Feasting on Joy

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
December 16, 2012 Philippians 4:4-7 and Luke 1:26-45


Perhaps we might observe a moment of silence…

Let us pray. We pray for healing, O God, for those whose hearts are broken. We pray for peace in a world marked by inexplicable violence. We seek hope in this season of expectation and anticipation. Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer. Grant us your peace and open now your word to us, that we might be comforted and challenged by its power and truth. In the name of the Prince of Peace we pray. Amen.

***

Third Church lost two friends this week to premature death. Drake Van Dyne served as a sexton here for fourteen years. He was affable and friendly and ready to serve. We are thankful for his life and for his service here. We were grateful to be able to hold his funeral in our chapel. We continue to pray for his mother Karen, his fiancée Kim and his son Jacob.

Cynthia Bolbach served as the moderator of the 211th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. She was an elder and a lawyer (a dangerous combination, I always told her!). She preached here twice during her moderatorial term, an unusual thing, first to help us dedicate our renewed space and then at the More Light event. Cindy and I had at least two things in common – a love for Presbyterian governance and a passion for noting and embracing the absurdity of Presbyterian meetings – not all, but perhaps most. I, and the church, will miss her.

I know that it cannot be documented, but it seems as if sad things happen in clusters, and so often at this time of the year. Add to those two losses your own losses, of course. And add to that any number of headlines, but most poignantly, and most soberly, this unfathomable event at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. So much sadness, among other things. So much grief and loss and outrage as we think about mental health or the accessibility and almost easy use of guns.

How on earth can we find joy?

Elvis sang “Blue Christmas,” which was about lost love. Churches now hold Blue Christmas services, which are about so much more than lost love. They acknowledge the challenging juxtaposition of a holiday season seeking to impose happiness, marked by consumerism, with our human reality. Christmas is not always joyful.

I do not know whether we need to hold a Blue Christmas service. We are wise enough to understand the realities of life, and wise enough to know that faith does not inoculate us from difficult things. And yet, how on earth can we find joy? How can we find joy that is deeper than surface happiness? How can we find joy that allows us to live with sadness and loss, acknowledging it fully but never letting it have the final word? How?

Isaiah writes: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”

“Rejoice,” Paul says to the struggling church at Philippi. “Rejoice.”

And Mary. We get a double-dose of Mary, this week and next, the pitch and the swing. This morning an angel appears. Mary is not at all joyful from the outset. Perplexed, fearful. And then the news is delivered, that Mary will bear a son who will transform the world. This news is not received easily. And then it is accepted.

We rush to the conclusion of the story but we would be well served to linger here for a moment. How perplexing. How fearful.

She travels to find Elizabeth, also expecting in a most unexpected way. As they greet, the child leaped in Elizabeth’s womb – leaped for joy.

Kathleen Norris writes: “It’s a joyful scene, both everyday and extraordinary.” Referring to the baby in Elizabeth’s womb, Norris writes that “It usually takes a good kick for us to recognize that God is in our midst.” Then she continues: “Yet for all its gentle comedy and joy, this scene strikes a solemn note. For we, the hearers of this story, know that these two, like all pregnant women, are destined to give birth to human beings who will one day die…We know that their children are destined for martyrdom.”

Then Norris concludes: “In some churches, during Advent, pillars are decorated with wreaths that resemble a crown of thorns. I love the way that this causes me to remember that, in this life, true joy is never perfect, but comes admixed with pain and suffering. Whatever God has brought into this world to do, we cannot do it without sacrifice.” (God With Us, page 111)

This is not easy joy, shallow happiness that the culture would foist upon us. As I have said, I do not mind the world getting to Christmas so quickly, or earnest attempts to mask suffering and darkness. It shows that the world is hungry for good news.

And we have good news to share. True peace. Profound hope. Unconditional love. And deep joy, the joy that neither ignores sorrow nor pretends that bad things do not happen to people, good or otherwise.

Rather this deep joy takes death seriously – cancer, a shooting rampage, a broken dream, a shattered relationship – and says, hopefully and powerfully, you will not have the final word. Fear will not win. Death will not win. Love wins. Love ends.

That is the joy magnified to us, made larger and stronger and clearer. That is the joy Mary magnified. That is the joy we magnify. Amen.

(Followed by an offering of Bach’s “Magnificat” by the Third Church Chancel Choir with orchestra.)

 

 

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