Monday, December 14, 2009

Joy from Another World

We are the generation of extreme realism...not easily lured into 'over the top' displays of joyous enthusiasm. Sarcasm and cynicism are more acceptable than the genuinely positive affirmation. The Bible, on the other hand, rings with joy - from God's "very good" creation (Gen. 1: 31) to the Psalms of David which speak again and again of the "joy of the Lord" Jesus himself whom Luke says was "full of joy through the Holy Spirit" (Luke 10:21/NIV). Listen to the twisted observations of Uncle Screwtape, a senior devil imagined by C. S. Lewis: “[Joy and laughter do] us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of hell” (The Screwtape Letters, p. 50)!

Hanging in my childhood home was a quote from the Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” I want a good reason to believe that. Don't you? I'm guessing that the most cynical person reading this, if he or she was honest, longs to be truly happy; wants to believe that there is a reason in this world (or out of this world) to be authentically joyful. That's why I'm so fascinated with the story of Gabriel's announcement to Mary in Luke 1: 26ff. where the angel brings to Mary and to us, news of great joy… a real, lasting joy that can not be taken away from us.

True Joy is the Savior who understands our deepest fears. "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you....Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God!" (Luke 1:28, 30/NIV). The first word that Gabriel speaks to Mary is variously translated as "Greetings!" "Hail!" or even "Good Morning!" but literally means "JOY to you!" The reason for this joyous greeting is what Gabriel is about to explain.

You are "highly favored" Gabriel says or in the older translations, "full of grace." Many Catholic Christians grew up saying the rosary prayer, “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.” I wonder how many people suppose that “full of grace” refers to something innate within Mary, that it describes her “gracious personality’ or her gentleness. Yet what Gabriel literally says is, “Joy to you, RECIPIENT OF GRACE, the Lord is with you.” To paraphrase: "Be filled with joy - not fear - because you are “favored” (NRSV) by God, a recipient of his grace, his ‘undeserved favor’. God has chosen you not because of anything you have done but because he loves you." Unlike the world of sport where being “favored” refers to a statistical advantage that one team may have over another based on recent performance…a status that can change with the wind; Mary was “highly favored” not because of past performance, but God’s unchanging love for her. Hear this: to live in constant need of having to prove yourself worthy of God’s love or anyone’s love (for that matter) is to live in fear. True joy flows from the knowledge that you are loved absolutely, and without reservation, despite your faults and imperfections. The happiness of this world rises and falls with our circumstances, but the joy that Gabriel speaks of cannot be taken from us. That’s because the Joy that is beyond this world is more than an emotion…it’s a Person, the LORD who is with us. He is joy itself. As the Psalmist declares, true joy is found “in God MY JOY and my delight” (Psalm 43: 4/ NIV).

True Joy is the Savior who answers our deepest questions. We’re told in Luke 1:29 that Mary "pondered" the angel’s greeting. The word lit. means to dialogue with one’s self (to reason or debate). It means that Mary was not passive about the angel's words: she carefully weighed the implications of what he was saying. Many people assume that to have a religious experience, to know God’s joy one must disconnect the intellect. But the testimony of Scripture from 'pondering Mary' to 'doubting Thomas' is that God honors our questions and our doubts. It may sound strange to hear a pastor say this…but I’m a strong believer in doubt. Doubt has been the catalyst for some of my most significant spiritual growth as a Christian -- especially in my college years. If God had demanded passive acceptance from Mary this story would have ended with the angels explanation in v. 33 and a quick “Good-bye!” But Mary’s blunt question is honored: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Mary too, was a realist. Larry King was once asked by a caller: “If you could select any one person across all of history to interview, who would it be?” King's answer was that he would like to interview Jesus Christ. When the questioner followed with, “And what would you like to ask him?” King replied, “I would like to ask him if he was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me" (Just Thinking, RZIM, Winter 1998). As a Jew, I'm sure he was quite serious. What evidence is there for the history defining virgin birth?

Gabriel says that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you" - not a very satisfying answer for the scientists among us. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that both Matthew & Luke agree there was something very different about Jesus’ birth, that although Joseph was the legal father, he was not the biological father, and that Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Mark calls Jesus “the carpenter, the son of Mary.” Paul says he is “born of a woman.” again with no mention of Joseph (Gal. 4:4); and most non-Muslims are surprised to learn that the Koran calls him, “Jesus the Son of Mary” and esteems him as “the virgin’s son,” conceived by the work of God. Of course there is no way to prove the virgin birth by direct observation (for obvious reasons)…what we can directly observe is any number of the countless millions who testify to a virgin birth in their own hearts; that the same Holy Spirit who brought Jesus into Mary has brought Jesus into them, that he lives in them; speaks to them, guides them, and continues to fill them with his joy and peace.

