“Where Joy Comes From”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
December 17, 2017
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3All went to their own towns to be registered.
4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.
5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:
11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;
18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Where does joy come from? There are probably as many answers as there are people. I used to think joy was different from happiness in that it abides and lasts but after some thought this week I don’t think that is so. Now I think joy may be fleeting, but it comes from something wonderful and unexpected suddenly happening. And I think it is powerful, because it changes expectations, it surprises with a new reality we hadn’t planned for before.
My first example of my thesis is those videos of soldiers who come home unexpectedly and walking in to school or a sporting event, surprising their son or daughter. I love those videos. To me that child’s expression and response is the purest vision of joy. There are lots of other examples I could use, – every time the Jaguars win – but that one stands out for me right now. But that is part of why I think joy comes from unexpected, surprising happy events or news or experiences.
So that brings us to our Scripture lesson that serves as another example of what I am saying. The proclamation of the heavenly host that there was “good news of great joy for all the people.” Nothing in this story suggests a reason that anyone in it would experience joy anytime soon. The land of Israel was in a deep darkness under the rule of Caesar. No sign of surprises there except for the bad kind. The story begins when Rome was ordering a new census in order to increase taxes on the overburdened peasants of their far-flung empire. Who expects joyful surprises out of that scenario? The two protagonists at the center were an impoverished laborer and an under-age woman who was pregnant before she had even taken her wedding vows. No reason to have expect any real joy there. They are traveling a difficult and dangerous route to the hometown of Joseph’s ancestors, but it was a home with no one waiting to take them in, no soft beds or cushy pillows to lay on even though she was within days if not hours of delivering this out-of-wedlock child. The news was delivered first to the lowest of the low in the social totem pole. Shepherds were smelly, uncivilized transient workers who stayed on the outskirts of civilization. None of this would give anyone the expectation of a joyful outcome, let alone “good news of a great joy to all the people.”
But that is what I now believe joy is. It is a great surprise that subverts the status quo. It overturns expectations, it brings a flood of happy tears and a heart bursting with elation at the surprise. So this morning I want to suggest to you that we need joy. We need a subversive, unexpected, surprisingly radical joy. In short, we need God to do what God does. Turn things over, change the world, release us from chains to what is and set us dancing about what is about to be or already is but we just discovered it. We need a radical joy, not just a ho-hum “sorta,” “kinda” glee. We need one that knocks us to our knees with joy because it is so powerfully different from what is and what we expect “it,” this thing we call reality, to be.
The Bible tells us again and again that God is in the joy business. Most people, and even a lot of Christians want to make God into this joyless, hate-full, angry, menacing deity. The Bible gives some images of this granted, but there are far more of God, who overflows with joy, and the invitation to us to join in this joy.
The prophet Isaiah proclaimed: I will greatly rejoice in the Lord.
The Apostle Paul, wrote: Rejoice always. Again, I say, “Rejoice!”
And of course, our reading this morning where we heard the angels saying they have come to bring: good news of great joy for all the people.
Jesus told parables that spoke of people finding joy out of surprising expectations: the woman who lost her coin but found it, the servants who used their few coins wisely and were welcomed into the master’s joy. And as the disciples were being prepared for grief and sorrow at Jesus’ execution he says to them, I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. And he adds to that promise this promise: I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
Rev. Daniel Clenendin, shares a story that I think illuminates my thesis that joy comes from surprise, from unexpected blessing, but mostly from the power of God at work in our world. It is the story of a woman from Liberia, in Africa, Leymah Gbowee, who was a Nobel Peace Prize winner. She wrote in a memoir called Mighty Be Our Powers (2011), describing how one night she had a dream while sleeping on her office floor: “I didn’t know where I was. Everything was dark. I couldn’t see a face, but I heard a voice, and it was talking to me — commanding me: ‘Gather the women to pray for peace!’” At 5 a.m. she woke up shaking, feeling like she had heard the voice of God.
Liberians had no expectations for peace or joy after fourteen years of savage civil war from 1989 to 2003. The reality they lived with, the status quo was one where, by some estimates, 10% of the population had been slaughtered and 25% had fled the country. Starvation, systematic rape, and torture, and Charles Taylor’s cocaine-crazed child soldiers had terrorized the nation. Schools and hospitals closed. There was no water, electricity or phone service. But that morning Gbowee related her dream to the women at her church. One of the other women led them in prayer thanking God for the call to prayer, and asking for guidance to understand what it meant. What it meant was the start of the Liberian women’s peace movement that ended the civil war.
About 20 Lutheran women gathered every Tuesday at noon to pray. Sometimes they fasted. They invited other Christian churches. At one meeting one woman spoke up: “I’m the only Muslim here, and we want to join this peace movement.” “Praise the Lord!” shouted the Christian women. And so Muslim and Christian women formed an alliance. They shared their horror stories. Training sessions and workshops followed. They passed out brochures and marched to city hall. Three days a week for six months they visited the mosques, the markets, and the churches of Monrovia and proclaimed: “Liberian women, awake for peace!”
In the end, these women forced Charles Taylor to peace talks, and then they barricaded the do-nothing men in the plenary hall in a neighboring country until they signed peace accords. After the 2003 accords, they were instrumental in disarming the country, registering voters, and electing a woman as the first woman head of state in Africa. These were “ordinary mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters.” They sowed bitter tears, but they acted on their dreams of peace, joy, and laughter for their beloved country. The result was joy – joy for all the people who had waited so long for a change in the status quo of war, violence, and suffering.
Clenendin goes on to say that, “The Jesuit priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan wrote in his Advent Credo that there are greater things that are true than what we know now:
“It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss.
This is true: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;”
“It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction. This is true: Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.”
“It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever. This is true: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.”
“It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world. “This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.
“It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers. This is true: God says, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.”
“It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity, of peace, are not meant for this earth. This is true: “The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.”
These are radical words from some described as a “radical.” Well I think in this day and time we need radical words to change our expectations and set loose the possibility that we can again know the joy, that we can again be surprised by the overturning of the status quo!
This is the truth about God. God us joy – abundant, radical joy. Not a cheap joy but a radical joy. God gives “good news of great joy, for all the people,” brought by Christ who comes to change the world. That is where I believe joy comes from. May God’s radical joy come to us again! AMEN.
 Leymah Gbowee, with Carol Mithers, Mighty Be Our Powers, A Memoir: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, 2011, 246pp.
 “Tears of Despair, Dreams of Laughter,” Journeywithjesus.net, December 05, 2011.