I Believe in God: Ode to Joy; Isaiah 57:14-19; Luke 1:39-56
First United Methodist Church; December 13, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
This is the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday that if we were all together in this place lighting our traditional Advent wreath, we would be lighting the pink candle—the candle of Joy. I purposely chose all white candles this year instead of purple and pink, so that it would be easier for you to make use of candles that you already have at home, rather than thinking it necessary to go out shopping for something in particular. So far, we have lit the candles of Hope, Love and Joy; next week we’ll light the candle of Peace.
Last year during Advent, in the 200th year anniversary of the hymn “Joy to the World”, I preached a sermon series based on The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They wrote in their book the difference between joy and happiness. “Joy,” the Archbishop noted, “is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as dependent on external circumstances, joy isn’t. Joy comes from within.”
As we make our way through this particular Advent season, we might admit that we’re not exactly happy about the circumstances around us—with the decisions we’ve had to make to ensure the health and safety of our loved ones—and yet the joy of this season remains. Joy continues to call out to us, to shine down on us, to tap us on the shoulder, saying—remember—don’t forget—hang onto—what this season, what this celebration is all about. Remember it’s about Christ’s coming. Remember this amazing gift we’ve been given. Remember!
Two weeks ago, in Luke’s gospel, we were reminded of how the angel had come to Mary, telling her that she would be the mother of God’s Son. Knowing that her truth couldn’t help but be questioned, we were reminded how she said yes to the angel anyway, and then went to Joseph. Last week in Matthew’s gospel we were reminded how Joseph responded, how he decided to quietly call off their engagement. He didn’t want to humiliate Mary, though walking away and leaving her pregnant and alone would have been devastating. There would be no real future for her or for her child. But the angel came to Joseph in a dream, telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife: the child she carried was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Joseph did as the angel said.
Back this week to Luke’s gospel, the story continues as Mary leaves Nazareth to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, who lived in a city in the Judean highlands, about 80 miles away. The angel Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth—who had been unable to conceive—was now 6 months pregnant “in her old age.” Nothing is impossible with God,” the angel told Mary.
Sometimes we interpret Mary’s journey to Elizabeth as being a need for Mary to escape—to distance herself, to get away from any negativity she may have been experiencing in Nazareth, to give everybody time to settle into the knowledge of what is happening… But another possibility is that Mary decided to go to Elizabeth to bless her. To share in her joy. To offer Elizabeth support and encouragement and love as they each adjusted to what was happening in their lives—this thing that neither of them had ever considered would happen! Perhaps Mary came to help Elizabeth pack up all the stuff that had found its way into the spare bedroom. Having been unable to have children after so many years, it had long been abandoned as a potential nursery, but now it was time to have a crib built, to paint the walls and hang new curtains! It was time to do something together and to celebrate their joy!
When Mary enters Elizabeth’s house calling out “Hello, Elizabeth!! Surprise! It’s Mary!” the child Elizabeth carries leaps in her womb. Elizabeth knows without being told that Mary is pregnant, and that the child Mary carries is blessed. “Happy is she,” Elizabeth says, “who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”
That’s when Mary responds with her own song of joy, prophesying, too, what God had already done in blessing her, and what God would do through the son she will bear.
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
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 Israel,
remembering his mercy,
just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
(Common English Bible translation)
This is a song of revolution, a song that cries out for justice, but it’s not a call to arms, it’s a call to embrace the sovereignty/the dominion/the power of God over all creation. Christ’s coming into the world isn’t a show of force but it is a revelation of God’s greatness and God’s goodness; it is evidence that God can be trusted. It is a reminder to Israel, and to us that we belong to God and we can count on God to help us…to be here for us…to save us from our own brokenness, from the brokenness of our world.
“I rejoice in God my savior,” Mary sings.
A savior admits a sense of need that is greater than our own strength. A savior is an admission that we need someone else. We won’t be saved by technology, or social progress or education or legislation. Each of these can be used in positive, good and helpful ways but they will not deliver us. We need a savior. We need Jesus.
And so we wait. In this season of our life together and in our separate places, we prepare. We look forward to what’s ahead with joy and wonder and thankfulness. And there is joy in the waiting…in the anticipation. But it’s not a thumb-twiddling time of waiting. There is work that we’re called to be doing in the meantime.
In our text from the prophet, Isaiah talks about rebuilding. “Survey, survey,” he says. Certainly, the work to “remove barriers from my people’s road” is a long process in terms of restructuring the deeply rooted roads of injustice that we’ve created in our society. We must continue to “survey, survey,” to notice where change needs to happen. We must continue to tend to hearts that are crushed. Joy comes in our world, step-by-step, to break down barriers. Strength comes in trusting that God is working alongside us, inviting us to keep checking in and to be willing to listen and respond since our tendency is to steer off course again and again.
And yet we’re called to do God’s work. To listen and to learn and to do what we can. To build relationships, to respond to need, to be witnesses. True, need will always be with us, but with God’s help we can make a difference, we can have an impact on other’s lives. We can be a part of the revolution of building, of restoring, of connecting.
It’s a small thing, but small things can be so important. If you haven’t already done it, and it’s something you usually do, I want to encourage you: decorate for Christmas, even if no one but you will see what you’ve done. Put the lights on your tree, hang your favorite ornaments and throw on some tinsel if that makes you happy, even if the millennials in your family give you a hard time for doing it, like mine do. (My kids say it shows my age. Whatever.) Don’t let the virus dampen your joy. Stay home, stay healthy, but let your decorations be a sign/an act of revolution against the powers of this world/against our temporary companion who will soon be defeated by a vaccine, I do so trust. And sing loud and confidently the carols of Christmas. Turn on your radio or your stereo if you can’t stand your own voice and play it loud and proud. It is an act of defiance, an act of revolution. The things of this world will not overpower the coming of Christ into our world.
Our final hymn that we’ll be singing this morning is “Joyful, Joyful” which I realize is a song of praise and thanksgiving and not a Christmas carol. But perhaps it’s just what we need right now.
There is a documentary that came out in 2013 called “Following the Ninth” that I intended to watch but wasn’t able to this week, about the global impact of Beethoven’s final symphony, from which our hymn comes. The website for the film tells how Beethoven wrote this symphony in 1824, near the end of his life, in a time that he had little to be thankful for. He was sick, alienated from almost everyone, and completely deaf. He had never managed to find love, or create the family he always wanted. And yet, he managed to create an anthem of joy that transcends beauty over suffering. Celebrated to this day for its ability to heal, repair and bring people together across divides, the Ninth has become an anthem of liberation and hope that has inspired many around the world.
- At Tiananmen Square in 1989, students played the Ninth over loudspeakers as the army came in to crush their struggle for freedom.
- In Chile, women living under the Pinochet dictatorship sang the Ninth at torture prisons, where men inside took hope when they heard their voices.
- As the Berlin Wall came down in December 1989, it collapsed to the sound of Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Ninth as an “Ode to Freedom.”
- In Japan each December, the Ninth is performed hundreds of times, often with 10,000 people in the chorus. Following the Ninth gives us insight into the heightened importance of this massive communal Ninth, known as “Daiku,” in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
“Daiku” translated into English means “carpenter.”
“Following the Ninth,” is the name of the film.
Don’t let go of your joy. Lift it up. Celebrate!
Proclaim your belief in God our Savior. Sing your Ode to Joy.