A Greater Joy
a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens based on the theme: Something More for Christmas
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
December 13, 2020
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
This Advent season I wanted to think about the theme, “Something More for Christmas.” I was thinking that as children maybe all of us had that feeling at least once at Christmas – you know – “I wish I had gotten something more than I got,” more presents, better presents. As an adult I know I have sometimes felt like, “Gee I wish there was something more I could give to those I love,” or “Gee Christmas just seemed kind of ‘Blah’ this year, isn’t there something more than this?” And this was long before 2020 and all its um, “joys.”
I also wanted to ask this question in the context of the four “themes” of Advent. Christians have somewhat arbitrarily decided that each Sunday in Advent would have a different “theme.” Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. This is the Joy Sunday. Why? So glad you asked! One rather long winded writer explained it this way:
We don’t do this for “aesthetics” we’re not trying to add an “accent” candle. No, that third candle is pink so we refer to the Third Sunday of Advent as Gaudete (pronounced gow-day-tay) Sunday because the introit for the mass in Latin begins ‘Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete’ meaning ‘Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say rejoice.’ Timothy Schenck, “What’s up with the pink candle in the Advent wreath?” enterprisenews.com, Nov 30, 2015.
Enough said? [ He asks, knowing clearly that it doesn’t explain the pink whatsoever ]. Can you feel the joy now? No? Underwhelmed? Well, that’s my point, I think. Joy isn’t something easily explained, or even easy to illustrate. And what’s the great joy about a baby being born? Happens all the time. Nothing special about a baby being born. Ho-hum. Right? Well, then how do we explain the not-so-ho-hum stuff about this baby Jesus being born? Why is that such a big joy? I’m not sure I have a great answer. But I like the way Catholic priests get to answer these kinds of questions.
I knew a guy a long time ago, who was a Catholic priest, and a darn good one, too, I might add, and he was Irish to boot, which is always worth an extra ten-spot in the offering plate for a good Catholic, is that whenever he ran into something he couldn’t explain –something Biblical, something religious, something really big - to one of his good Catholic parishioners he would just smile this beautiful Irish smile, and with a twinkle in his blue Irish eyes, he would say, “It’s mystery brother John, it’s a mystery.” And the good Catholic parishioner John would smile and nod and wander away, mystified but satisfied, at least long enough for my friend the Catholic priest to disappear before he could come back and say, “But…”
Now, just to make it more interesting, let’s add in the fact that it is 2020 and everything is defined by this COVID pandemic. I mean, is there any joy to be had? Maybe you are ready to settle for any joy, let alone more joy. I mean how much joy will there be when there is no longer any need for masks, or distancing, or all the other wonderful joys that have defined life in a pandemic? How can anyone find any joy at Christmas this year? Talk about “blah?” Talk about “Ho-hum?”
Let’s look at the Scripture for some help here, because I have run out of options on the 2020 front. You know the story. Luke begins his story before we began reading today. He began with Elizabeth and Zechariah, two old, childless Jews. Well, old is kind of harsh. Luke uses the euphemism, “getting along in years.” Ok. He says they were “barren.” Now in those days that was thought of as a sign God didn’t love you. And of course it was always the woman’s fault. Because if you didn’t have a child, especially a boy child, you were facing a bleak future. Children were your “social security”, especially a boy as he could earn a living and take care of you in your old age. Excuse me, when you are “getting along in years,” and can’t work yourself.
But – suddenly Elizabeth is pregnant! Joy! In fact the angel says to old Zeke:
1:13Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, ... 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
Initially old Zeke is not full of joy. He is skeptical. He says to the angel “I am old, and my wife is, um, ‘getting along in years,’ how can this be?” For his troubles the angel strikes him mute, unable to speak until the child is born. One wonders if that brought joy to his wife’s heart, but I digress. All this took place while Zeke was taking his turn as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. So, skeptical or not, mute but not impotent evidently, old Zeke goes home and by golly he and “She-Who-Is-Getting-Along-In-Years,” otherwise known as Elizabeth, well, they conceive a baby.
So let’s get to today’s story. Some angel called “Gabriel” appears to Elizabeth’s niece, a nice young girl named Mary. He tells her she has found favor with God and that she will have a baby too. Her baby will be great too. He will be called Son of the Most High God, in fact. And he will inherit the throne of his ancestor King David, AND there will be no end to his reign. In response, Mary emphasizes that she was not “getting along in years.” In fact, she emphasizes to Gabriel that she is a young woman who isn’t married and asks how she is going to have this baby. Gabriel tells her it will be by the power of the Holy Spirit. Then the angel Gabriel says something that ought to make everyone here gasp. It ought to knock your socks off. Depending on your point of view it might even be the clue we need to find out what that “something more” at Christmas might be in terms of joy. Gabriel says the proof that all this will happen is that old Elizabeth, excuse me, “She-Who-Is-Long-In-Tooth,” I mean “She-Who-is-Getting-Along-in-Years” is six months preggers herself and then he says this: For nothing is impossible with God. Bam! Mic drop.
