Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1: 39-45)
“Aargh…Why me?” I asked myself, as I walked down the street of our inner-city neighborhood two years ago in Southside Minneapolis. Approaching my car, I saw the telltale pile of broken glass, and the black, empty space where the passenger side window should have been, telling me that, for the third time in less than two years, someone had broken into the old Saturn. And all this time, I thought the car was protected from crime by age, rust and hail damage. This time there was not even any radio/CD player to take, like what they had stolen the previous two times. I had the kind of sound system thingamajig that you could pop out and take with you whenever you parked the car, so that anyone looking into it saw only wires sticking out where a sound system or a GPS unit would have been. But this particular thief evidently thought, “Maybe he put the sound system in the glove compartment,” because the contents of it were strewn about, violently, throughout the car, as though he were angry at not finding anything of value in it.
Or isn’t it usually this messy?
Why me? Again? But as I put the papers and the CD’s back into the glove compartment, it struck me that the thief and I had one thing in common: we are both joy junkies. My choice of music CD’s reflected my constant quest for joy: Bach cantatas and Mariachi music. As for the thief, it’s no secret that there’s a direct correlation between the price of street drugs and the rate of car break-ins. Drug addicts steal and pawn sound systems and GPS units to buy heroin, meth or crack cocaine, in their quest for joy.
But if the stories I heard at Narcotics Anonymous meetings are true, then those street drugs start out by delivering just enough joy-like substitute, like a high or a tingly neural exhilaration, something just close enough to joy to be confused for it, to keep you coming back for more. But after a few times lighting up or shooting up, they become ruthless, relentless taskmasters who drive you on a constant, fearful quest to buy more, even while they take away your ability to get a job and hold it down. Then you’re driven to steal, not so much in search of joy, but to avoid the pain of withdrawal. Most addictions, whether to street drugs, alcohol, sex or money, start out as a quest for something we were made for, which we can’t live without, but for which there are many dangerous and deceptive counterfeits and substitutes: joy. To be human, then, is to be joy junkies.
Which brings me to the first question in the outline: What is joy? This all-important, driving motivation that sends people on lifelong quests, making tremendous sacrifices of time, treasure and even their lives? To answer that question, I’ll start with a picture. Here it is:
I first ran across this picture where I used to go for spiritual direction. It’s called “The Windsock Visitation,” by Michael O’Neill McGrath. I got his gracious permission to portray his work. It helped that I bought a copy of it, and, to be fair, I’ll put in a commercial announcement about it in a moment. It’s a picture of the encounter that we just read about, of Mary and her older cousin, Elizabeth, when both were pregnant, Mary with Jesus, of course, and Elizabeth, with John the Baptist. Their joyful encounter is called, in church tradition, “The Visitation.”
By the way, if you’re wondering, “Isn’t this an Advent or a Christmas story?” well, if the church calendar celebrates Jesus’ birth in late December, when would Mary have known for sure that she was pregnant and had better make herself scarce around Nazareth? When would she have gone south to help Elizabeth? Right about now in the calendar year.
By “visitation” is not exactly the same as what pastors and elders do when someone is in a nursing home or a hospital bed, although I would hope that those too are joyful, Spirit-filled encounters. Nor is meant the name that one pastor I know gave to his boat, so that whenever someone called his house and asked to speak to the pastor, his wife could say, “Oh, he’s out on visitation now.”
This is about the visitation of one person to another. No, make that, of five persons to each other. Who are the five persons in this picture? Let’s see: there’s Mary, and Elizabeth. To better capture their joy, the artist depicted them in colorful African clothing, as Africans. But who are the other three persons? Mary and Elizabeth are each carrying a baby, so, we can add Jesus and John the Baptist. That’s four. Who’s the fifth? Well, look just to the left of the picture, behind Mary. Or is it Elizabeth? No, that’s not a giant red squid attacking Mary. It’s a windsock, like what you’ll find at an airport. Hence the name, “The Windsock Visitation.”
To have its banners out like that, the windsock must be full of wind, and both biblical languages use the same word for “wind” and “spirit.” The full windsock then is a symbol for God, the Holy Spirit. So the five characters in this joy-filled encounter we call “The Visitation” are Mary, Elizabeth, Jesus, John the Baptist, and God.
