Let’s start today with a question. What do you think is the most important factor in living a long and happy life? In 1938, scientists started the Harvard Study of Adult Development and began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomore men. Over the years, they not only tracked the health of these men, they also tracked the health of their 1,300 offspring, who are now in their 50s and 60s. In the 1970s, researchers also began tracking 456 inner-city residents from Boston. About 20 years ago, wives were included in the study. This is one of the longest studies of adult development and what researchers discovered in the results was startling.
An article in The Harvard Gazette titled “Good Genes are Nice, but Joy is Better” states that: “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants.” [i]
Having high quality relationships gives us joy, and that joy helps us to live a longer, more fulfilled life in this world. But what do we do when we are not experiencing much joy in life or in our relationships? There are times, even for those who had wonderful genetics and a great environment growing up, when life throws us a curve ball and our world is turned upside down.
You cannot prevent bad things from happening in your life, but you can do something about how you respond to these bad things when they happen. And the way that we respond to difficult challenges in our life will make a huge difference in our life and in the lives of others. A positive response can reduce the devastating effects of the losses that we experience, and a negative response can make them worse. So all we have to do is change how we respond to things, right?
But here is the challenge for us, our responses to what happens in life come from a place that is deep inside of us. And those settled conditions within us, whether they are joy and confidence, or fear and dread, are very difficult for us to change on our own. But that is where the change needs to be made. So how can we have a settled condition of joy within us? That’s what we are thinking about today, and the Bible passage that will be guiding our reflections is Isaiah 35:1-10.
Two Kinds of Messages: Law & Gospel
What we find there are promises of joy from God through the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah, you may remember, was speaking messages from God to his people in the midst of very difficult times. There were challenges from the outside as first Israel and Syria, and then the mighty Assyrian army, threatened to attack Judah. There were problems inside Judah as the king, King Ahaz, worshipped false gods and didn’t trust the one true God to protect him and his kingdom.
So God gave Isaiah two kinds of messages to share. One was a message of law, a warning to turn away worshiping false gods and come back home to the one true God. The second kind of message was Gospel, the Good News of what God has already done for us and what God will do for us in the future. It’s the Gospel that gets us through tough times and gives us the courage and strength to carry on. It is the Gospel that changes the inner core of our being so that the settled condition within us is one of hope, peace, joy and love. So the Gospel is everything to us.
But it is very important that we apply the specific aspect of the Gospel to the specific challenge we are facing. Too often we think of the Gospel in a generic way, that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. While that’s true, the Gospel is much, much, much more than that, and a generic understanding of the Gospel will keep us from accessing the greatness of the Good News that God has for us. We need to grow in our understanding of the Gospel and how it applies to our lives personally. So let’s dig into today’s passage, Isaiah 35:1-10.
The Importance of Redemption
What we find as we do that is full of Gospel, and it’s Good News for the people back in Isaiah’s time and it is Good News for us today. This passage starts off by saying,
The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God. (Isaiah 35:1-2 NIV)
Here God gives us a reason for joy at the center of our being: He is promising to bring cosmic transformation to us and all things. He is promising to bring us into a future where all of creation is transformed. The once barren desert will bloom with luxurious life. Flowers and forests will fill the landscape were dry wilderness used to be. And everything inside us will be changed. Our thirst for God will be quenched with life in his presence, and our transformed life will be something far more beautiful and fruitful than we could ever ask or imagine.
And, as we will see later, this cosmic transformation will be the result when God’s redemption of us and all things is complete. God’s redemption will result in cosmic transformation. It’s like saying healing results in health or writing results in content. One word is the action and the other is the result. Redemption is the action and transformation is the result, so we can say that our inner joy is based on God’s redemption.
But what does redemption mean? It is another one of those biblical R words that we don’t use very much in everyday language today. In my previous blog post, the biblical R-word was “remnant.” This time, it is “redemption.” The word “redemption” means to buy something back and set it free. It also has this sense of rescuing something from brokenness and making it whole. If you restore old cars, or furniture, you are participating in a redemptive ministry. If nurse people back to health through medical care, you are participating in a redemptive ministry. If you help people break free from addictions, you are doing redemptive work. In ancient times, if a relative had to become a slave because of a huge debt that they owed, you could redeem them by paying the debt and they would be set free. You would be their redeemer. In the book of Ruth in the Bible, Boaz paid the cost to buy back the family land of Naomi and Ruth so that they could have a source of income and an inheritance to pass on to future generations. Boaz redeemed the family land so that Ruth and Naomi could have the freedom of financial security. But he not only did that, he also married Ruth and they gave Naomi a grandson, Obed, who was the grandfather of King David. So the new life that Naomi was given by Boaz’s redemption also included a family and descendants.
Jesus is the Ultimate Redeemer
The ultimate Redeemer is God the Son, Jesus Christ, whom God the Father sent into this world to redeem us and all creation. With the disobedience of our first parents, humanity and all of creation became enslaved to sin and terrible results, like death, disease, constant war, and an impassable distance between us and God. Jesus came to buy us back from all that, he came to redeem us and set us free in the new life that he has always wanted to give to us. When Jesus came into this world more than 2,000 years ago, he more than paid the full cost to redeem us and all things. He has already begun that process of redemption within us and he will complete it when he comes back to this world at the end of tie to make us and all things right. That’s when all the corruptive and toxic effects of sin will be totally reversed.
