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"Joy Notwithstanding" -- Isaiah 61:1-11; Luke 1:46b-55 (Third Sunday of Advent)






In this morning’s Isaiah text, the prophet rises up out of the rubble of their world, and sings this song of... joy: My whole being exults in God!!! I rejoice in God!!! Seventy years before this, Jerusalem – their home – had been razed to the ground– the people taken captive. And now – 70 years later – they’ve stumbled back – to find their world still in rubble. Standing in the rubble... this is not where we would expect to find a song of joy.

        

And Mary, too. We know Mary’s story well enough. She is an unwed young woman who finds herself pregnant in a patriarchal world that punishes women for... well, just being women. And in the midst of that, Mary rises up and sings.. the Magnificat.. this song of joy: “My soul magnifies God! My spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”  Living under the heel of imperial oppression... this is not where we would expect to find a song joy. But this is joy nonetheless.


So maybe it’s time to ask – as we have set out on this Advent Long Journey Toward JoyWhat is joy?[1] As we work and watch and weep: What is this joy for which we long? What is this joy toward which we journey?

        

Most of the time, we think of joy as something we feel and experience when something good happens.[2] A baby is born... and we experience joy. The choir sings an amazing Gloria... and we experience joy. We fall in love; we reconnect with an old friend; we accomplish something we never thought possible; we watch the sun rise from the horizon of a dark night in a dazzling carnival of color; our team wins the game... and we experience joy. We experience joy because something good happens.

        

Or, the complement of that: We experience joy when something bad comes to an end.[3]  Remember that Psalm from this summer? When the people in captivity, when they hear that their captivity is coming to an end: “We were like those who dream! Our mouths were filled with laughter. Our tongues with shouts of joy!!!”  When captivity ends... joy. When a despot falls from power...  joy. When confusion and dismay open up into clarity... joy. We experience joy because something bad comes to an end.

        

That’s one way to think about joy – what one writer calls “joy because” – joy becausesomething good happens, joy because something bad ends – joy because.[4] To be sure, that’s a part of joy. We know that from our lived experience, and we see it all across Scripture. But there’s got to be something more to it – because in this Isaiah text, in Mary’s world, the world is a wreck. And what we see is joy notwithstanding – joy notwithstanding the circumstances of their world.

        

In the Isaiah text, the people have returned home to find their world in ruins.[5] We know the story. Years ago, the Babylonian empire swept in, burned Jerusalem to the ground, and took a good segment of people into exile. In last week’s Isaiah text – “Comfort, comfort my people” – after 70 years of exile, the people hear the good news that they are going home. And in this morning’s Isaiah text, this bedraggled people – they have made their way home, and they find their world in ruin – no homes, no marketplace, no temple. They walk around what Isaiah calls “the ancient ruins,” “the devastations of many generations” – theirs is a world of ashes and mourning.

        

And then, even as the prophet names that, there is a turning. Something shifts for the prophet – still standing in the rubble – still grieving bitter loss. Something shifts so that the prophet can see a garland instead of ashes, a mantle of praise girding up their “faint spirits,” the anointing oil of gladness instead of mourning. What’s behind this turning?  It can’t be joy because something good has happened. Their world is in ruin. It’s not likely joy becausesomething bad has come to an end. Yes, they’ve been released to come home, but they’ve left one devastation only to arrive in another. This doesn’t look like joy-because.

        

But standing in the rubble, the prophet sings this song of joy... because... because God.  Because God loves justice. Because God loves God’s people. Because God rescues and saves the people. Because God sets the world right. Even in the wreckage of our world. This isn’t joy because of their circumstances; it’s joy notwithstanding the circumstances of the world.... because God.

        

Same with Mary.  Now, she’s not standing in the wreckage left by imperial oppression, she’s standing in the red-hot midst of imperial oppression – present, not past tense.[6] Mary has fled to her cousin Elizabeth’s house because she knows what patriarchal power does to women who step out of the patriarchal norms. She flees to the safety of Elizabeth’s house for her life.  And remember the story – Mary walks in and something stirs within Elizabeth, and Elizabeth proclaims Mary blessed – this unwed mother in this patriarchal world... blessed are you... and Mary sings this song of joy.

