“Hope and Joy”
For centuries the church has argued over the place of Mary, the mother of Jesus. About whether she was sinless. One humorous story goes that Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Suddenly a rock flies over his head and Jesus sighs, “Ah Mom!”
Arguments over her place at the crucifixion. Arguments over her place in the church. The old joke is that Protestants don’t focus on Mary because they think she is Catholic.
But Mary is important, the first disciple, the only person present at the birth of Jesus, the death of Jesus, and the birth of the church.
Mary has much to teach us. As Jennifer and our choir remind us so beautifully with their song, Mary’s journey is one of challenge, but one that helps us understand hope and joy. Let’s continue with Mary’s story from Luke’s Gospel.
Gracious and loving God, open us to the surprising opportunities for hope and joy this special season. Amen.
We continue in our sermon series about things we have lost which have helped us appreciate something bigger.
Like several of you, I exercise at the Y on Old Georgetown Road. Each year around Labor Day, they close the regular part of the gym for a week for renovations. Last September, I went to swim one evening after work but couldn’t lock my things in the regular locker room. I decided to take off my wedding ring in order to swim and locked it in my car. I think it’s still in there. After swimming I came out expecting to find the ring where I remembered placing it. It wasn’t there.
I looked around my car as much as I could. I had a church meeting that night so I got home around 10, but before explaining to the person who had given me my wedding ring that I couldn’t find it, I searched my car. Like Gollum in Tolkien’s caves, I scoured everywhere for the ring. I got a flashlight and went back and forth through my car looking for it. At one point the lady who lives next door came home and pulled suspiciously into her driveway, no doubt wondering why someone was riffling through the backseat of her neighbor’s car with a flashlight.
Well, no luck. The only thing I can think of is the ring must have fallen into some crack in the inner lining of the car.
My expectations for what life without the ring would be like this fall were not realized.
That’s probably where Mary was as well. Mary was engaged to Joseph. Engagement in her culture was serious business. If an engaged woman’s husband was killed she was considered a widow, for example. As she approached marriage, Mary received a most unexpected message from the angel Gabriel that she was with child through the Holy Spirit. Mary had expectations of a wedding and a traditional life as a carpenter’s wife. Those expectations were changed.
Many years before Christ, the prophets called for a deliverer King. People had expectations of a powerful Messiah, not a baby.
When the baby grew to do mighty deeds, people’s expectations were raised so they shouted Hosanna on Palm Sunday, but Jesus acted differently in Jerusalem than they expected.
Human expectations about the coming Messiah have always been a bit different from God’s reality.
One of the challenges of this time of year is that we have lots of expectations. For what Christmas Day will be like. For what presents we will get. For how the holiday season will go. What do we do if reality doesn’t meet our expectations?
Our anxiety that Christmas won’t turn out as we’d like and our fear that someone might go away from the party or experience with sadness can lead us to try to control Christmas.
There is a story about a boy who tried to control Christmas. Johnnie wanted a bright red wagon and wrote a letter, “Dear Jesus, if I get a red wagon for Christmas, I won’t fight with my brother Hank for a year.” Then Johnnie thought, “Oh Hank is such a brat, I could never keep that promise.” Johnnie wrote again, “Dear Jesus, if I get a red wagon for Christmas, I will eat all my vegetables for a year.” Then Johnnie thought, “No, that means spinach and broccoli. Yuck! I can’t keep that promise.” Suddenly Johnnie had an idea. He went downstairs. From the living room mantel, he grabbed the family’s statue of Mary and hid it in the farthest, darkest corner of his closet. He then closed the closet door, took a new sheet of paper and wrote, “Dear Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again…”
Mary provides a lesson in giving up control and giving into hope. Mary’s expectations of what life would be like changed. The angel gave her news of a different situation, an unexpected reality, a new calling. Mary responded that she is God’s servant, open to doing whatever is needed “according to God’s will and word.”
John Calvin wrote of Mary, “Mary possessed faith…Mary did not doubt that God was completely dependable.” And then Calvin writes, “No one who truly puts trust in God and relies on God will ever be disappointed.” Why is this?
Expectations are preconceived notions of what will happen. Expectations define what the future should look like according to us. Anything short of these expectations leaves us disappointed. But Biblical hope is focused on God and what God may bring.
There are many ways in which the world seems down this time of year. I hurt as friends hurt inside because their career, marriage or relationships haven’t turned out as they expected.
I find myself disappointed with the tenor of America’s politics. I find myself puzzled by the assumption in too many quarters of permanent downward generational economic mobility. I find myself angry about those who have lost their lives to terrorism and gun violence. As someone committed to interfaith understanding, I am appalled by the tone of national rhetoric against people of different religions.
We seem a society that has given up on hope. We seem to expect things to be bad. Have we given into the lowest common denominator believing nothing better is coming?
The message of Advent is that hope is real. That the Messiah is coming. That God has chosen to enter our lives at Christmas in Jesus Christ.
Hope, according to the Bible, is focused not on our expectations, but on God’s grace.
