by Pastor Mathew Swora
Luke 1:39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
You know its the Christmas/holiday season when you see the word “Joy” everywhere. You see it everywhere in wreaths and signs on streetlights; on shop windows, Christmas cards and Christmas ornaments. Of course that’s much better than having the words “Sadness,” or “Bummer” or “Sorry” printed all over the place. Yet I can’t escape the nagging sense that something about the joy advertised is a little on the shallow, superficial side. The message we’re getting is that for the price of the bottles or the baubles on sale we can buy joy, at least for as long as the product endures. But even at its best, joy is not the word I would use for what they’re selling. A moment’s pleasure, or satisfaction, even a brief, fleeting happiness, perhaps, but not joy. Not the doubled-over with your hands on your face kind of joy, not the screaming, whoop-it-up and let-it-all-out joy of Elizabeth when Mary, and Jesus in her womb, come to visit her. And not just Elizabeth: something, no someone, within her rises to dance along with her at the approach of her Savior and his mother. And not just the baby in her womb.
But joy can be show up in more subtle, less explosive forms as well, sometimes, even in the company of tears. Like that of the young Southern Sudanese man who recently returned to his home village from his nearly twenty years of safety and asylum in America, after he fled with thousands of other “Lost Boys of Sudan” from attempted genocide. I saw his story on a New York Times video link that Rob Haarsager sent me. When his mother saw him, she pulled an Elizabeth and ran up to him, jumping, dancing and screaming, “You’re alive!” and “I’m alive to see you!”
That day, the young man kept his promise to himself not to cry during his homecoming. But the next day, as other women and children in his village were dancing around him and singing songs of welcome, he couldn’t fight back the tears. “Why are you crying?” they asked. “You should be happy, not sad!” But he wasn’t sad. His tears were an expression gratitude, recognition and resolution: gratitude that his life had been spared when so many of his age mates’ lives had not; recognition of God’s call on his life to serve his village and his family; and a resolution to, as Paul put it, “to lay hold of that for which Christ laid hold of me.” I also call that “joy” because, like Elizabeth’s and her baby’s joy, it is a homecoming of sorts. As I’ve heard it said many times: “Joy is peace dancing, and peace is joy resting.”
We get closer to these kinds of joy with the joy expected and hopefully experienced with family reunions this time of the year. I’m looking forward to seeing our daughters in just a few days. Yet, we mustn’t forget that for many people, family reunions may be also difficult, complicated, prickly and painful. If that sounds familiar, then I wish for you as much joy as possible, a joy that doesn’t depend upon Uncle Edgar minding his manners and not picking a fight with Aunt Edith again over Christmas dinner. For those among us who come to this season with major recent losses, or a terrible diagnosis, or dark clouds of the unknown on our personal horizon, I wish and pray for you a joy that at least sustains you and holds you, even if, for now, it cannot uplift or release you the way it did Elizabeth.
Last Tuesday morning, as the usual crew and I looked over this passage at breakfast, I asked, “So, what have been moments of most joy for you?” One thing we all agreed on: when each of our children were born and we held that crying little bundle of life in our arms. And none of us there were mothers who had borne that child (We definitely need some women to give us some new perspectives at breakfast). If joy did not come over us that first moment, since we were likely exhausted too, then maybe it came at some point later, as we pondered this little life in its bed, or in our hands, a life so full of potential, yet so much need, so surprisingly entrusted to our care. Maybe we didn’t dance around and whoop it up either. But something rose up from the basements of our souls to recognize the awesome nature of the unmerited gift entrusted to us, and our connection to something timeless, something bigger than ourselves, at the very least, our privileged role between the generations before us and the generations to come. Why had we been chosen to be this child’s father? we marveled and wondered. For it certainly felt like a choice and a gift. So as gratitude, wonder, a holy fear and a resounding Yes—all the elements of true joy—rose up from deep within, we were left wondering, Just where do we go to say Thank you and to ask for help and directions with this amazing and undeserved gift?
So we go to church.
