We are right smack in the middle of week 3 of Advent 2011. From last Sunday to this coming Saturday, we focus on the joy that the coming of Jesus has given us. There are two words on the subject of joy (this week’s Advent theme) so far that I want to pass along.
Joy would have been as precious a commodity as gold, coffee or Tickle-Me-Elmo in the day of Zechariah the prophet of the Lord. He was born at the end of an era. Jerusalem was nearing such an utter destruction that the prophet Jeremiah would record a book so full of sorrow it would be known as “Lamentations.” Once the city of God had been taken over by Babylon, the people of God were exiled to a far-off land and treated, once again, as slaves. Times were bleak beyond anything we could imagine. Can you imagine joy arising out of this situation?
I remember working for a summer day camp right after college. The big field trip that year was a trip to the “Happiest Place on Earth”- Disneyland in Anaheim, California. I had a group of five or six thirteen-year-olds in tow and I was riding down the mountains of “Space” and “Splash”, the Matterhorn and walking through the Haunted Mansion. I was having a ball, but if you have ever met, raised or been a thirteen-year-old, you know that even Disneyland is incapable of satisfying the great a standard of entertainment excellence required to impress such a demographic. Can you imagine that- complaining and refusing to have fun at Disneyland? I still remember what I said to my wandering, whining band:
That worked. For about five minutes that worked, anyway.
What I have come to believe in the intervening years is that true happiness and joy is not born out of success and ease but trials and tribulations. Joy- true and lasting happiness- is born out of loneliness, heartache, rejection letters, financial hardship, lost love and even (or perhaps, especially) calamity. Joy is born out of pain. If that is the case, we can look forward to finding hordes of happiness showing up in our lives. That is what Zechariah found, even as a stranger in a strange land, two years into the reign of Darius, king of Babylon.
God had not forgotten his people. And he would not forget to show them justice. Babylon would pay for abusing the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah. The Lord promises that he will personally make Babylon a memory and a rubble-heap. Incidentally, do you know where Babylon is on a current world map? Ok, how about Israel? Babylon’s time came, sure enough, and now the kingdom of Babylon is a subject for historians, archeologists and humble seminarians. The people of Israel, on the other hand, have endured unspeakable suffering, even in this past century, but Jerusalem and the people of God are still with us. God has not forgotten his people.
In fact, he has pursued his people with reckless abandon. Let these words sink in. Read them aloud:
Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord.
The Lord will come? The Lord will dwell in our midst? God with us? Joy arises from pain, like a phoenix from the ashes. And when he comes, he comes to avenge us of our common enemy- ourselves.
I will engrave its inscription, declares the Lord of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day. In that day, declares the Lord of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree.
Freedom. In one day. Can you imagine? Can you feel it?
We, who have so long been slaves to our desires, oppressed in the land of self, have this promise of freedom available- God is with us. Not only did he wrap himself in flesh to live with us, to die for us, to take on hell for us, to ascend into heaven and pray for us, but he has poured his Spirit into us. God is with us as we wait for him. Can you imagine?
I wonder what the people thought when they heard Zechariah’s prophesies. I bet they listened with the same skepticism we know so well. Freedom sounds so ridiculous and unattainable in a land of slavery. Hope and delusion suddenly look like synonyms. We look around for rescue but all we get is a promise. Wait.
His promise to be for us is not an empty one. Rejoice and be glad.