Isaiah 60:1-6, Luke 1:39-56
December 15, 2013
The Advent theme for today is “Joy.” And like I’ve said about our other themes, “Joy” is a word that you sometimes see as a Christmas decoration all by itself. Have you seen that this year?
Well, I think Joy is a big part of the Christmas story. In the story of the shepherds, which we read last week, (and we’ll certainly read again before the season is over!) the angel said, “Behold I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all people.”
I often wonder what that looked like to the people involved. Certainly they were looking for savior, a deliverer, a Messiah. And they had been waiting for that person for over 400 years. To think that day may have finally come would be a great joy. So, as we follow that story, we find that the shepherds “went with haste” and found the holy family. They ran. And they rejoiced!
But what about that family? They’re the ones I think about the most when it comes to the unbelievable nature of these events. Angels came and told them what was happening – both of them. Mary was told she was “with child” through the Holy Spirit. We can only imagine how awkward that had to be! (Or maybe we can’t!) We think of that as a miracle. We see it as a wonderful part of this beautiful story. But I doubt it was the same for them. In Matthew’s gospel we read of Joseph’s original intention to divorce Mary, “quietly.” We don’t have any of the dialogue between them. But he must have known about her condition. Did she tell him? Or was it just obvious? But we can just imagine.
In Mary’s case, she knew. She was told. She might not have understood it. But she knew. And somehow I think she believed. She was the first to have been visited by an angel. So somehow she believed, or she was coming to believe, that the child within her was miraculous. But it’s hard to imagine her being completely accepting of this hugely unusual thing that was happening to her.
The acceptance seems to have come to her, though. Whether it came immediately, or over time, she came to know that this was truly a miraculous thing! It was a “God thing!” So, at the start of our passage, it says, “In those days, Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country… to the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth.” There seems to have been a lot of people “going with haste” in those days! (They were running around all over the place!)
When Mary got there, the Joy of what we celebrate this season became most apparent. We’re told that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, the baby inside her “jumped for joy!” While you’re thinking about that, fast forward some thirty years, and think of John and Jesus beginning their respective public ministries. Did John really know – for three decades – about the importance of this man who was his cousin? It’s hard to say. He seems to have had some doubts. Yes, at one point he said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…” But then later he sent word to Jesus saying, “Are you he who is to come or shall we look for another?”
Who knew? And what did they know? And more importantly, what did they believe? Those are all interesting questions. But for our time here today, I’d like us to consider this story from Luke which encapsulates the Joy that is apparent in this story – no matter what level of understanding there may have been.
The words of Mary, recorded here by Saint Luke, have ever since been known as “The Magnificat.” That title comes from the first word she spoke. “My soul magnifies the Lord…” (Latin speaking people tended to give names to such things by their first words.) And since then, this passage has been seen as a joyous, uplifting, inspiring song of praise and joy. And every time I read it, it’s been amazing to me that Mary had seemingly gotten over the disbelief and shock and concern over what had happened to her. She had “given in” to the joy of this most unexpected event. And in some ways, that’s as much a part of the miracle as the incarnation itself!
Joy is like that! The word “Joy” contains within it a sense of “the unexpected.” It has within it the sense of “surprise.” I can never think of the word “joy” without thinking of C. S. Lewis. He was one of the most articulate, logical, deep thinkers of our age! And Lewis had, as one of his favorite and most used words, the word “Joy.” For him it meant more than just “happiness.” For him the “element of surprise” was a very important part of that word. Joy was not just “happiness.” It was “unexpected happiness.”
That’s what the world experienced so long ago. Of all the ways the Messiah could have come into this world, who would have imagined him being the unexpected son of a peasant girl, probably a young to mid-teen peasant girl, probably a peasant girl from the lowest caste of society, a girl who had not conceived in the “usual way.” But to her the visitation of angels came. To the shepherds in the fields, the angelic host appeared – not to kings or priests or rabbis. In fact, not even to the religious leaders of Israel did the signs come, but rather to the religious leaders of “pagan” cultures to the east. Does anybody want to argue against this all coming as a huge surprise?
Could Mary have gone into hiding instead? Could she have been ashamed of what happened to her and the stigma it would cause – despite what the heavenly messenger told her? Yes! Think about it. If an angel came and talked to you, how willing would you be to tell even your friends, much less if the angel told you of something this miraculous/shocking!
Well, that’s the Christmas story! As much as we’d rather not think about it, it’s not the nice neat story we always expect it to be. It’s not the sweet “birthday story” the way we often portray it this time of year. Instead, this is a monumental story of God stepping into history. It contains elements that make us uncomfortable, and maybe even horrified. (Unless we choose to ignore the part about the rage and violence of King Herod’s as told by Matthew!)
This is the story. But, even in the midst of the oppression of Rome, the jealousy of regional monarchs, the poverty and social disadvantage of this peasant family, there is here a huge element of surprise! The love of God for his people shines through all that – like a light in the darkness. And the good news is that the same thing happens for us! Always! The joy we have in God’s kingdom is the joy we have in this celebration. And it is the joy that contains the unexpected. It is the joy that contains the surprise!
The baby inside Elizabeth jumped for joy! With the magnitude of this event, maybe that shouldn’t surprise us? Mary broke forth into this psalm of praise and joy. It’s hard to imagine she would, knowing what she faced at that moment. But she did. And it is glorious! It is a testament to the unlikelihood of all of this!
What about us? Do we see the surprise in the joy of this season? (Maybe we should have a “surprise candle!”) Do we see the magnitude of this story and it’s implications – for this peasant family, for the world, and for all of history? I hope we will this Advent season. The world “anticipated” – it long awaited this event. But it had no idea any of it would happen in quite this way. We’re used to it, and so for us it has lost much of it’s unexpected nature. But not for them!
It is my prayer that we get that back this season. It is my hope that we will see the amazing joy we have in being part of this event. And may we see that such joy is not contingent on having “happy circumstances” in our lives. There were hardly such happy circumstances in the lives of these people that first Christmas. But the joy remained. And it is my hope that it does for us, too.
Eternal God, your love for us is amazing, and it is beyond our comprehension. May the joy of this season, and the unexpected nature of this story become ever real to us. May we know that joy in our lives, too – this season and always. For we pray in our Savior’s name, Amen