Joy Beyond Measure

December 15, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert


On this third Sunday of Advent, we continue to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the hymn, Joy to the World.  As we listen to those words in a new way, “heaven and nature sing,” we may ask, how do we join in with this song?  How do we spread this beautiful music of joy, even in the midst of the realities of life and perhaps especially in the face of such realities, how do we spread joy?  How do we make the blessings known to those who may be in need of such blessings in their lives?  You may have noticed this word unabashed included in our prayers today.  It’s not often used, but it is defined as def:  not embarrassed or ashamed about openly expressing strong feelings or opinions., unapologetic. 

This week, we ask how we might multiply and magnify the song of deep joy without feeling ashamed, without apology. The need for joy and love is intense. But to sing such a song in such a time as this may seem daunting. How do we lift our voices in praise and thanksgiving when so much of our lives or those we know may seem worthy of lament and intercession? Let us pray,  Be near us this day, O Holy One, open our minds and hearts to your message of immeasurable joy in our midst.  Bless all who struggle to hear this message; bless all who suffer in various ways;  bless each of us in new ways this morning.  Amen.

A small boy was writing a letter to God about the Christmas presents he badly wanted. “I’ve been good for six months now.” he wrote. But after a moment’s reflection he crossed out “six months” and wrote “three months.” After a pause that was crossed out and he put “two weeks.” There was another pause and that was crossed out too. He got up from the table and went over to the nativity scene that had the figures of Mary and Joseph. He picked up the figure of Mary, wrapped it gently in a cloth, and put it in a drawer in his room. He then went back to his writing and started again: “Dear God, if ever you want to see your mother again!”

The scripture readings for this morning show us the way to making the blessings of our Creator known.  Isaiah 35 speaks words of comfort and promise in the midst of war and desolation; the chapter just before offers a terrible and terrifying vision of God’s wrath against the nations, and the chapter following describes threats toward Jerusalem. In between wrath and threats, Isaiah writes about a chorus of creation saying to one another, “Be strong. Do not fear. Here is your God.” As commentator Rev. Barbara Lundblad shares, “Isaiah dares to speak a word out of place. A word that refused to wait until things improved.” Unabashed Joy.

The Luke passage, the Song of Mary, strikes a similar tone. Mary is in a world of trouble: pregnant, not married. One could imagine that she felt fear, insecurity, ineptitude. And yet, she sings out with unabashed joy: God is great. God has done and will do great things. Holy is our God.

It takes courage and love to sing our songs of joy in the midst of great suffering. Unabashed joy is different than being told in the midst of your suffering that, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Such words of seemingly unabashed joy can come across as hollow or brash. How do we know the difference? How do we speak joy into places of suffering so that it honors the depth of human feelings and the all-encompassing love of God?

Both Isaiah and Mary speak of a particular and embodied joy: seeing eyes, hearing ears, gushing waters, growing seeds, the hungry filled, the humble lifted. They also speak of a particular and embodied suffering: feeble hands, fearful hearts, people scattered and brought down. We like to think if we just get through the suffering that joy will come: first comes suffering and then we progress to a joyful state of being. But the truth is, these deep feelings get tangled up together. We can go from one to another, back and forth, or feel them all at the same time. And the good news for today is that we can feel all these things, including suffering, and still joyfully proclaim a day when, “Gladness and joy will overtake [us] and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

A few weeks ago, one of our members, Ada Goff, showed me beautiful pictures of her new grand-nephew, Briggs.  As we spoke, she told the story of his parents, of all the suffering and struggle that had led them to this moment…Ada’s sister, Debbie Foreman shared some of the story of these past few years with me, comfortable with my sharing it with all of you.  In March of 2016, Ada’s nephew Chris and his wife, Casey, welcomed a new baby girl, Florrie, born at only 27 weeks.  Sadly, she lived only a few days and died less than a week later.  Since that time, they have wanted to try again and went through 8 or more miscarriages, so much grief, and I imagine that they were beginning to wonder if having their own child was going to be possible.  They finally went to a fertility clinic in Atlanta, GA, near where they live and just when they were about to start IVF, they discovered she was pregnant again.  On November 19th, their baby son Briggs arrived at 34 weeks. His due date was to be December 28th.  Ada’s sister said that she had prayed that this little one could make it to 34 weeks and so he did and she prayed that he would weigh more than 4 pounds and he arrived at  4lbs, 13 ounces.  As she said, “A God of abundance… We prayed for a homecoming by Christmas” but after a brief stay in the NICU, he was discharged just one week after his arrival.  Ada’s sister, little Briggs’ grandmother said she selected a verse from Scripture for this new little one.  She chose Luke 1: 14 about the birth of Jesus, which reads… He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth.” When we hear the news of a new little one in the world, it brings us tremendous joy, so I can only imagine the unabashed joy that this couple and all of their family, their friends, have experienced, especially because of all the suffering and struggle that has brought them to this joyous moment.

Today reminds us again that joy is not just about “happiness.” I have known many people for whom it was hard to believe had joy in the middle of often difficult lives, times when hatred was pointed at them and unfair or even violent treatment was perpetrated against them. It’s like they said to those who were oppressing them, “YOU cannot take away my joy because YOU didn’t give it to me… God gave me this joy, God is my joy, and it is deep within me and mine forever.” Witnessing that kind of joy changes you.

When we carve out moments for quiet, for meditation, for prayer and connect with our deepest selves, we are able to accept that all of life resides within joy’s possibilities—not only the happy moments, but also the sorrows and difficulties of life. As I shared last week, much like the work of our hearts, all that flows in can be given new life and pumped back out with renewed oxygen, giving us strength and courage for all circumstances.

I’d like to close with a piece from Jan Richardson, which was included in her book Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons…

Blessed are you who bear the light

in unbearable times, who testify

to its endurance

amid the unendurable, who bear witness

to its persistence

when everything seems in shadow

and grief.

Blessed are you in whom

the light lives, in whom

the brightness blazes— your heart a chapel,

an altar where

in the deepest night can be seen the fire that

shines forth in you

in unaccountable faith, in stubborn hope,

in love that illumines every broken thing it finds.

© Jan Richardson from Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. (Originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of HOPE magazine.)