One summer when I was in college, I had a summer job where I led high school mission trips in central Jamaica. It was primarily a construction/home repair trip, but one afternoon of every trip, we would take our work crews to a place called the Manchester Infirmary. The infirmary wasn’t an infirmary as we would understand it. It was a hospice for the destitute. The area had no public health care system, so when a person got sick or hurt and their family couldn’t pay for their medical expenses, they were dropped off in the infirmary and left to die, often of manageable and even curable diseases and injuries. It was a hard place. Metal cots were shoved together, and it was sticky and hot, flies flew in and out of unscreened windows and hovered around the dying. The smell was unbearable. We prepped the students before we brought them in, encouraged them to sit with and pray with the patients, to not be afraid, that it was OK if they were emotional or upset, this was an upsetting place. On maybe my third trip to the infirmary, I led a group of students in and a woman, clearly severely mentally handicapped, ran up to me and grabbed my wrists and started swaying them while making some loud, indecipherable noise. I remained calm only because I knew the students were watching me for an example. And then, I heard it: this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine . . . She was singing. She was singing, and she was holding my wrists because she wanted me to dance with her. I did. I sang and danced with her. Her song and our dance intrusively, disruptively shattered the still, hot air around us that sat so heavy. Joy had broken out in this place where it so did not belong. Joy had broken through in a place where joy did not belong.
So where do we think joy belongs? Most of our celebrations as a culture are at points of transition, at endings. Things like graduations, retirements, birthdays, New Year’s Eve. When parties come too early, it actually kind of disturbs us — like celebrating your football season in September, or graduation in March, or, more recently, Christmas decorations being out in October, or like hope in an infirmary. We actually don’t really like it. It feels almost unlucky. There’s some part of us that, when we see celebration before the hard part is over, or joy come too early, it wants to say, “How dare you take joy and celebrate? How dare you have joy you haven’t earned? You’re not even out of the garbage-y part yet.”
Our passage this week was from Isaiah 35:1-10. As context for this passage, in 586 B.C.E. Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed and the Israelites had been exiled. The throne of David, which God had promised them would sit in Jerusalem forever, was gone. This passage is about the joy of returning to Jerusalem, of the end of the exile. It is a song of celebration. It describes how the desert will turn to an oasis and how flowers will sprout up from the dry sand as the people sing and re-enter their beloved Jerusalem.
But here’s the thing: when it was written, the Israelites hadn’t returned yet. Not even close. Isaiah is generally split into three parts by scholars: the first part is all doom and gloom, and the second part is more hopeful. This passage sounds like it belongs in the second part, but it’s not. It’s too early. It’s, at best, five chapters too early. It’s in between two chapters all about death and destruction. Its message of hope is totally out of place. It’s so out of place that it interrupts the flow of the book. It’s jarringly, obtrusively, inappropriately early and out of place. In the midst of what are known as “oracles against the nations,” narratives of brutal destruction, this text breaks through with a message of hope. It loudly, unapologetically, interrupts with joy.
Don’t we almost want to look to the author of Isaiah and say, “cool it”? Don’t we almost want to say, seriously, don’t count your chickens before they hatch, you haven’t even made it back yet, and you have no idea what’s going to happen when you do go back, and what if it’s not as great as you remember and . . . But joy breaks through, even where we think it doesn’t deserve to be. Because joy isn’t constructed, it breaks through. It breaks through like a rom-com hero through airport security, like weeds through a sidewalk crack, like an objection at a wedding, like music from your laptop in public when you didn’t realize your headphones weren’t plugged in. Joy breaks through, breaks out, uninvited, disruptive, and early, in places where it doesn’t belong. Like getting the giggles at a funeral, in the midst of suffering, loss, and hurt, in the midst of all the hard parts that aren’t over yet, all the wrongs that have yet to be righted, all the exiles we haven’t returned from, inappropriately early and out of place, joy breaks through.
Like a baby born to an unwed teenage mother, sleeping in a stable because there was no room in the inn, joy breaks through inappropriately early and out of place. Like a hymn of homecoming for a people who aren’t even close to being able to come home, joy breaks through inappropriately early and out of place.
So why? Why does joy burst through in disruptive, inconvenient interruptions? So we know it is God who sent it. Because when joy comes early, in unjoyful circumstances, we know it is God’s joy.
So let joy break out, let songs break out, when we haven’t earned it, or deserved it. When it’s too early, too loud, and too out of place. When it doesn’t make any sense with the world around you, when it’s disruptive and obtrusive, let joy break out, and know that the Holy Spirit will join your singing.