Sermon for December 18, 2016

December 18, 2016
Joy to the World!
Psalm 98; Luke 1:26-45

When my mom was growing up, she and her family attended a church that taught that a person has to be able to speak in tongues or they aren’t truly saved.  That’s not what the Bible says, emphatically not what Paul says, but it’s what this church taught.[1]  Since, as Paul clearly pointed out, not everyone has the gift of tongues—nor should everyone have it; remember that bit about if the whole body were made up of just ears?—that left folks in a bind in a church where people weren’t considered really saved if they couldn’t speak in tongues.  They were sort of viewed as “second-class” church members, so a lot of people faked speaking in tongues, to be accepted.

Christmas is sort of like that sometimes, I think.

This year somebody has put together a list of the worst Christmas songs, and one that made the list is “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  Now, personally I like that song—largely because of singing an arrangement of it at a music reading years ago, directed by the arranger, Jerry Rubino, whose style is big and dramatic and generally fun, sort of like a music-theater version of “Q” from Star Trek.[2]  But I get the objections.

For some of us—I’d suspect it’s actually more than just some of us—this is emphatically not the most wonderful time of the year, at least not every year.  People who suffer from depression, or who are introverts and just plain can’t get into the endless round of parties and time spent in crowded shopping centers, have a hard time with the Christmas frenzy.  People who are grieving a big loss can’t necessarily just be merry on command.  People who are in a tight spot financially may not be able to celebrate as they have come to believe they should.  Watch the ads; now and then you’ll see one that literally ridicules attempts to give loved ones inexpensive or homemade gifts.

So people fake it, just like some people at my mom’s church years ago faked speaking in tongues, and go along with the expectations we place upon one another this season, even when we don’t feel like it.  Introverts force themselves to attend the parties, and stand awkwardly in a corner until they decide they’ve done their duty and can leave.  We drag ourselves to the shopping mall and brave the crowds, with a bottle of Tylenol in the car to counteract the tension headache we end up with.[3]  We paste on a fake smile and hide our broken hearts behind forced merriment.  We overspend, run up the balance on our credit cards, in the hopes that no one will notice we’re struggling.

It isn’t any wonder “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” makes the list of the least favorite Christmas carols.  For a lot of folks this season just isn’t wonderful, and having to pretend it is can make matters that much worse.

Our Advent theme for today is Joy.  I’ve just got done acknowledging that not everybody is happy during this season; but even so, is there any room for joy?

I think there is.

It may not be the same delirious joy we have at a wedding or the birth of our first grandchild, but joy can surprise us even when we’re down.  And that’s especially true, I think, at Christmas, even when we really don’t feel like celebrating.

Today’s reading from Luke comes a bit before the Christmas story that we’ll be hearing Saturday night, and then again next Sunday.  In this reading, joy breaks into life where it’s least expected.  You have to realize something about Mary, and about the culture in which she lived, to get why joy would be sort of unexpected here.

Mary was engaged, but not yet married, when the angel Gabriel came to her to ask her to be part of a new thing God was doing.  In Matthew’s version of the story, Joseph, her intended, found out she was pregnant and knew he wasn’t the father.  He’d have been within his rights under the Jewish Law to have had her stoned for adultery.  Most folks didn’t do that anymore in those days, but he was pretty much required to divorce her, at the very least, and he could make it into a public shaming.  This was hardly going to be a blessed event, according to the customs of the day.

But Gabriel greets Mary and calls her “favored one,” and tells her that God is with her.  After hearing the explanation of what God has in mind, Mary says yes to the proposal.  I think we sometimes see her as submissive, simply yielding to the plan; but I’m not sure that’s the best picture.  She isn’t simply saying, “Whatever you say, dear.”  She’s saying, yes, I will be part of this enormous thing God wants to do in this world, even though it’s dangerous.  And I think joy may be part of the reason.

Think about it:  Mary is nobody special, a young, unmarried, probably poor woman living in a tiny town in the rural areas of Galilee.  You might be aware that some Jewish men in those days said a daily prayer thanking God they had not been born a Gentile or a woman.  Women had very little status, very little power, very little identity beyond being someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, and then someone’s mother.

But Gabriel greets Mary and says that she is favored by God.  Imagine hearing that from an angel, when everything around you says that you’re not favored.

Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, tells of an experience she had while attending a Catholic girls’ school as a teen.[4]  She was a Lutheran preacher’s kid, but one day at school she had to attend a Mass celebrating the Annunciation—which is the first part of the story we’re looking at today.  Sitting in that sanctuary, surrounded by other girls, Gabriel’s words suddenly meant something to her.

“Favored by God.”

God has regarded Mary—God has noticed her and looked on her with love. God thinks so much of her that he has asked her to be the mother of the Savior.

And if we were to read further today, and hear Mary’s song after she goes to visit Elizabeth, we would hear about another reason Mary might be joyful.  The Savior who will be Mary’s son, she predicts in a song that could just as well have come from one of the Hebrew prophets that her baby would not just offer personal salvation, but turn the whole world upside down—taking the powerful off their thrones and lifting up the lowly, like Mary herself; filling the poor and hungry with good things, while sending the rich away empty.

If you are one of the lowly, or the poor, or the hungry, this is very good, very joyful news indeed!

Joy breaks into the middle of Mary’s lowliness, perhaps her poverty, definitely her perplexity and maybe even anxiety over what is to come.  And it can happen for us, too, even when we’re certain this is not the most wonderful time of the year.

Joy can break into the middle of grief, into the middle of worry about the future, into the middle of loneliness or even guilt and regret.  It breaks in and says, “Greetings, favored one; the Lord is with you.”  It breaks in and we who walk in darkness see a light—not the light at the end of the tunnel, but a Light that comes right into the midst of the darkness and makes it perhaps just a tiny bit more bearable.

The Sunday when the pink candle on the Advent wreath is lit is, in Catholic tradition, called Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete is the Latin word that means “rejoice.”  “Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul said to his beloved Philippians.  Rejoice when things are good, and when life is hard.  Rejoice when we’re well, and when we’re sick.  Rejoice when we’re young, and when we’re old.  Rejoice when we’re free, and when we’re imprisoned—Paul knew quite a lot about that.  No matter what is going on, joy can break in, if we have eyes to see.

A decade ago a Jesuit priest wrote a little poem for Gaudete Sunday.

Because Christmas is almost here
Because dancing fits so well with music
Because inside baby clothes are miracles.
Gaudete—Rejoice.

Because some people love you
Because of chocolate
Because pain does not last forever
Because Santa Claus is coming.
Gaudete

Because of laughter
Because there really are angels
Because your fingers fit your hands
Because forgiveness is yours for the asking
Because of children
Because of parents.
Gaudete

Because the blind see.
And the lame walk.
Gaudete

Because lepers are clean
And the deaf hear.
Gaudete

Because the dead will live again
And there is good news for the poor.
Gaudete

Because of Christmas
Because of Jesus
You rejoice.[5]

[1] Paul downplays the importance of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, since it appears that the Corinthian church taught something very similar to what my mom’s childhood church taught.  My mom said if her preacher or Sunday school teacher was working through 1 Corinthians, they would usually skip from chapter 13 to chapter 15.

[2] If I were making a list, I’d be more likely to include songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland,” which we only hear at Christmas time but which have nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas.

[3] Almost all of my shopping this year has been done online, with the exception of a little bit done here in town and one gift ordered from a friend who owns a small business in Wichita.

[4] See http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1148.

[5] “Gaudete” by Brad Reynolds, S.J., reprinted in the 12-15-16 Renovaré blog, https://renovare.org/blog/gaudete.

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