Mary’s Song of PraiseLuke 1:46-55 (NRSV)
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Friends, today we celebrate the third week of advent by lighting the candle of JOY. Now I wonder: when you think of joy, what comes to mind? Someone with a big smile on their face perhaps? Or a person laughing? Maybe someone dancing, or acting silly, or just having fun?
Now, though we often think that joy is all about being happy, joy actually begins deep inside of us because of memories that we have. And sometimes in those memories, we don’t only experience happiness but we may have also experienced sadness, or anger, or frustration, or even fear. Does that sound strange, that joy would come from memories like that? Well, no matter the emotion, the joy that we feel comes from real-life experiences, because they were real moments that were important to who we are as individuals.
You see, having joy is not the same thing as being happy. Joy is so much more than happiness. Feeling happy is simply a temporary reaction to what is happening around us. Happiness is transitory; it comes and goes as the circumstances around us change. Joy, on the other hand, is foundational. It is inside of us, and it only deepens through changing circumstances.
Our faith tells us that joy looks beyond what is happening here and now and reframes our present situation in the light of God’s infinite grace and love, enabling us to experience whatever life sends our way with trust and confidence in God. Unlike joy, happiness disappears in the face of pain and struggle. Yet many of our great lessons in life are learned by reflecting on our difficult personal experiences. Joy helps us to put things into perspective and to remember what is truly important.
Now even though some of us may be experiencing deep sadness and frustration and grief because of loss or difficult circumstances in our lives, the Good News is that God’s grace is deeper still. And when we gather together during the Advent season, we are called to celebrate God’s presence among us with joy because God is with us no matter where we are or how difficult the circumstances of our lives might be. Let’s face it: if we really think about the Christmas story, we find that on that first Christmas, Mary’s circumstances were not exactly perfect either.
Folks, many of us run around crazy at this time of year, trying to find the perfect Christmas tree and the perfect gifts, and the perfect meal in order to have the perfect Christmas. But the truth is, we are setting ourselves up to be disappointed because there has never been “a perfect Christmas.” Even the first Christmas wasn’t perfect because Jesus was born into an imperfect world. But even in the midst of lives that were less than perfect, we see the central characters in the Christmas story choosing joy!
If you remember the whole story, at first Joseph did not respond very well to the report that his fiancé was pregnant. He actually made plans to divorce her, until the angel came and assured him that everything would be okay. And Mary? Mary was in a tough spot too! Here she was a young teen, pregnant, and unmarried. She would surely be judged, outcast, and possibly even put to death. Life was NOT going to be easy for Mary. She had a lot that she could have complained about and even become depressed about but what Mary had was more important to her than what she did not have.
You see, Mary had a fervent faith in God. She trusted God and knew that God would never leave her. When Mary went off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, she shared her story which she had been unable to share with others. When she did, she was so filled with joy that she sang out, saying: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on, all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me–holy is his name.”
My friends, Mary sang out with joy, not because she knew what was going on or because her life was easy or because she was overcome by happiness, but because she knew that no matter what happened around her, no matter how much she was judged by society, no matter how difficult things became, no matter how frightened she sometimes felt, and no matter how out of control her life and the world around her seemed, God loved her unconditionally!
Friends, not a Sunday goes by here in Oldtown–nor will a Sunday pass that I am in the pulpit–when you will not be reminded that God loves YOU unconditionally.
Because I know that life is sometimes hard. I know that we are sometimes surrounded by grief and overwhelmed by pain. I know that we turn on the television and we hear of horrific tragedies and acts of violence and injustice. I know that sometimes it’s hard to pay our bills and make ends meet, I know that there are more hungry and homeless families every day. And I know that sometimes even our friends and our families, the people who we love the most hurt us and cause us pain, and sometimes we do the same in return.
But I also know that through it all, through all of our struggle and difficulty and frustration, because of that baby that was born in the stable in Bethlehem long ago, there is always hope, and we always have the opportunity to choose joy.
So, friends, as you go out into your busy week ahead, and as you face that holiday traffic and feel short on time and patience, take a deep breath and remember that JOY comes from within.
May it be so. Thanks be to God! Amen!