Rev. Teri Peterson
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11 (and the magnificat) (CEB)
11 December 2011, Advent 3B
With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on me.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me blessed
because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is the Lord!
He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next.
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts
and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant,
remembering his mercy,
just as he promised to our ancestors.
The LORD God’s spirit is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me.
He has sent me
to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release for captives,
and liberation for prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
to provide for Zion’s mourners,
to give them a crown in place of ashes,
oil of joy in place of mourning,
a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.
They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, planted by the LORD to glorify himself.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins;
they will restore formerly deserted places;
they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past.
I, the LORD, love justice;
I hate robbery and dishonesty.
I will faithfully give them their wage,
and make with them an enduring covenant.
Their offspring will be known among the nations,
and their descendants among the peoples.
All who see them will recognize that they are a people blessed by the LORD.
I surely rejoice in the LORD;
my heart is joyful because of my God,
because he has clothed me with clothes of victory,
wrapped me in a robe of righteousness like a bridegroom in a priestly crown,
and like a bride adorned in jewelry.
As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds,
so the LORD God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.
It’s that time of year again—when happiness and cheer abound! Everywhere you go there’s festive music playing, lights twinkling, and happy people urging us to buy from their store. There’s Christmas Spirit in the air—that strange scent combination of apple cider, pine, and molasses that somehow equals comfort even though it’s almost impossible to describe in any appetizing way. The bumper stickers and TV pundits are, as ever, reminding us to keep Christ in Christmas, some of them while wearing santa hats and reindeer antlers. All that’s missing is a little dusting of snow—but not too much—to brighten up the barren branches, and we’ll have the picture-perfect multi-sensory Christmas Card life. We can sing our glorias and finish our shopping and hang our stockings by the fire with care, breathing deeply all this Christmas Cheer that guards our spirits against the long winter.
But sometimes I feel like the cheer is forced on us, spread on so thick it’s clearly designed just to get us to stimulate the economy. It’s like the whole of our western culture, which is built on being nice and making ourselves happy, is suddenly on steroids, and if we’re looking for something beyond “happy” then we’re obviously deluded. And if for some reason we aren’t happy—whether we’re grieving, or struggling with depression, or wondering how to pay for all those Christmas presents, or hoping to have enough money for Christmas dinner, or just not feeling the cheer this year—then something must be wrong with us.
Around the world today churches are celebrating God’s promise of joy—which sounds a lot like happiness, right? Sometimes people use the words “joyful” “happy” and “blessed” almost interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same thing. On some websites you can indicate your mood at the time of your post, and one of the choices is “happy”—happiness as a temporary mood, probably based on any number of circumstances, like whether you had coffee this morning, whether a friend called or didn’t call, what kind of headlines you saw today, or whether there are interesting plans in your day. Happiness is one of those sort of basic-yet-shallow feelings—part of the sad-mad-glad trio that never gets any deeper than the surface. The kind of joy that these prophets express, and the kind of joy they call us to seek, isn’t just happiness. It’s not just a feeling, not just a cheerfulness brought out by the smell of cinnamon wafting down the hall or the thought of a jolly old elf bringing fun new toys.
So then…how do we get it? Some of us have a hard enough time summoning up happiness or cheer, and others of us trade on our cheerful dispositions. Many of us at this time of year are so frantically rushing around getting everything decorated and wrapped and baked that we don’t have time for any of it. I wonder, if we were truly honest with ourselves, how many of us would admit that we pretend to be happy even when we aren’t—at Christmas time or at any time—because we think that’s what people expect of us. Do we use our smiles to mask something missing deeper down? Do we keep working on happiness, hoping it will one day be enough?
I wonder how cheerful Mary and Joseph were, that first Advent. Mary, an unmarried teenager suddenly pregnant, and Joseph a man who’ll be supporting a family before he even pays for a wedding, both of them in a small village where everyone will know their scandal before lunch, and in a culture where Mary’s choice to say Yes to God could easily have gotten her killed. Yet in the midst of that, she sings this song—“My spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has done great things for me. He has fed the hungry and lifted up the lowly, and holy is his name.”
Or the prophet Isaiah, looking around at the ruined city his people were hoping to rebuild, trying to preach the word to people of fair-weather-faith, proclaiming that God has promised to plant them in fertile ground so they can grow into oaks of righteousness that glorify the Lord, offering a vision of justice and joy.
If anyone had reason to mask their fear with false cheer, it was these two. Yet in the face of both, they proclaim joy instead. As Margaret Aymer, an Old Testament Professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center, told me yesterday, “Joy is an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells you to be scared and sad.” I would add that it’s also an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells you to cover up your true self with sad-mad-glad. Joy is well beyond anything our culture, our possessions, our country, our media, or even our relationships can give us. Joy comes from one place: from seeking God. And, interestingly, it seems that God has even shown us the way to joy. Did you hear it?
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken hearted, to release the captives…to comfort the mourning…to rebuild, restore, renew…I the Lord love justice…”
Could it be that the way to know the joyful fruit of the Spirit is to practice? Not to look to the sky, anticipating something better; not to turn away from suffering because it’s depressing and ugly; but instead to get more grounded, to reach to our roots, to push down into the earth and let God grow in us like a seed…to live fully into our calling as the anointed ones, the body of Christ, made to bring grace to a world in need, to shine light into a world of darkness.
It seems so obvious as to be almost trite. We’ve all heard the stories before—some of us have even told them—of giving, serving, helping, feeding, and finding more joy there than in opening the presents under the tree. Looking into the eyes of a child receiving their only Christmas present, or handing a hungry family a Christmas dinner, or helping someone find their way through the food pantry for the first time, or visiting a jailed immigrant who wonders if they’ll ever see their family again, or looking at the photos of students in El Vaquero, Mexico finally getting running water in their school, or meeting a missionary, or praying for the person sitting next to you in the pew—these are all things we’ve done, and for many of us we’ve found more of the Spirit in them than in the malls or decorations. Is it possible that the way to joy—to the real Christmas Spirit—is through being more fully who God has called us to be, in the place God has called us? Is it possible that Christmas Joy comes from US being the site of God’s incarnation, God’s taking on flesh, God’s coming to be with us? Maybe when we bear Christ into the world, the way Mary bore Christ in her body, when we don’t just speak good news but ARE good news, when we are creators of justice, then we will also find joy—a joy that is beyond mere cheer, a joy that is grounded and growing, a joy that is subversive and holy.
May it be so.