For there to be joy, by which I mean real joy, there must also be God. Joy is one of the biblical fruits of the Holy Spirit, and in Isaiah 11 we read of the Holy Spirit as a spirit of delight, “He will delight in the reverence of God.” So, God’s joy, or delight, is not an indiscriminate joy all the time, over anything and everything, but a delight over everything that is good and godly. The Bible begins with God’s expression of delight and joy with every stage of creation, every time we read that God looked at what he had created and said, “It is good.”
Most simply, then, joy is an attribute of God. Joy is God’s delight in God-ness and goodness. This attribute of God flows over to touch and to bless all of God’s creation, including humans, who bear God’s image. If joy is an attribute of God, then we experience joy the closer we draw toward God, and as God draws near and touches us, like a spark of electricity arcing between two wires.
Joy doesn’t have to feel like what Elizabeth felt, when something leaped up in her for joy. I imagine her having a face-on-your-hands, doubled over your waist, feet dancing, warm whoop-it-up whoosh going from up the belly, through the throat, and out her crying eyes, a breathless yet screaming kind of joy. But sometimes joy is more like a tingle up the spine, a catch in your throat, and the eyes going moist. Or it may even be just a surprising strength, a peace and a confidence that sustains us in times and circumstances that would call for anything but joy, and we know the truth of what Moses said, that “The Lord God is your refuge, and underneath us are his everlasting arms.” Those are all different experiences of the same thing: the joy of the Lord that is our strength.
Whatever the experience or the intensity, joy is different from being amused, or entertained, or humored, happy, pleasured, pleased, interested, aroused or excited by something that may have little or nothing to do with God, like when your favorite team wins the World Series, as much as that is fun. Joy is above all these things because it speaks to us of something timeless, not momentary and passing, something infinite and everlasting, even, of something that awakens in us a poignant, powerful sense of longing for something different, yet strangely, vaguely familiar, ever new and yet before time.
Maybe it’s true, then, the story that I’ve heard about the little girl, about three or four years old, who first met her newborn baby brother when Mom and Dad came home from the hospital with him. After they put him in his crib, the little girl asked Mom and Dad if they could leave her alone with her new brother for just a minute. So, they stepped out of the baby’s room, but stayed close enough to the door to hear the little girl say to her baby brother, “Quick; tell me about God; I’m starting to forget.” If he could have said something that would have refreshed her memory, nothing could have contained her joy.
So, again, joy is an attribute, a quality or character trait of God, that, like an electrical current, can surge, overflow, and spark joy in us. That surge of joy can be even more powerful when it becomes like a direct current, looping from one person to another. That’s what happened when Mary came to Elizabeth, and that which was of God in one woman connected with that which was of God in the other, awoke it and stirred it up.
That’s why joy grows with the sharing. It can be joyful enough to watch a beautiful sunset, or hear a favorite song, alone. But isn’t there something about sharing those joys with someone and hearing them say, “Yeah, that IS a beautiful sunset,” or, “Wow; that IS an amazing song, thanks for sharing it with me” that increases one’s joy?
Isn’t that also what we’re doing in worship? That which is of God in us, the Holy Spirit, nudging and bringing us here together, so that there’s this wonderful synergy, a multiplier effect; God the Holy Spirit in you increases my capacity to host, and bear, and be aware of, God the Holy Spirit in me.
In a way, that makes each of us pregnant, like Mary and Elizabeth. Spiritually pregnant, one might say. Through the Holy Spirit we are each bearing within us, men and women, something of our God-filled futures, which will be nothing but joy, in the direct and unmediated presence of God. We are even bearing within us something of the joyous, Spirit-filled, God-promised future of Creation. Mary and Elizabeth then are models for us of the God-bearing life.
Which puts me already into the second question: What is the God-bearing life? Especially since, truth be told, God bears us, and bears with us, infinitely more than we bear God. And yet, Mary’s pregnancy, and that of Elizabeth, tells us much about life in the Spirit. It also tells us much about our vision statement’s value of discipleship. Much that is an important reminder, make that even, a correction and a rebuke, to our modern, Western way of thinking. Our corporate-driven world prizes power projection over persons, command and control over character, organization over organisms, and values what we achieve over who we become. But the Holy Spirit seems to work in ways that remind me more of pregnancy and childbirth, because God is in charge, not we. And God’s work always begins, continues and ends with love. The Spirit’s work starts, stirs and grows within us, like a developing baby, and then emerges in us and through us. Usually we become aware of the Spirit’s work, through inner movements of the soul toward joy, rather than by our predicting steps and timetables to construct and perfect anything.
