Throughout this season churches everywhere will be filled with joyful people. The lights will be on, the poinsettias arranged, the sweaters will be bright and festive, and the smiles will be wide. People will gather in the pews and sing the traditional carols, hear the Christmas story, and light candles. Millions on Christmas Eve night will rise and sing “Joy to the World.”
But there will also be those wondering, “Where is the joy?” How can I sing “Joy to the World,” when there is none in my own heart? For people that are hurting, struggling, or mourning, this season can feel very long and certainly not joyful.
The bills haven’t been paid, the credit debt is mounting, and work is hard to come by. What’s Christmas morning going to feel like when you can’t afford presents for your children.
A family member or friend is struggling with illness
Or maybe, your family is spread across the country and this year you will spend Christmas without them. Maybe for the first time.
Perhaps a loved one has passed away and Christmas just won’t be the same. You miss their smile. You miss their laughter. You miss their hot cocoa they served every Christmas morning, and you don’t even know the recipe.
For some of us, this season can feel so very long.
But it is among this reality of human life that we come to the second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy, when we read the words of Mary . . . who is able to sing a song of joy into a situation where there seems to be none to be found.
We don’t know exactly how old Mary was but tradition says that she was just a teenager, perhaps as young as 13 years old. And even though she wasn’t allowed in the area of the synagogue where the men are taught, she still had a very special relationship with God.
And as we enter into this story, Mary is preparing to enter a new phase of life.
It had been arranged for her to marry a local carpenter, a man named Joseph. That’s the way marriages were put together - because something as important as marriage should not be left to the whims of the heart . . . You know how teenage girls can be.
Everything was coming together perfectly . . . just as it was supposed to.
And then it happened . . . the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and say’s “God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.”
True, the angel had said wonderful things to her:
- This was happening because she had found favor with God; The child would be great and be called the Son of the Most High; and He would grow up to become a king
- These are wonderful things for a teenager girl to hear . . .
But Mary is a smart girl and she knows where babies come from. So, she had asked, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" Plus, I’m engaged and there are some very specific cultural and religious laws about this sort of thing.
So, Gabriel says to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
That’s beautiful, isn’t it . . . but what exactly does it mean? Let me paraphrase . . . Gabriel is saying, “Leave all the details up to God, because he’s got a plan . . . and you’re a part of it”
After Gabriel said all these things, Mary responded with these words . . . “I am the Lord’s servant . . . May your word to me be fulfilled.”
In this great and glorious moment . . . Mary simply said . . . “Yes” and then the angel left. But I can’t help but wonder what happened right after the angel left.
You know how it is . . . someone asks you a tough question, or you’re faced with a difficult situation and you’re so caught off guard that you just stumble through the conversation but then later on when you’re playing the conversation over again in your head at 3 AM, you slap yourself on the forehead and say, “Man, I wish I’d said this”
Was it that way with Mary? Because when that angel left, the reality of her situation would have hit her square in the face.
She is a young teenager in a culture oppressed by Roman rule and held together by strict social and cultural rules in which women were like property. A baby out of wedlock rendered a woman damaged goods: her life was ruined.
So, she had to have wondered . . .
- Will Joseph stick around?
- Will my parents still love me?
- Will my friends stand by me or will I get dragged into town and be stoned to death?
- Will the pregnancy go all right?
- Will the labor be hard?
- Will there be someone there to help me when my time comes?
- Will I know what to do?
- You say the child will be a king, but what about me?
- Am I even going to survive his birth?
- I’m only 13 years old? What about me?
As she was pondering all these things in her heart, she remembers something else the angel told her.
Her cousin Elizabeth, who had desperately wanted children but had long since given up hope, is also with child... in the sixth month, to be exact. He doesn’t tell her to pay Elizabeth a visit, but we know she did; which was a great idea because Elizabeth is older and can help her young cousin wade through all the difficulties involved in such a sticky situation.
