Joy: Joyful All Ye Nations Rise
Our theme today on this fourth Sunday of Advent is joy, and our hymn snippet, “Joyful All Ye Nations Rise” comes from the carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Charles Wesley, brother of John, founder of the Methodist movement, was a prolific hymnist – you can see how many hymns of his are still in our hymnals today if you look at the index on page 922 in your red hymnal. He wrote “Hark how all the Welkin Rings” in 1739. “Welkin” means something like “the heavens.” His colleague in ministry, George Whitefield, made some adaptations to the text, giving us the more familiar title we know today. Wesley imagined that his hymn text would be matched to the same tune as “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” – after all – both the resurrection of Jesus and his incarnation, his coming into the world, are key pillars of our faith story – but eventually the pairing with the tune by Felix Mendelssohn that we know and sing today became more popular. Still, in Wesley’s original text, and in Whitefield’s adaptations, and in the version that we sing today, our theme phrase for the day has remained unchanged. In the first verse we sing, “Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King; peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies; with th’angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!” Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”
Joy! Are you a joyful person? What does it mean to be joyful? What makes us joyful people? Again, this week, I asked these questions online and got some great responses. Donna Peck wrote that she finds Joy in being a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and grandmother, and she finds joy in knowing that God loves us no matter what, and in knowing that Christ is alive in us. Others, too, affirmed that some of life’s deepest joys seem to come as a result of our relationships – spouses, parents and children, family, and our relationship with God, abiding in God’s love. Others pointed to joy in vocation, in finding and living out a calling from God in their work in the world. I asked, too, if there was a difference between happiness and joy, and several people responded with similar themes: Melissa McCarthy, a pastor in our district down in Adams wrote, “Joy is not momentary or limited by environment or moment, it is a way of being. Happiness is a momentary thing, it ebbs, flows, and sometimes is not present. We can still experience joy in the midst of grief, in the midst of sorrow.” Heather Bowman wrote, “I do believe happiness can be influenced by memories and environment … Joy is in my soul, it wavers very little ... I have joy in my everyday even if I am not happy. It is an inner strength that I can always call on.” Another wrote, “I believe happiness is based on emotions and can be changed depending on the situations you are in at that moment. Joy can be felt everyday even in the midst of something bad happening.” And my friend Carmen, a United Methodist pastor in Chautauqua, NY wrote: “The etymology [that is the origin of the word] happiness is happen stance: happiness is dependent on the situation. Joy, on the other hand is cultivated by a discipline of giving thanks in all situations, by listening for the Spirit of God through study, worship, and communion with others so that we can discern the presence of God with us even in the most difficult times.”
Carmen is exactly right. The word happy comes from the root words hap which means “chance” or “luck.” It suggests that happiness is something that happens to you based on circumstances, something over which we have very little control. But joy comes from the Latin verb gaudia which means “to rejoice.” That’s something we have control over. Whether or not we have joy in our hearts is something that depends on us, how we respond to what happens, what we put into the world. Happiness can be fleeting and fickle, and sometimes seems available to us only when everything is going smoothly, which doesn’t match up well with the realities of life. But joy – joy is sustaining and enduring. Joy is a deep well in our hearts from which we can draw for strength even in the midst of struggle.
We get into trouble when we consistently seek after and spend our energy and time on chasing after things that give us the temporary bumps of happiness instead of cultivating the life-sustaining and transforming practices of joy. Some images comes to my mind: I think about the hundreds and hundreds of Christmas cookies I’ve made over the past few weeks. I loved especially watching the kids come up to the cookie table at coffee fellowship last week, and seeing how many cookies they could grab at one time with no parent immediately by their side. I imagine some of them left pretty hyped up on sugar, and that some of them also hit the inevitable crash, where the rush of the sweets wears off and sometimes leaves a cranky and tired child behind. Let’s face it: this happens with adults too. This is why I had to wrap up all the cookies that were left for my family Christmas celebration in several layers and put them in my freezer, so I wouldn’t be tempted to try to survive on cookies alone for the next few weeks. As delicious as they are, cookies can’t sustain me in healthy ways.
Think of the classic story of the tortoise and the hare. Everyone is sure that the speedy rabbit will win a race against the slowpoke turtle. But the rabbit can’t keep focused on the task at hand. It starts off in a rush, but eventually ends up off course. The tortoise steadily draws on its strength and perseverance, and finishes ahead.
