Sunday, December 18, 2022

Sermon: "When Words Aren't Enough: A Biblical Song of Joy", 1 Samuel 2:1-10/Luke 1:46-55 (December 18, 2022)


When we think about “songs of joy”, we usually think of examples like “Ode to Joy” or “Joy to the World” – up-tempo tunes in major keys with lyrics of celebration and triumph, projecting euphoria with every note, reeking of sunshine and flowers and rainbows. That’s the baseline assumption about what a good song of joy should be – music that makes you happy. Sometimes, we seek this kind of song out when we’re feeling especially low as an emotional “pick-me-up”. In our quest for joy, we try to drive out our grief, lament, or anxiety by inundating it with as much audible happiness as we can stand.

But this isn’t a sustainable solution. Happiness – especially manufactured happiness – can only last for so long. And it comes with its own conditions: it always wants to be the center of attention. Happiness has a hard time coexisting with painful emotions. It’s not a BAD feeling; it’s just rather one-dimensional. Joy, on the other hand, isn’t limited in that same way. Joy is deeper, more complex, and much messier than happiness. Although we often conflate the two (especially musically), joy and happiness are NOT the same thing.

This week, I asked people to finish this sentence: “Joy has more in common with [BLANK] than with happiness”, and I was astounded by how many different answers I got. The most common was “trust,” followed closely by “contentment” and “gratitude”, but in all, I received more than 20 different responses. People named things like strength, hope, courage, security, wholeness, groundedness…all, according to them, more closely related to joy than happiness.

Now, we know what a song of joy “should” sound like, but think about how it might sound if we factored in these other related emotions. Think about what a song of strength would sound like. What a song of wholeness would sound like. What a song of courage would sound like. Probably a far cry from the happiness-centered songs we’re used to associating with joy. And yet, at least biblically speaking, songs of strength, wholeness, or courage aren’t as different from songs of joy as you might expect.

The best-known biblical song of joy is the Magnificat, the song that Mary sang during her visit to Elizabeth in the first chapter of Luke. She opens her song by proclaiming the utter joy that she finds in the Lord – she’s very clear about her theme. But her song doesn’t focus as much on how happy she is as it does on what God is doing to turn the world upside down – scattering the arrogant and proud, pulling the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty-handed. For Mary, joy has more to do with justice and transformation than it does with happiness.

A less familiar, but equally important, biblical song of joy comes from the book of 1 Samuel – our scripture reading for today. You may remember Samuel as the prophet who anointed Saul and David as the first and second kings of Israel respectively, or as the boy who heard God calling to him in the middle of the night, but his story actually begins long before any of those events. His mother, Hannah, like so many women, had been struggling with infertility, and she was tormented both by her own grief and the mocking of her husband’s other wife, who already had several children of her own. Eventually, after many fervent prayers and a pledge to dedicate her firstborn son to the Lord as a Nazarite, she finally gave birth to a son, whom she named Samuel.

Hannah sings HER song of joy on the day that she fulfills her promise to God: she brings Samuel to the temple and leaves him there to be raised by Eli, the priest. Her song expresses her joy in the Lord, just like Mary’s does. But as in Mary’s song, happiness is notably absent. Hannah sings of revolution, of her vindication, and of the consequences for those who reject the Lord. She sings of God’s strength and holiness, God’s upending of the social order, God’s justice – but not a word about her own personal happiness.

This glaring omission in both Mary’s and Hannah’s songs isn’t especially surprising. Both of these women were undoubtedly experiencing many emotions as they sang, but I suspect that “happiness” wasn’t one of them. Mary was a young, unwed mother-to-be, who was just told that she would give birth to the son of God. How would she explain this to her betrothed? What would this mean for her own future? What would she have to endure as the mother of God incarnate? She probably felt vulnerable, anxious, trusting, perhaps courageous, and maybe even grateful, but almost certainly not anything that we would call “happy”. And yet, she held all of these feelings together within her heart, and she called it “joy”.

Hannah also sang about joy, but not because she was “happy”. She’d endured much and waited years for the arrival of her beloved son, and now she was preparing to leave him behind forever as a dedication to God. Would Samuel remember her? Would she be able to have more children? Was she making a mistake? She probably felt grief, love, reverence, perhaps hope, maybe even a sense of peace, but almost certainly not anything that we would call “happy”. And yet, she held all of these feelings together within her heart, and she called it “joy”.

Through their songs, both of these women teach us that happiness is not a prerequisite for joy, and that, unlike happiness, joy CAN coexist with complex or difficult emotions. In fact, real joy is informed and shaped by EVERY experience that a person has, and it’s this very complexity that gives joy its strength and endurance. Happiness tends to either ignore or reject hard feelings. Joy, on the other hand, not only tolerates struggle; it’s deepened by it.

In this season when many of OUR most jubilant songs tend to be about pumpkin pie, figgy pudding, and other festive confections, it feels appropriate to illustrate the difference between happiness and joy using a dessert metaphor. The experience of happiness is like eating a chocolate kiss: sweet and enjoyable, but relatively simple and short-lived. Joy, on the other hand, is more like an ornate cake, like the kind you’d find in an artisan bakery or on the Great British Baking Show: it has lots of different ingredients – some surprising, others that you wouldn’t expect to work well together, even some that you wouldn’t enjoy on their own. These ingredients are expertly mixed together in different amounts, at different times, interacting with each other to produce a complex, stunning, and (of course) delicious result. A cake like this takes time to process and savor. It stays with you, both in terms of the time it takes to consume as well as the emotional impact it has, for much longer than a piece of chocolate. The more ingredients a recipe has, the fuller the experience of eating the cake can ultimately be.

Like Mary and Hannah, we CAN experience joy even in the midst of struggle or uncertainty, even when happiness itself remains elusive. God can work with whatever “ingredients” are in our lives at any given moment to create a beautiful and holistic experience of joy, but we have to be willing to trust the baker’s skill. We have to acknowledge and accept what’s in our emotional pantry, even if it doesn’t seem possible for any good to come out of it. God has created friendship from animosity, prestige from betrayal, redemption from death, an entire universe out of sheer nothingness. Who are we to think that God can’t create joy in a heart that’s full of sorrow or pain?

Recognizing joy is an important part of preparing for Christmas – but you don’t have to squeeze your heart into a happiness-shaped cookie cutter in order to find it. Joy is adaptable and resilient; it can look and feel different from season to season and person to person. It can look like a young woman preparing to have her life upended; it can look like an older woman relinquishing her beloved son. It can look like a person preparing for their first Christmas without a loved one, or it can look like someone facing uncertainty in the coming year. If Mary and Hannah can find a reason to sing songs of joy in THEIR circumstances, then surely, we can believe that there is joy to be found in ours.

So don’t feel guilty if your joy this season is tinged with grief. Don’t berate yourself if it has more in common with courage than with happiness. As we prepare to recount the ancient stories of a virgin giving birth, of magi bowing down to an infant, of God taking on flesh, we should remember that joy has never been simple. It isn’t meant to be. Joy can arise out of hard choices, unexpected events, and even personal sacrifice. So whether the song you lift up to God in this season is merry and bright, or muted and bleak, remember that joy is not outside of your reach. If you let Them, God can – and will – work within your heart to create a sense of joy that doesn’t banish your emotions, but honors them and uses them to establish something much deeper and more enduring than simple happiness. Something that you can carry with you even when the decorations are put away, the gifts are opened, and the cookies are eaten. Something worth singing about. Amen.

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