Along these lines noted geneticist Francis Collins, the Director of the Human Genome project spoke in a CNN interview of the extraordinary influence of Jesus Christ upon his life, "a person with remarkably strong historical evidence of his life, who made astounding statements about loving your neighbor, and whose claims about being God's son seemed to demand a decision about whether he was deluded or the real thing. After resisting for nearly two years, I found it impossible to go on living in such a state of uncertainty, and I became a follower of Jesus" ( True joy comes to those who understand that the answer to our deepest questions is not just a proposition, but an extraordinary Person…Jesus himself.

Finally, true Joy is the Savior who has revealed our deepest purpose. “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word…..[and then later in her prayer she declares] 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’” (Luke 1:38, 47-48). What I love about Mary’s response to Gabriel’s message is first, her joy simply in being used by God for his purpose. “My spirit rejoices in God my savior for he has looked with favor…on me!” True joy comes to those who recognize that God has called them (personally, individually) to be his servants and followers.

The second thing I love about Mary’s response is that she understands God’s mission will extend far beyond her own years on earth. It’s not just about her. She knows that God is not only calling her to be a servant in her place and time…but through the power of the Savior, to bless the generations that follow her. Jesus is God’s gift to every generation. Doug Coupland, the postmodern literary icon who coined the term Gen X, once disclosed the quest of his generation and every generation: “Now—here is my secret. I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love" (Douglas Coupland, Life After God, Washington Square Press, NY, 1994, p. 359). Mary speaks for every new generation of Christ’s followers when she admits this need for direction and turns to the one in whom life's purpose is found, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. May it be with me according to your word.”

One of the most beloved songs of Christmas is Joy to the World, lyrics by Isaac Watts. Ironcially, Watts never intended this to be a Christmas Song. It’s based upon Psalm 98…a Song of God’s faithful deliverance, but Watts saw in this Psalm a foreshadowing of the coming Messiah. Some may cynically wonder whether anyone who wrote a song like “Joy to the World!” could know anything about suffering or loneliness. In fact, we know that Watts had frequent health problems during his life; and that he knew the pain of heartbreak. When Elizabeth Singer heard his music, she began a correspondence with Isaac and proposed marriage through the mail. Taken with her adoration, he accepted, but when she raced to Isaac’s side, rather than cementing a life-long love, she was unenthused with Watt’s “shallow face, hooked nose, prominent cheek bones and death-like palor" and told told him so before returning home! It broke his heart, but he poured himself even more into his writing! (Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001, p. 101). Joy, as Watts discovered, was not dependent upon circumstances or crushed by life’s disappointments. Joy comes from the deep seated conviction that the love of God revealed through his Son is the most dependable thing in this world…

Isaac Watts said this in his final days: “If God should raise me up again, and use me to save a soul -- that will be worth living for. If He has no more service for me [here], I can say, through grace, I am ready; I could without alarm if God please, lay back my head on my pillow and die this afternoon or night. My sins are all pardoned through the Blood of Christ.” ( Friends, my joy is not dependent on my situation or anything else in this world, it’s anchored in the unshakeable reality of Jesus the Christ; the One who understands my deepest fears, answers my deepest questions, and has revealed my deepest purpose. It's not just a word for Mary anymore: “Joy to you!” Gabriel says, and “Joy to the World…the Lord is come!”

Dear Jesus, the Child of promise who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, the invisible God made visible, the Son of God, Savior and Messiah, you are the source of true Joy; in whom my fears are conquered, my questions are answered, and my purpose revealed. I admit that I have sinned against God and others, and have sought happiness in things that do not and cannot satisfy. Please forgive me. I now turn from everything I know is wrong; and from all that might seek to dilute your power in my life. Thank you for showing me how to truly live as God intended; for offering up your life for me on the cross, and removing from me the curse of my sins. Thank you for your victory over death when you rose again! I receive you now as my Sovereign Lord and Savior to cleanse and renew me. I receive you into my heart as Lord to rule in and through me. Fill me now with your Holy Spirit so that I may serve you joyfully and faithfully, in fellowship with your other disciples, forever! Amen.

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