text :: Luke 1:39-45
theme verse :: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:45)
"You better sing!” is the encouragement of Jennifer Hudson, one of four coaches on The Voice, when she is really moved by a contestant’s singing. Most people, even those without any musical talent, find joy in music. You’ve likely been so moved in hearing someone sing that you felt what JHud feels even if you couldn’t verbalize it that way. “You better sing!” It’s a feeling. It’s passion! It’s freedom! It’s joy! As in, “You better praise God!” “You better keep it up!” “You better sing!” It’s not a threat. It’s not an “or else.” It’s “how could you not?!!” This season brings out all the feels when it comes to music. O Holy Night calls them “sweet hymns of joy.” What do you call them? Do you have a song? You better sing!
offertory :: 'The Little Road to Bethlehem' (M.Head/M.Rose) :: Susie Monger Daugherty, vocal; Billie Kay Sawyer, piano
reader :: Jane Whitt
preaching :: Rev Mark Briley
special music :: 'Joyful Joyful' (arr.TheBrilliance) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
Do you speak fluent emoji? It seems you’re either a fan of the image-based communication icons or… well… you’re not. Emoji is a Japanese word. It’s plural, though debated in the United States, is also emoji… like the plural of sushi is also sushi. Emoji. I was curious if Rosetta Stone, the language software company that can help you learn a foreign language in a jiffy, offered any help with emoji. Surely not, I thought. But indeed, they are open to the possibility. The company put out an article that says emoji are a linguistic evolution all about making communication more efficient. How ‘bout that?!! If Rosetta Stone moves forward to create a guide to what all these emoji mean, such could really be helpful. After all, how often have you received a text with a string of emoji that you just have no clue what message someone is trying to communicate to you. We play the decipher the mother-in-law text game all the time at my house. My mother-in-law loves her string of emoji for any messaging occasion. There’s a lot of random ones that get thrown into her usual string of about a dozen per text but you can be sure you’ll always get a bouquet of flowers and an American flag emoji. It doesn’t matter if she simply texts “How’s your day going?” or “My cat just died.” You can be sure what follows is a series of emoji that, at minimum, include a bouquet of flowers, thumbs up, party hat, praise hands, American flag, and an unidentifiable rodent. It’s a hoot every time. But such confusion can get you in trouble.
The Wall Street Journal shared a story earlier this year about a Deakin Law School study. The study discussed a case in Israel that involved a couple looking for an apartment. After they had seen a particular apartment, the couple texted the landlord a series of emojis, including a smiley face, a comet, a champagne bottle, dancing yellow Playboy bunnies and a chipmunk. The landlord believed, based in part on the emojis, that the couple had agreed to rent the apartment. He took down the listing only to later sue them when they stopped responding to his messages. A judge found in favor of the landlord, reasoning the couple had negotiated in bad faith, and fined them a month’s rent as damages, according to the Deakin study. How ‘bout that?!!! And, you’re probably asking yourself by now, who cares? Maybe nobody but as I was approaching this third Sunday of Advent, JOY Sunday, I couldn’t help but think of my favorite emoji:Do you know what that emoji is supposed to communicate? I probably gave it away already but that’s okay. I always thought it meant you were cry-laughing – you know, you’re laughing so hard that tears just flow. And I think that’s pretty much the idea, but I looked it up and it is most accurately intended to represent uncontrollable joy. And who doesn’t love uncontrollable joy? It generally means guards have been put down, all fear is abandoned and this contagious connection between you and the sender of that uncontrollable joy is satisfying. I want that for you this morning… on JOY Sunday… also known as Gaudete Sunday – a Latin word meaning rejoice. While we still carry a spirit of waiting this season and maybe even a weariness that things in our lives still exist in tension and conflict and challenge… Gaudete Sunday is where we begin to make the turn toward the manger. It is why the advent wreath candle we light today is pink instead of purple. It’s Advent’s hump day – the time we turn from expectation to celebration. The rose candle invites us to intentionally make the turn with expectant confidence that what has been promised will come to pass. It’s an invitation into uncontrollable joy. And the RSVP on that invitation was for today’s worship gathering. I want our guards to be relaxed, our fears released, our connection to the coming Christ and each other to be full of joy.