You see, Elizabeth will understand in a way that no one else can. Her priest husband Zechariah has been visited by an angel too. And he can at least confirm for Mary that she’s not crazy.
So, she makes the 80-mile journey to Ein Karem, the small village where Zechariah and Elizabeth live.
This would have taken 9-10 days on foot over rocky terrain wearing open toed sandals, it’s hot and she would have had to rely on strangers to feed her and give her a place to sleep at night . . . so this is a long and difficult journey and she does it alone so she has no one to talk to, no one to help her process all that she’s going through.
Can you feel the weight of her journey; the loneliness and the fear and the desperation and the mental and physical exhaustion that she is carrying with her? I think that some of you can.
When Mary finally arrives at Elizabeth’s home, she calls out to her cousin and when Elizabeth hears her voice, the baby in her womb leaped for joy and immediately Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit of God and she says to Mary, Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And when Mary hears these comforting words from her cousin Elizabeth . . . she proclaims,
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me - holy is his name.”
A desperate young teenager, her life turned upside down, her body changing dramatically, her future devastated – powerless, hopeless, victim – makes these beautiful claims.
And she sings them in the past tense as if to say, “Even in the middle of all this pain, and fear, and all of my questions, I claim joy because God has already redeemed even the darkest part of my life.”
- This is joy; speaking promise into pain. Not sugary, smiley, everything is just great giddiness, but an assurance that the pain and desperation we experience is not the final word for us.
- That’s joy: the unwavering insistence that God has already done what we cannot manage to do on our own, and we celebrate in that.
But there is something in this text that I don’t want us to miss.
Elizabeth doesn’t know Mary is coming and she certainly doesn’t know Mary is pregnant but as soon as she hears Mary’s voice something profound happens deep within her.
Not only does her child leap for joy because he recognizes the child Mary is carrying, but Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit which helps her understand that that this child is the long awaited Messiah.
And this happens for one important reason, to help assure Mary that what the angel said is true.
You see, while God wants us to walk in faith, it isn’t always blind faith; God loves us enough to work through others and through the power of the Holy Spirit to help confirm his promises for our lives.
So many times when we are faced with difficult situations we feel like Mary on the road to Ein Karem, we feel lost and alone and we think that there is no one who can possibly understand what we are going through, but the truth is that God always provides someone for us to turn to in times of need.
If we will open our eyes, and our hearts, and are willing to be a little bit vulnerable, we will find mentors and friends who are right here to support us and pray for us when we need it.
We all need Elizabeth’s in our lives . . . don’t we?
But we also need a Mary. No matter who we are, we need to be looking for people who need some support and encouragement because God has placed people in our lives that need guidance and direction to help them find the Joy that God desires for their lives.
You see, in community, God gives us the chance to heal and be healed; to feed and be fed; to love and be loved.
Christmas does not mean everything is okay. Christmas did not end the sadness or the pain. Christmas does not end the night, but it gives us hope for the dawn.
On Christmas day, God sent his son to dwell among us; he healed the sick, fed the hungry, comforted the mourning, and wept for his friends. He came to usher in the kingdom of God, a kingdom where there will be no more pain and no more tears . . . and calls all people to enter with rejoicing.
So, as we continue our advent journey together, we take time to acknowledge and claim that the pain is real, but we do not linger here.
Know that soon, the light of God will break through. Know that on Christmas, God broke through the chaos. Know that on Christmas, God came so that we may have life abundant and life eternal.
This morning, we light four candles in honor of our loved ones or a situation that feels too painful right now. We light one for our grief, one for our courage, one for our memories, and for our love.
4 READERS LIGHT CANDLES
You are invited to come forward and light one of the votive candles which represents your burdens, griefs, sorrows, all those things that make Christmas difficult for you this year. You make speak the name or the event if you wish to do so. When you have lighted your candle or candles, you may return to your seat, come forward to pray silently, or if you wish someone will pray with you.
Christ Candle lit
We light the Christ candle, remembering that Jesus hears our cries, he knows our hearts, and in the midst of our pain, he offers hope and healing.