfaction. It reminds us that we have worth and we have something to give to the world. We are not passive objects buffeted by the events that strike us. We are not mere spectators. We are players. We can determine the course of our lives to a great extent. We can choose how to respond to the opportunities that present themselves.

Why were they joyful? They broke the monotony of their routine. A set schedule can keep life from becoming chaotic and can help us accomplish what we need to do, but a routine without occasional breaks can become suffocating. We need something fresh to blow through us and to energize us. The drum circle was something new and amusing for the residents. It brought fresh air into the room. New can be intimidating, but new is often thrilling; and thrilling makes us joyful.

Why were they joyful? They not only did something new, they did it with others. God created us to be in relationships. We are incomplete as individuals. We need to connect with others to become whole.

As I was leaving a meeting a few days ago I saw a bumper sticker that read "Don't postpone joy." I said to the young woman walking to her car, "Tell me what's behind this."

She said that the mother of her best friend had that as a signature at the end of her emails. Whenever she sent an email, it always ended with "Don't postpone joy." All of her friends recognized it as her personal motto. Not long ago this woman, in the prime of her life, died very suddenly. At her memorial service they handed out bumper stickers to remind everyone of the woman they loved, and to remember that life can be over in an instant, and we must not postpone joy.

This is the message of the Scriptures. The people of God are to be people of joy.

The prophet Isaiah, said, "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)

I do not see happiness and joy as interchangeable terms. In my mind, happiness is closely related to present circumstances. We are happy when life is good. We are happy in the company of close friends, when the kids are doing well in school, when the job is clicking along, when we're eating chocolate brownies and ice cream.

Joy is different. Joy is something deeper within us that is not dependent on present circumstances. In memorial services for Nelson Mandela, people were not happy. They were sad that he died. But there continues to be great joy over the life he lived.

At the Last Supper, Jesus was not happy that he was about to be betrayed and murdered, but he spoke of joy because his bond with God and his bond with his disciples was so deep and true and right.

The Apostle Paul was imprisoned, whipped, beaten with rods and nearly drowned in a shipwreck. When he wrote his letter to the Philippians he was actually in prison and facing death, yet throughout his letter he spoke of joy and rejoicing. He was not happy that he was abused, but throughout his tribulations he maintained a joyful spirit. How? His joy was rooted in his conviction that "Nothing can separate us from God's love." God is always seeking to guide us to the best outcome given our situation.

You can sit passively and accept whatever the world gives you, or you can pick up a drum and make new music. You can continue shuffling your feet down a familiar path or you can shake things up a little and break into a joyful dance.


  1. Patti Davis, "Salvation in a Heartbeat," on Day1.org, November 12, 2006

Prayers of the People ~ Rev. Thomas R. Stout

O Lord God, in this sometimes dry and dusty world, in times of anxiety and tension, in the midst of inequity and lack of gratitude; and then in these wonderful times of beauty and joy, where rejoicing comes out of our very pores, we ask that you would pour out the power of your Spirit so that your Word and Way may blossom in and through our very being.

And now from that being, we bring you our petitions for this day.

We pray for your church; deepen the gifts of contemplation, justice, charity, thanksgiving, generosity, and joy.

Fill our hearts with joy, O Lord.

We pray for all who suffer distress, or persecution or grave sorrow, or compromised health.

For such as these we ask that you bring relief and healing and joy within, O Lord.

God of hope and peace, so fill us with an awareness this day of your faithfulness that our hearts and souls will be filled with a joy that satisfies us and is ready to share that joy with anyone around us, be they near or far.

Lord, let this joy be seen by all.

And now we pray the prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray: Our Father... Amen