December 14th, 2014

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.  (Isaiah 12:3)

Isaiah 12:1-6

December 14, 2014

Joy Uninhibited

The traditional theme for the third Sunday of Advent is joy.  Early in the fall as I was creating the sermon series on Isaiah I did a word search for “joy” in Isaiah, and this is the passage that spoke most directly to joy.  I chose this text for no reason more profound than that. Sometimes the Holy Spirit does things far beyond my capability to understand.

In the weeks between outlining this sermon series and now, Linda and I traveled to Israel with 25 others for ten days.  We were there at the end of Sukkot, the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles), the last of three major annual festivals in the Jewish year.  For one week when Jews remember that the children of Israel had to live in tents for forty years of wandering in the desert.  While observance ranges widely among Jews, most Jews don’t live in a tent all week long but many do eat in tents (sukka) for the entire week.  Tents are provided for them in most public places, including parks and restaurants.

In the 3500 or so years from the time of Moses until now, Jews have developed some traditions that enhance or add to the biblical festivals.  There is a running debate within Judaism whether they should just stick to the Bible or observe these other traditions.  One of those is a two-day celebration at the end of Sukkot called Simchat Torah, which means “Rejoicing in the Law.”  When I heard about it, I really wanted to experience it firsthand, but our tour guide also told us the little town we were in on the night of Simchat Torah did not have a synagogue, and therefore we would be unable to witness the celebration.

Linda and I went for a walk that night, joined by a small group of fellow pilgrims.  We heard the sound of singing and walked toward it.  About a quarter mile from our hotel, we found a Yeshiva (Torah school) where 200-300 young Orthodox Jewish men and their families had gathered for Simchat Torah.  An American-born rabbi motioned for us to come in and watch.  What we saw there astounded us.  The men danced and sang and lifted an older rabbi on their shoulders while he clutched a large Torah scroll.  Women and children watched from a balcony above.  There was no inhibition among them as they sang their song of praise to God for the gift of the Law.  We were told they do this for several hours in the evening, and again the next day.  Synagogue services are often restrained and formal, but the inner joy explodes on nights like Simchat Torah.  I don’t know that I have ever personally witnessed a religious service of any kind with that level of joy expressed over that length of time.  It was truly remarkable.

That scene became the visual for me when I read about joy in Isaiah 12.  The most powerful image for me in this passage is in verse 3:  “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  That is a metaphor drawn from the days when people had to walk to the center of town, or maybe even outside of town, to fetch just one bucket of water.  Probably no one here has to do that, although some of us may have known that in childhood or been in places where drawing water in a bucket by hand is the norm.  Maybe even your sponsored child or a missionary has told you about a well like this. But even if you have a well, you have an electric pump that brings the water to the surface.

I have been trying this week to find a comparable metaphor.  Water is essential for life, and its supply is endless and unseen.  But it requires daily (at least) initiative to tap into that supply, and when you do, joy overflows.  But not necessarily all the time.  It’s especially in an arid climate at times of drought and heat that fresh, cool water brings that kind of joy.  The whole family does not participate in drawing water from the well, but everyone benefits.

What else in our world fits those same criteria – need, supply, effort, joy, distribution?  I had several suggestions from those who read my daily Advent devotionals – air (especially for someone under water, or maybe a dolphin), electricity (when it’s interrupted and turned back on), food stamps, and love.   Then a couple of people hit a home run and connected some dots for me that I will connect for you at the end of this sermon.  I love it when a sermon just comes together at the end of the week, and it did.

The usual sermons on joy include attempts to define joy and to retain joy.  Is joy an emotion or a decision?  What does it mean to “rejoice in the Lord always”?  Does it mean we should never feel sad or depressed or angry, and that to do so is to be disobedient?  Perhaps all those questions are a diversion from what we should be seeing in this passage and others on joy.

I praise (vv. 1-2)

The text begins in verse 1, “In that day you will say….”  This immediately raises the question for me, “What day is ‘that day’?”  This part of Isaiah is full of descriptions of sin and pronouncements of judgment for that sin.  In the first chapter Isaiah calls the nation of Judah a “sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption” (1:4).  Later in that same chapter he says, “Rebels and sinners will both be broken together, and those who forsake the LORD will perish” (1:28).

