Michael Barrett concludes our Advent series with a profound message about finding true joy, based on Mary’s song
Magnifying the Joy: Reflections on Luke 1:39-55
December 23, 2018 Michael Barrett
After Peace and Hope and Love, the final advent theme of Joy is our focus today.
In today’s reading, Luke abruptly halts the action of the story – and forces us, in a sense, to ponder the meaning of the unfolding events. He makes us pause. He makes us wait. He knows that stopping may whet the appetite for joy.
So instead of making a beeline for Bethlehem, we find ourselves, instead, drawn to the hill country of Judea to listen to the gladdened song of a young Hebrew servant girl. Mary’s psalm is rich and reverential and revolutionary. In its essence, it is the first of Luke’s four canticles and it is steeped in joy. It is most often entitled the Magnificat.
We may wonder just what Mary (or even her cousin Elizabeth) had, to be so joyful about. Mary is living in a 4th rate backwater province that is occupied and subjugated. She is poor, powerless, and plain. Mary is likely between 12.5 and 14 years of age, and she’s unmarried but pregnant. Her betrothed is considering ending their engagement. Yet, overcome with joy – she up and bolts, going off seemingly unescorted to southern Judea to share her good news with her cousin Elizabeth.
There are powerful reflections to be considered from today’s message. For many of us “joy” is an emotion hard to define and even more difficult to understand. This is what Elizabeth is asking Mary to explain – why should you come to me with all this joy? We find the power, presence, and possibility of joy throughout these verses. In Mary’s answer to Elizabeth, she identifies three causes for her joy – and they all have to do with God. God is sympathetic — God is sovereign — God is salvational.
If we pause to open the eyes and ears of our hearts, we may find in Mary’s causes, reasons bearing on our own hope for joy in our lives.
There is a singular potency to the power and presence of joy. In this story, joy is so impactful and so compelling that it must be shouted, sung, and shared.
Joy is not the same thing as happiness — although both are important in our being. People, places, and things can make us happy – we think – for a while. Getting a raise or buying a new car or passing that final exam can make us happy. The reality of happiness is that it is temporary. It focuses on a specific event. It is a surface feeling affected by the external. Happiness comes and goes.
Joy, of the kind felt by Mary and Elizabeth and John is as inexplicable as it is inescapable. Joy arises deep from within and it tends to be far longer lasting, perhaps even eternal. Note that all three people in our story were infused with the Holy Spirit. Joy is the presence of God within us touching our heart.
Much like grace, joy does not require worldly qualification. These are the humblest of people – they could not be more marginalized socially, economically, or politically. Yet, they are spiritually central to the story and made so by the Spirit. Infused by the Holy Spirit, all of a sudden, Elizabeth (not Zechariah) speaks like a prophet; the unborn John, not yet having seen the light of day, but having sensed the light of the world, leaps for joy; and Mary, in a few lines of song, transforms philosophy. And the effect of the Spirit’s presence is to bind them together in community and connection and joyful relationship. Mary’s experience testifies that God not only delights in our personal relationship with Him – Father, Son, and Spirit; but also takes great pleasure with our affectionate, compassionate, and spiritual relationships with each other, including those like the ones we strive to form here at CCN.
This is exactly the kind of joy Jesus speaks of in John 16:24-34:
This is what I want you to do: ask the Father for whatever is in keeping with the things I’ve revealed to you. Ask in my name, according to my will, and He’ll most certainly give it to you. Your joy will be a river overflowing its banks.
Mary’s Cause for Joy #1 God is Sympathetic
He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
His mercy extends to those who fear [awe, respect] him.
He has helped His servant Israel, remembering to be merciful.
God is on our side. God is concerned, caring and compassionate. His relationship and His affinity with each of us is one in which He allows wherein whatever affects us, to affect Him. He hears our cry. He feels our pain. He sees our needs. He delights in our happiness and joy. God is sympathetic in many ways.
God is a devoted champion of the poor and needy; the widower and the orphan throughout His Word.
Blessed are you who are poor. Luke 6:20.
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs will be the kingdom of God. Matthew 5:3.
The Lord is closed to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18.
God identifies with the poor – just consider the birth narrative of His son – choice of Mary/some princess; choice of a conquered minor province/world empire; choice of Bethlehem/Rome; choice of coming as a child/as a warrior; choice of a stable/a palace; and choice of the 1st century/the 21st century.
No matter how bad things are – primarily and ultimately, we each belong to God. And just like Mary, the Mighty One wants to do great things for each of us. Remembering this may help us maintain joy from day to day in the world we live, as Nehemiah wrote [8:10];
Go and enjoy choice foods and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to the Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
Mary’s Cause for Joy #2 God is Sovereign
God is THE MIGHTY ONE. God is performing mighty deeds. God is scattering the proud. God is bringing down rulers. God is lifting up, filling up, and sending away empty-handed, some. God is helping a whole nation.
