Friday, December 18, 2015

An Advent Message on Joy

Joy:  An Encounter with the Great Love of God or The Implications of God’s Joy

(Luke 1:28), the red-robed angel Gabriel announces to the apprehensive virgin Mary

Luke 1:26-38 (The Birth of Jesus Foretold)

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed[a] to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”[b] 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”[c]

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[d] will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant[e] of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Advent is a season of reflection, contemplation and anticipation of the birth of the Christ child.  It is a sacred space of time for those of us who profess Jesus as Christ to ponder or reaffirm our belief in his birth as the Christ child, the beloved son of God.  I believe this to be of necessary intent in a world of people, systems and associated rhetoric more and more aligned with hate and fear.  The Advent season is a holy and sacred invitation to experience a different imagination of life as we awaken to a most intimate encounter with divine love.  Indeed, we have found favor with God.  This is a joyous occasion as intimated by the words of the Angel Gabriel the messenger of God to Mary. This Advent time calls me to sit with Mary.  To be seized by the intrigue of Mary.   I want to be acquainted with her humanity, to embrace our common humanity.  To gain insight to her fear, uneasiness and yes even the joy expressed to her by Gabriel.  Of course this is Mary’s narrative yet her narrative of joy is a message to all who consider the birth of the Christ child to be a witness that there is a God who can be touched by the longing of a people in need.  And this joy of God given to Mary is the seed which matures and blossoms permeating every facet of life and Church through the ages.  While the protestant tradition may not fully receive Mary, the mother of Jesus, I suggest that sitting with Mary, taking time to know her, to know her story might give significant insight to the meaning and interpretation of joy.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his last circular letter to his friends, written on November 29, 1942.

Joy abides with God, and it comes down from God and embraces spirit, soul, and body; and where this joy has seized a person, there it spreads, there it carries one away, there it bursts open closed doors.

The one who would sincerely experience Advent opens their life to the joy of God as they take hold of the birth of Christ in their heart.  The joy of God expressed by the birth of the Christ Child in their heart becomes a means to new and different perspectives of possibility and in this the manifestation of the reign of God resounds.  In a world where fear and scapegoating have seemingly taken or been given center stage the joy of Advent becomes a profound act of love as fear cannot exist in the same space or at the same time as joy.   Yet, whether in communities of faith or secular space I seldom hear of this joy except in “specific times such as advent.  In this sense to choose joy is a courageous even a radical act of non-conformity worthy of the birth of the Christ Child. 

Christian joy is not just a giddy, light-hearted, frothy emotion. Our joy is meatier than that, it has substance. It has endurance; it is strong enough to gird us up through even the darkest of days.
                                                                                                          Katherine Walden

There is a song I would sang in Sunday School entitled “This Joy I Have”. 

This Joy I have, the world didn’t give to me.  X3

The world didn’t give it; the world can’t take it away.

This is a song which defiantly responds to the injustice which seeks to deny the love of God within.  It speaks to the ills, and absurdities of this life, to the struggles, concerns of a people in need.    Yes, joy is not juvenile or dismissive but more so it is the consummation of our hopes and dreams.  It presents God’s immanent will in us and in the world.  This Joy extends deep into the bedrock of eternity.  It is invincible and irrefutable.    I have been taught over time that this Joy I have and which happens to be my middle name is a testament to the hope present for me in the birth of the Christ child.   Joy is my choice, however, deep in my soul, to daily orient my life to the goodness of God.  It is an essential tool in my stride towards freedom. 

Joy is a life transformed and made new, a nation where justice and equality are for all.

The encounter between Gabriel and Mary can yield needed clarity as we seek to walk humbly with God.  It reminds us that God is in life with us working towards what might be called “a rising tide of joy.”  This rising tide of joy gradually takes away the sinking sands of injustice and gives space to movements of change and transformation.  New and different perspectives arise, and new visions reveal a depth of love not seen or experienced before.  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes in his book Strength to love

“Too unconcerned to love and too passionless to hate, too detached to be selfish and too lifeless to be unselfish, too indifferent to experience joy and too cold to express sorrow, they are neither dead nor alive; they merely exist.”                                                                                                

                                                                                                        Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The words of Dr. King remind me to take hold of my humanity, to daily claim my joy as I experience life in family, community and the farthest reaches of my journey.   I believe this to be just one interpretation of change, transformation, transitions and even the pain I experience – to cause me to take hold of the joy God desires in my life.  Of course the experience of Mary reminds me that God’s joy has to be accepted.  It’s not without a particular uneasiness even as I have been conditioned to many contexts but not joy.  Joy is typically outside of the matrix designed as history has shown that it overcomes the intended oppressions.  The Church, the civil rights movement, the LGBTQ movement and the many revolutions down through history bear this out as those in power seek to maintain the status quo.  Happiness yes, but joy no!    To claim one’s joy from God is a danger to those in power as God’s joy is antithetical to reality and notions of empire.
God’s Joy in the midst of Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”
Recently, I attended a celebration of Christmas.  It was also a celebration of community.  Although we spoke different languages, the one language that each of us communicated was joy.  This Joy with its dialect of happiness was shared by all.  This gathering was filled with people who were longing for a different more abundant life.  In this sense their longing was similar to many other people.  There was a longing for God’s joy as shared with Mary.  It is clear to this reader that joy is God’s agenda.  God's immanent will is that we would have joy in our life.  Joy is a part of God’s reign and the one who would do God’s bidding does so in this light. 

The one who has joy moves in the midst of Charles Dickens, “A tale of two cities.”  They live among the haves and the have not's, between those who long for the liberation of their bodies and souls, and those who daily develop systems and processes meant to maintain their present form of aristocracy.  Into this fray God’s joy becomes manifest as revolution becomes the intent of a life which has fully received the radiant love of God.  The world is not equipped, due to its lust for power and wealth, at any cost, to give or bless with joy. 

The message of Mary’s encounter with Gabriel is one which changes her life and how she receives her humanity.  Although fear, for better or worse is the initial manifestation of an encounter with the unknown in the case of Mary fear turns to astonishment, even amazement as she begins to fully receive the joy of God.  She has been changed in the process, and now experiences herself as servant of the highest. (v 38).   The more she receives the joy of God, which emerges from the radiant love of God the more she is changed, transformed and made new.  Mary’s experience should be received as a manifestation of the approachable, the presence of God in the midst of empire and desires for liberation.

Beloved seize the joy for this is God’s will for you this day.  Be not afraid in the midst of this joy but take possession of this joy and make way for the reign of God.