Joy is not what it seems
Most of the time, we feel like we have a pretty firm grasp on the world around us. What seems to be a tree is a tree; what seems to be a rock is a rock. We see the world through eyes that recognize things for what they are. But sometimes they are not. Sometimes, they become something entirely different.
When I was a kid, this new TV show started coming on Saturday mornings. There were cars that were supposed be robots who fought airplanes that were supposed to be robots. The cars were the good guys, but sometimes an airplane or a helicopter could be a good guy. The airplanes were the bad guys, but the chief bad guy was actually a large handgun and sometimes the bad guys were cars or trucks or animals. Honestly, you really had to pay attention.
Of course, I am talking about the Transformers cartoon from the mid-eighties. The show used two tag lines, “Robots in disguise” and “More than meets the eye.” The idea was that what seemed to be an innocent car, truck, airplane, animal, etc. might be a robot; that robot might be a good guy or a bad guy. As much as anything, the show taught you to pay close attention to the cast of characters to know who was what and why.
Reading Isaiah 35, it seems clear that the poem written was one of great happiness and celebration. It talks about nature having a reason to celebrate, the weak having a reason to celebrate, the very highways becoming Holy Ways of peace and safety. That which was bad shall become good and that which was good shall be better. It sounds great on the surface, but why was this happening? What transpired to bring about this potentially wonderful peace?
We must read chapter 34 to find out and when we do, it doesn’t sound as good. God talks about being enraged at the nations for how they have treated Israel. Then he talks about destroying the armies of the nations, melting the skies, mountains flowing with blood. So, really bad things.
When all of that is over, he is going after Edom. Why? We are not sure. “In the Book of Deuteronomy some regulations are given for the interaction with the neighboring nations. As for Edom: ‘You shall not abhor the Edomite, for he is your brother’ (Dt. 23:7).” Edom is synonymous with Esau and is sometimes used as an example of those who oppose Israel and it was known that previous conflict existed between Edom and Israel during the time of the kings. “Edom may have played a role in the overthrow of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., thus meriting special condemnation here in a text where the 587 assault on Jerusalem is presupposed (see Obadiah; Jer. 49:7–22; Ezek. 25:12–17). The Ezekiel text reports that “Edom acted revengefully against the house of Judah and has grievously offended in taking vengeance” (Ezek. 25:12).”
These two passages, chapters 34 and 35, seemed to be tied together and seem to point to Israel’s happiness in the passage being tied to the idea of God’s vengeance poured out on the earth, especially on Edom. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this seems like a strange thing to be happy about. “Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise.” “From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it forever and ever.” “They shall name it No Kingdom There, and all its princes shall be nothing.”
Yeah! Woo-hoo! Huh?
The other passage set aside for today in the lectionary is the passage in Matthew 11 where John the Baptist, now in prison, sends some of his disciples to question Jesus. From John’s standpoint, this doesn’t really seem all that joyful either. “Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”” The chances that John was leaving his damp, open air cell anytime soon were not good since the aforementioned Herodias wanted John dead, even though Herod feared the chaos that might create.
So, John sat in his cell and wondered. He heard about Jesus ministry, his teaching, the miracles. Finally, he sent a couple of his disciples to Jesus and had them ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In other words, we have been waiting on a Messiah, one anointed by God to bring Israel out of their spiritual and political bondage. Are you the one Jesus? Are you the Messiah?
What is Joy?
Joy can be a slippery thing to try to identify as are all feelings and emotions. Most of us just simplify things down to ‘feels good’ or ‘feels bad’. But emotions are specific, and joy is no exception. Joy (chara) is the experience of gladness as a response to or awareness of grace. It is linked to chairo (rejoice because of grace) and charis (grace). This means that when we experience joy, we are recognizing the work of God, specifically the grace of God, in the situation.
Joy for the Israelites in Isaiah was not joy in the destruction of other nations but in the response to God saving them from the armies of Sennacherib at the time the text was written. One commentator puts it this way,
In a very general sense, one can see that by prefacing the narratives that tell of Zion’s deliverance in 701 B.C. with chapters 34–35, the specific historical instance of Zion’s protection in the days of Sennacherib has been placed within a much broader framework of God’s ongoing attention and care for his vineyard amidst the nations at large. The wondrous deliverance of 701 B.C. foreshadows Zion’s final triumph as God’s chosen place of exaltation and return. The Assyrian destroyer about to be destroyed (chap. 33) becomes a type of the nations at large (34:1–4); God’s gracious sparing of the old vineyard, after the Assyrian waters had reached to the very neck, becomes a type of God’s total protection of the new vineyard from any and all violation, as promised in 27:2–6. Still, such typology might have been executed equally well with chapters 34–35 following the account of Zion’s deliverance in chapters 36–39 rather than preceding it.
In other words, the issue is how great God is for sparing his people in the face of such powerful foes and enemies, rather than allowing them to perish.
Joy for John was tied not to his circumstances but to the fact that Jesus, whom he preached the coming of, was here. Notice the hope¾joy in action maybe¾that Jesus offers to John,
“Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”
Everything John had worked for was coming to pass even if John himself was not going to be able to take part in it.
For both John and for Israel, joy existed in a real way because of the grace that God had offered in their respective situations. In this Christmas season we all have the opportunity to be glad for God’s grace as a response or awareness to what God is doing in and around our lives.
What do you have to be glad for as a response to God’s grace—his real life infusing of goodwill—into your life?
Arndt, W. F., Gingrich, F. W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Becking, B. (2016, January 1). The Betrayal of Edom: Remarks on a Claimed Tradition. Hervormde teologiese studies, 72(4), 1-4.
Goldingay, J. (2001). Isaiah: Understanding the Bible Commentary Series. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
Seitz, C. R. (2012). Isaiah 1-39: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching . Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Witherington III, B. (2017). Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
 (Becking, 2016, p. 1)
 (Goldingay, 2001, p. 194)
 (Goldingay, 2001, p. 194)
 Isaiah 34:3
 Isaiah 34:10
 Isaiah 34:12
 Matthew 14:3-4
 Matthew 11:3
 (Seitz, 2012)
 Matthew 11:4-5