Joy, Hard Won (begins at 27:28)

December 15, 2019

Series: December 2019

Category: Advent - Joy

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Luke 1:47-55

     “My soul magnifies the Lord, 

47       and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 

48  for the LORD has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. 

          Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 

49  for the Mighty One has done great things for me, 

          and holy is this One’s name. 

50  The LORD’s mercy is for those who fear the LORD

          from generation to generation. 

51  The LORD has shown strength with the LORD’s arm; 

          The LORD has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 

52  The LORD has brought down the powerful from their thrones, 

          and lifted up the lowly; 

53  The LORD has filled the hungry with good things, 

          and sent the rich away empty. 

54  The LORD has helped God’s servant Israel, 

          in remembrance of their mercy, 

55  according to the promise the LORD made to our ancestors, 

          to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”


 Joy, Hard Won

          This week the staff were sharing some of their favorite holiday traditions and somehow we got into a conversation about who among us secretly, or not so secretly, enjoys the kitschy side of Christmas.  Resentment over the materialism aside, some of us associate secular Christmas music and traditions with childhood joy, recognizing it gets us in the spirit of the season.  One among us—and I’ll allow him to remain nameless so as not to embarrass his wife or his twin—says he has been listening to 96.5, which plays nothing but put popular Christmas music in the car, in the home, everywhere almost nonstop.  Why not, if it feels joyful?  I know in the church we are supposed to hold back the tide of secular Christmas, but there are bigger concerns.  I remarked to someone last week that one of the reasons I appreciate this congregation is that it’s a congregation that likes to be happy; you like to laugh.  I think of you as a joyful people and this is supposed to be a joyful season; why cut out any source of that joy. 

          We also reflected in our staff conversation, just how many of you shared burdens you were carrying this season during our time of joys and concerns.  I am so glad those of you who spoke up did so because that’s a part of this time of year as well.  Losses in our lives show up with a particular sharpness in times such as these.  Absences are more glaring.  We have, at times in the past, held a longest night service, devoted to making space for the grieving, and I’m feeling a little regret we didn’t do so this year. 

          Today we light the candle of joy knowing that for some it is an affirmation of how life is going and for others it is an aspiration of how they hope life will become.  The Scriptures for this time of year often offer a grand vision of a coming world emerging out of difficult times into a joyous new reality.  Listen to the poetry of Isaiah:

1   The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, 

          the desert shall rejoice and blossom; 

     like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, 

          and rejoice with joy and singing. 

     The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, 

          the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. 

     They shall see the glory of the LORD, 

          the majesty of our God.

3   Strengthen the weak hands, 

          and make firm the feeble knees. 

4   Say to those who are of a fearful heart, 

          “Be strong, do not fear! 

     Here is your God. (35:1-4a)

It goes on…

 5   …the eyes of the blind shall be opened, 

          and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 

6   then the lame shall leap like a deer, 

          and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. 

     For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, 

          and streams in the desert; 

7   the burning sand shall become a pool, 

          and the thirsty ground springs of water; (vs. 5-7)

 Living here, we get a taste of what it’s like to bring that dry season to an end.

          Then there are the words of Mary, referred to here as a song, though it never says she sung it:

      My soul magnifies the Lord, 

47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 

48  for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 

          Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 

49  for the Mighty One has done great things for me, 

          and holy is this one’s name (Luke 1:46b-49).

Mary offers these words after sharing the news of her pregnancy with Elizabeth.  Of course she was joyful…Wait a minute.  The circumstances of this birth were unusual to say the least, and if you consider Matthew’s rendering of the pregnancy, this was scandalous.  There would be plenty of emotions that might well have competed for Mary’s heart.  How about fear?  How about a sense of “Why me?”  How about anxiety about what this means for her life, much less his?  We are never to admit aloud an unwanted pregnancy, and while it’s hard for a mother not to love her child, to think that every pregnancy is…well, there’s how we’re supposed to react, how we’re supposed to feel, and then countless layers beneath that might reveal other fossils of our feelings as well. 

But Mary sings!  She has joy.  Didn’t you hear her words??  Yes, and where do her words come from?  One of the reasons we call it the “Song of Mary,” is because most think hers is a song modeled after the “Song of Hannah” from 1 Samuel 2.  Hannah has prayed for a child.  She has wept in the temple to God, and so when she conceives, she breaks out in song:

              ‘My heart exults in the Lord; (do you hear the similarity?)

          my strength is exalted in my God.

          My mouth derides my enemies,

              Because I rejoice in my victory.