I’ve been thinking about what we seek after and what sustains us and gives us life as I’ve thought about this season of Advent and the experience of Christmas that follows. Sometimes I’ve found that there’s all this build up, build up, build up before Christmas, and then when Christmas comes, instead of experiencing the culmination of all that we’ve been longing for, I’ve instead felt a strange sense of emptiness, a kind of let down, like somehow I missed the point after all. Part of this, I’m sure, is because of the energy we as church leaders pour into getting ready for worship services and caring for all the details and making sure we’re ready for the high energy of Christmas Eve worship services, and sometimes on Christmas Day I feel like the best gift I can get is a nice long nap! But it’s more than that, I think. Despite our best efforts, we can end up spending a lot of time on Christmas focusing on how happy we are, what we’ve received, how perfectly all of our events unfolded, whether or not everyone liked their gifts. And after some moments of happiness, we crash, because we haven’t built up our hopes and expectations on solid ground. I think again of my friend Carmen’s words: “Joy … is cultivated by a discipline of giving thanks in all situations, by listening for the Spirit of God through study, worship, and communion with others so that we can discern the presence of God with us even in the most difficult times.” How are we cultivating joy in our lives in a way that will sustain us? How are we cultivating joy so that when Christmas comes, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus yet again, we’re not left feeling empty, but instead find ourselves with hearts overflowing?
Our gospel lesson today follows right after our reading from last Sunday, where Mary heard from Gabriel the amazing message that she would be giving birth to God’s child. Mary responds with acceptance, affirmation of what God has shared with her, a willingness to serve however God calls her to serve. And then we pick up today with Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth, an older woman who is also expecting a child: John, who will be known to us as John the Baptist. When Mary enters Elizabeth’s home, Elizabeth’s child “leaps” in her womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. She says to Mary: Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of the womb! When I heard your greeting, my child leaped for joy!” And Elizabeth concludes, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Her words can apply both to herself and to Mary, as both of them showed deep trust in God’s plans, as crazy as they might seem.
Mary answers Elizabeth with a song, a poem we call the Magnificat, because of the first words she speaks: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she says. She means that her soul “exalts” the Lord, praises God, but I love the more literal image: her soul, her life, her embracing of God’s vision for her life magnifies God, makes God more visible for the world. Mary magnifies God. The Magnificat is Mary’s vision of what Jesus’ birth will mean: the lowly are raised up and blessed by God. The proud are scattered. The powerful are brought down from their thrones. The hungry are filled, while the rich leave empty-handed. These words were considered so revolutionary that at different times in history – in Guatemala, in Argentina, and in India, the public reading of the Magnificat was banned. After all, if Mary’s words were taken seriously, why, this Christ-child might upset the whole order of the world, indeed! Mary ends, like Elizabeth, with an affirmation that God is fulfilling God’s promises in the world.
We don’t see anything else of Elizabeth and Mary’s visit. The next we know, Elizabeth gives birth to John, and after that, Mary and Joseph are traveling to Bethlehem. I wish we could see more of their time together. But what we do see gives us a lot to go on. Both Mary and Elizabeth have a deep faith, a deep trust that God is at work in their lives and in the world. They know that they can count on God to fulfill God’s promises not just to them, but through them to the whole world. And in response, they are content, hopefully, expectant, joyful, and committed to exalting God, magnifying God with their lives.
This season, we might be tempted to put our focus on and fill up on literal and proverbial Christmas cookies – sweet in the moment, but leaving us empty later on. There’s something more, but we have to choose it. We have to choose to live a life of joy, trusting in God’s promises, trusting in God’s unwavering love, and nurturing that trust as we live lives of thanksgiving, reflecting the joy of Christ to others. Elizabeth believed that God would fulfill the promises spoken to her, to Mary – not just for them, but for us, for others. Mary believed that she could magnify God with her soul, with her life, so that the world could see. I believe that we, grounded in the joy of Christ in our hearts, can trust in God’s promises too, and reflect the light of Christ to a world that needs something real and sustaining. Joyful, all ye nations rise. Amen.
 Post and responses can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/eaquick/posts/10100260494454062
 McMahon, Darrin M., “A History of Happiness,” http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/a-history-of-happiness.