Isaiah 61:1-4, Luke 1:46b-55
When do we know joy? At the birth of a child? Or in seeing a child succeed? In a relationship where love blossoms? Do we know joy when we are surrounded by beauty, when we hear music that stirs the heart and the soul? Does joy come when everything in life is good, when it seems that all the pieces in this chaotic world have suddenly found their place?
This is a season that speaks often of joy, more than at any other time of the year. “Joy to the world,” we sing. “How great our joy,” another carol declares. And, in response, we seek that joy in all the festivities that world offers. We take a break from the mundane — to gather, to play and party, to be joyful together. “Yes, we are believers in joy!”
But, sometimes that declaration is out of step with the world some know — and even with the world we inhabit. It is difficult to feel a sense of joy when one’s world has been shattered by life’s circumstances. How many people dread the season because it reminds them of the loss of a loved one? How many people struggle each day to capture some sense of joy when it seems that everything in life works against that joy?
An old carol has been in my mind this season. I know it was in some hymnals because I remember singing it church. It is a setting of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” (The language is dated. That, perhaps, is one reason it doesn’t find its way into modern hymnals.) It doesn’t speak specifically of joy, but it does capture the sentiment of the season. “I heard the bells on Christmas Day their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, goodwill to men.” It begins with the seasonal message we often glibly proclaim — hope, peace, joy and love! The power of this carol is in the verses that follow. “And in despair I bowed my head: ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth goodwill to men.’”
“For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth…”
The poem speaks of peace, but we could think just as easily about the way the world and life seem to mock our proclamations of joy. How can we speak of joy when so much is wrong — in the world around us and maybe in our own lives? “Hate is strong and mocks the song of joy to the world!”
Our two scripture passages for today are Biblical songs — a song from the third part of the book of Isaiah and Mary’s song. They are songs of gladness and joy. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” it says in Isaiah. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Mary sang. Her song echoes the song in Isaiah, proclaiming God’s deliverance and God’s justice.
How often do we live in the world of “If only”s. “If only I had a better job.” “If only I had a better house, or car.” “If only I weren’t sick or older.” We’re told over and over again that we don’t quite measure up to what the perfect life is. Maybe it’s marked by bank accounts, by appearances, by possessions, social status, or abilities. “If only…then I could be completely happy.”
We don’t escape that in the church. We’re accustomed to measuring ourselves over and against others — including other congregations. “If only we had more young people.” “If only we had a wealthier congregation.” “If only we had a fancier building, or a youth program, or a praise band.” Then, then we could know God’s joy.
Let’s remember when Mary sang her song. She didn’t wait until Jesus was born. The gospel tells us that she was in the sixth month of her pregnancy. We might be able to sympathize, a little, with the stigma associated with being pregnant out of wedlock. It hasn’t been that long in our society since single pregnant women were disdained, condemned, and, oftentimes, hidden away. When I was a teenager, my high school allowed a pregnant classmate to attend school. It created quite a stir. She was the first. Many parents were upset — she set a bad example!
We have to remember that during Jesus’ life, a woman caught in adultery was brought to him. Her accusers threatened to stone her. A pregnant unmarried woman had no safe place in that world. That intolerant culture remains in some areas in our modern world. We hear of the “honor” killings.
In many ways, nothing was right in Mary’s world. She was a powerless female. Without a husband, she had no security. She lived in a poor, occupied country. We might expect that she would sing, intone, recall and voice a lament. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But, Mary rejoiced. Mary burst forth in a song of praise — even when her world was in disarray. Longfellow’s poem continued, “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead: nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
“God is not dead, nor doth God sleep.” The joy the song proclaims is deeper than the circumstances of life. The joy is God centered, God based. The joy of the Christmas message is not that everything is alright —even for a few moments. Such an assertion denies the painful realities that imprison so many. The joy of this season rooted in the knowledge that God is present, incarnate, and intimately involved in the messiness of the world. Mary rejoiced because she knew God’s presence in the chaos of her life — a chaos that would continue. But the joy of God’s presence gave her the ability to say yes to what God intended to accomplish through her. This joy is bound with hope — the hope that God’s redeeming presence will ultimately defeat the “wrong” of which Longfellow wrote. The message of Easter is God’s great affirmation of that defeat, for even death is conquered, freeing us from great fear so that we may live as God’s joyful, joy-filled people.
Mary’s song celebrated her role in God’s good intent. She saw that God was with her and that her faithfulness would make a difference. Future generations would call her blessed.
Future generations would call her blessed. God invites us into that same joy — the joy of knowing that God is present even when everything seems to say the opposite. God is incarnate in this world, continuing the presence we proclaim in this holy season. We are to be people of joy, not the fleeting joy that is dependent upon the circumstances of life, but the joy that is rooted in the knowledge of God’s great love and faithfulness. Mary looked far forward. I wonder, do we do the same? Do we think about how God may be using us to be bearers of the good news to a future yet unknown? How are we involved in God’s work of righting wrongs?
Mary said yes to God’s plan. God’s work though her was a manifestation of the very promise she proclaimed. She was one of the lowly. God lifted her up to be the mother of the Christ. She was fed with the presence of God.
Sometimes it’s hard to see how we are connected to God’s work, a vital part of God’s redeeming presence. It is easy in a world that values wealth and size and glitz and glamour to count ourselves among the lowly. We may hunger for God’s affirmation of our value and worth. But God does not look at us the way the world looks at us. God does not judge us in the same way. God invites us into Mary’s joy — the joy of knowing that God is present, and active; God is not sleeping, not dead, not indifferent. We aren’t to be the “if only” people who wait for that perfect day or those perfect circumstances that will allow us to rejoice. We rejoice, instead, in the middle of the chaos — where and when it seems everything is falling apart. For we know that God is there, with those who suffer and with us. And, not only is God there, God invites us, as God invited Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, to participate in God’s presence, in mercy, and justice. God invites us. God invites us — to join continue the work of Christ, to be Christ’s presence in a broken world.
Joy. What if God’s people learned to live in that joy? Not just at Christmas, but all through the year! What if the world heard from us joy instead of judgment, grace instead of condemnation? What if the world saw in us not self-righteousness, but gladness? Would they not call us blessed? And would we, could we, then be a blessing?
Advent reminds us that we should not merely remember Mary’s song; we should make it our own.