The boys and I dropped by Lowes yesterday because, you know, tools and stuff. Do you know what I found as soon as we walked in the door? JOY!!! Do you know what else? Joy is on sale for $720! Marked down from the original price of $1,200. Money can’t buy you love but $720 can buy you joy! Tough time for joy I guess. How full is your joy tank this season?
Maybe you can relate to this… Does this sort of sum it up or what? Do any of you feel like this? We want to be filled with joy this season but it doesn’t always pan out like we hope it will. There’s quarreling over who’s hosting Christmas this year in the family; the boss tells you the bonus you were banking on this Christmas is being replaced with a summer sausage gift pack; and the family Christmas photo was the least joyful moment of the entire year. It’s like the angel burst onto the hillside with the shepherds and said, “Buck up, for today I bring you tidings of great stress which shall be for all people.” Maybe we should sing, “Stress to the world, the Lord has come.” And Jesus must be thinking, “This isn’t what I wanted for my birthday this year.” “But what about my Christmas, Jesus?” we plea in return. “You’re Christmas?” hmmm. So much stress to do it all right. We’re stressed by trying to live right, eat right, think right, act right, vote right, speak right, parent right, exercise right, look right, gift-give right – that we’ve left no room to simply claim the joy of Jesus’ Christmas.
Countercultural commentator Philip LeFebvre was writing about the stress eating that accompanies the holidays – so many sweet and rich foods that come out in a big way this time of year. He said, “You do realize that if you stand in front of the pastry case at the coffee shop and calculate calories in your head, trying to figure out if some fancy Christmas cookie is going to show up on your hips or waistline, you are actually doing more damage to your heart from the stress than if you simply ate the darn cookie and allowed yourself to experience the joy of it, right? You do realize that happiness and personal acceptance are hundreds of times better for you than stressful self-denial, right?” That quote was followed by a line that I’ve been thinking about ever since: “Refusing joy is nothing less than a form of blasphemy.”
What a strong and fascinating statement. Seems pretty heavy when you’re talking about cookies but there may be something to it when it comes to our relationship with God. Refusing joy is nothing less than a form of blasphemy. Mary, the mother of Jesus, walks into our Advent waiting this morning. The account from Luke’s gospel that we live in today is a well-known passage famously titled, “THE annunciation.” The announcement so to speak. There have been so many announcements over time so to be THE announcement is really saying something. Mary probably also attended THE Ohio State University but I digress. Gabriel is the angel who gets to deliver the word to Mary. I’m not sure how all of that went down. How was Mary chosen? Was there an angelic nominations committee that whittled the choices down to a handful of prospects? Did they have a Mel Kiper-like draft board demonstrating rank and possibility? Who’s really to say? What we are told is that Gabe the angel is the one who will make the visit, proclaim THE annunciation to the unsuspecting Mary in run-of-the-mill Nazareth. There would be no tweets or fancy glitter infused stationary cordially inviting the young woman to consider the possibility. It was delivered in person, a standard Hebrew-styled birth announcement like we see in the First Testament on a number of occasions (see the birth announcement of Sampson for example in Judges 13).
Now Mary seldom gets enough credit in our Protestant approach to this whole story. We are right to be in awe of the way God chose to enter the world in the person of Jesus but we often rush past the amazing strength of Mary who is seldom called, but arguably worthy of being named, the first and primary disciple. Mary deserves more props than we often give her.
