ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DECEMBER 16, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram Advent 3
THE LIGHT OF JOY
1Chronicles 16: 23 – 36; Luke 1: 39 – 55

We’re going to start with a quick survey. How many of you have ever been discouraged? I won’t ask how many have been discouraged in the last 24 hours; we may never get home. So, we’ve established two things: 1) you’re not alone and 2) you’ll be listening intently to this entire sermon. Lots of things in life challenge us. We all have bad days. You know it’s going to be a bad day when:
• you wake up to discover your water bed broke and then remember you don’t have a water bed.
• you jump out of bed and miss the floor
• your dentures are locked together
• your horn gets stuck following a group of Hell’s Angels
• your boss tells you not to bother taking off your coat
• your twin sister forgets your birthday.
• your ex is given 6 days to live and calls to suggest you get tested.
• the suicide prevention hotline puts you on hold

Sometimes it feels like so many things could “go wrong”, it’s better to stay in bed. Of course, there are also happy days; days when Satan is so busy tormenting someone else, he doesn’t have time for you. But happiness is somewhat illusive. It comes and goes.

Jesus used another word. Joy. He used it frequently. And throughout his letters, Paul encourages the early Christians to “rejoice in hope” (Romans 12: 12); “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4); “rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). Interestingly, the injunction to “be happy” only occurs in the Old Testament. It seems like Jesus and Paul and other NT writers were going for something distinct. So, what’s the difference between being “happy” and being “joyful”. The dictionary defines happiness as being “cheery” and “trouble free”. It defines joy as “exultation” and “bliss”. I think we’d agree: joy kicks it up a notch. For Christians, joy has two components. One is perspective. The other is the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Today we read about Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Mary is unwed and pregnant. A contract has been drawn up between her family and Joseph; she’s been promised as his wife – his property – and he expects the merchandise to be delivered in pristine condition. Joseph could have her stoned to death for adultery. He could divorce her. The marriage would be over before it started, and Mary wouldn’t have many prospects. after that. Her future was bleak. To make matters worse, she’d have to provide for her child too. Mary lived in an ancient world and in her world, this would be beyond a “bad day” or a time of “discouragement”. How would you expect Mary to feel? How would you feel in her position? Happy? I don’t think so. How about anxious? Afraid? Hopeless? Desperate? Not to mention ashamed. So, Mary made her way to Jerusalem where Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah served as a priest in the temple. As she came up the road, Mary spotted Elizabeth and called out a greeting. What might Mary have been anticipating? A shunning, a scolding or maybe (did she dare to hope) a small bit of consolation? If things went well, she could pour her heart out, have a good cry, a warm embrace and a word of hope. That’s what we might expect to. Instead, we read of two women rejoicing over the situation! Elizabeth feels the baby in her womb “jump like a lamb” in recognition of Mary’s own baby. She is filled with Holy Spirit. Elizabeth responds with awe and delight. She feels honoured that the mother of her Lord has deigned to visit her. She blesses Mary repeatedly. And If Mary had been agonizing, she forgets them all, and breaks out into a spontaneous Psalm of her own. She praises God for choosing her. She praises God for his mercy. She praises God because the birth of her son will mean an over-turning of the world’s systems. Life will be different from here on. Finally, she praises God for keeping his promise to her people. While Elizabeth credits Mary for her faith, “Blessed woman, who believed what God said, believed every word would come true!” (Luke 1: 45) Mary rejoices that she and the baby she carries are a sign of God’s faithfulness, “He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high. It’s exactly what he promised…” (vs. 55). Filled with the Holy Spirit, Mary and Elizabeth, and even Elizabeth’s baby John, had a unique perspective on what was happening. They saw these events not through the lens of their own limited lives, but through the eyes of God. They saw it from a cosmic, eternal perspective which filled them with joy.