We get this in our scripture text today as we’ve rewound the tape a bit from last week when we celebrated the birth of John the Baptist with his folks, Zechariah and Elizabeth. We drop back in the story to Mary’s visit to her relative, Elizabeth; cousins perhaps. Mary has just had the obligatory angel visit herself. Gabriel says, “Mary – you’re up. Game time. You will bear the Messiah.” If that isn’t shocking enough, Gabriel thickens the plot for Mary saying, “And guess what else – you’re much older, but lovely, cousin, Beth is six months into her own pregnancy even though she was said to be barren. How ‘bout them apples?!!!” Teenage Mary looks up from her smart phone but doesn’t say, “Wha’dyousay?” She was hanging on every word and responds: “I’m in. May your word be true.” What do you do when you get a visit like that? Mary bolts for the hills to go see Elizabeth with a million thoughts buzzing through her head. She’s got to be feeling her stomach with some confusion about what’s happening in her own body. But then there’s this news about Elizabeth. Surely that’s not true. She had not received any invitation to a baby shower. There were no social media posts of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s empty Birkenstocks sitting next to some adorable empty little baby Birkenstocks with the announcement, “Coming in September.” If she can get to Elizabeth and she is, in fact, give or take 24 weeks pregnant, then this would be some validation to Gabe’s word about what was taking place in her body as well.
Our brief focal text for today captures this confirmation moment between Elizabeth and Mary. And their coming together can only be described as uncontrollable joy. Mary’s heart flutters at the sight of Elizabeth’s baby bump and Elizabeth knows instantly that her boy would be the forerunner of the child Mary was carrying. Beth could have been bitter – “Seriously, Mary? I finally get my turn and you have to come overshadow our good news?” But not at all. Elizabeth’s joy is not diminished by Mary’s own news. In fact, it is enhanced. Do you have that kind of joy? The kind of joy that can celebrate another’s? It is a disposition of joy… and Elizabeth’s got it. How could you be an Elizabeth to someone else in your life right now?
Courtney purchased a print of this art piece this week that depicts the moment between Elizabeth and Mary. The artist, Lauren Wright Pittman, said, “I wanted to depict the creative energy, communication, and power that was taking place in Mary and Elizabeth’s wombs in this moment. Mary’s womb swirls with the knitting together of the One through whom all things came into being, while Elizabeth’s womb radiates joy with the leaping of the one who will spend his life directing attention, awe and reverence to the One in Mary’s womb.” And then she writes, “When we draw near to one another, we can recognize and proclaim God’s movement in one another’s lives and be encouraged in our own journey. When we draw near to one another, we live more fully into who we were created to be.” There is no space for envy on this journey… so root it out of your system by practicing joy. Position yourself for joy.
Jim Stovall, Olympic weightlifter and accomplished author and advocate for the blind as he is blind himself, is a Tulsan and has made quite an impact in the world. He recounts a moment backstage before a speaking event with Zig Ziglar. He said, “I remember being backstage at an event where we were both speaking. It seemed everything was going wrong with the lights, the sound and everything else surrounding that particular event. Zig was greeting everyone backstage as he always did. ‘It’s a great day to be alive,’ he said. One of the stage hands said sarcastically, “Well, you’re in a good mood today, aren’t you?” Zig abruptly turned, stared at the young man, and said, “Yes, sir. Many years ago, I decided to be in a good mood today.” How do people do that? How might we position ourselves so that we can be a joyful presence in the world? It’s worth thinking about. Imagine how your encounters with others would change if from the onset you decided to bring the joy. Not annoyingly so, of course, but with authentic confidence. We all know someone who is sort of a Debbie the Downer… just always in a bad mood, always enduring terrible circumstances of some kind, always followed by a rain cloud. And this is not to say that we don’t have some of those seasons in our lives. But positioning ourselves for joy means knowing what enlivens our spirits, charging that battery regularly, and then living with joy in the world.
