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Joy, Advent: Luke 1:46-55
Good morning, church. Please go with me back to what we just read in the book of Luke, chapter 1. I’m so excited, and have the unbelievable privilege of speaking to you this morning on joy.
My first comment is that if you need a hermeneutic of scripture, and I know that’s not a word people use, but complicated words are a joy for me! If you need a lens through which to read the Bible, to try to understand what’s happening in it, I would paraphrase G. K. Chesterton and tell you if there is one thing lying in and behind almost every word of scripture, the reason and emotion behind God’s actions in the world, one thing that God hides from us because it would overwhelm us, because we have to be changed before we can fully receive it, that one thing is joy.
You would make a terrible theological error to believe joy is a product of what God is doing in the world, or a feeling created whenever he or you does something truly good. If you think that, you would probably start chasing or trying to buy joy, which of course you would never find, because it’s not in the world to be found. Joy is behind the world, like an author is behind a book. Joy is not a product of what God is doing, joy is the reason God is doing what he is doing, and every time you glory in him, you participate in his joy. He created you because he delights in you, he upholds the world out of the joy of his creation, he entered into humanity because he delights in humanity. He even died in joy, if you can bear the mystery of the Trinity, as “the Father was pleased to crush the son.”
To be clear, I’m not talking about pleasure. Joy and pleasure are not the same thing—not that pleasure is a bad thing, pleasure is a very good thing within the bounds God created for them, just as he bounds rivers with banks to keep them from washing away our homes. So pleasure is a good thing, it just has very little to do with joy. When I was a child and thought like a child I thought that church was mostly about the denial of pleasure. Leaving behind drink and good food and sex and rest to serve the people around me. I thought if I denied myself pleasure in this world, I would receive joy in it’s place, but as I grew I learned, again, what I just told you, that joy is not something to be gained, but joined, and joy and pleasure aren’t the same. They’re not even correlated.
You don’t trade pleasure for joy. You are free to eat and drink good things and enjoy them; to care for yourself and seek rest. To “be satisfied in the wife of your youth,” and to praise God for all of his good gifts, just don’t fool yourself in thinking that in enjoying pleasure you’ve found joy. Joy may cause you to exult in pleasure, but sometimes joy is entirely unpleasant.
The birth of a child. Caring for the person who once cared for you. Going to work day after day and coming home to your child who knows nothing of what you do, who knows only stability. Growing old. None of that is very pleasant, but it is filled to the brim with joy. Sometimes joy is something we haven’t even dreamt of. Sometimes God does things we couldn’t conceive, didn’t believe it really existed, until one day we open our eyes to a world, forever changed. The joy of salvation was like that for me; it felt like coming out from a cave into a world I never knew could be bright and warm.
Our passage this morning has to do with Mary, the mother of Jesus and her joy at the first advent of Christ in the world, what is traditionally called the magnificat. Read with me again, Luke 1, and I want to start in v.39 just to get a little of the context.  This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
My first point from the passage this morning is, Christ turns shame into joy. Christ turns shame into joy. Shame, meaning, the weight we bear of other people’s opinions, estimations of us. That pit you get in your stomach when you know someone thinks poorly of you. If you are here and bearing shame with you, I want you to know that Jesus is turning that shame into joy.
One thing about this passage always makes me chuckle a bit. It just reads to me, the way Luke wrote it, a bit like a cheesy musical. You know, Mary arrives, she and Elizabeth greet each other, everyone’s excited, and you hear the music kick up in the background, and Mary bursts into song like a Biblical rendition of Oklahoma. But thinking through it this week, the magnificat coming out as it does, as Mary is greeting Elizabeth is one of the most beautiful parts of the advent story. I want to invite you into my awe at our God and his word today.
I know we’ve talked about this before, but I want you to remember Mary’s shame in the incarnation. She is a young woman in a small town, betrothed to a man, meaning they were already married, but unconsummated, living separately, which was common practice at the time, and Mary gets pregnant. She’s telling her parents, her husband, about an angel visiting her. Her husband doesn’t believe her—the text tells us that, and he decides to divorce her. He could have had her stoned, by law.
