Making a Way for Joy
We are just two weeks away from the end of 2017, as hard as that is to believe. This is the time of year when those “year in review” stories start appearing in newspapers and magazines. This week I checked out a couple of “2017 in Review” articles on line, from various news sources. And I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that 2017 has been a pretty tumultuous year. In January, of course, we inaugurated the 45th president of the United States, which caused excitement in some quarters and…something less than excitement in others. Whatever your opinion of the state of our national politics, we can all agree that the past eleven months have certainly been…well, eventful, with significant headlines emerging from Washington seemingly every day.
But beyond politics, it’s been a tumultuous and sometimes tragic year. This year has seen heartbreaking acts of violence that are immediately identified just by the names of the places they occurred. Charlottesville. Las Vegas. Sutherland Springs.
There were devastating hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, Maria — from which those affected will be recovering for years.
It seems that every day brings revelations of another celebrity or powerful man with a history of inappropriate and harassing behavior, as woman after woman comes forward to share their “Me Too” stories with a society finally ready to confront an issue too long ignored.
And all that’s just in the United States. Elsewhere in the world, it’s been a year with a long list of terror attacks, natural disasters, armed conflict, and emerging threats from countries like North Korea.
Now, there’s plenty that’s right with the world, of course. Here in Sherman, in fact, life is pretty good. We passed a crucial school bond this year. And just this week, there was exciting news about Apple making a significant investment that will bring hundreds of jobs to our area.
But it’s easy to look at the big picture, to read one of those “year in review” articles, and become disheartened about the state of the world, to think that the darkness is crowding out the light. There’s no denying the angst and division and pessimism and brokenness in the world as 2017 nears its conclusion.
It reminds me of one of the lyrics of a beloved Christmas carol, It Came upon the Midnight Clear. It’s in verse three, deep enough that lots of times we don’t get to it. “And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow…”
Life can feel like that sometimes. With two weeks left in 2017, we can look back on a year that has felt like that at times. If not for us specifically, then certainly for plenty of folks who have endured so much. But before we turn the page on this tumultuous year, we’ll celebrate the holiest night in the Christian calendar. And we’ll remind ourselves that no matter how dark or difficult the road may get, God’s answer comes to us in a baby, born in a manger.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, and the second sermon in our series “Making a Way.” Our theme for Advent this year comes from the prophecy of Isaiah: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD…’” Last week, we had our Christmas cantata. But two weeks ago, we talked about making a way for hope. We talked about the promise that God has made to us in Jesus Christ, that we are not alone. That God walks with us through life. And that as members of the Body of Christ, we have each other. Both to lean on in difficult times and to celebrate with in happy times. We talked about how making a way for hope means trusting in these promises of God.
Today, we’re talking about making a way for joy. We’ll be reading from Luke’s Gospel, the lectionary gospel text for next week…
[Read Luke 1:26-33]
In the Christian tradition, this event is known as the Annunciation, the announcement to Mary that God is going to do an incredible thing in the world through her. Fun fact — the angel Gabriel is one of the archangels in Jewish and Christian tradition. If I were to ask you to name an angel, Gabriel might even be the only angel that would come to mind. But he only appears in two books of the Bible. In the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, and in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Gabriel announces the birth of John the Baptist to John’s father, Zechariah. And a few verses later, in our passage for this morning, he appears to Mary, to give her some unexpected news.
Mary is young when Gabriel appears to her, around 13 years old or so. Luke tells us that she’s engaged, or “betrothed,” to Joseph, but not yet married. In the First Century, betrothals were legal and binding, and they were often arranged by a father when his daughter was still a young girl. It would have been quite a scandal for Mary, who had most likely long been promised to Joseph, to become pregnant before they were married. And not just a scandal. It would have been dangerous for her to be pregnant.
In the excellent 2006 movie The Nativity Story, Joseph has a nightmare that Mary is being stoned as punishment for her unwed pregnancy. That’s artistic license. No such nightmare is recorded in Scripture. But the artistic license taken by the movie The Nativity Story is true to the world as Mary would have experienced it. Hers was a patriarchal society. As evidenced, for example, by the fact that marriages were arranged by a father long before their daughters were old enough to get married. It was a society in which women in general had no rights, certainly not a young, unmarried girl who was found to be pregnant. And beyond the challenges presented by her gender and age, Mary’s family was almost certainly poor. Beyond that, they were members of a religious and ethnic minority in the Roman Empire, an Empire that did not have much respect for those on the margins. The movie The Nativity Story paints a vivid picture of what Mary’s life would have been like.
So this announcement from Gabriel, for any number of reasons, would have put Mary in a precarious position indeed. This news could very well have caused a fair amount of angst and division and pessimism and brokenness in Mary’s life, had she allowed it to affect her in that way. But she didn’t, of course. We’ll hear Mary’s response to this news shortly.