These movements of the Spirit within do not control us nor make robots of us; but they do give us valuable direction. That’s why the Christian author Frederick Buechner could say, “Where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger, there is our calling.” Rather than being controlled by us, the Spirit and his gifts are contained in us, but not for long. Like a child being born, the Spirit’s work emerges, often with something like labor pains. Just ask anyone in any ministry, or mission. If they’d known how hard and costly this work of God would be, they might never have signed up. But if they’d known how rewarding this would prove, and how grateful they would feel, they’d have signed up for it earlier.
Like pregnancy, the God bearing life is an awkward stage of life that requires learning a new way to walk while we bear within us a growing, emerging world which neither we nor the society around us can yet see nor understand. This awkwardness contains a mix of grief, over the loss of comforts, convenience, convention and conformity, and of gratitude, for the privilege of being partners with God in our very innermost beings. We go from lamenting, “Why me?” in the pains of labor, to “WHY, ME????” in the joys of new life, as Elizabeth meant, when she asked, “Why am I so blessed?”
A beautiful example of the God-bearing life you can find in a big, clunky old house in North Minneapolis where a bright red windsock actually flies on the front porch for several hours a day, and all the children and youth in the neighborhood know what it means. It’s a neighborhood worse than the one we lived in to the south of downtown Minneapolis. On the North Side, children know the sound of automatic handgun fire, can tell you what kind of pistol it was, and if any bullets are left in the chamber. The house belongs to a chapter of the Visitation Sisters, an order of Catholic nuns. Whenever they put the bright red windsock on the porch, it tells the kids that they can come in for games, conversation, counseling, cookies, after-school tutoring, and safety from the drug and gang wars on the street. The artist, Michael O’Neill McGrath, was so taken with the sisters and their ministry, that for every purchase of The Windsock Visitation, all the proceeds go to the Sisters’ household in North Minneapolis. You can find it online.
And remember, there only 207 shopping days left until Christmas!
How then do we live the God-bearing life? Like those sisters and that artist are doing? Elizabeth said it best, when she said to her cousin, Mary, “Blessed is she who has believed that God will accomplish what he promised her.” That’s the gospel this morning: Blessed are any and all who trust God to do for them, and in them, all that God promises in his word. The God-bearing life starts with faith, working through love. Or faith in God, in response to God’s love.
That faith, however, has to be practiced and developed over time, sometimes at great cost. Both Mary and Elizabeth had to pay high prices and exercise much patience to bear and to bring into this world that which was of God in them. So did their husbands, Joseph and Zacharias. By steady, lifelong faithfulness, we put ourselves in the path of joy whenever joy comes looking for us, as it came to Elizabeth and John the Baptist, in the person of Jesus. Our graduates today can attest just as well to the importance of patience and putting in your time in order to be there when gifts and grace come our way.
But they also learned that their joys required delaying some gratifications, and avoiding the traps and pitfalls of cheap, counterfeit substitutes. So, don’t follow the world’s latest frantic, frenzied fads in quest of joy-like substitutes. Don’t fall for the latest false promise and cheap counterfeit of joy.
And because the Spirit is in charge of the God-bearing life, and not we, we can only be open, willing and waiting as the Spirit does his work in us and through us. More than that I dare not say. Drug pushers and the pornographers try to sell us fool-proof, automatic products, programs and shortcuts for finding joy, and they’re lying. Like they say in AA: “Every shortcut leads to a dead end.” Joy is a gift; it can’t be manufactured or controlled.
In our crazy, chaotic and conflicted world, with all that we’re up against and must overcome or endure, it’s surprising how much joy there already is for all of us. Joy through love, through family, friendship, nature, art or beauty. Such joys are God’s gift and calling card to all of us joy-junkies, saying that the best is yet to come. The difference for the Christian is not that we always get more joy or deserve joy more than others—we don’t—but simply that we recognize God as the source of joy, and open ourselves to God, and trust that joy comes looking for us in the person of Jesus. That’s the wisdom of George Matheson, the Scottish preacher who wrote the song, “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go,” especially verse 3, “O Joy That Seekest Me Through Pain, I cannot close my heart to thee; I trace the rainbow in the rain, and trust the promise is not vain, that morn shall tearless be.”
That’s the gospel this morning, and world without end, Amen: “Blessed are all who believe that God will accomplish in us, through us, and for us, everything that he has promised.” And when he does, we’ll say, like Elizabeth, “Why, ME?” meaning, “Why am I so favored?”
May you know the joy of the God-bearing life.