In a world filled with confusion, chaos, and conflict; God is going about setting things right. It is God that does the impossible – barren women conceive, stutterers become prophets, shepherds became kings, carpenters work miracles, and the dead are raised, and the coldest, stoniest hearts thaw to the warmth of love.
As revolutionary as Mary’s song is – it is also important to keep in mind who is the subject and who is the object of her verses. God is the subject: we are the object. This is God’s revolution to lead and He has chosen to do it through Jesus. Nowhere are we encouraged or ordered to take matters separately into our own hands. Can we not take joy in letting God be God? Can we not take comfort in the knowledge that God neither expects nor empowers us to bring about perfection in this world all by ourselves? God intervenes in human history to accomplish that. God and only God can create a completely just society. Can we not find relief in knowing that our church is not intended to evolve into one more raucous socio-political agency attempting to confront unjust power structures in terms of their own violence and brutality?
Does this equate to a complimentary pass, to doing nothing about injustice, evil, and the world’s ills? No. Consider Mary’s example, — rather than taking matters into our own hands, our role like Mary’s is to put ourselves into God’s hands, prayerfully, and ask Him to use us as instruments of is His will.
How do we do that?
First, start with humility and approach God humbly.
When asked how one learns God’s ways, Saint Augustine replied, ‘first, be humble, second, be humble, and third, be humble.’
Humility concerns attitude more than anything else. The poor and needy are not necessarily humble as well. The rich and poor are not always proud and arrogant. Humility means a state of being in awe of God, respecting God, striving to obey God and learn from Him, and of being in deference to Him.
Secondly, follow God’s inspirational models along paths of praise and study and acts of kindness and justice. Mary exemplifies such.
- She is intellectually active in her belief (How can this be?).
- She trusts in God’s promise (unlike Moses she doesn’t denigrate her worth or like Zechariah, ask for a sign).
- She submits to God’s will, relying on God’s goodness.
- She obeys God’s will with activity.
- She praises God.
Similarly, when we strive to follow the incarnation of God, in our church, we strive to honor Christ, grow in Christ, and serve Christ.
Thirdly, we may like Mary seek to magnify (Magnificat) the presence of the Lord in our lives. We make more room for God in our being. Mary carries Jesus forth in her womb. We can choose to carry Jesus forth in our hearts – by the way, we live our lives – with hope and faith and love, with care and compassion and forgiveness, and with JOY so that by our witness, others will see God’s work in the world.
Mary’s Cause for Joy #3 God is Salvational
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
God is out to save us. All of us. This divine priority is not just meant for the lowly and the needed. Of course when we are in the most desperate need – depressed, lonely, alienated, poor, hungry, oppressed, ill, grieving – we are at that time much more likely to know we need a savior. It is then that we feel most acutely a sense of a need greater than our own strength can handle. We accept that our deliverance must be met by other than our own action. It is then that we cry out to God for help. God responds to that recognized need of dependence upon Him.
The problem with power, wealth, or position; the danger with having authority, money, or status, is that it can lead us into a false attitude of feeling self-sufficient. The people, who were scattered, dethroned or sent away empty were done so because they acted like they did not need God or anyone else for that matter. The question we are called to answer is “Am I a self-sufficient proud ruler or am I a dependent humble servant?’
His mercy extends to those who fear Him, from generation to generation.
God’s mercy – extended age after age and time after time and again and again. Can we take joy in knowing that it is never too late, no ever many times we fail again, with repentance to make amends – to be ‘at – one’ (atone) with God. God’s mercy extends from Abraham right down to and including each of us. Forgiveness and repentance are mentioned 45 times in the Gospel of Luke, alone! God’s overriding priority is not to dish out well-deserved punishment, but to put us into a position where we will experience His graciousness completely.
Can we find joy in realizing that God’s cardinal intent and continued intervention in our history has been our ultimate salvation? Focus, focus, focus on God. Yes, He may use technology or social progress or education or scientific invention or even laws and legislation – but those are mere means to His end. God is our Savior.
The Lord is my strength and my shield. My heart trusts in Him and He helps me. My heart leaps for joy and with my song I praise Him. Psalm 28:7
Mary’s Message: God is sympathetic, God is sovereign, and God is salvational.
My brothers and sisters, as this year comes to a close and a new year begins, may we ask ourselves as beings created in God’s image:
Where do MY sympathies lie?
Who or What is sovereign in MY life?
Who am I trying to save with MY life?
An Advent Blessing:
My sisters and brothers, as advent once again draws to a close,
May you find joy in being caught up in God’s great plan.
May you find joy when God turns your life upside down or right side up or inside out or off in an entirely new direction.
May you find joy in a magnified presence of God in your life as you carry Jesus forth in your heart.
May you find joy in knowing that you belong to God and that He is your strength, your savior, and your shield.
May you find joy in depending on God’s unconditional love for you and God’s unceasing hope for you and God’s unwavering faith in you.
And as Jesus comes again on this Christmas, may your heart leap for joy. Amen.