Paula Northwood December 16, 2019
Scripture Luke 1:46–55
Has there ever been a moment in your life when you have felt a deep abiding joy? An indescribable, unimaginable, unexplainable joy? We often experience happiness as a result of life’s experiences. Eating good food, growing into a budding relationship, purchasing or receiving a gift, even finding a parking space—can bring momentary happiness. I have noticed that happiness depends on positive conditions like good health, meaningful work, good luck and happy relationships. But joy is something different. I attended a One More Chair Women’s breakfast last Thursday, and they spent some time sharing what brings them joy. From their stories I noticed a few things. I noticed that joy often springs forth from challenge, difficulty or despair and is born out of conditions that are the opposite of joy. I also noticed that there is a connection to the divine, often experienced through creation or even creatures. And finally, joy often comes when we don’t expect it.
I noticed in our text this morning the same things. In the first two chapters of Luke there are not just a few scattered mentions of joy but rather a steady stream of quiet, profound joy expressed in song. The first is Mary’s song, the Magnificat; it’s based on an earlier song by Hannah from the book of Samuel. Then we have the song of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. We call his song the Benedictus. In the second chapter of Luke we have the song of Simeon, called the Nunc Dimittis, when Jesus is presented at the Temple. Mary, Zechariah and Simeon all sing eloquently from a deep sense of joy.
In Mary’s song, she shares her joy, declaring: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” who “looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” From our cultural viewpoint, there is little reason for her joy. She’s pregnant and unmarried in a patriarchal society that dealt harshly with such behavior. That is what makes her song so brilliant. One does not expect the joy that exudes from her. The reader does not expect a teenage girl in a troubled situation to be the one who delivers the hope for the world.
And yet, who brings us such messages today? The teenagers from Parkland, Fla., who have traveled the country speaking out on gun control. Teenager Greta Thunberg who speaks out to the powers that be about climate change. And there are many more examples of young voices speaking the truth to power. These youth are not perfect and often are speaking from a context of despair. It is in the unexpected ones that we hear a message of hope and a deep sense of joy for life.
In a 1933 sermon, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Mary’s song “the most passionate, the wildest, one might say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung.” Bonhoeffer, who would be executed years later for resisting Nazism, added: “This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary . . .. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of . . . Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world.”
Ultimately, the Magnificat is about a cosmic inversion. It is about the turning of the tables. The lowest become the highest and the highest become the lowest. It’s no surprise that Mary’s song is popular among peasants in Central and South American countries, and equally unsurprising that governments from time to time have banned its recitation.
From our text, we discover that the immediate source of joy is in the action of God. We discern divine action that “comes down” into history: it produces a vibration and a wave of joy that then spreads out “from generation to generation.” God is acting, not just through Mary and eventually Jesus, but through countless women and men, old and young, who every day face violence with nonviolence and survive in the midst of economic exploitation, and who stand up to racism and sexism with a resolve to make the world a better place.
Mary sings that we should expect that this birth will turn our lives upside down and inside out. Mary, the pregnant and poor unwed teenager, asks us to wait and sing for the upheaval of the world, the expected reversal. She also asks us to pray for a world without war or conflict or violence. She asks us to hold our leaders accountable for their actions and inactions and their thoughts and their deeds, and their votes against dignity and freedom. She asks us to dream of a new economic, social and political order. She asks us to feed the hungry and break down walls of hostility. She asks us to dream about the way the world would look if things were reversed, if the Beloved Community could be made manifest. She asks us to dream it in the past tense as if it were already taking place. Mary, the mother of Jesus, asks us to affirm God being born not only in her real womb but in the womb of human suffering. She asks us to imagine, to dream, to march, to sing, and work to make it so.
According to blogger Ryan Kuja, “If Mary lived in our country today, she’d be a 14-year-old Black girl struggling to get by in Flint, Mich., or an adolescent Latina eking out an existence with her immigrant parents in El Paso. And her song of joy and praise to the God she worships might read something like this:
I can’t contain my excitement about this!
Out of all people, God noticed me, a poor, pregnant teenager!
Everyone will call me blessed from now on.
God’s love is so much greater than I can even imagine.
God shows love for everyone, even those society despises,
the LGBTQ community, immigrants, asylum seekers, the addicted and shamed.
God knows that Black Lives Matter; refugees and the poor are beloved.
All people who are seen as less than human, God knows and loves.
God lifts up those who are preyed upon by corrupt politicians,
the hungry, the ones brutalized by the police and ICE, and families without healthcare.
God invites each of us to the table to speak and tell our story, to be heard and known.
The power-hungry perpetrators who care only about their agendas don’t have the last word!
I can sense God’s presence, holding me and all children close, faithfully liberating us. Just as God promised.
Mary’s subversive words are timeless. They crescendo across the sociopolitical context to speak into the landscape in which we have found ourselves situated. Entering Advent through Mary’s prophetic praise challenges us to imagine the new social order of which she spoke, to reject practices of individual, institutional and governmental oppression and exploitation and to refashion our shared life together around the politics of God’s joy.
Let’s return to my original question: Have you ever experienced this kind of joy? I think we proclaim, just by being here, what joy really means to us. We do testify that the joy that comes from God is deeper and more abiding. It’s there in the best of times, but it’s even there when times are hard. We can be joyful and still cry alongside the world, because being joyful means we know the world isn’t supposed to be this way, and we believe it can be better.
It also means we give up the skepticism and cynicism that helps keep us from feeling too much and too deeply, shielding us from disappointment and despair. Instead, we offer God our deepest longings for the world’s and our own renewal. The culture tells us to pursue happiness. Advent invites us to receive the gift of the presence of God transforming every circumstance when no lesser power can. The culture suggests we change the situation if we want to be happy. Advent calls us to open our lives to the One who meets us where we are and graces our lives with joy. Such joy happens when we tap into our inner source where God is present, and we know it, which is why joy can erupt in a depressed economy, a chaotic political battle, an ecological crisis, in the middle of a war, in a hospital waiting room, or even during a bout with cancer.
God-infused joy changes everything; life is transformed as unexpected, not-to-be-believed possibilities open to us. Indescribable joy resides deep in the soul, reverberating, opening the way for more joy by casting out fear and despair. Unimaginable opportunities present themselves. And such joy is made to be shared. Amid our longing for a better world, we recall how God has come to us in the desert moments of our lives. We share with each other our doubts and fears, our failures and tears, our forgiveness and grace. On Friday I saw the film The Two Popes; one moving scene was when the past Pope Benedictus and the current Pope Francis confessed and offered forgiveness to each other. Forgiveness creates profound joy. We can offer that to each other and the community.
On Christmas Eve we read these words from the Gospel of John: “The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” In other words, the divine Spirit is the light of the world, and the worst that the world can do is still not enough to extinguish that light. That divine light is in each one of us. And if that light cannot be extinguished, then neither can that joy. Let us go forth filled with an indescribable, unimaginable and unexplainable Joy! May it be so. Amen.
“Third Sunday of Advent, 17 December 1933, on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55).” An excerpt, edited and translated by Edwin Robertson, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, Zondervan, 2005.
“Miryam’s Magnificat,” Loren McGrail, December 17, 2012.
“Modern Mary: What A Pregnant Refugee Minority Teenager Would Sing Today,” Ryan Kuja, 2017, adapted to use inclusive pronouns.
Adapted from a quote by Barbara Brown Taylor, “Surprised by Joy,” in The Living Pulpit, October–December 1996.