And the text says she went “with haste” in v.39 to her cousin’s house, out of town, and then stayed there for months as her husband is divorcing her, and she never goes back to her parents’ house. All of that tells me her parents and the town didn’t believe her either. It seems like she was put out of her home. But in all of this rejection, her name speaks both an irony and a simple truth: it means beloved.
Can you imagine that experience? The weight of that? I can’t tell you the amount of shame and bitterness I would carry from that experience if it were me. And then Mary probably walks to her cousin’s house, not knowing at all how she is going to be received. It was about a ten-day journey, Mary, by herself, on foot (90 miles). Can you imagine how much change comes over the whole situation when Elizabeth greets her with the same words the angel speaks: “blessed are you among women,” and she blesses even the child?
And Mary, in her joy, shares with Elizabeth this poem she had written. This is what floored me: realizing that if Mary left her house in haste, and recites this poem, this prayer, when she first greets Elizabeth, she must have written it in her head on the way, before she knew how she would be received. This was her prayer as she was walking, in the midst of shame, before any kind of blessing—“my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God.” Mary’s joy here is incredible, defiant in the face of her circumstances.
That’s the kind of joy we need, because maybe our shame and pain are less acute than hers—or maybe not—but either way, it’s there and it’s unbearable. She’s rejoicing in the Lord in the midst of shame, relational break, and hardship. In the midst of divorce, and the loss of her living situation, her soul magnifies the Lord. That’s the kind of joy Christ brings in his advent to our lives, in which we can participate as we find our place in his work in the world.
And this is part of what I was trying to say earlier. Joy isn’t a product of anything we do, but rather is central to the person and work of God in the world, it never goes away or dims. We can take our eyes off of it, certainly, and like Peter on the waters, when we do look away, we start drowning in the overwhelm of whatever situation we’re in. But if your eyes are on God and his work in the world, there’s only cause for joy.
There’s always two stories happening in the world—there’s the one humanity is writing through our actions in the world, our history, and there is the story God is writing through his actions in the world. Eventually God’s story will incorporate our own, and his joy will be all in all. But until that day, as Christ came to Mary, so he comes to us day by day. In the midst of our struggles and pains. As an interruption to what we had planned for our lives, but a blessed interruption.
V.48 is so full, she mentions her circumstances, what she calls her humble estate, but she consoles herself with what God is doing. Maybe the current generation has rejected me, she says, but every generation after this one will call me blessed because of this child. She knew: this is what Christ does when he comes, wherever he comes to us. He turns shame and pain into joy by changing the unfolding of our and everyone else’s mistakes.
Secondly this: joy is wild. Joy is wild. What I mean by that is that joy is uncontrollable and natural, untamable and unpredictable. It’s wild. Joy is wild because God is wild, and experiencing joy is participating in his wilderness.
In our passage, we are seeing the wildness of God’s joy breaking through into our world. The world seems to have struggled to contain the immensity of God’s joy at the dawning of his new creation. The angels sang loud enough that the sky rent apart around them; even the stars changed their course.
We’re taking the kids camping on the way to Christmas this year. This will be their first trip—well, for AJ, the first trip he will remember. When he first came to us, we were leaving town to meet some friends in Colorado, so surprise, friends! That trip turned into brand new parents taking their special needs two-year-old camping. But next week, we’re already driving to Memphis, so we’ll find some beautiful wilderness in between here and there and stop along the way.
Joy is what’s driving me into the wilderness. There’s something about wild things and places which minister to our souls. Like Whitman “sounding his barbaric yawp above the rooftops.” Joy is wild. In the wild there are nights spent in conversation because there is nothing to turn on to distract you, and there are no phone calls because you left cell range two days ago, and there is God in and through everything you touch thrumming the incredible joy of having handmade every leaf and tree, and showing them to you and saying, “What do you think?”