So we live in an in-between time, and that is a hard thing to do. It’s like having a wealthy relative come and pay for your house to be totally renovated, and the carpenters came and renovated the master bedroom, but the rest of the house, inside and out, is still a mess. And what can happen in us as we live in this in-between time is that we become so used to living in the mess that we cannot imagine, or even believe, that a day will ever come when we will see the renovation be complete. And that leads to joyless living. Any joy we experience is always dependant on our circumstances and it and never endures because things are always going up and down in this life. We need to recapture a vision for what life will be like when Jesus’ redemption of us is complete because it is that redemption that gives us enduring joy at the center of our being, joy that will carry us through the tough times we face. So let’s get specific about how redemption brings us joy, even in tough times.
How Redemption Bring Us Joy
When Confronted with Injustice
There are so many injustices in this world. On Wednesday of last week came news that Umar Patek, one of the men responsible for 2002 bombings in Bali which killed more than 200 people, was released after serving 10 years in prison. The decision was opposed by Australia which lost 88 of its citizens in the bombings.
Maybe you experienced injustice personally, because someone has harmed you emotionally, physically, or sexually, and they have never been punished. We want to remedy that injustice and attack them back. But if we take vengeance on those who hurt us, then we are harming them like they harmed us. Not only that, because we are sinful people and because we don’t know all the facts behind what happened, we are never going to get things right. So God tells us to leave vengeance up to him. In Romans 12:19, we read, Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19 NLT)
It is hard for us to leave the world’s injustices in God’s hands, because we want justice, we still need things to made right and we need to be made whole. So God promises us.
Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.” (Isaiah 35:3-4)
Here is the justice and vindication we seek. Through Isaiah, God is promising justice and vindication. We can leave all those unpunished wrongs in God’s hands and, at the end of time, he will make all things right. God will redeem our lives by giving us the perfect justice that we need. He will come and save us.
When Confronted with Physical Brokenness
Maybe your challenge is that disease, an accident or time has damaged or disabled your body. When this happens, it can seem like all is lost for we are not able to live outside our body. In times of good health and in bad, God calls us to trust in him for all that we need for life each day. And he promises that he will redeem our bodies from their headlong journey toward the grave by giving us, and all creation, complete physical restoration.
God promises us that, one day in the future,
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. (Isaiah 35:5-7)
The healing that we long for will come to us at the end of time. We desire and pray for healing now for ourselves and our loved ones, but even as we do that, we realize that any healing we experienced in this life is only temporary. It is a foretaste of the complete and eternal healing to come. So we cling by faith to Jesus, even as our life in this world is ebbing away, because we know that a day will come when he redeems our bodies from our dusty old grave and make them new again, never to grow old, get sick or die ever again. We will see Jesus face-to-face and he will wipe every tear from our eyes.
When Confronted with Moral Brokenness
Or maybe the challenge you face is because sin has tripped you up again and thrown you into a deep dark gully of guilt and shame because your moral failings are not only obvious to you, they are also obvious to everyone around you. And sin is very, very hard for us to face up to because, on our own, it will destroy us and any hope for a good life if we truly knew the depths of our failures.
So we try to dig ourselves out of that ditch by trying to do good things to save ourselves, but that never works. When we realize the hopelessness of our situation, we either give up on ourselves and give our lives completely to evil desires. Or we give up hope that God could ever make us clean again. But God invites us to continue our journey of faith through life with him. And God promises to redeem us by reconciling us to himself.
And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away. (Isaiah 35:8-10 NIV)
One day we will be able to go home to God, because he has redeemed our lives by washing us clean of all our sin and reconciling us to himself. That God-sized hole in our heart will be completely filled and we will live in God’s presence forever.
All These Facets of Our Redemption Come to Us Through Jesus
Here’s the thing. All these different facets of our redemption come to us through Jesus. He suffered a cosmic injustice for us so we can have perfect justice in him. He took up our pain and bore our suffering so that by his wounds we are healed. (cf. Isaiah 53:4-5) He took our place and became the outcast who bore our guilt and shame as he hung naked on a tree outside the city walls, so that we could take his place and become an innocent, beloved child of God.
There is a Deeper Joy for You at Christmas
So what does all this mean for us? Joy is something we think about a lot at Christmas time, but the joy that is usually being referred to is based on the gifts, the food and the gatherings with family and friends. Dear ones, I urge you to receive those gifts with thanksgiving, but don’t set your heart upon them.
For there is a deeper joy for you in Christmas. Jesus is the humble King who came into this world in humility and weakness, and died wearing our guilt and shame, so that our lives can be fully redeemed in him. And as we live our lives in him, our redemption is already totally complete. Part of Jesus’ justice, healing and reconciliation is being experienced by us now, and the rest we will experience at the end of time to make us and all things right. But that future redemption is already our present possession in Jesus, and we can live as God’s redeemed people right now, and by doing so, bring the hope of redemption to the people around us who do not yet know Jesus.
Joy is Something You Decide On Ahead of Time
A 92 year old woman moved into a nursing home shortly after the death of her husband, to whom she had been married for 70 years. As they walked down the hall to her new room, the staff person walking with her described it to her. “I love it!” said the woman. “But you haven’t even seen it yet… just wait,” the staffer person replied. “That doesn’t have anything to do with it,” the woman responded. “Happiness is something you decide on ahead of time. I already decided to love it.”[ii]
Dear friends, the challenge that I am setting before you today is to decide to be joyful ahead of time. You can live with the joy of the Lord in your heart because he came into this world to live, die and rise again for you, and your redemption is complete in him. Amen.
[i] Liz Mineo, “Good Genes are Nice, But Joy is Better,” The Harvard Gazette (Internet; available at: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/; accessed on December 5, 2022).
[ii] Shelly Esser, “Choose Love and Find Joy, Just Between Us (Internet; available at: https://justbetweenus.org/everyday-life/faith-and-feelings/choose-love-and-find-joy/; accessed on December 10, 2022).