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Joy and Rejoicing

I preached this sermon on December 15, 2013 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Hackettstown, NJ. We were in the midst of a snowstorm, however, so the total attendance was less than me, the organist, and the ushers. So I have been jokingly calling this my greatest sermon never heard! I hope you can find some meaning in it.

Seasons Greetings! Happy Holidays! Feliz Navidad! Peace at Christmas! Joyous Noel! It’s Christmas, Be Happy! And the universal, Merry Christmas! Just a sampling of the many greetings we receive in cards and otherwise at this time of year. Everywhere we turn we are told we should be happy and celebrate. But there is another, fairly common response to the holidays, that we don’t get in cards, but if we are honest we all feel from time-to-time…………bah humbug!

I sometimes think I’m becoming a crotchety old man. I used to love the Christmas season. But as I have aged it seems to have become less special. The season used to begin at Thanksgiving. The season used to be marked by the rhythms of Advent. But now it seems to be marked by the rhythms of pop Christmas music pumped from speakers hidden everywhere. I hate that we are now bombarded all Fall with advertisements about Christmas sales, that Christmas decorations are up in stores even while Halloween is taking place, and that we are constantly reminded to shop for Christmas, often by the same people who do not want their clerks to say Merry Christmas. We are constantly reminded, and indeed practically pressured, to be happy. By the time we reach this point in the season I am completely tired of it. The spirit of Christmas has been cheapened and robbed. Bah humbug!

I also get a tinge of depression this time of year. I find myself haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past. I remember going with my father for our Christmas tree and buying his special Christmas candy mix. I remember coming home from school and being greeted by the wonderful smells of my mother baking Christmas cookies. I remember the visits to Santa Claus with our children. I remember the gleam of excitement in their eyes on Christmas morning. I remember so many good things of Christmases past. And somehow all of those wonderful memories make me sad rather than happy, sad for good times, and some good people, that are gone from my life.

Experts tell me that I am not alone. The anecdotal assertions that depression and suicides increase during the holiday season have not been supported by empirical studies, but the “holiday blues” are a recognized phenomenon. Rather than being the happy time that the marketing that surrounds us emphasizes, the holiday season accentuates loneliness, anxiety, and stress and pushes beyond coping skills. We measure our experiences of the season against a Currier and Ives imprint of what we should expect of the holidays and find our lives wanting.

In the letter to he Philippians, Paul emphasizes that we are to rejoice always, no matter in what circumstances we find ourselves. Happiness is an emotion that we often confuse with joy. Paul tells us to rejoice in all circumstances, but we certainly face many situations that make us sad and even depressed. The rejoicing and joy that Paul addresses, therefore, must be something much deeper than situational emotional happiness. So when we expect to find the joy of Christmas in people, places, events, and things, and come away unfulfilled, we may be confusing situational happiness with the true joy that can be found in Christmas.

I imagine happiness in that very first advent season was similarly elusive for Mary. The popular image of Mary is one of peaceful, blissful motherhood. Mary supposedly accepts Gabriel’s message and is immediately clothed with saintly faithfulness thereafter. But I suspect that her reality was far different. She starts as an unwed mother in a time when such a condition was not only scandalous, but also potentially fatal. Yes, she was told by an angel that she would bear the Messiah, but days would pass before that would be confirmed by her body and she undoubtedly would have been fearful and try to push the idea to the back of her mind. And then the physical changes began and she could no longer deny her pregnancy. She lived in a small town. If you are from a small town then you know how quickly the scandal spread. Small towns are brutal and little remains private. Mary would not have been able to appear in public without being scorned. Mary would have been regarded as an open and great sinner. Just drawing water from the well would have required extreme fortitude. And sometime she would have tried to explain that she was still a virgin and that the child was divinely conceived, only to be met with even greater scorn. I seriously doubt that Mary’s Advent season was happy.

Mary knew that the child she carried was a miracle, but the sheer day-to-day stress had to be overwhelming. I think what is telling is that we have no reference to Mary’s mother. You would think that her mother would have been a source of strength for her, but we have nothing. It is equally probable that even her mother doubted her and rejected her. She may have had no one to turn to for support. She knew, however, that something special also was happening with her cousin Elizabeth, who in her older years also is carrying a child. Perhaps Elizabeth would understand. So Mary escapes and goes to visit Elizabeth.

Mary did not have a guarantee of a welcome reception. Elizabeth was the wife of a priest. She would have had social standing. She was also pregnant and, although she may have been found by some to be curious as to pregnancy at her age, her pregnancy probably was celebrated by all as she had been barren. She also was married. She had no shame in her pregnancy. So whether she would embrace her fallen cousin was hardly a sure thing. But Mary took the risk. She had to. She needed the affirmation and there must have been something important in the angel’s message about Elizabeth. So she hurries to Elizabeth to find support. And what happens teaches us about true joy and rejoicing at Christmas.

In our culture the greeting at the beginning of a visit usually is a few words of welcome by the host. At the time of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, however, the greeting upon arrival was not just a few words, but an elaborate ritual that included bows, kisses, foot washing, and an exchange of blessings, which is initiated by the visitor rather than the host. The care taken in the ritual and the nature of the blessing defined the extent of the welcome. So that is why our scripture today refers to Mary hurrying to Elizabeth and Mary initiating the greeting.

While we don’t know the words of the greeting Mary brings to Elizabeth, we do know that she brought the presence of Christ to Elizabeth.  That greeting had an effect so powerful that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. As our scripture says, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Elizabeth begins to speak out prophetically and blesses Mary. And she does it loudly. She cries out. Think of all the surprise soldier homecomings you see on television and magnify the response and you will probably have an image of Elizabeth’s physical and spoken response to the greeting of Mary. The miracle mothers were together and bound in ways that no others could imagine.

Elizabeth offers two blessings under divine inspiration, first upon Mary herself, as being blessed above all other women, and then upon the baby Jesus within her. Elizabeth then wonders why “the mother of my Lord” would come to visit her. How could Elizabeth know that Mary’s child was the Lord? The Holy Spirit gave her insight into Mary’s condition, blessedness, and faith. Her rejoicing was not at the visit of Mary, but the presence of the Christ. John the Baptist, in Elizabeth’s womb, also responds to the presence of the Messiah inside of Mary, which scripture characterizes as “leaping for joy” within Elizabeth.

Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s blessing is known as The Magnificat. It follows our passage for today, but it is so important to the basis for joy and rejoicing at Christmas. At verses 46-48, Mary says: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.” Elizabeth’s blessing has again confirmed for Mary that she carries the Messiah. She knows that she is in the presence of the Christ and she rejoices in her salvation. Her circumstances, however, have not changed. When she leaves Elizabeth she will return to the same taunts, scorn, and shame heaped upon her by her neighbors. She will continue to know frustration and sadness. But her joy in her Savior reaches beyond her circumstances.

Through Jesus the presence of God came to Mary, Elizabeth, and John. And they leapt for joy! They rejoiced that they were in the presence of their Savior. They rejoiced that no matter their circumstance, God was with them eternally. They rejoiced that despite their sin, they were reconciled with God, forever. Their focus turned to Christ, and they knew true joy.

Friends, that joy is ours also. We find it every Christmas, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but the deep, abiding joy is here always. We rejoice not because of presents, parties, food, and all the other trappings of the season. We rejoice because we have a Savior; a Savior born as a babe but who reconciles us with God. We rejoice because that baby born in Bethlehem redeemed us all from sin and restores us to God through grace. We find the true joy of Christmas when we turn to Christ. So as with John, let’s leap for joy for we are in the presence of the Lord. Rejoice in the Lord always! I say again, Rejoice!



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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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