I preached about joy this week, which helped me as we get closer to the solstice and the daylight drips down to its shortest appearance. Joy is easier to recognize or feel than it is to preach about, but I gave it a good shot.
I amused myself as I worked on the sermon this week because I realized that I began the first week of Advent by saying that hope was a difficult word to define, and then last week I said a definition of peace didn’t come so easily. I was amused because I had the same thought about joy as I began to write. So let me also jump ahead a week and say that a definition of love isn’t that simple either.
None of the definitions comes easily, yet we thrive on these things—hope, peace, joy, and love; we know they matter. We recognize them when we see them, when we feel them, yet they can’t be described as easily as they can be experienced.
As far as dictionary definitions go, joy can mean “pleasure,” “delight, or “gladness,” to name a few, though none of those paints the full picture. Joy also carries notes of appreciation and belonging, as well as a sense of wonder and trust and some gratitude mixed in.
When Jesus told his disciples not to worry, for instance—when he told them to look at the beauty of the lilies who didn’t worry about a thing and just bloomed extravagantly each spring like nothing else mattered—he was painting a picture of joy.
This morning we lit the candle of “fierce joy.” The word fierce can mean “wild,” or “intense,” or “powerful”—or all of those things. We talk about someone being a fierce competitor or having a fierce determination. In Texas, people say things like, “She went after him somethin’ fierce,” which generally means the person being pursued didn’t stand a chance.
The two words together lead us to things like a sense of wonder that runs wild, intense delight, or formidable trust. And we are still playing with words and not really getting to the joy.
Maybe joy is like a joke: if you have to explain it, it’s not funny. And here I am trying to explain it.
Isaiah was trying to describe it as well in the verses we read this morning:
God’s spirit is upon me,
because God has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release for captives,
and liberation for prisoners,
to proclaim the year of Divine favor
Those words were the text for Jesus’ first sermon, which comprised of his reading the passage, setting the scroll on the altar, and saying, “Today these words have come alive in front of you.”
Neither Jesus nor Isaiah was speaking euphemistically. They meant that God had called them to take care of the poor (as in work to get people out of poverty), comfort those who were brokenhearted (as in get involved in their lives), liberate the captives and incarcerated (as in really get people out of prison), and proclaim God’s love for the world as though it really made a difference.
All of those actions pull us outside of ourselves, outside of our comfort zones, into places where the ferocity of joy can take us, as poet David Whyte says, over “the edge between what we previously thought was us and what we thought was other than us.” He says joy is, “practiced generosity. . . . To feel a full and untrammeled joy is to have become fully generous; . . . to have walked through the doorway of fear, . . . the claiming of our place in the living conversation,” to say, “I was here and you were here and together we made a world.”
Practicing the generosity of joy means looking for ways to get outside of ourselves and feel connected to that living conversation, whether that means learning to pay attention to a sunset, or learn the names of the checkers at the supermarket, or surprise a loved one with a gift that makes them feel known the way you did when you gave me those hippos in my office.
Isaiah was talking to a country full of people who felt oppressed and despairing when he talked about liberation. He acted like they had the ability to change lives with their actions, even though they thought of themselves as the ones in bondage.
Jesus read the same verses and then invited the crowd in the synagogue to risk taking him seriously. He, too, was speaking to people who thought of themselves as the ones being oppressed rather than those who could set someone else free, and he invited them to be a part of a conversation that was about more than fear and survival—to trust that things could be different.
Mary—a teenage girl—had her life turned upside down by the words of an angel and responded by saying, “Let it happen just like you said.” The hymn we are going to sing in a moment puts her words to the tune of an Irish folk melody.
My soul cries out with a joyful shout
That the God of my heart is great
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
That you bring to the ones who wait
You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight
And my weakness you did not spurn
So from east to west shall my name be blest
Could the world be about to turn?
My heart shall sing of the day you bring
Let the fires of your justice burn
Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near
And the world is about to turn.
During this Advent season, we have talked about shocking hope, just peace, and now fierce joy. Shocking hope helped us name that we can thrive and flourish when we embrace uncertainty: the hope that anything could happen. In our conversation about just peace, we talked about following our broken hearts as a way of healing the world. Fierce joy—wild, intense, powerful joy—calls us to engage the fleeting nature of our existence with tenacious generosity and hopeful abandon; to live with a sense of impending joy rather than impending doom; to hear that the world is about to turn and trust that that’s a good thing.
Jesus read the scripture and then said, “I am here and you are here and together we can build a world.” Mary listened to all Gabriel said was going to happen to her and said, “Let it happen just like you said,” and then sang a song of joy so strong that she thought it could open hearts and topple governments.
None of them had an easy life. None of them was praying for God to make things go their way. All of them were praying for fierce joy, for the ability to see how the Spirit of God connects us all even when we feel isolated. All of them trusted that life was too short for anything but joy and too hard for anything but gratitude and generosity.
Poet Mary Oliver wrote,
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
That last line: Joy is not made to be a crumb.
We are all in this thing called life together and we’re not here long. May we live what days we have as those who trust God’s abundance, those who host banquets instead of settling for crumbs. Amen.
PS–here’s the song.