        

Something shifts.... there is a turning. And Mary sings it out. “”God is bringing down the powers, and lifting up the lowly. God is sending the rich away empty, but filling the hungry with good things.” Make no mistake, outside the walls of Elizabeth’s little house, the Roman Empire still breathes its death-dealing threats. But here in this moment, Mary sings this song of joy notwithstanding... because... because... God.

        

In my reading over the past few weeks, I’ve come across a description of joy that has really stayed with me. It’s from N.T. Wright: “Joy is the fresh presence of God... the fresh action of God,” rising up from the steady and sure saving action of God across all time.[7] Yes, joy is an emotion – something we feel – a response to the goodness we experience in creation and in God. And, joy is an action – Rejoice! –a celebration of the goodness of all that God has created.[8]  And, joy is a stance where we ground ourselves firmly in the goodness of God amid the trouble and turmoil of the world.[9]  

        

In that sense, joy isn’t so much about the shifting circumstances of our life, as it is about the steady ground of God’s steadfast love and ultimate sovereignty. It’s not so much about our circumstances as it is about the larger reality of God’s love that transcends the churnings of our world – always and ultimately moving the world toward good. One writer says it this way: “Joy is an embodied awareness of holy presence and extravagant love.”[10] Our joy isn’t so much about our circumstances, as it is about God’s will for human flourishing – and God’s delight in human flourishing. Think of the story of the Prodigal Son – the parent who runs down the drive to embrace the one returning home; or the story of the woman and the lost coin, who scours the house, and when she finds what is lost, she calls all the neighbors together to rejoice. Our joy is ultimately about the larger reality of God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s power, and yes, God’s joy in human flourishing – in the flourishing of all creation. [11] Joy is the fresh action of God that embodies –  in this moment – God’s forever longing for human flourishing – even and especially when times are hard.

        

That’s the joy that the prophet and Mary can sing rising out of the rubble and struggle of power-over.

        

Now, let me be clear as to what I am NOT saying. I am not saying that joy negates or disregards or even supplants our very real pain and grieving, or that it ignores human suffering.


But thinking of joy as the fresh action of God – opens up to us the possibility that God’s love and joy and saving help are available to us in every circumstance. We are never cut off. Joy is possible because God  -- because God takes seriously our suffering and our grieving – because God wills a better world – because God wills and desires and longs for human flourishing. God always has, and God always will. As the Book of Lamentations puts it, it’s the one thing we can count on every day – God’s love and mercy, “fresh as the morning, sure as the sunrise.”


What I’ve come to realize is that we’ve been talking about joy all year long. Think back to Juneteenth.[12] Do you remember? June 19, 1865. Black folks who had been enslaved in Texas hear the word that they are now free. Joy. And then, in the observance of Juneteenth, year after year – the celebration of that same joy persists, in fresh commitment to freedom, even as the evils of systemic American racism continue to grind away. Joy in remembering that day of liberation – and joy at the fresh of experience of freedom even in the troubles and pain of the present day.


Think back to when we talked about Pride anthems in June – those songs LGBTQIA+ folks know by heart – “I Am What I Am” – “I Will Survive.” [13] I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’ve been oddly fascinated by Cher’s new Christmas song: “DJ Play a Christmas Song.”[14] And I warned you I might have more to say. That song takes us to a dance floor at Christmas time – with vibrant red and green lights, and the pulse of music, as Cher sings:


DJ, play a Christmas song

I want to be dancing all night long

It’s tough outside, but it’s love in here

And that’s the only thing I want this year.

 

Now, that may sound like just a bit of Christmas fluff to some. But I hear it standing in the LGBTQIA+ community, listening to Cher. For so many in our community, the holidays come with particular pain. So many in our community are separated from family – disparaged, discouraged, some even disowned. At Christmas and the rest of the year, far too many LGBTQIA+ folks move through a world that tells us that we should not be who we are or love who we love. And in the midst of that hard world, in clubs, on dance floors, dancing to Cher and others, we have found moments and spaces together, where we can be who we are – and laugh – and sing – where, for a moment, we can be free.  So when Cher sings about a disco dance floor at Christmas time, and says: "It’s tough outside, but it’s love in here/ And that’s the only thing I want this year" – I hear joy – joy because of that fresh word that life and love can be ours too – joy notwithstanding the hate that persists in the world.

