Isaiah 60:1-6, Luke 1:39-56
December 6, 2015
Today’s story is a story of Joy. Joy is one of the themes of the Advent and Christmas season. (We lit the Advent candle of Joy today!) Sometimes you see “Joy” in Christmas decorations. Maybe you see “Joy to the World.” And sometimes you see it all by itself – just the word “JOY.”
We certainly see joy in the story of Mary and Elizabeth. In fact, we see joy in all three people mentioned in this story – Mary, Elizabeth, and even the baby within her! Mary came to the house of Elizabeth, and the baby – John the Baptist – leapt for joy within her! In telling that to Mary, Elizabeth expressed her own joy, joy that “the mother of the Lord had come to me!” Then, in response, we have these words of Mary herself, as she expressed the Joy she had that God had chosen her in this amazing way! “My soul magnifies the Lord…” she said. These words have come to be know as “The Magnificat.” And they’ve been set to music by many composers over the years!
So the message for today is Joy. And whenever I think of the word joy, I think of C. S. Lewis. Joy was a big word for him. And Lewis always said that the word “joy” contained within it the idea of “surprise.” In fact, he said the word we translate “joy” from the Greek literally means this expression I’ve used today, as the title of this message. “Joy” is “The Good Surprise.” If you’re a C. S. Lewis fan, you might remember the book he wrote, entitled “Surprised by Joy.” You might also remember that he married a woman named “Joy,” which was certainly part of the surprise, being the confirmed old bachelor that he was!
So I want you to think about that today. Joy is “The Good Surprise.” And ask yourself this. Do the things you find “joyful” sometimes take you by surprise? And what about this Advent season? Is that joyful for you? Is it ever “surprising?”
The Joy in this story certainly contained that surprise. Mary was told by the angel that she was going to have a baby. I don’t think we have a very good handle on how “surprising” – and maybe how “disturbing” – that was! Maybe in this case, we might be talking more along the lines of “The Good Shock,” rather than “The Good Surprise!” We can only begin to imagine the implications of this event in the lives of Mary, her extended family, and her community! Looking back, the people may have accepted it and thought it was great. But at the time, it would have been quite problematic! However, once it all became real to Mary, then there was joy – or so it seems from this story.
Joy was also part of the first announcement of the birth of the Messiah. I mentioned last week the words of the angel as he told the shepherds about this event. Maybe you can recall Linus speaking those words – as we’ve now come to the 50th anniversary of that wonderful Christmas story! “Behold I bring you good news of a great joy that shall be to all people.” And we have to realize that that angelic visitation – this announcement to mere shepherds, was also indicative of the “good surprise.”
Again, when we think of all the things in this story, we see them as “just part of the picture.” Don’t we? They’re all just part of the event we celebrate. But there were many “surprising” parts of all of this! Just the fact that the Good News was to be for “all people” was a great surprise! And of course, the idea that the messiah was now a newborn baby, was perhaps the biggest surprise of all!
As we think about all that, I hope we see that the way God breaks into our lives is also often a surprise. Sometimes “out of the blue” we see God in a whole new way. Sometimes when we least expect it, he draws us into closer relationship with him. When we think it not possible, he gives us peace that truly passes all understanding! I think this time of year has great potential for that! If we’ll just take the time to let it!
Sometimes we don’t take that time. Sometimes the surprise is not all that comfortable for us! Did you ever know of someone who hated surprises? I did! I knew a fellow who, if you ever threw a surprise party for, it would only make him mad! Sometimes people deal with the joy of God’s kingdom the same way. “Don’t surprise me!” “Don’t do anything unusual or unpredictable!” “I want to be in charge of how things come into my life, thank you very much!” “No surprises here, please!” Maybe that’s us at times. Maybe one of the biggest parts of the joy of this season is being open to it.
That’s not easy, though. I’m sorry to say that joy seems to be such a big contrast to the realities of our world. Sometimes joy is hard to come by, even in the Advent and Christmas season. There was more sadness in our world this week. There are more families mourning the loss of loved ones who were taken from them when they least expected it. How can we be joyful amid such sadness? That’s a real important question! Because this time of year is often one where it’s hard to find that joy. (Even when there aren’t tragedies!) Sometimes, like Charlie brown, we find ourselves leaning on that wall, saying to ourselves, “What’s wrong with me? Christmas is here. I know I’m supposed to be happy, but I’m not.”
We need to remember “The good surprise.” We need to remember that God is with us – Emmanuel! That’s too easy to forget! But if we remember, if we let him, he does bring joy into our lives even at the most desperate times! Otherwise, not only do we have sadness, but we also have depression. And I hope you see there’s a difference. Sadness is one thing, but we get depressed when we’ve lost the joy – when we’ve lost the hope.
We need to look for the joy. We need to ask for it. In his desperate plea for restoration, King David says, “Create in my a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the (what?) joy of my salvation.” (Psalm 51:10-12)
That’s what David knew he needed. He had let the circumstances – even those of his own making – rob his joy! He knew that’s what he needed to get back. And I wonder… do we? Do we know the joy of our salvation? Do we know the joy of this season? Do we pause long enough to see it? Do we allow ourselves to be open to that “Good Surprise?”
It is my prayer that we may all find the joy this Advent and Christmas season! May we indeed know the “Good Surprise” of God!
Eternal God, help us to know the touch of your Holy Spirit. Speak to us your message of Joy, no matter what the circumstances of our lives. Help us to see beyond the sorrow, the joy of your kingdom. And help us to show that to others, too. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.