Surprised by Joy

December 8, 2019 – Rev. Paula Norbert


As we gather on this second Sunday of Advent, we hear this lovely reading from Isaiah, which presents these images which have been depicted in religious art over time.  It was called the “Peaceable Kingdom” and we imagine that picture of the various animals coming together in peace with one another.  In Matthew, we hear the beginning of the third chapter of his Gospel.  The first two chapters include the birth narratives both of Jesus and of John the Baptist.  Much of how we have come to think about Jesus’ birth comes from Matthew and then from Luke.  In this third chapter, we jump ahead to when both of these men are fully grown and ready to take on the world.  John is  very interesting, a compelling character in scripture.  He has a very confrontational style, is a prophet and yet, people come out to hear him in large numbers.  There is something provocative about him that brings people in, much like Jesus will find in his ministry but altogether different.  John tells people what they don’t want to hear; he challenges them to change their ways.  He lived a very disciplined life, stripped of the typical comforts and yet he was very attractive to people.   John invited people to prepare their hearts, prepare their lives for the coming of the One who could bring deep meaning, deep joy and many surprises in fact, to their lives.  Let us pray,  Be with us this day, O Holy One, as we journey through this Advent Season.  Invite us to be open to the surprises that God brings to our lives, the deep joy that takes root, and the hope of this season.  Amen.

Once asked by an interviewer what he believed to be his greatest gift, Rabbi Abraham Heschel replied, “My ability to be surprised.”
In his book God in Search of Man, Rabbi Heschel expands the thought, “The root of religion is the question of what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder and amazement.”

In other words, if there are no unsacred moments, if the reality of God’s presence infuses every moment, how do we begin to embrace that treasure?   I think about unexpected moments we may find in nature, especially with the beauty of the recent snow.  I wonder if you have taken walks in the quiet after a snowfall, perhaps beneath the stars on a winter evening and suddenly felt overcome by a deep sense of peace, a deep sense of joy.

Years ago, the Christian writer, C. S. Lewis wrote a book entitled Surprised by Joy in which he described his childhood,  his journey to faith and its meaning, its profound   joy for him.  Lewis described the happiness of his early childhood as “Joy,” a state of divine transcendence that he spent the rest of his life trying to recapture.  For him, the journey wound wind through the joy of writing to the exploration of the deep meaning in life, and ultimately from atheism to Christianity.

The  experience of joy can take us by surprise or it can come in the form of surprises in our lives, when in the midst of the mundane,  everyday moments of our lives, something takes us totally by surprise and touches a very deep place within us and reminds us that we are part of something far bigger than ourselves.  We are meant to be here, despite the challenges or struggles or sorrows of our lives; God has a plan for us.  I’m sure we’ve all seen the surprise reunions that air frequently on television, members of the military arriving home and surprising their children or mothers, all videoed and shared via social media or on the news.  Many of them are touching to watch;  we get a peek into someone else’s moment of joy to be reunited with a beloved family member when they didn’t expect it.  Recently, I saw one of a Peace Corps volunteer who had been working overseas in Madagascar for three years; he missed his sister’s high school graduation but was able to arrange an early return home and surprise her in the middle of her college class.  They both cried as they embraced each other after so long apart.  And often we feel brought to tears to witness such a moment in the lives of others.

Several years ago, there was an amazing story of two orphaned sisters from South Korea who were separated more than 40 years ago and adopted by different U.S. families and then met by accident working for the same Florida hospital, during the same shift, on the same floor. (Sarasota Herald-Tribune) 

Holly Hoyle O’Brien was adopted by an American family in 1978 at the age of 9, a few years after her father died and her stepmother had fled with her younger half-sister. While O’Brien was growing up in Virginia, her younger sister Meagan Hughes also was orphaned and was adopted by a family from Kingston, N.Y. O’Brien knew she had a sister, and her adoptive family tried to help track her down, but they had no luck.

“But in my heart, I knew … she was out there somewhere,” she explained. Fast-forward a few decades, after both had married, divorced, and started careers as certified nursing assistants. Somehow, both were hired at the same hospital in  Sarasota—working the same 12-hour shift on the same floor. They became fast friends and realized how stunningly similar their backgrounds were.  They decided to do a DNA test which they did, and the results were positive. “I was trembling, I was so excited,” Holly said, and her sister Meghan added, “I was in shock, I was numb. I have a sister.”

With no kids of her own, Holly became, in an instant, an aunt with two nieces.  Words seem inadequate. “I have this very strong belief that God must be in this. . .” Holly shared. “…whatever I’ve done, I must’ve done something good in my life…” to discover my long lost sister after so long.  (By Billy Cox , Herald-Tribune / Saturday, October 10, 2015)

Some people don’t really like surprises; they would prefer not to be the beneficiary of a surprise party or perhaps they are the ones who actually snuck in to their living rooms when they were kids to unwrap some of their gifts before Christmas morning.  But the surprises God works in our life, the joyful surprises that remind us that the One who loves us is still working in the world; those are welcome surprises indeed.

Roger Housden, in his book, Dancing with Joy: 99 Poems, writes about the experience of joy. “It is what we are here for,” he says. “It is wholehearted, full-bodied, all-encompassing. In a moment of joy, you are no longer a kingdom divided—between right and wrong, this way or that way, should or shouldn’t.” He goes on: “Joy can free us from our character altogether, at least for a time. It can take us out into the wide world beyond our own self-preoccupations. It can join us to the air and the trees, to other people, to cows and to stones and to the living spirit of humankind itself. It can join us to the china mug of tea in our own right hand.”

When we think of the words to the hymn, Joy to the World, we repeat again and again, …heaven and nature sing, we’re invited to imagine the ways that the heavens and nature are singing to us of the divine.  If we think of praying as an act of becoming aware of our connection to God, the source of Joy and the Source of Love, how might we best make time for that kind of awareness?   Connecting 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. 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.  Have you ever been surprised by God in the midst of a day? When was the last time you were surprised by Joy?