Since hope trusts in God and not in our desire for the future, it does not let us down. But it does often surprise us.
For as Gabriel explains to Mary, “nothing will be impossible with God.” That is the essence of hope.
The challenge is that to hope in such times, we often have to become comfortable with the sadness and fear. When we hope, we let go of our expectations to make room for God’s. And that can be fearful, even sad. For anytime we let something go there is grief.
Luke tells us Mary was afraid at first. She denies, bargains, and argues with the angel. In Mary’s case, she was engaged, but pregnant outside that relationship. This was a major problem, punishable by death. Plus the life of her son would be difficult.
Theologian William Barclay calls such situations the “paradox of blessedness.” Elizabeth and Mary express that Mary is blessed at being Christ’s mother, but there would be great pain in her life as she would watch her son be brutally killed. Barclay writes that “To be chosen by God so often means one wears both a crown of joy and a cross of sorrow.” There is joy when God calls us to God’s plans, but often, as with Mary, there is sadness in them too.
We expect to get what we think we deserve. God asks us to expect less and hope more. Through hope, we often get more than we deserve. That is grace. God offers us more than we deserve.
John Piper writes, that “The only people whose soul can truly magnify the Lord are…people who….are overwhelmed by the condescension of the magnificent God.”
Mary sings for joy because she experiences the unexpected grace of God. And she has hope that what seemed an impossible situation with what was happening in and to her, was holy. And so Mary sings with joy.
Joy comes most often from the unexpected anyway. The best Christmases I’ve had are the ones where a surprise guest or situation opened my heart to a new experience. The best Christmas presents are the ones we do not anticipate. If we know everything we are getting, where is the fun? As with good movies, the best endings for holidays are the ones we don’t expect. Speaking of movie endings, if you plan to see the new Star Wars movie this week, please don’t tell me the ending. I can’t really go see it until Christmas Eve is past.
One of the best films I have seen recently is Inside Out. It’s a clever cartoon about the inner emotional lives of children; about what goes on inside our brains or hearts, using personification to describe our emotions and thoughts.
The protagonist in the film is the emotion Joy. Joy and four other “emotions,” Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger, live inside the “control center” of a girl named Riley. Joy always tries to be positive. When Sadness appears on the scene, Joy tries to contain her impact.
Riley had enjoyed a happy life in Minnesota, until her father gets a new job and the family moves to San Francisco. Joy sees Riley becoming sad and wants her to still be happy so she does all she can to make her positive. Trouble is Riley misses all her friends back home and the new activities are different and her room is smaller and the family moving truck doesn’t arrive on time. Things aren’t great. It makes sense that she is unhappy. At one point, Joy tries hard to eliminate the character of Sadness by leaving her behind, thinking she has no place.
All the while Riley’s life is unraveling and she starts to think about running away from home. Back in the “control room,” even Joy starts shedding tears. One drips onto the section where the “memories” are stored. Joy sees the memory of a day that was made happy during a difficult time because Sadness helped Riley call for support and comfort.
This wasn’t what Joy expected. She didn’t think Sadness had a role. Joy had tried to make everything perfect for Riley. She had expected that when things stopped going as planned, everything would be terrible. Instead, Joy discovers there is place for Sadness. Sadness successfully removes the idea of running away from Riley’s mind, and Riley heads back home. Joy lets Sadness take over the control panel and Riley is finally able to reveal her true feelings to her parents about the move. Riley’s parents admit they feel the same way, and a brand new memory is made; a mix of happiness and sadness. And in that real place, that authentic place, having gone through Sadness, Riley is able to be joyful again.
Tiffany’s, the famous jewelry store, is running a full page ad in the New York Times this week of a man proposing to a women, presenting her one of the classic blue Tiffany boxes with the caption, “Joy comes out of the blue.”
Joy often comes when we least expect it. When we let go of our expectations and are open to God’s surprises. Joy also arrives through the “blues.” With appreciation of the goodness of life after sadness.
This past Thursday I finally got my new wedding ring. It took me three months because my order at the jewelry store got held up. I ordered a new ring in September, but after getting what I thought was the run around and no good explanation for why it was taking so long to complete my order, I finally went back to the store about six weeks ago. A sorrowful clerk explained that the long time salesperson I had worked with had died tragically in September just after I placed my order. Her colleagues were in shock and just weren’t ready to touch the projects she had been working on. They cried whenever they saw her handwriting on her notes. They didn’t want to confront the sadness so didn’t follow up on her orders. I told them my profession, and as often happens then, they shared the role faith in God was playing in helping them heal. And they finally went ahead and processed my order.
When I went in to pick up the ring this week, they were at a different place. They were happy to see me. Over time, they had found hope and purpose in completing the work their colleague had devoted her life too.
Hope this time of year is not a solitary value. It is a holy virtue. One where losing our expectations can make room for something better. Where being real, embracing the happy as well as the sad, can allow us to find life. Often, to find joy. Always, to find a part of God.
May it be so. Amen.