Many of us can also attest that we have experienced the strange and haunting stirrings of joy aroused by music: a song or a symphony, or a hymn that was new, or an old familiar one that struck us in a new way. The first time I ever heard the old hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” it was at a retreat where a group of people suddenly just sang it by memory, spontaneously, all four verses. I had never heard it before. It gave me such goose bumps that I was almost in a panic to find out what it was and how I might hear it again. But no luck until I was mentioning it to a friend, who said, “Oh, that song! I grew up with it; its in this hymnal on our piano,” an older Nazarene church hymnal, now long out of print. I asked to borrow it; instead, she just gave it to me. I confess, I don’t get goose bumps hearing it anymore. But it still speaks to me with a power bigger than its words or music combined, and something in me still rises up to it to say Yes!
One way to understand the human condition is to say that we are all addicts. At our core, we are all junkies: joy junkies. We carry with us the haunting memories of moments in which something or someone effectively said “Welcome home” to us in ways deeper than words, and something—or someone—within us rose up with urgency and delight to say a resounding Yes! And ever since, we are on the hunt for other hints, or hits, of joy. People on the street corners of South Minneapolis looking to buy or sell drugs are looking for joy in a pill or a powder or the money they can bring. But what they find always costs more than it gives. Instead of just coming down in fear and condemnation on them, how about we at least recognize and admit that all of us are joy junkies, looking for a fix, and it all really comes down to this: Where and how can we find true and lasting joy? And is what we find really joy, or just a fleeting, but all-too-costly, pleasure?
If Elizabeth were here today, I think she would tell us that true and lasting joy is actually looking for us. It doesn’t come in a bottle, a bauble or a needle. It came to her in the person of Jesus, in the womb of Mary, during her visit. And joy is still looking for us. Our hunger for joy is the divine thumb print left on every one of Eve’s children. Within all passing, momentary pleasures and joys, a deeper, lasting and eternal joy is saying to us, “Come hither, I have even more for you, if not now, later, some day sooner than you know, a joy that will come and never leave, a joy that you probably could not handle for long in your current condition, but a joy for which I am preparing you through all the loves and, yes, through some of the losses, of this life; through all of your fleeting, momentary pleasures, and yes, even through some of your sorrows. I made you for such joy; it is your birthright. Like Elizabeth and John in her womb, its coming to you in Jesus; you’ll find it in him.”
Through worship, prayer, stewardship, service and witness, we are like potters making and widening our own cups that shall run over forever with the joy of the Lord. So make them carefully, make them big, make them generous, make them wisely, because they are for keeps. You’ll need them at an unexpected hour.
But joy does not only lead us toward the next life. Joy can help lead us through this life. Once we learn to distinguish that deep, true joy, from fleeting happiness and satisfaction, then we can learn to trust our joy, and what it tells us about our calling here and now. A great preacher and spiritual writer of the last century, Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In a world where needs and requests and ministry opportunities come at us like snowflakes in a blizzard, when we could each fill dumpsters with a week’s worth of mail for this or that cause and these or those people in need, we cannot attend to them all. But nor dare we harden our hearts and shut everyone and every need out, either. How to respond, where, when and to whom when it is all so much bigger than ourselves and our meager resources?
It helps to pay attention to the stirrings of joy, that mix of awe, wonder, desire, gratitude, recognition and resolution, and yes, even tears, that may arise in response to someone or some need, which dance and kick within us, like John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb. That may well be a sign worth considering, telling us that we are called and gifted by God to take on this particular cry, this particular need, that particular expression of the world’s deep hunger. Indeed, it may be because of our own history of suffering, sorrow or confusion that our “deep gladness,” or joy, rises and dances in recognition of a similar suffering or need somewhere else, or in someone else. In such ways I have seen the victims of a trauma, like poverty, war or abuse, or recovering addicts, reach out to help the newest, latest victims of poverty, war, abuse or addiction. They find then that, in reaching out, God turns their mourning into dancing, their sackcloth into royal robes, their fears into bridges, their exile into homecoming, their griefs into joy. After all, Elizabeth had long known the unjust shame of childlessness, before John was conceived in her later years. Her painful familiarity with undeserved shame may have supercharged her response to the unjust social stigma that Marry carried with her pregnancy, with the joy of her own deliverance.
But lets never forget that, in Elizabeth’s case, it was the Holy Spirit in her and John who brought joy bubbling up in response to the approach of Jesus. Many things in this world might bring us fleeting pleasures and moments of happiness. But none compare with the joy of the Holy Spirit over the homecoming of Jesus, when he came to the world; when he comes to each one of us, and when he comes again, to claim his own, to claim his throne, to bring us home, at an unexpected hour.