We learned one morning last week that Hayes, our five year old son, was to bring a snack for school that day and the snack needed to start with the letter “J.” It’s always something. So we’re tearing through the pantry… “J, J, J, J… let’s see, what starts with ‘J’?” We’re looking for jello or strawberry jam packets or Jolly Ranchers. This isn’t going well. Best we could come up with was a spoonful for each student of “Juicy raisins?” Nope. Not going to work. So we make a dart for the store before school was to start and we drop Carrie off at the door and I do what I have come to do so well… cruise store parking lots to keep the kids entertained because that’s preferable to herding us all into the store. I’m probably on some Bixby watch list as the guy that is casing store parking lots on a regular basis. On this morning, time was tight so we’re in a bit of a hurry and Carrie is on the case to track down a “J” snack. Heaven forbid the students have to eat a snack by any other letter. I’m just glad we didn’t get the letter “Q”. Anyway, Hayes is rather impatient as many five year olds tend to be. “It’s taking mom forever!” And about the time he offers up again, “Mom’s going so slow!” I see Carrie exiting the store with appropriate “J snacks” in tow (Jelly Beans!) and so I offer up to Hayes, “Actually, Mom was pretty fast buddy.” Seeing his mother coming, Hayes relents, slightly, and says, “I guess she did it pretty fast for her age group.”
While that seems like a bit of a knock on his mom, remember she is quite the runner… does many races… so there is often talk about what position she finished in overall and what position she finished in her age group. Carrie was actually quite proud of his pronouncement. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but think, “Mom deserves more props than you’re giving her, Hayes.” And so does Mary. We may throw her a line at Christmas time about how young she surely was and how mature of her to carry out this miraculous delivery: “Not bad for her age group” … but her poise and willingness to partner in this amazing moment of faith is truly extraordinary. In those days, it was not customary for women to be greeted directly – particularly young, unmarried girls. But here, Mary is squarely confronted and addressed by Gabriel which speaks to the power of this moment even before anything is spelled out at all. Have you ever felt that in a given moment? Just a sense that the moment before you is uniquely primed for something sacred to happen? Sometimes this is a complete surprise – but most of the time it has to do with preparing our spirit ahead of time. We can live with an anticipatory spirit that God is about to do something new, something powerful, something miraculous and is inviting us to share in it. It is essentially every angelic message ever made. The angel shows up, says, “Don’t be afraid,” because you know, they don’t want to get punched in the halo but then they say, “Something big is about to happen. God wants you to participate. You in?” Now – here’s the thing. When you’ve readied your spirit in your daily prayers, in your connection with the Holy, in your spirit of exercising your role as a disciple, a learner, a follower of Christ, you are primed for this moment when it comes. And you can receive the call of God with joy. Mary has a few follow up questions for clarification purposes but then can readily say, “May it be with me according to your word. I’m in.”
I have a friend who lives in Indianapolis who sends me a Christmas card every year. The message in his cards are always slightly different than the norm or the simple, “Merry Christmas.” This one said, “During this season, may you quiet your mind, listen for your inner voice, and realize there are always possibilities. Be a possibility for others and you’ll likely receive the unexpected gift of joy.” Be a possibility for others and you’ll likely receive the unexpected gift of joy. Mary was a possibility. She wasn’t shut down, self-centered, detached or unavailable. She was primed to say “yes” to God when the possibility came and she received the unexpected gift of joy. There were many solid reasons Mary could have refused the joy of this partnership; lawful execution one strong consideration. She could have said, “Wrong time, wrong place, wrong partner, wrong family system, wrong long term plan and stable not. in. my. health. care. network… thank you very much.” When is the last time that you’ve said “Yes” to Christ? I know that question is full of cliché and probably has need of clarification but if you cut through your spirit in your own self-talk right now, you can answer this question in your heart. You know when that Spirit nudge has found you but you’ve had every reason (even some good ones) to say, “Nah. I’m out. Let it not be with me according to your word.” Where’s your yes? That’s where you’ll find the joy we’re talking about today. And finding that joy will strengthen you. Strongest people I know said yes to God when called to tackle something difficult.
