In 1992, Zone 21 in Guatemala City was a refugee camp for families displaced from years of civil war. The zone was an area of dirt - - just an open area - - with these sheds or shacks dotted all across. The shacks were constructed of tin, cardboard and plastic. Most were 4’ x 6’ and “housed” 6-8 people. They had dirt floors, no doors (except for maybe a piece of fabric or cardboard). Water was stored in huge metal drums located sporadically around the camp; the water was green with algae. Kids were everywhere, many with no shoes, unclean faces, no balls or toys of any kind other than sticks and what they could find scattered about them.
There were three of us seminary students on a required immersion to another culture; and ours was a two week trip to Guatemala. On this particular day we were in a refugee camp, and soon we found ourselves with a whole group of kids around us, laughing and curious. Fortunately one of my peers could hablo Espanol much more than I so that we could sort of talk and play with them a bit. They were full of laughter. Full of joy. How? Why?
“El gozo del senor mi fortaleza es.” The joy of the Lord is my strength. It was a joy that only the Lord could provide. Pretty soon there were 30 or 35 kids gathered around, all curious, all laughing. Bubbling joy in this inhospitable place.
The three of us students had sort of a running joke for the trip. I was the only female on the trip and I had the least luggage, shattering the stereotypes of my fellow students. They had packed full pillows. I had packed a pillow case and shoved clothes inside it to make a pillow at night. I was also the most prepared. I had a flashlight, matches, a pocket knife, maps, a guide book, and first aid. Blew their minds.
My stuff was in a backpack, but each day when we went out, I carried this bag. It was a really ugly bag that I had picked up at some discount store, but it seemed bottomless and it was easy to clean. I stuffed it with anything that might present itself as being necessary during the day (flashlight, matches, pocket knife, first aid . . . . .).
As we stood with all of these laughing kids, the Spanish speaking peer looked at me and eyed the bag. “Do you have anything in there with enough for all of them,” he asked me. He wanted something for each kid. Some sort of greeting from us to them. I thought about my inventory, and reached inside my ugly but awesome bag.
The presence of joy where I didn’t expect to find it!
* * *
In Isaiah 55, the exiles have returned home but things are not as they were before the exile and will never be again.
Their city and Temple were destroyed. After hundreds of years in exile, they are now returning home and find that things are not easy. The Temple is still destroyed. Many of them are poor and are struggling to have enough to eat let alone get ahead. Their return isn’t exactly as they thought it would be. And then comes this gracious invitation of God through the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah has so taken on the Word of the Lord that his words are the Word of the Lord. And Isaiah 55 is this beautiful invitation and word of welcome to these people who are home. Everyone who thirsts, come to the water - - you who have no money, come and eat! For those who are struggling with having enough to eat, imagine being invited in to a meal for free! And this isn’t just any meal, it is a feast, at the table of the Lord! It is an opportunity to be filled with the kind of joy that only the Lord can give, to be restored!
Maybe those being invited wonder if the invitation is too good to be true - - a feast, for free? Joy? Isaiah’s text takes seriously the struggle humans face between choosing what God has for them and choosing what they have for themselves - - “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
We humans are often kept from God’s joy by one of two lies. Two “lies” that we believe over and over and over again and have been, I guess, since our beginnings.
The first lie is that we are not worthy of such a God who invites us to the table. We’ve messed up, or we’re weird, or we are poor - - whatever the reason might be that we tell ourselves. One of the lies that we are prone to believe is that we are simply not worthy of such a God. God surely cannot be inviting us to this feast, God surely cannot be inviting us into such a joy, because we don’t deserve it. If we believe this lie, we spend our lives turned in, reminding ourselves how we aren’t worthy. And we do not live in the joy that God wills for us. People around us are impacts - - our family, our friends, our co-workers, because we aren’t able to live in all that God wills for us.
The second lie is much different. The second lie is that we are smarter than God, and surely do not need to adhere to God’s will. It is sin that “is quite simply planning one’s own plans and going ahead with one’s own course in self-centered disregard for the plan of Yahweh that has now been revealed.” If we believe this lie, we are accountable only to our own desires and whether or not we possessed all that we wanted. Sadly, with this lie, the impact is less of turning in and more of negatively impacting others. When we believe that we have all of the answers, we often not only lose sight of our own need for God, but we lose sight of everyone else too. The damage from such overconfidence and self-assurance is great.
Why do you pursue these things? Isaiah asks. They will not satisfy. There is only one thing that will satisfy and that is if we return to the Lord and fulfill that which God has intended for us from the beginning - - to come to the feast, to come to the table, to come to the salvation that has been prepared for us and to be a light of God’s goodness for all of the nations! What does it mean to be a light to the nations? Not a light for ourselves, but a light for the world for God? They are two very different things.
God’s way is different from human ways. It is like the rain that comes from the heaven and does not return to the heaven until it has brought forth life (v.10). God’s way, God’s word isn’t empty. And the Word is waiting for us and all of the world if we will just receive it. If we will just receive it, “you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.” God’s way is a way of joy!
It is Advent 3, Joy Sunday. God offers you unbelievable joy. It is hard for us to admit that we need God’s table. It is hard for us to admit that we want God’s table. As much as we do not want them, it is hard to let go of the lies of our insignificance or those of our overconfidence. And in our doing so, we miss the joy that is right before us. Will you set down your feelings of unworthiness and come to the feast? Will you set down our self-centeredness and stop pursuing our own path, see and take hold of the will of God? The feast is waiting; and not just for us. God calls the world. God calls the leaders of the nations and little boys in refugee camps with no bed and no shoes. And there is room for everyone because God is that generous. What will you feast on this Advent day?
My fellow student watched as I rummaged in the bottomless bag that I had carried throughout the trip and pulled up a stack of about 50 Band-Aids. He said something in Spanish to the children, I am not sure what, and then started handing out the Band-Aids. They went like wildfire. The kids ripped them open and started slapping them on their arms and hands taking such joy in such a small thing. They laughed such an amazing laugh, they cheered, they played with one another. Standing in a place with no grass, with barrels of dirty water, with only cardboard on which to place their heads at night, with absolutely no idea about tomorrow, they were full of joy. And somehow, over Band-Aids, we together found a seat at the feast that day.
“Hey, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have nothing, come and eat.” Lay down the lies that keep you from God, and find the joy that has been so carefully prepared for you - - joy so carefully prepared for a very specific you - - and receive it. And then in joy be one who works for the joy of the master, that all might come to the table in wholeness, in hope, in peace, and in joy and feast in the Light of the World, the Life of the World, Christ Jesus. All glory be to you, O Lord. Amen.
 Servant Theology. George A.F. Knight. P. 195.