Joy is wild. In our passage, I can’t stress to you how out of control Mary is in this situation. I wonder what she had planned for the day of the annunciation, when the angel did not ask, but rather announced to her that she would bear God in her womb? Certainly not this. We know more about her plans for the weeks and months she spent actually carrying Jesus, because we know she was betrothed to be married. So, normally, she would be spending a lot of time with her mom weaving a wedding dress, talking through sex and childbearing and what it would mean to be married. Planning their new life together.
Instead, we see in v.39 she “went with haste” to go see her cousin—this changes her whole life, upends it, really. I know at Christmas we are usually exulting in God’s plan of salvation, marveling at how he works and loves so steadfastly throughout the course of history, and works so steadily in and through all things to accomplish his purpose, but since we are looking at the magnificat this morning, think of Mary’s experience of this incarnation—it was chaos.
It was uncontrollable and wild. And it was unbelievably natural for her. I mentioned to you a few weeks ago that one of our Advent traditions in our family is to read through a book of poetry related to the advent. One of the many startling beauties of the book we read is some of the poems are written by mothers. Every year, their poems embarrass and teach me as they bring their own experience with pregnancy and infancy into their understanding of Christ’s own. Because for them, and for Mary, the incarnation is not the abstract theological idea it is for me. And this is important, because Christ was not born in the abstract, so to understand the incarnation that way is to misunderstand the incarnation. God’s joy is wild.
How incredibly natural the incarnation was for Mary. When God became flesh he became her flesh, and grew in her, and sat in her lap, and nursed at her breast. It’s hard for me to imagine. It’s easier for me to think about the broad theological significance of God become man, my systematics like pillars of a tower, and to me God speaks a word that his joy is wild. It will not fit neatly or happily into my structure. His joy was a birth, and groaning, in a stable, with startled animals and scared, young, parents, and blood, and tears. I’ve never seen an honest nativity—nor do I want to. The truth of the incarnation is so wild as to be obscene. That was God’s cosmic plan to save all of humanity.
So Christ turns shame into wild joy, and lastly this: Joy turns the world upside down. Vs. 52-53, Mary sings, “God has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” That’s the world upside down, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Those verses of the mighty being brought down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty made me think of shower Friday, our outreach on Fridays to people experiencing homelessness. I’ve literally seen both of these things happen, and it was beautiful to see. The guy who cuts hair is a federal judge. He sits on a throne on a platform above everyone else. He is mighty and exalted, and if you ask him why he comes here every week to cut hair and pray for people experiencing homelessness, he would tell you God brought him here. God has literally brought him down from his throne, filled with joy, to serve those of humble estate.
And I thought of another lady who comes almost every week who is rich. I’ve seen her, several times, walk away hungry without having eaten, if we were in danger of running out, because she wants to save it for those who are hungry. She is rich, and the Lord sent her away empty, filled with joy. In the world, they are high and exalted, but in the kingdom of God they are servants of the lowly and eat last. And everyone involved is filled with joy in the midst of it, because they are participating in the joy of an upside-down kingdom.
We worship a king who also left his throne with joy to be among the lowly. We talked about Mary and her humble estate in this passage, and we talked about giving birth in a stable, but as I heard another pastor recently remark, considering what he left, would a palace really be much better than a stable? He left heaven and came to earth—do you really think associating with kings and emperors rather than Mary would really have been much more appropriate? If you throw a bucket of water in the ocean you don’t raise the seas.
Jesus made sure everyone got enough to eat more than once, even when he and his friends didn’t really have enough themselves. He emptied himself to teach us how.
This is my last sermon this year, God willing. We have others in the church preaching the next two weeks. So until next year, I would invite you into joy. When Elizabeth greets Mary, she says, “Blessed is the one who has faith that there will be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And the word translated there as blessed means joyful, thriving. I would invite you to believe there will be a fulfillment of everything the Lord has spoken to us this year. All of his promises of peace and joy will be fulfilled. We watch and wait and labor and pray. Pray with me now.