Whew! Sorry I just felt like I took a right cross from a 50 year-old Mike Tyson. I feel like I just got up from an eight count. It feels like someone knocked me out and I’m a bit woozy, my legs are wobbly! Nothing is impossible with God. Wait. What? Nothing, Gabriel? Nothing. NOTHING is impossible? NO THING. Can God make round squares? Ok, smart guy, no. I thought you said “NOTHING!” In fact, I am pretty sure I heard you say “NO THING.” Can God, um, I don’t know - prevent planes from crashing, stop world hunger, at least fix traffic in Jacksonville, or how about, I don’t know, END A PANDEMIC? NOTHING? C’mon Gabe. Get a girl pregnant, sure. Solve a Rubik’s cube, ok. What about this pandemic thing Gabriel?!
Wait. I’ve just painted myself into a theological and homiletical corner. For our English-speaking friends that means I just talked my way right up to a dead end. What do I say now? There are a lot of dead ends. Why doesn’t God end the pandemic, stop world hunger, cure cancer, end children dying, heck end dying period. Oh, wait. The Bible claims God has. Ended dying. Well, that’s what we say isn’t it? That’s pretty “not ho-hum,” isn’t it? We say this baby born to “not-getting-along-in-years” –young- girl- not- married- yet- Mary ended death because God raised him from the dead 2000 years ago. But people still die. But we say they don’t really die. They too shall live, we say. Impossible? Well do we believe it or do we just say it because everyone else said it? What’s that you say? But? But what?
Right now I am wishing I was Catholic, or at least Irish, and blue eyes wouldn’t be bad either, so I could say “It’s a mystery” and disappear before you could raise a finger and say, “But…” Where were we? Oh, yeah, Christmas. Joy. Something more… more joy, if you please, Sir?
So there’s the thing, I think. I can’t give you joy. Neither can God. In fact, I don’t think anything or anyone can give you or me joy. I think we have to take joy. We say something “brings” us joy. But if we say God has ended death and we still can’t figure out how to have that joy get us through a pandemic, maybe nothing and no one can “give” us joy. That sunrise “brought” me joy. That baby brought her great joy. His retirement brought him great joy. We say that, don’t we? But maybe no. I mean, later in Luke’s story some old lady warns Mary that this baby will break her heart, will be like a spear in her heart because of his suffering. I know a lot of retirees that are miserable not joyful. I know a lot of people who seem to take great joy in saying and doing miserable things. But I think you have to take the joy you can. Maybe if you want MORE joy you have to take it.
When there’s a pandemic going on you can’t sit around and wait for God to “bring you joy.” When you have cancer and are going through chemo I don’t think you can sit and wait for someone to bring you joy. I think you maybe better grab any joy you can. I am beginning to believe you and I better stop waiting for someone to deliver us “tidings of comfort and joy.” I think we better maybe grab some joy ourselves and start shouting those tidings from the rooftop. Maybe someone else will hear it and grab it and find joy. Maybe they will tell us to shut up and stop shouting from the rooftop, but that just means they can’t take our joy from us. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean “take someone’s joy from them” by being a “you-know-what.” I mean take the joy that is there for you to take. Take it so you can maybe offer some for someone else to take.
I can choose to take joy during a pandemic or I can choose to tell it to shut up and stop bothering me. I can look at the sunrise and go “Wow! That is a fabulous sunrise,” or I can go “Good God, another day in a pandemic.” If I have the pandemic I darn sure bet I will need to find some way to internally, spiritually, soul-fully grab on to something that brings joy to my heart because I think if I am sitting there, excuse me, lying there, intubated, sweating, fearful, looking at the eyes of doctors and nurses who are killing themselves trying to save my sorry stupid asinine self because I was too selfish to wear a mask, well I better find some way to grab some joy or I may test that theory of whether we die and live again or not. Desperate for joy, that’s what I would be. And I bet I would grab any sniff of joy I could. I bet I would mentally, spiritually, soul-fully grab joy by the neck and squeeze the last drop left out of that joy if there was any to be found.
Everybody says Christmas is about giving. Maybe. I think maybe it is about taking, taking joy anywhere you can find it, especially in a pandemic. I could use some joy. I could use a whole lot more joy. Maybe I better stop waiting for God to deliver it and start taking the joy in the everyday events that can seem joyful or just ho-hum everyday events. A baby, any baby can be a miracle of joy or just another ho-hum everyday event. But if it is a miracle, maybe nothing is impossible with God, maybe even joy is not impossible, even more joy than we’ve ever known before. Depends on how you take it, doesn’t it? Can you take it? More joy, I mean. AMEN.