Some of the most hopeful words in the Bible are also recorded in the first eleven chapters, including some we quote during Advent.  “The virgin will conceive and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (7:14).  “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:7).

In the run up to chapter 12, Isaiah writes in chapter 11, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse…..The Spirit of the LORD will rest upon him…The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat…They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (11:1-9).  Sprinkled among prophecies of doom are reasons to not give up on God.

“That day” (the one where the shoot emerges from the stump of Jesse, there is peace and justice in the world, and the earth is full of the knowledge of God) is what Isaiah refers to in 12:1.  “In that day you will say….”  One more observation: the “you” is singular, as are the first person pronouns in verses 1-2.  This is a personal song to God.

“I will praise you, O LORD” (1).  The word praise here implies not so much words as actions.  Literally it means to hold out your hands, to throw something, to wring your hands.  I think he’s saying, “I will raise my hands in thanksgiving.”  Why?

“Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me” (1).  There are two strong words in that phrase as well, with both having a root meaning connected to breath.  The word for “angry” comes from a verb that means to “breathe hard,” and the word for “comfort” comes from a verb that means to “breathe strong,” to pant like a horse, or to sigh.  He’s saying to God, “Your angry snort has become a comforting sigh.”

“Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid” (2).  Once again, there is a physical action associated with the root of this word “trust.”  It’s falling down or lying down.  The warrior never sits during the fight.  Lying down, especially to sleep, is an indication that you’re at peace.  He says this because God is his “salvation.”  This important biblical word means deliverance, health, prosperity.  This is one word you would recognize in Hebrew – yeshuah, or Joshua.  The Greek equivalent: iesous.  In English:  Jesus.

“The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation” (2).  There is an objective part – who he is (strength, durability), and a subjective part – how I respond (a song of joy).  This personal song of praise is deep and moving, and centers mostly on God.  It is the Lord himself who gives me joy!

Y’all sing (vv. 4-6)

Verse 4 seems in English like it begins the same way as verse 1, “In that day you will say.”  But this time the “you” is plural.  This is why there should be a “Southerners Version” of the Bible.  It would say here, “In that day y’all will say,” and the plural would be obvious.  Verses 4-6 are a response of praise in the community.

“(Y’all) Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name, make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted” (4).  Isaiah’s personal song now turns to an exhortation to the whole community. Everyone needs to get in on this, as we revel in who God is and talk about what he has done.  In fact, it needs to extend beyond the community to the world.

“(Y’all) Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world” (5).  This is the answer to how you sing with joy when your life falls apart.  You don’t grit your teeth and drum up emotion in a vacuum.  You recall what God has done in your life, in the community of believers, and in the world.  You bring all of that into your prefrontal cortex, into the active part of your brain.  Once it sits there, it’s so much easier to sing about it.  That’s one of the key roles of the community itself.  When you withdraw into isolation, it’s hard to remember all God has done.  But when you gather with other believers, they help you remember there is something to sing about.

“Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you” (6).  What’s interesting about this verse is that the verb forms are now feminine singular.  They were masculine singular in verses 1 and 2, and they were plural in verses 3-5.  The word translated “shout aloud” means to scream like a girl.  “Sing for joy” is also one word in Hebrew.  It means to ring out.  High decibel level is clearly in view with both these words.  What’s going on with telling a woman to “shout aloud and sing for joy”?

There are some clear parallels in this song of Isaiah to the song the children of Israel sang when they emerged from the Red Sea and the Egyptian army drowned.  I haven’t seen nor heard too much about the new movie coming out about Moses and the Exodus, but I hope they did something with the song Moses and the people sang.  Even more so, I hope they do something with the song led by Miriam, Moses’ sister.  This part of Isaiah’s song, with its feminine singular form, seems to recall that moment when a woman became the worship leader.

Once again, the focus is on the greatness of God – “the Holy One of Israel.”   But what’s important is that he is “among you.”   When you can’t find your joy, get in the presence of God – alone or with a group.  You don’t rustle up joy in a vacuum.  You remember God’s nature and the glorious things he has done, and this evokes worship, praise, thanksgiving, and joy.

Pastor Paul and I have a running, friendly conversation about the comparison between contemporary and traditional worship.  He reminds me that the Bible commands us to worship with motion and volume – to raise your hands, to shout, to sing loudly.  I remind him that the Bible also says to worship in silence, in reverence, with kneeling, that what’s important is what’s in your heart.

