Jesus as Joy
On Dec. 2nd, country musician Garth Brooks played a sold out concert at Notre Dame’s stadium. It was broadcast on CBS. At the end of the concert, Garth played his iconic #1 hit, “The Dance.” The song contains some of the most poetically beautiful lyrics, and people in the audience knew every line. They sang with tears in their eyes as they swayed to the music, lights held high overhead.
A good song has power. It can stir something deeper within us, something more than an urge to simply listen or dance. There are those songs that provoke us: they provoke us to listen to stories we would otherwise ignore; they provoke us to look within ourselves, to exam the kind of person we are in light of those around us. Take a moment to think about a song like that – perhaps John Lennon’s Imagine or Clapton’s Tears in Heaven or Leonard Cohen’s Halleluiah.
There are those songs that provoke us to actions, songs that unapologetically provoke us to think differently, to be different. Donna Tucker sang a song like that at last week’s UCC Christmas party when she gave us a moving rendition of My Grown Up Christmas List.
The song in the Gospel of Luke often called Mary’s Magnificat is like that. Mary’s song of praise speaks of God’s redeeming work not as future, but as already having been fulfilled. Mary praises God for what will happen with the confidence that it is already in progress.
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Luke 1:46-55
Joy is a recurring theme in the gospel of Luke. Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus is full of joy – from Elizabeth and Mary in the early story of birth – to the Disciples of Jesus in the Temple praising God.
The unusual thing about this joy is that it is not circumstantial. It is not dependent on privilege and position or on achievement and success. Quite the opposite. This joy expresses the desperate need of the lowly, the poor, the oppressed, and the hungry. Though the news is not exactly joyous for an unwed pregnant teenager, Mary still sings.
In her recent book, Anne Lamott writes, “Joy is portable. Joy is a habit, and these days, it can be a radical act. Joy is always a surprise, and often a decision. Some of us periodically need to repeat the joy training, rehabilitate the part of us that naturally dims or gets injured by busyness, or just by too much bad news to bear.”
• What brings you joy? The birth of a child?
• How does joy feel, taste, smell and sound to you? A juicy steak? A warm embrace of a loved one?
• When are you most joyous? When you are golfing or swimming? When you are at a party with happy people? When you are snuggled up in your pajamas at home?
• How could you incorporate more joy in your life?
Finding joy in life can be a challenge for many people. I think one of the reasons for this is that we associate joy with circumstances instead of choosing joy as a way of life and faith. Having a joyful heart doesn’t mean that bad things will cease. But it determines that love can be pulled out of hate. It sees through failure until there is success. A joyful heart elects peace over hostilities and violence. A joyful heart will sustain you through the dark and barren places in life. It will even lead you to create joy for others who are in those same hopeless situations.
As Chris Thomas said, “Mary, the poor, unwed, pregnant teenager, a member of an oppressed race, the one with whom God found favor, sings about the justice of God’s in-breaking kingdom in spite of everything she sees around her, in spite of everything she knows to be true about the unjust world in which she lives. Mary sings…and her song is more than melodious “thank you.” Her song is a call to recognize the coming kingdom of God. Her song is a call to name the injustices in the present world in which we live and expose them to the light of Christ and the coming of his kingdom. Mary’s song is a song of hope, a song of joy yet to be realized by the whole world.”
This dark December, will you join in with Mary singing a song of hope, acknowledging that this world with all its brokenness and injustice is not all there is? Will you look past your present circumstances and the worries in your mind and sing out in joy that God’s justice is coming?
For there’s nothing quite like a good song to provoke us to do something, to provoke us to the Lord’s work of justice if we would but listen and join in the singing. Will you sing with tears in your eyes and hope in your voice as you sway to the music, holding onto a light in your soul that pierces the darkness?
“The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary” vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 2015.
“An Advent Song”. Rev. Chris Thomas. December 17, 2014.
“Almost Everything; Notes on Hope”. Anne Lamott. New York: Riverhead Books. 2018.