Advent 2017 - JOY
Luke 1:5-25, Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11, Psalm 126
Good morning! We are in the third week of our Advent series on Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. This week is the week for Joy! We light the pink candle today. Pink represents celebration so it is a reminder that we are preparing ourselves to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.
As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, it’s helpful to think about how God was preparing for Jesus’ birth. We see from our passage in Luke this morning, that God prepared the way for Jesus’ birth by first bringing a miracle to a devout, old couple, named Zechariah and Elizabeth. From the beginning, God chose what we often view as weakness, in this case old age, to reveal God’s strength. So let’s look at what happened to Zechariah and Elizabeth, starting in Luke 1:5:
“In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.”
Here we see that Elizabeth and Zechariah were old. Their story goes to show that God is always at work in our lives, at every stage. We are never too old. We also see that they were blameless and righteous. And in the next sentence, that they could not have children. In those days, infertility “was regarded as a tragedy, a disgrace, and even a sign of God’s punishment” (New Interpreter's Bible Commentary (NIB), vol. IX, Luke, pg. 45, R. Alan Culpepper). The order in which Luke gives us this information is very important. He first says that they are blameless and righteous, and then that they could not have children. It’s not their fault, but rather, that sometimes bad things happen to good people. That’s the nature of life. So, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s context was one of bad things happening to good people.
Let’s see what happens. How did God respond to their situation? Zechariah was chosen to perform a special incense offering in the sanctuary. While he was doing this ... the angel Gabriel came. Here’s what happened, starting in verse 11:
“Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him [and here are the first spoken words in the Gospel of Luke], “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear your a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.”
How does God respond to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s situation? By bringing joy. God prepares for Jesus’ birth by bringing joy to a situation of sorrow. God could have used any devout, young couple to be John the Baptist’s parents, but God chose for John the Baptist to be conceived for an old, infertile couple so that the coming of Jesus would be defined by bringing joy in the midst of sorrow.
We see this in the other Scripture passages that we read this morning. From Psalm 126, starting in verse 1, it says this,
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. The our mouth was filled with laughter, and tongue with shouts of joy.”
And continuing in verse 5,
“May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.”
In this Psalm, just like for Zechariah and Elizabeth, joy comes in the midst of sorrow. Life is difficult. Bad things happen to good people. But as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth, and contemplate how God prepared for Jesus’ birth, by bringing the joy of a child to Zechariah and Elizabeth, we remember that God wants to redeem the bad things. God works in our lives to bring unexpected joy in the midst of the trials that we live through.
Isaiah 61 has a similar message for us. The assumption in Isaiah 61 is that all is not well. People are oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, and imprisoned. How does God respond to this? Let’s read verse 1:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”
God works to bring good news, healing, liberty, and release. We read this passage during Advent because Jesus’ birth is God’s ultimate gift to the world. In Christ, we find good news, healing, liberty, and release. And everything that we do in the name of Christ should bring good news, healing, liberty, and release. Through Christ, the difficulties and trials we endure in this life can be transformed. Zechariah and Elizabeth were especially blessed to receive exactly what they asked for. They prayed for their own child and they received a child of their own. But for most of us, God brings joy in the midst of trials in unexpected ways. Some difficulties and trials never go away completely, but God is always working in our lives, through Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit to bring us joy in the midst of it. ...
As I was contemplating joy this week, I couldn’t help thinking of Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle. It’s so exciting! Of course, the papers are all agog with Meghan’s good fortune to make the classic fairy tales come true because she, a commoner, is marrying a prince. But that’s not why she’s fortunate. She’s fortunate because Prince Harry is a man of real depth who has used his wealth and privilege to bring joy into this world in the midst of despair. He has gone through is own deep trials and struggles since the death of his mother. Her death really hit home in his twenties, when he went through, in his own words, “‘two years of total chaos’” while he worked through his issues of grief and loss. But Harry did the hard work of walking through that dark valley. An article in the Montreal Gazette said that his time in the military really helped him. During his tours in Afghanistan, he discovered real skill as a pilot and experienced, for the first time, acceptance for who he was as a person, not simply special treatment because of his titles. He also developed his leadership skills and proved to be excellent at bringing troops together to accomplish goals together. His experience in the military brought joy to Harry’s life in the midst of the “chaos” of grief.
At the same time, however, he learned of the profound trials that soldiers face after severe injury in the line of duty. In response to this, Harry decided to start the “Invictus Games, a multi-sport event for wounded, injured, and sick [military] personnel.” This year’s games were in Toronto where “550 [competitors] from 16 nations [participated] in 11 adaptive sports. They’ve lost limbs, suffered crippling injury, battled cancer, dealt with post-traumatic stress, and any number of other physical and mental ailments.” The word invictus means “unconquered” in Latin. “[The Invictus Games] fill the void that so many service personnel experience when they’re forced to retire. They offer, if only for a few days, the things many have been missing: their country’s flag on their chest or left arm, being part of a team, [having a purpose,] ...the camaraderie.” These games do not cure people of their injuries or illnesses, but rather give them joy in the midst of their trials, and “could help them on their path back to as normal a life as possible.” At the end of the games, Harry closes with these words: “You are all Invictus[, unconquered]. You are now ambassadors for the spirit of these games. Spread the word. Never stop fighting. And do all you can to lift up everyone around you.” (All information on Prince Harry is summarized or quoted from “Why the Invictus Games mean so much to Harry,” by Boris Starling. Montreal Gazette, NP3, September 25, 2017.)
Prince Harry is using his wealth and privilege to bring joy and a sense of purpose to lost and broken military personnel. But we don’t need wealth and privilege to bring joy into this world. Prince Harry is using what he has. What do you have? How could God work through you to bring joy to this world? Jesus’ birth reminds us that God made the ultimate sacrifice in order to bring joy to all people in the midst of the trials and difficulties of this fallen world. Just as Prince Harry exhorted the athletes, so I exhort you: you are ambassadors of God’s Good News. Spread the word. Never give up. In the name of Jesus, lift up everyone around you.
This Advent season, as we contemplate the joy that we receive in Christ’s birth, let us remember that Jesus’ story is one of bringing joy in the midst of sorrow. In Christ, we find good news, healing, liberty, and release. As Christ’s ambassadors, we are called to bring the same to the world. So, keep alert! Keep watch for signs of joy! Signs of joy in our own lives, and ways that we can be signs of joy in the lives of others.