A Troublesome Joy
by Bill Wylie-Kellermann
In liturgical tradition, this is a Sunday associated with joy. However, we are not talking about the ersatz variety hawked by our own culture like a marketing device attached ephemerally to things. That joy, so called, proves itself empty and without substance, a commercial fiction. If these readings are any clue, however, Advent joy has content about which we may be scandalously concrete.
The “good news” of the Isaiah reading is a joy from beginning to end. It is like the very oil of gladness that blesses those who mourn in lonely exile here (61:3). Or like the smiles of prisoners who circle their outdate and see it now closely come. It is a joy outrageously specific in content.
For the exiles this litany of liberation is about homecoming. Hence, for example, the repair and rebuilding of ruined cities (61:4). It is the joy so concrete you purchase a hammer and a saw. Imagine this good news in Gaza or Sarajevo, south central Los Angeles or southwest Detroit.
It might be recalled that when Jesus preached on this text to inaugurate his ministry (Luke 4:16ff), he was driven not only out of the pulpit, but out of town. The plan was to stone him. We ought thereby to be mindful that not everyone shares this joy. The captors and binders and debtholders, the rich and the ruiners of cities, the mighty on thrones and the proud in the imagination of their hearts—in short, all those invested in the present order—find this joy to be a trouble.
Just so, the priests and Levites are sent out by the Jerusalem authorities to scrutinize and size up John (1:19). His vocational reply must surely mystify them, like a claim to be the voice of prophesy itself. And his troubling conviction, that the one who comes stands already in their midst, must drive them up a wall. Yet for us it remains a present and abiding joy.