Back in 2010, our family moved to First UMC of Henrietta. Our District Superintendent at the time, Rev. John Rosenburg, liked to do the District Christmas party each year on a Friday night in early December. It was a very nice event.
But it was on a Friday night. In December. At a church an hour away. At the busiest time of year. And not only that. This was my first Advent in Henrietta, with no other full time person on staff and lots to do.
Add to that the fact that our youngest son, Sam, was only three months old. I didn’t know how to get to the church where the party was. In the dark. With our infant son and his four-year old brother. I still had an Advent sermon to finish for Sunday morning. Let’s just say that I was a little grumpy about having to go to this party. But it wasn’t really an option not to go. So Whit and I packed up the boys and off we went.
John’s tradition was to end the evening by reading a Christmas story that he had written himself. We ate a very nice dinner. And we sang a few Christmas carols, which of course I love. And then John sat up on the stage next to a Christmas tree, in a high-backed chair like your grandpa might sit in. If you know John Rosenburg, you know that he’s very grandfatherly, a very warm and pastoral presence. He’s a great guy.
But as he read his story, which as I recall was not brief, I was trying not to look at my watch too many times. Mindful of the drive we still had back to Henrietta, and the sermon that I still had to finish.
The story was good, as I remember it, something about a West Texas town and an angel on the Christmas tree. But it’s what John said at the end of the story that I’ll always remember. I have no idea if it was the punchline of his story, or if he looked out at the frazzled clergy checking their watches and looking anxious about when we were going to be able to leave.
All of a sudden, John wrapped up the evening by saying, “Cheer up, people, Christmas is coming!”
I felt like he was talking to me! And honestly, I got a little teary-eyed. Because I needed a reminder of the reason I was doing all that work. I needed a reminder of the point of all the stress and pressure that I was feeling that season.
Now Mary, of course, had no idea what God had in store for the world. But she did realize that whatever God had in store, God was going to do through her. So she responded with a faith that has the power to inspire us all…
[Read Luke 1:34-38]
Verse three of It Came upon the Midnight Clear begins, “And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow…” Life can feel like that sometimes, for sure. We’d have forgiven Mary, of course, if she’d have taken Gabriel’s Annunciation as just one more burden in life’s crushing load. She had a lot on her plate, after all.
But there’s a second half of that lyric: “…look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing. O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!” Reminds me of my old boss. “Cheer up people, Christmas is coming!”
Mary was the unlikeliest of heroes. The last person we’d suspect God to use for God’s great purposes. She was a young, unwed, poor Jewish girl whose pregnancy could have been her undoing. She had no reason to be happy about Gabriel’s message. Because happiness has everything to do with our external circumstances, and her external circumstances were pretty tough.
But as it turned out, she decided to make a way for joy to come into the world through her. Because joy is a theological concept that has everything to do with God. At the Annunciation, Mary realized that God was going use her — the unlikeliest of heroes — to do God’s work in the world. And her faithful, obedient, and joy-filled response should be an inspiration to us all: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
And you know, here’s the thing. Our specific call from God is obviously different than the one Mary received at the Annunciation. But God absolutely desires to work through every single one of us to reflect the light of God’s love in a world all too full of angst and division and pessimism and brokenness. God calls each of us to be bearers of the gospel of God’s son. The gospel of hope and love and peace and…joy. God desires to work through us — in our homes and in our church and in our community and in our world — to make a way for joy in homes and in a church and in a community and in a world that desperately needs to hear and be reminded of that gospel.
The question for each of us, with a week to go before Christmas and two weeks before we turn the page on what has been a tumultuous and sometimes tragic year, is whether or not we will have the faith, obedience, and willingness to respond to God as Mary did. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Our annual staff Christmas party was this week. The past couple of years my wife Whitney and I have hosted the party in our home. Before we exchanged gifts, we reflected on the year that’s coming to a close — a church staff version of the “year in review.” I asked each of the staff members to talk about a highlight from the past year and what they’re looking forward to in the year to come.
And I was reminded that this has been a tumultuous year for us in some respects. The spouse of one of our staff members battled cancer this year. The baby of one of our staff members had a serious health scare this year. One of our staff members lost a sibling this year. There have been some significant life and professional transitions. And all of us, while we’re excited about the transformation of our campus, all of us are ready for the disruption and inconvenience of construction to be over. Our staff team has been through a lot in 2017, and there were some tears as we reflected on it.
And yet. There was an unmistakable sense of joy in the fact that God has called each of us to use our unique gifts to reflect God’s light in this world. Even when things are tough. It is a high and holy calling that God has placed on the heart of every disciple of Jesus Christ, every single one of us here this morning.
So friends, with a week to go until Christmas. Whatever our circumstances may be. May we let God work through us to be bearers of the gospel of Christ. And in doing so, may we make a way for joy in our home, in our church, in our community, and in our world.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.