Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:46b-55
Good morning. Today is the third Sunday in the season of Advent; today we reflect on joy. But first, I want to offer a solemn remembrance. A man named Carroll Spinney died last Sunday. He was a voice actor and a puppeteer, and if you don’t remember him by name, you will certainly remember this two most famous characters, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street.
I grew up with Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. I loved the Muppets. My sense of humor was informed by the Muppets, and I’m glad that was a part of my formative years. So, it was like another piece of my childhood died when I learned that Carroll Spinney died; it was another marker of my age and how far in the rearview mirror all of those things are.
This season can be difficult for many people. I think my childhood was mostly happy, and the holidays were particularly joyous. But when I think of all of my loved ones who have passed, all the people who loved me into being and gave me joy, well, sometimes I get sad.
I wish I could recapture that joy I felt as a child, and I know I’m not alone in this. The holidays can be a double-edged sword. Joy can be difficult to find when we’re looking backwards.
However, this past week I experienced a lot of joy with members of this congregation. On Tuesday, I was invited to join the ladies from one of the PW circles for lunch. Nine of us went to the Chapter House. The food was good and the company was even better.
We were seated in the back dining room and most of the tables were empty. There were three older gentlemen at a table on the other side of the room. They were finishing their meal when we arrived, but they lingered over their coffee and conversation.
Perhaps an hour later, after we had finished eating, the conversation at our table grew louder. Then someone said something really funny and the whole table erupted with laughter. And most of you know that I laugh pretty loudly.
The three older gentlemen were still at their table. The moment we burst out laughing, all three of them snapped their heads and shot dirty looks at us. And then one of them said, “Next time, say it a little louder so the whole restaurant can hear you.” He was wearing green. I wanted to ask if his name was Oscar.
I wanted to do more than that. I had to stifle the urge to confront him, but I really, really wanted to go over to their table and give them all a lecture. A loud lecture. For everyone to hear. But it occurred to me that it was Advent, and such a lecture would not have left me with a feeling of peace—smug satisfaction, perhaps, but not peace. I realized that the right response was no response. I ignored them and remained in the joy that was shared at our table.
Both of our readings this morning are filled with joy. Our reading from the Gospel of Luke is a song of praise, sung by the virgin Mary. She has just been visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her that she is about to conceive a child and she is to name that child Jesus; she is about to bring the Son of God into the world. Our reading this morning is Mary’s response to that news; it’s her song of praise. She is filled with joy and she gives thanks to God.
The images in Mary’s song of praise are images of uplift: Mary has been lifted up from poverty and obscurity; she has found favor with God. She has been blessed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. And God, through the Savior that she is carrying, shall bring down all earthly rulers, as well as the rich and the proud. The powerful shall be made humble, while the poor and hungry shall be fed; God’s chosen people will be made whole.
Isaiah also offers a set of images of abundance and renewal: the desert shall rejoice and blossom abundantly; the weak shall be made strong:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water. (35:5-7)
God promises to restore all of the broken things. This is wonderful. This is joyous. But there’s one part of Isaiah’s message that gives me pause. Isaiah says that God “will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense” (35:4).
This seems to be at odds with my understanding of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. I suppose there would be a burst of joy at the destruction of those who we see as oppressors, but how long would that last? Wouldn’t that lead to more violence? God calls us to peace and reconciliation, not vindication.
I worry that this promise of vengeance and terrible recompense just gives us license to engage our worst desires. It’s so easy to latch on to that one line in the scriptures that justifies the thing we already believe, and then leap to a place of self-righteousness. But self-righteousness is not true righteousness, and vindication is NOT joy.
On Tuesday, at the Chapter House, I nearly leapt at the opportunity for vindication when Oscar at the other table wanted to stifle our joy. I wanted to exercise my self-righteousness. I didn’t, but that didn’t make me righteous, either.
Yes, it’s important to stifle our urges to humble others, to bring them down, to seek our own vindication. That’s the wrong thing and we all have to stop doing the wrong thing. But that’s not the same as doing the right thing. I suppose the right thing to do would have been to go over to their table and invite them to our Christmas Eve service and experience the joy we share in this congregation. I hope I’ll have the presence of mind to do that in the future.
Both of our scriptures today are about transformation. That’s the key. God promises to transform the deserts in our lives; God promises to uplift the poor and the humble; God promises to feed the hungry. Many of us are well-fed, spiritually and physically—I’m certainly well-fed. The uplifting that we hear in Mary’s song of praise isn’t just for Mary, it’s for everyone. Mary shared her gift with the world. We are called to share our gifts, too. That’s how we do the right thing.
I saw a wonderful example of this on Facebook this week. A woman left a basket of snacks and drinks on her porch. There was a note that said something to the effect of:
I am expecting a lot of packages this season. These snacks are for all of the delivery drivers from Amazon, FedEx, UPS, and the USPS. Please know that I appreciate all the extra hours you put in during this time of year. Please take as much as you like, with my thanks for all you do.
The woman also had a security camera on her porch, and the post included a video of a delivery man dropping off a package. The guy read the sign grabbed a bottle of water and a few snacks, and then he did a little dance—a dance of joy!
Did any of you see that? Didn’t that give you joy? It made me feel that there are still people in this world who care, who do the right thing without hope of any reward for their kindness. Both the woman and the driver’s response gave me joy!
There’s more to this story. It turns out, the driver was in a hurry that morning and he walked off without his lunch. He was facing a long, busy day, with no time to take a break. He was feeling miserable. And then someone fed him—not just with the food and drink, but with the acknowledgement that what he did was valuable and appreciated. Wow! Just, wow!
I could end this sermon with that story—it’s a sermon in its own right. But I want to offer one more example of people doing the right thing, giving joy. And it’s a story from this congregation.
On Thursday night, several members of the choir, along with several other members of the congregation, went to the American Hotel to sing Christmas carols. This brought joy to everyone who was there that night. It also gave us the opportunity to tell people about our Christmas Eve service—and show them the joy that we have and may share with them if they want it. We offered the gifts of music and joy for all; we gave freely of ourselves. May we all look for ways to shore the joy of this Advent season, and may we continue to share that joy throughout the year. May we all be the light that shines in the darkness, for the darkness shall not overcome it. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, Beloved, remember the words of the Apostle Paul that we heard last Sunday: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Remember those words as you leave this place. Carry that hope, peace, and joy with you and share it with the world. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. This is the truth and the love in which we were created. Go forth and live fully and abundantly into that love. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!