Well, as I stand up here on the Fourth and last Sunday of Advent it feels like I drew the short straw when Paul put the preaching schedule together a couple of months ago, and I’ll tell you why. It’s not because today’s readings are particularly difficult, or troubling to read. It’s not because it’s a boring or exhausting day. Today is a difficult day to preach because Christmas is so close you can taste the eggnog, but it’s not Christmas, it’s still Advent. We’re consumed with Christmas; we tell people merry Christmas as we say hello and goodbye, but it’s not Christmas, and some how I’m supposed to remind us all that that’s the case—that today we’re still in that season of waiting in darkness, and longing for deliverance. It’s still Advent; we’re not quite there yet.
And so, in order to make sure I steer us clear of talking about anything Christmas, I’m going to put on my Grinch hat and focus on a particular word from the Gospel reading, it’s a word that haunts me sometimes because it can feel so elusive. It’s a word and an idea that frustrates me because it sneaks in, often unexpectedly and lifts us up high to places and feelings we couldn’t have imagined moments before, but then it’s gone. You may try to resurrect it and hold that moment tightly in your hands, but the second you squeeze your fingers it filters out and away like a mirage. Of course, I’m talking about the word Joy.
The Gospel of Luke doesn’t begin with the birth of Jesus, at least not right out of the gates. It begins with an old Priest named Zechariah and his barren wife Elizabeth. They wanted a child so badly, but year after year they couldn’t conceive. And then after years of anger and sadness, no doubt, an angel appeared to Zechariah and said that Elizabeth would birth a child and his name would be John. Echoing the miraculous pregnancy of Sarah in the Old Testament and foreshadowing the Virgin Mary’s own blessing in the New, Zechariah and Elizabeth had been given the incredible gift of Joy, but of course it was short lived. As an elderly woman, carrying in her womb the child she had longed and prayed for, of course she was terrified of losing it! So, for five months she remained in seclusion, hiding from the potential of lose and disgrace with no sonogram machine or heart rate monitor to comfort or ease her worries.
I think we can all relate to this story in one way or another—of joy slipping through our fingers and being replaced with anxiety. Or being told by others or ourselves that we should be joyous, but we only feel afraid of what’s to come, or what has passed us by. The bright lights might fool us for a brief spell, but I guarantee you that each and every one of us, in some way, has felt a moment of the tyranny of joy’s absence in our lives this Christmas season. We’re expecting joy, or at least, certainly hoping for it, but where our expectations and reality meet there are often storm clouds of discontent.
Why does it have to be this way? We’ve tasted joy before, we know its sweetness and the way it flushes our cheeks and makes our bellies bellow with laughter and delight. Why can’t we recreate the way joy makes our lives feel alive, and our hearts full of hope? Joy feels like it sets everything straight in our twisted lives—if only we could make it and keep it on demand. But willing ourselves to be joyful and empty of fear and worry is like trying to will ourselves to be six inches taller or trying to fix ourselves by establishing the perfect morning routine.
You can ask Courtney, I’ve been trying to create the perfect morning routine for going on ten years now. I’ve always wanted to be more of a morning person. It seems like all the more respectable people around me are morning people, and so once Sarah Grace was born I figured now was the time to do it right and make it stick. My thinking was that if I could wake up super early I would have enough time for self-improvement, like going to the gym, reading and writing and praying, that I just might sneak a little more joy into my life and the lives of those around me. So, a few weeks ago I set my alarm for 5:00am. I avoided the temptation to hit the snooze a couple dozen times and wake everyone up. So, I got out of bed, made some coffee and sat down at my desk. And what did I do on this, the first day of the rest of my joyful life? I watched Youtube videos on my phone for an hour and a half about how to have the world’s best morning routine! It turned out that I didn’t become the author of my own life of joy that morning, or accomplish anything else other than learn about the importance of limiting time on our phones from a guy in a video on my phone!
It turns out that we can’t will ourselves to do a lot of things that would be good for us, and we certainly can’t will ourselves to be joyful, we can’t recreate those moments when fear and worry left our domain for a brief moment. Joy comes to us, not the other way around.
Thankfully the story at the beginning of Luke doesn’t end with Elizabeth left to endure her anxieties alone. Elizabeth was pregnant and understandably nervous and she had been hiding for five months until one day someone knocked at the door. And anxiously she and Zechariah opened it to find her cousin Mary, standing before them glowing and aching with child. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And melting with the comfort and knowledge that her baby boy was well, and filled with the Joy of the Holy Spirit Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.”
Elizabeth leaped with Joy, her child leaped with joy, their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ had come to them in Mary’s womb, and they leaped and cried with joy because the door of fear and anxiety and disgrace that was barricading their hearts had been opened, and in came their salvation.
At times it feels like we might as well be back in our mother’s womb, still helpless, still stuck, still unable to will or wiggle our way out of the darkness we find ourselves in. But true joy comes to us in the midst of our lives, however high or low we may be. True joy walks in unexpectedly and loves us freely, it requires nothing of us but open hands and hearts. In the presence of joy our fears melt away and the demands to will or create happiness within and around us dissipate.
There is a documentary of Netflix right now called “Dogs” and when I watched the first episode a few days I absolutely bawled. It’s about a young girl named Corrine with epilepsy. Her mother and father and twin sister have reached the end of their rope with the fear that something will happen to her—her mother sleeps on the floor of her bedroom every night and her sister plays next to her at all times, always watching and waiting for her to lose control and to stop breathing from a seizure. The entire family feels paralyzed with fear of what might happen to Corrine, and they feel deep sadness over the death of hopes and dreams they once had for her. They’ve tried every medication and diet you can think of, but they’re helpless to the epilepsy ruling Corrine’s life. They’re desperate, and so they go to a place called “4 Paws for Ability”, where service dogs are paired with a specific child with disabilities that the dog has been trained and raised to assist with. About six different families gathered in a room and with tears in their eyes they passed a microphone around and explained why they were there; there was a child with emotional disorders, a young girl who only wants to dance but was born with parts of her spine missing and needs help walking and balancing at all times, and of course there was Corrine. And then you see one by one they walk each child’s dog out to them. They’ve seen pictures of their dog, but they haven’t met them until this moment. Out come these beautiful golden retrievers and labradoodles. Corrine’s dog is a gorgeous white dog named Rory who looks the her straight in the eyes. These dogs look straight the children they will love and help and they see the pain and sadness and hope and now the joy on the faces of these families. The dogs don’t try to change the children, they don’t fix them, they just walk into their difficult lives and join the child laying on the floor with a kiss and a warm face to rest beside. The room fills with tears and they all dance.
Jesus has come to us, and now, secure in the gift of our salvation, we are free from the fear of death and the worries of disgrace and abandonment. We are free to laugh, with a deep belly laugh, at ourselves and at the world, to seek and find the joy of God in all things. We’re free from the tyranny of creating our own joy and fighting off the darkness ourselves—Joy in Jesus has come to us and set us free. We may be waiting for joy, we may be waiting for Christmas, we may be waiting for a bit of grace in our lives, but the news for us today is that all of those things have already been given to us and sealed in our hearts and minds through the blood of Christ. Happy Advent, Merry Christmas and amen.