Nehemiah 8:10 is bumper sticker and church poster material. You see if often: “The joy of the Lord is your strength!” Think about this from Mary’s perspective when it comes to THE annunciation. The joy that would come to be hers in this ride with Jesus wasn’t always going to be joy-full for her. There would be ridicule and pain and an Amber Alert when Jesus was twelve. There would be a tough convo with Joseph about the annunciation that could go either way, right? When he gets that text: “Joe, we need to talk,” followed by concerned face emoji, praying hands emoji, #havingGodsbabyitsaboy… Joy isn’t exactly the first emotion that’s likely coming to their minds. But here’s the thing about the joy Nehemiah is referring to. The Lord’s joy is foundational. He doesn’t say your joy is your strength… the Lord’s joy is your strength. That’s your foundation. You get in tune with your spirit life and you start claiming that joy and you’ll find a strength that is unshakeable. And somehow the Lord’s joy remains, even when things are hard and your personal joy is riding on “E”. When you find the joy of the Lord, however, you begin to seek and share it.
We feed three kids regularly in our household. And when its time to eat, they come because they are hungry, not because they feel a social obligation. We have our family rituals around the table and they have expectations about that of course but they mostly come with anticipation that something good will be waiting for them. They trust that and don’t tend to count the calories. They come expecting to be filled, strengthened, satisfied and nourished for growth. Do you have that same expectation of your faith? Can you claim it this morning: “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” Mary must have built her life on that reality and the annunciation moment came at a time and in a way that she was prepared to receive the possibility; claiming the joy of the Lord along the way. Nobody can steal that from you. Some of my mom’s ongoing advice: “Don’t let anyone steal your joy.” This is no promise of an easy road. It is, however, promise of a companion in Christ whose joy can be your strength too. And… when there’s entire collective of people, grounded in the joy of the Lord, you create this thing called the church alive – that energy is contagious, transformative and, well, joyful.
I attended only one basketball game at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana during the near decade I lived in the state. I traveled down one night with a buddy to see the Hoosiers play an early season game – it was around this time, in fact, lots of Santa hats floating among the student section. Tom Crean was the brand new head basketball coach following a fun and energetic run at Marquette where he coached the likes of DeWayne Wade. My dad and I actually saw D-Wade play for Coach Crean while at Marquette once and thought at that time, “Not a bad ball player.” Coach Crean came to IU with some great expectations – his own and the Hoosier faithful. Was he the right choice to lead the team? Was this the right time? You know all of the questions. The game wasn’t overly memorable. Fairly close through the end but IU took home the victory. The student section held lots of Tom Crean signs – turns out you can turn a phrase or two in pretty interesting ways with a name like “Crean” and the students didn’t disappoint in that regard. After the buzzer, the two teams and their coaches shook hands and for some reason, I kept my eye on Crean. He was calm and collected and polite going about his business like he’d done it all before. But the student section was extra jazzed – must have been finals or something. They were cheering and chanting and the pep band was playing. Coach Crean would have to walk past them to head back to the locker room and there was every signal to indicate that he would do just that. Nobody would have faulted him for that. But in an instant, in full suit and IU Crimson tie, Coach Crean runs toward the student section bounding right up the stairs to be in the middle of the student body – he hopped and shouted and bounced right along with the students who were beyond elated to welcome him among them and I was simply taken by the overwhelming joy they shared together.
Today, we celebrate Mary who was the right choice at the right time to bring about the joy of the Lord to the world in the one we would come to call Jesus, Emmanuel. God could have come in so many ways and many expected one who might wear a suit and tie and not mingle with the church body section if you will. But not this Jesus… not this boy raised by this brave woman. Jesus is one, even still, who leaps into the stands to be with his people – to bring the joy together – to be anchored by the strength of the Lord’s joy upon which a kingdom could stand. Prepare you spirit to be a part of that, would you? For word is coming, “Hey there – God’s ready to do something extraordinary. Would love for you to participate. You in?” Joy shouldn’t cost you $720 this Christmas. It will, however, ask for your heart.
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 LeFebvre, Philip E. “Diet for a small pleasure,” Clamor, November-December 2001, printed in Utne Reader, March-April 2002, 74.