I just want to say Isaiah 12 is 100% in Pastor Paul’s column.  There’s nothing here about holding back in your worship, being dignified or reverent.  Isaiah 12 is all about raised hands and loud voices.  This is about unbridled joy expressed without inhibition.

The parallel

One of the e-mail responses to my question about a parallel between drawing water from a well and anything in the modern world was from Diane Camp, who went with us to Israel.  Diane sent me a commentary from Alexander McClaren, a late-19th century British preacher.  McClaren wrote,

On each of the days of the Feast of Tabernacles, at a given point in the ceremonial, the priests went from the temple, winding down the rocky path on the temple mountain, to the Pool of Siloam in the valley below, and there in their golden vases they drew the cool sparkling water, which they bore up, and amidst the blare of trumpets and the clash of cymbals poured it on the altar, whilst the people chanted the words of my text, ‘With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.’

A large rocky finger emerges from the south side of the Jerusalem.  It’s known as the City of David, because it is the original walled city of the Jebusites that King David conquered and made his headquarters.  Three centuries later, when the city was threatened by the approaching Assyrian army, King Hezekiah had a tunnel dug to protect the water supply.  We had to climb down steps for what seemed like a couple of hundred feet to get to the spring that feeds Hezekiah’s tunnel.  It’s called Gihon Spring (“Virgin Spring”), and once you get there you can walk through Hezekiah’s tunnel for about a third of a mile.  It was dug through solid rock, and in most places it’s not much wider than your shoulders or taller than a man of medium height.

Hezekiah’s Tunnel empties the water from the Gihon Spring into the Pool of Siloam.   For almost two thousand years, nobody knew where that pool was originally located, and, in fact, mistook a small pool that Constantine’s mother Helena had constructed.  In 2004 the real Pool of Siloam was discovered at the bottom of the City of David, and we were just there!  This formed my visual for what McClaren said, that there was a daily procession during Sukkot from the Temple to the Pool of Siloam to get water, which was then brought up to the Temple (not through the tunnel but on top of the City of David) accompanied by singers and instrumentalists, where it was poured out on the altar along with prayers for rain.

But sometimes Christian preachers overdo parallels to Jewish ceremonies, in my view, so I wanted to find a Jewish source that validated what McClaren said.  I started Googling, and first found some references on Messianic Jewish sites – Jews who believe in Jesus – but I still thought, “Well, maybe Jews who believe in Jesus have tried too hard to fit Jesus into this text.”  So I pulled off my shelf The Jewish Book of Why (Alfred J. Kolatch), and there it was.  Apparently in contemporary practice, this water use is now limited to one day, but here is what my Jewish source says,

Sukkot, the last holiday in the religious calendar, was celebrated with unusual pomp and ceremony.

The Simchat Bet Hasho’ayva (the Celebration of Water Libation) was particularly special….Water was brought in a golden flask from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple.  The water was poured on the altar as a supplication for a rainy season.  The celebrants sang, danced, and carried torches as they marched in processions through the night.  The Talmud says, “He who has not witnessed the Celebration of the Libation of Water has never seen merriment in his life.”

This level of joyous celebration connected to Isaiah 12:3 and its image of water is such a strong visual.  But there’s more, and this might send chills up and down your spine.

In John 7, the Gospel records that Jesus went to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem.  He taught in the temple and amazed the crowds even as he came into conflict with the Pharisees.  Verse 37 records, “On the last and greatest day of the Feast (picture these times of greatest celebration and joy with loud music and huge crowds), Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If a man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”

I think I have my parallel to drawing water.  It is what you might call “devotions” or “Quiet Time.” It is the moments in your life you set aside for intimacy with the Lord Jesus, when you come to him, as he said, and drink from that living water.  The supply is endless and unseen.  It’s always there, but your refreshment requires your initiative.  The joy is sometimes greater than others. Others can share vicariously.  It’s all there.

This Christmas, don’t let the other tasks and priorities take away your joy.  Learn from Simchat Torah that joy – the kind of joy the world cannot take away – is yours as you seek the Living Water of the Lord Jesus through his written Word.  Amen.

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