What about you? Are your days joyful? Are you joyful? Would you like to be? Often, we rob ourselves of joy because we focus, not on God’s faithfulness, but on our problems. The Shorter Chatechism begins with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” And the answer given is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Yet, how do we live? We live as if our purpose is to win God’s approval, hold up the world, avoid all pleasure, and wallow in our worries and suffering. I’m a very good wallower, so I’m not judging. I’d love to go through life feeling lighter, being joyful and seeing God’s hand in whatever happens. I’d love to toss off all the things I have no control over, instead of lugging them around like I do. I’d love to experience the flow of the Holy Spirit in me 24/7, instead of having some big barricade of anxiety in there. Wouldn’t you? Instead it’s like we’re spiritually constipated! Like Mary, I’d like to be open to whatever God would do in me. I want to “burst with Good News” and “dance the song of my Saviour” (Luke 1: 46).

Joy begins with the Holy Spirit. In his book, Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh, reminds us that while the world is full of terrible suffering and it is also full of wonder and joy. “To suffer is not enough, we must also learn to smile.” God wants us to smile – to rejoice. I was once asked by a rather critical woman why I told jokes in my sermons; she made it clear that in her opinion a sermon was no place for levity. I replied, “Because I believe laughter is a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.” What things make us smile? The magic of a first snowfall; the fresh green sprouts bursting from the ground in spring; sunlight sparkling like diamonds on water; a masterpiece of golden tones in the fall. Have you ever noticed how walking through a forest drains the stress from you body? There’s the wonder of new life; the awe of children; giggles. There’s the beauty of art and music, of landscapes and architecture. There is the delight of young love and the grounded, wonderful comfort of love that’s lasted a lifetime. Notice that the things that make us happiest are God’s creation and love. Gifts of grace, freely given, available to all. We never know when one of God’s blessings will jump out in front of us or drop from the sky. We need to be awake to the Spirit to receive them.

But,” we say, “not everything is rainbows and Valentines. Life can be hard.” That’s also true. After Jesus was born and grown, and had begun his ministry, he was constantly challenged by Pharisees. His neighbours mocked him. His family thought he was crazy. His disciples didn’t get what he was telling them. Folk’s ran him out of town because he healed someone. He had a growing awareness that his life would end in an unjust and sacrificial death. He saw the suffering of the cross before him. His friends betrayed, denied and abandoned him. Yet, Jesus was joyful. He wasn’t the sanctimonious, aloof, pious person that he’s sometimes portrayed as being. He wasn’t a sullen, discouraged, defeated soul. Jesus had a sparkle in his eye and a spring in his step. He had a vitality that drew people to him. He had a sense of humour and a hearty laugh. He was passionate and playful. Genuine and excited. He radiated love. The Holy Spirit, literally, flowed out of him. He was a man of joy. A man of abundant life and he offers us the same abundance. In our lives, we never know when we will encounter the Spirit of the risen Christ. To receive it we need God’s perspective.

God’s will is like the creation of a tapestry. From one point of view, from the underside, it’s a mess of crossed threads, cut strings, twisted yarn and tucked bits of colour. But flip it over and those same loose ends form a beautiful and intricate picture. While we’re going through difficult events, we see tangled, knotted threads. But if we could see where it was all going and what it was becoming, we’d trust in God’s design. We might be awed by the emerging picture. Perhaps we’d even be joyful. Out of the chaos of life, God is creating something of beauty that will glorify and enjoy him forever. Into our suffering, God breathes new life. The Holy Spirit is at work in our world, in our lives and in our hearts. If we could see life through God’s eyes, through his eternal plan, we’d be joyful, because we’d know God is redeeming creation and when all is said and done, there will be no more sorrow or tears or problems. When we ponder this as Mary did – when we hold it as truth and believe it in our hearts, we will be filled with the Spirit of Christ and we’ll become people of joy.

A missionary arrived in a small town in China only to discover that a gang of bandits had just destroyed the little town and everything in it. One of the men, a Christian from the village, showed the missionary the ruins of his home; the burnt roof, the walls, even the furniture, all turned to ashes. Then, he pointed to his hymnbook and Bible, and said, as if it was the last straw, “They even burned my Bible and hymnbook!” The missionary took the hymn book from him and pulled out one page that had been singed but not destroyed. He recognized the hymn as “Joy to the world” The missionary thought, “What a mockery, a note of joy in the midst of total destruction.” That evening, the people gathered in the chapel. With glowing faces, those who had lost nearly everything were speaking of the home that Jesus has prepared for those who love Him. The missionary was in awe of their faith. “Yes”, he thought, “There is joy to the world, because the Lord is come!”