“A GREATER JOY”
a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
December 17, 2023
Luke 1:26-38 NRSV
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.
Christian tradition gives each of the four Sundays of Advent, leading up to Christmas, a different “theme.” Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. This is 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:’ meaning ‘Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say rejoice.’ [ Timothy Schenck, “What’s up with …?” enterprisenews.com, Nov 30, 2015. ]
Like a lot of things in religion that didn’t really explain joy, or the pink at all. Are you feeling 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, if its not yours or your grandchild? 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. They just say, “It’s a mystery,” and the questioner is supposed to nod, and go on about their business.
Most of us could find a lot of reasons to ask “What joy?” this time of year. I mean, is there any joy to be had? Maybe you are ready to settle for any joy, let alone more joy. I mean at least we don’t have a pandemic to deal with, right? Remember 2020?
Let’s look at the Scripture for some help here. Before we got to Mary and the angel, Luke began his story with Elizabeth and Zechariah. The angel uses the child Elizabeth is expecting to prove his point with Mary. Now, a young woman having a baby out of wedlock is one thing. But two old, childless Jews having a baby? Well, old sounds kind of harsh, doesn’t it? Whoever translated Luke uses the euphemism, “getting along in years.” Ok. He says they were “barren.” Now in those days people thought that was a sign God didn’t love you. And, of course, it was always the woman’s fault. And if you didn’t have a child, especially a boy child, you faced 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. Whatever the circumstances Zeke and Liz are having a baby. In case you forgot that baby was John, the one we call “The Baptizer.”
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. 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 on the Stretch, or how about, I don’t know, end wars? C’mon Gabe. Get a girl pregnant, sure. Solve a Rubik’s cube, ok. What about all these other daily joy-killers Gabriel?!
Wait. I’ve just painted myself into a theological and homiletical corner. What I mean is 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 a 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 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 people have been saying it for 2000 or so years? What’s that you say? But? But what?
Right now I am wishing I was Catholic, 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 maybe nothing and no one can “give” us joy. We say things like, that sunrise “brought” me joy. That baby brought her great joy. His retirement brought him great joy. We say that, don’t we? 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 you have cancer and are going through chemo I don’t think you can sit and wait for someone to bring you joy. When people keep shooting each other in public places all over America on a daily basis, 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. That doesn’t mean they can 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. Take it so you can maybe offer some for someone else to take.
The real joy in this story, of course, is heaven’s joy. This birth was heaven’s way of saying it wanted to change human reality. Heaven wanted earth to live the way God designed it to be – a place of joy. That’s why we pray every Sunday, “on earth, as it is in heaven.” God sent a child to proclaim that new reality, a thing he called “the kingdom of God.” In that new reality people would no longer use their power to treat others unjustly. In that new reality there would be no wars because no “man” would be willing to kill his “brother.” Heaven rejoiced because it hoped people on earth would take the joy it was offering and change their ways.
It’s still possible for us to take this reality seriously and start building that new reality. Everybody says Christmas is about giving. I say take the joy that heaven is offering and let’s start giving it to everyone. A world based on love and justice for everyone, not just a few, that would be a reason for real joy! A world where all people live in peace and have plenty, that’s a reason for rejoicing. Maybe when we take heaven’s joy seriously we will really have a reason to celebrate Christmas.
The angel promised nothing is impossible with God. We need God now more than ever. Let’s take heaven’s joy and make it earth’s reality. With God, nothing is impossible. AMEN.