           Maybe Mary’s was unbridled joy, bolstered by full confidence in the angels, moved without hesitation to overflowing and overwhelming gratitude.  Maybe it came easily, and maybe Mary was doing what women, and men, have long done, looked to others who have gone before to take their cues about how one is supposed to react.  Maybe she turns to Hannah’s words because she knows because she can’t quite come up with her own yet.  This is not an indictment.  Part of what liturgy does is say the words for you that you may not, on any given day, be able to say.  Maybe Mary’s joy didn’t come easily.  Maybe hers is a joy, hard won. 

          Therein lies a lesson to us, for even the most joyful among us, sometimes joy comes with struggle, only in time, and after work.  Sometimes joy feels like an old and constant companion.  Sometimes it feels like a long lost friend that one never really had.  No state, from one pole to the other, warrants an apology.  There’s no shame in being joyful while others have cause for sadness, and there’s no shame in grief or depression or despair, and I know those aren’t all the same.  Where you are is where you are, and maybe that’s precisely where Mary is waiting for you (I know this is a Protestant church) to show you a way to cultivate your joy.

          Ross Gay is a gardner.  He’s also the author of The Book of Delights.  An English professor at Indiana University, Gay was on On Being with Krista Tippett a radio show and podcast talking about joy.  Tippett asked him how he can be joyful and he responded, how could he not be joyful.  I found that a terribly unhelpful answer.  I, for one, can think of many reasons not to be joyful.  There are serious things wrong right now and the future is at stake.  And, I’m just referring to the Warriors’ defensive issues. 

          We joke because the serious stuff is sometimes too hard to mention.

          I read the transcript of Tippett’s entire interview with Gay and I didn’t find much of what he said to be all that helpful; it’s what he did.  In writing The Book of Delights, Gay undertook to write a mini-essay every day from his 42nd - 43rd birthdays (which may have resonated because my last day of being 43 is this week), and he wrote one almost every day of that year.  Tippett notes that the French word for “essay” means “to try,” and I guess that was the point for me.[1]  Part of what enables Gay to experience joy is he developed a practice of learning to notice things that brought him delight, day after day, not allowing those moments to fly by without taking note of them.  Over time, my assumption is they become easier to spot and easier to experience.  It’s like with babies, “sleep begets sleep,” do you know that phrase?  Well, perhaps joy begets joy.

          The poet Anne Porter wrote a poem called “A list of Praises” that reads

Give praise with psalms that tell the trees to sing,

Give praise with Gospel choirs in storefront churches,

Mad with the joy of the Sabbath,

Give praise with the babble of infants, who wake with the sun,

Give praise with children chanting their skip-rope rhymes,

A poetry not in books, a vagrant mischievous poetry

living wild on the Streets through generations of children.

 Give praise with the sound of the milk-train far away

With its mutter of wheels and long-drawn-out sweet whistle

As it speeds through the fields of sleep at three in the morning,

Give praise with the immense and peaceful sigh

Of the wind in the pinewoods,

At night give praise with starry silences.

 Give praise with the skirling of seagulls

And the rattle and flap of sails

And gongs of buoys rocked by the sea-swell

Out in the shipping-lanes beyond the harbor.

Give praise with the humpback whales,

Huge in the ocean they sing to one another.

Give praise with the rasp and sizzle of crickets, katydids and cicadas,

Give praise with hum of bees,

Give praise with the little peepers who live near water.

When they fill the marsh with a shimmer of bell-like cries

We know that the winter is over.

 Give praise with mockingbirds, day’s nightingales.

Hour by hour they sing in the crepe myrtle

And glossy tulip trees

On quiet side streets in southern towns.

Give praise with the rippling speech

Of the eider-duck and her ducklings

As they paddle their way downstream

In the red-gold morning

On Restiguche, their cold river,

Salmon river,

Wilderness river.

 Give praise with the whitethroat sparrow.

Far, far from the cities,

Far even from the towns,

With piercing innocence

He sings in the spruce-tree tops,

Always four notes

And four notes only.

 Give praise with water,

With storms of rain and thunder

And the small rains that sparkle as they dry,

And the faint floating ocean roar

That fills the seaside villages,

And the clear brooks that travel down the mountains

 And with this poem, a leaf on the vast flood,

And with the angels in that other country.[2]

           I know that’s a long poem.  That’s the point.  We who have to practice speaking joy because it doesn’t always come easy, and it doesn’t come until you name the other feelings too, first.  Someone once noted about the lectionary, the prescribed Scripture readings for this time of year, that in Advent the readings move from wrath to gentleness, God’s anger at the way things are to God showing up with a different spirit about him (or her).  You still heard some wrath in today’s reading, but it’s working itself out.  And there it is, again, a model. 

          We’re not going to sing “Jingle Bells” in here, but you can turn on 96.5 as soon as you get in your car, and you can count your delights every day, and if you can’t, you can rest in the words given to you by Mary the mother of Jesus, given her by Hannah the mother of Samuel.  You can have the time you need, and the company, to get to joy.  Amen.