Elizabeth offers Mary encouragement saying, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Some ancient authorities word it slightly differently instead of in the past tense but as a prophetic word of what was coming: “Blessed is she who believes, for there will be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Blessed is the one who is positioned for joy. In this way, Elizabeth is sort of like Jennifer Hudson as a judge on The Voice. Finale tomorrow night, as it happens. Jennifer Hudson always offers the encouragement to a contestant’s singing that has moved her: “You better sing!” Most people, even those without any musical talent, find joy in music. You’ve likely been so moved in hearing someone sing that you felt what JHud feels even if you couldn’t verbalize it that way. “You better sing!” she shouts! It’s a feeling. It’s passion! It’s freedom! It’s uncontrollable joy! It’s as if she’s saying, “You better praise God!” “You better keep it up!” “You better sing!” It’s not a threat. It’s not an “or else.” It’s “How could you not?!!” Elizabeth has this spirit with Mary. “Mary,” she says with uncontrollable joy, “You better sing!” And, of course, Mary sings – the Magnificat follows. Her soul magnifies the Lord. Her spirit rejoices with uncontrollable joy. It doesn’t mean that it won’t be a hard road. There will be morning sickness, and ridicule from her community, and struggle for her and Joseph as they sort out this unexpected addition coming to their lives. If we always waited until everything was just right, just so, before we could express our joy, we’d likely never get there.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor imprisoned for his anti-Nazi resistance of Hitler’s regime and ultimately killed in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote a good deal about singing joy even in the struggle. He wrote to his fiancé, Maria, approaching Christmas in 1943, “I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant: We are beggars, it’s true. The poorer our quarters, the more clearly, we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.” Isn’t that amazing? I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. He’s positioning himself for joy over fear, joy over self-defeat, joy over despair. Joy is his song. His way of saying, “You better sing!” In O Holy Night, the lyricist calls this “Sweet hymns of joy!” That line also follows the one that names the chains of slavery and the oppressive nature of that institution, but it proclaims in the very next line, “Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, with all our hearts we praise His holy name.” Despite the circumstances and even though the struggle is real and we can’t fully know what is ahead… allow yourself the gift of uncontrollable joy. Give yourself over to it. It is so good for the soul.
As always, this is easier to hear than it is to practice. There’s something in you that resists the joy. It may be pushing back within you right now to all that I’m saying. For whatever reason, you can’t fully let it go. Maybe it’s because you’ve held it for so long and it just feels like part of you. Maybe the stakes are too high to imagine giving it up for the sake of some new joy. After all, can the joy of the Lord be better than what you’ve come to know as joy-enough all by yourself? Only you can answer that. Only you can choose to hold it with all you’ve got or let it go… shed the baggage, forgive the wrong, drop the fear. It can be done. It may take a deep breath, lots of prayer, and some repositioning but it can happen.
Have you ever seen “A Charlie Brown Christmas?” It always makes the rounds on most channels during December. One of the favorite scenes is that of Linus, standing on a bare stage, reciting the story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke.
That scene nearly didn’t make it into the show. TV network executives thought it was too religious and, maybe even more honestly, thought the Luke scripture was just too long. The producers persisted, however, and the scene stayed. “There’s one feature of that scene that not many people notice. Just before Linus begins his recitation, he drops his security blanket. If you know anything about Linus, you know he’s never without that blanket. Over the years of drawing his comic strip, Charles Schulz would occasionally deprive Linus of his blanket but only in moments when Snoopy mischievously steals it. Every time this happens, this otherwise cool, calm and wise-beyond-his-years character dissolves into frenzied angst. Linus simply cannot be without his blanket. Except in this moment, when he’s standing on stage reciting the Christmas story. With the Christ child on his mind, it seems, he doesn’t need it.” He lets it go. He drops it. He has made room for uncontrollable joy. Can you make room today? Can you meet Christ with joy in your heart?
I want to close with a prayer offered by Howard Thurman that I hope can be our own today. Would you pray with me?
“May the sounds of Advent stir a longing in your people, O God. Come again to set us free from the dullness of routine and the poverty of our imaginations. Break the patterns which bind us to small commitments and to the stale answers we have given to questions of no importance. Let the Advent trumpet blow, let the walls of our defenses crumble, and make a place in our lives for the freshness of your love, well-lived in the Spirit, and still given to all who know their need and dare receive it.”
May you be so daring to receive it today. To give yourself over to uncontrollable joy. It is worth it… spoken in emoji or any language. Amen.
 Mike Cherney, “Lawyers faced with emojis and emoticons are all…,” The Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2018, wsj.com.
 www.jimstovall.com. I do not know the original source of this story.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letter to his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer,” December 1, 1943, in God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas(Westminster John Knox, 2012), 6.
 From Animating Illustrations found at Homiletics Online. Senior Writer, Bob Kaylor. www.homileticsonline.com
 Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (Friends United Press, 1985).