“A Story of Joy”
Sunday, December 16, 2018, Second Sunday of Advent
Rev. Natalie Webb, Associate Pastor of Spiritual Formation and Outreach
I want to start by inviting you to remember a moment when you experienced deep joy. Maybe it was looking down at your child as she slept, or watching him walk across the stage at graduation. Maybe it was finally being recognized and appreciated at work, getting that promotion. Maybe you felt it in a deep belly laugh with those friends who just get you. Or maybe it was something as simple as singing in the shower on a day when the high was above 40 degrees (I might be speaking from experience on some of these…) Zoom in on a memory, or two, or three when you felt joy.
Now, how many of you, when experiencing moments of joy like these, almost immediately feel the need to knock on wood, to tone down your happiness? For example, you’re basking in the glow of your newborn child whose existence has expanded your heart in ways you could not anticipate when suddenly you find yourself paralyzed by the fear that something bad could happen to him at any moment. Your impulse is to celebrate the long-overdue promotion, but something inside you holds back, expecting the other shoe to drop at any moment. As you belly laugh with your friends, you stop to lament the fact that your lives are all going in different directions – this can’t last forever. You’re enjoying being outside in Massachusetts without a jacket for the first time everwhen visions of the impending icy roads, single digit temperatures, and cars sliding into snowbanks suddenly invade your mental space (okay, I’m definitelyspeaking from experience here).
Sociologist and professor, BrenéBrown, says that 90% of us, when we begin to feel joy, quickly start to prepare for pain and disappointment. We won’t allow ourselves to be too happy, because “What if something bad happens?” We resist joy. This, she says, is because joy is the most vulnerable, the most terrifyingemotion we feel. Joy reminds us that we have something to lose – something at stake. We are afraid to feel joy, so instead, we trivialize it. We relegate it to throw pillows and motivational posters and that thing we talk about once a year during Advent when we light the cute pink candle. It’s easy to think of joy as a head-in-the-sand, happy-go-lucky, naïve denial of reality. And honestly, what place does joy have in a world like ours? Joy is for suckers, right?
Our sermon text for today drops us in the hill country of Judea somewhere around the year 4 BCE. At this point in history, Judea was a Roman province led by a cruel, narcissistic, self-aggrandizing ruler, Herod the Great. The world was marked by violence, exploitation, nepotism, and all manner of religious/economic/ethnic oppression. (Sound familiar to anyone?)
Mary is unmarried, pregnant, and at the mercy of the male authorities that surround her. She’s been visited by an angel of God, but who is gonna believe that? It wil take divine intervention a little later on to convince just one man of her story (#believewomen). The world looks at Mary and sees shame. While Mary is pregnant too early, her relative, Elizabeth, is pregnant too late. She’s been childless her whole life. She has experienced a lifetime of the shame and judgment of not being able to perform what her culture considered to be her womanly duty, her reason for existing. The world looks at Elizabeth and sees defection. At this point, her pregnancy is almost comical. Mary and Elizabeth are not unfamiliar with pain and disappointment. These women are not naïve. And yet… this scene, their meeting, is bursting at the seams with joy.
Before Mary ran away to Elizabeth’s, she was alone. Unbelieved, unbelievable, confused, probably questioning her own grip on reality. Elizabeth was also isolated – in seclusion for months, with a husband who’d been struck mute. These women were alone in their fear, secrecy, shame… But when they come together, when they see each other and are seenby each other, joy erupts. Even in the midst of their pain and uncertainty, in the midst of the mess of a world that surrounds them, Mary and Elizabeth embody joy.
But this is not the joy of a giddy baby-shower. This is not the momentary happiness that comes with opening a Christmas present or tasting a freshly baked cookie. (Don’t get me wrong, those things are wonderful – and oatmeal chocolate-chip is my favorite, if anyone is wondering…) The joy we see at this meeting is something different. It’s powerful, it’s transformative, it’s rebellious. Elizabeth knows what she knows about Mary, and instead of turning her away from her door (something her culture would have expected her to do), instead of quietly ushering her in and worrying about what the neighbors will think, Elizabeth starts yelling, rejoicing, singing blessings and praise over her. Elizabeth welcomes Mary unhesitatingly. She believes her incredible story before Mary even has the chance to tell it. She looks at Mary and calls her blessed.
And you know what? Mary starts to believe it. Elizabeth’s Spirit-inspired and prophetic welcome is what paves the way for Mary’s own prophetic voice to blossom into song. John the Baptist usually gets the credit for “preparing the way of the Lord,” but he got it from his mama, y’all. Because of Elizabeth’s welcome, Mary is able to sing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, because he has seen my shameful predicament and looked at me with favor.” Mary sings of a God who lifts up not just her, but all the oppressed, ashamed, poor and lowly people of the world; a God who fills the hungry with good things, who helps and remembers his people. She sings of a God who scatters the proud, brings kings down from their thrones, and sends the rich away hungry.
This is not a sweet praise song or lullaby. Liberation theologian, Justo Gonzales calls Mary’s song “a hard-hitting proclamation of a God who overturns the common order of society.” It sounds a lot like the things Jesus will be saying later in Luke’s gospel:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled…
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry….
As it turns out, Jesus got it from his mama, too! For Mary, and later for Jesus, joy has nothing to do with a denial of reality or a head-in-the-sand optimism. Joy is the thing that empowers us to confront reality, to speak prophetically against systems of sin and oppression, to declare a new reality.
Cynicism is easy. Fear and shame – a piece of cake. But joy? Now that’s hard. We need each other for joy. That’s why we come to church! The stuff we proclaim here is too hard to believe alone. But together, we can lean into our collective joy despite the painful realities of our world, of our lives. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we can empower each other, we can call out the prophet in each other, we can look at each other’s shame and see blessing, grace, God’s own favor. Embracing joy in this way is a revolutionary act.
Where in the world did Elizabeth and Mary learn how to do this? These prophetic women were God-inspired and God-taught. They were devoted to a God whose joy springs forth in the most unexpected, most hopeless places. The text Lyn read from Zephaniah earlier in the service is a perfect example. After two and a half chapters of judgment and grieving over the sins of the world and of God’s own people, at a time when there is absolutely no reason for optimism, God inexplicably breaks into song. “I will save the lame, I will gather the outcast, I will change their shame into praise,” God sings, “and I will deal with their oppressors.” God’s joyful song is embodied in the lives of Mary and Elizabeth, whose shame is turned upside down. Who we remember as heroines of our faith, and who pass that joy on, daring us to join them.
In both of our texts today, the world is a mess, the people of God have failed, but God’s holy and rebellious joy somehow stillbreaks in. This is the good news of Advent: that we do not serve a God who is far away and unmoved. We worship a God who draws near, who is with us, who rejoices over us with loud singing, who lifts up the lowly. We worship a God who despite all the brokenness of the world, and the brokenness of our own lives, looks at us and calls us blessed.
This Advent, I want to invite you, when you catch yourself resisting joy, preparing for the worst, to lean into that joy instead – to bask in it, to share it, to spread it around indiscriminately. Be brave enough to join Elizabeth and Mary and John and Jesus and God herself in joy as a revolutionary act. To believe that despite what we see when we look around the world, the infinite God who becomes human can remake humanity.
Beloveds – May we lean into joy. May we sing out loud and with abandon the good news of a God who draws near. May the joy of Advent make rebels and prophets of us all. Amen.