        

Think back to the Apostle Paul – sitting in that jail cell writing his letter to the Philippians, who have just sent him a fresh bit of support. And, sitting there in the reality of a prison he will never leave, his response is... joy.  In his Letter to the Philippians, he says it over and over:  “Rejoice! Again I say rejoice!!! Be anxious for nothing. Let your gentleness be made known to all. God is near.”  Rejoice! In every circumstance. God is near. God is good. God is sovereign over all of this – and in Christ, and for forever, God desires above all else the flourishing of humanity – and of all creation – and of you. Rejoice!

        

And, looking back – at Juneteenth – and those Pride anthems – and the Apostle Paul in prison – I think we glimpse one more aspect of joy that we can’t ignore.  We’ve talked about joy-because and joy-notwithstanding. The full experience almost necessarily flows into something I’ve heard called: joy-against.


Joy-against. Now hang in there with me.  If joy – God’s joy – our joy – if joy is ultimately about what is good for the flourishing of humanity and creation – then joy must also necessarily stand against all that stands in opposition to that flourishing.

        

The joy in the liberation of Juneteenth compels us to stand against racism and every power that holds people down or denies their full human dignity.

        

The joy in the liberation we sing in those Pride anthems compels us to stand against every power and force that seeks to keep us separate and apart, to stand against laws that target our trans siblings, to stand against any action that seeks to make anyone feel somehow less than.

        

The joy and freedom of which the Apostle writes from his prison cell reminds us that he also wrote: “It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”

        

Joy because of the goodness we see and experience in the world.

        

Joy notwithstanding the trouble, turmoil, and suffering – because God is here and always on the way.

        

Joy against every power that seeks to keep humanity from God’s forever longing for human flourishing – for our good – for the good of all creation.


Can you hear that in Mary’s song?


My whole being magnifies God! My spirit rejoices in God my savior!

God has scattered the proud in their thoughts,

brought down the powerful from the thrones,

dismantled the systems that keep the rich rich,

while the poor go hungry.

My spirit rejoices as I see God filling the hungry with good things!

         -- as I see God lifting up the lowly

         -- as I feel God doing all that in me – God’s humble servant.

        

Can you hear it in the words of the prophet – words that will someday resound in the voice of Jesus –


         God’s spirit is upon me to bring good news to the poor,

         to bind up the broken hearted,

         to let all who are oppressed go free,

         to release everyone from every debt.


Joy against. Joy notwithstanding. Joy because. Joy because... God.

        

As we enter into this last leg of our Long Journey Toward Joy, as we head toward Christmas Eve, as we tell the story we know so well – the invitation this morning, this week, this year is to experience that story... fresh... with this expansive understanding of the depth and breadth of joy – of God’s joy and ours.  So this year, when angels and shepherds rejoice, and Mary ponders all these things in her heart, look for where you are seeing the fresh presence of God rising up from the steady and sure saving action of God from the very beginning, down through the generations and on out into forever.

        

It is like the Apostle says: Rejoice!  Again I say rejoice!


God. Is. Near.

 

 

© 2023 Scott Clark 



[1] Some of the observations on joy discussed here are gleaned (as attributed) to the insightful essays collected in Miroslav Volf and Justin E. Crisp (eds.), Joy and Human Flourishing (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015).

[2] See Justin E. Crisp, “Introduction: A Bright Sorrow” in Joy and Human Flourishing, supra; Marianne Meye Thompson, “Reflections on Joy in the Bible,” in Joy and Human Flourishing, supra.

[3] See id.

[4] These framing concepts of “joy because” and “joy notwithstanding” are drawn from Marianne Meye Thompson, “Reflections on Joy in the Bible,” in Joy and Human Flourishing, supra, pp. 17-

[5] For general background on the Isaiah text, see Christopher R Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol.vi (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), pp. 510-15; Jerome D. Creach, Commentary in Connections, Year B, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), pp. 34-36

[6] For general background on the Gospel text, see Sharon Ringe, Luke (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1995); R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ix (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 79-92.

[7] N.T. Wright, “Joy: Some New Testament Reflections,” in Joy and Human Flourishing, supra, pp. 48-49.

[8] N.T. Wright, pp.42-43

[9] See Thompson, pp.37-38.

[10] See Mary Clark Moschella, “Calling and Compassion: Elements of Joy in Lived Practices of Care” in Joy and Human Flourishing, supra, pp.97-102.

[11] Thompson, p.34

[14] You can find a clip of Cher performing the song on the Graham Norton Show here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81ckLwAjDfU

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