Scandalous joy in a fear-driven empire (advent 3)

by susan on December 14, 2015


On the third Sunday in Advent, we were invited to consider God’s dream of JOY. We were invited into joy by this inspirational video clip and the following message was shared.

Scandalous joy in a fear-driven empire
Luke 1:5-25, 37-49

How many times have you or I decided something is impossible…only to hear a story, have an experience or turn around 10 years later and see we were wrong?

What we feared could never be has become reality.

We’ve been hearing from various prophets over these last two weeks. Like most dreamers, idealists and hope-filled schemers, prophets were consumed by what was possible. We’ve heard a word from Jeremiah & Malachi and today’s scripture reading tells the birth story of another prophet. This prophet will prepare the way for the promised Messiah. His name will be John and he’ll become know as John the Baptizer.

At the beginning of his story, his parents, Zechariah & Elizabeth had much to fear. In an ancient middle eastern world where having children (particularly male children) guaranteed your future, they had none. Elizabeth was barren. This is such a familiar starting scenario in scripture. This was the same beginning that faced Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebekah and many others.

God seems to prefer barren beginnings.

So, here they are: Zechariah & Elizabeth. They were old & without any children. Things are not looking good. The odds are not in their favor. Yet, while Zechariah, a priest serving in the temple is in the middle of the daily grind, God interrupts the mundane to deliver some life-changing news:

His wife is finally going to have a baby.
Not only that, their child is going to be extraordinary.
He will prepare the way of the Lord.

This is unbelievable news & in his shock, Zechariah questions: “How will I know this is true?”  Honestly, who can blame him? His response is similar to Abraham’s wife Sarah, who laughed in the face of the news that she will have a child in her old age. God’s work in barren beginnings seems ridiculous – even laughable.

All of this news, we are told, was delivered by an angel, and Luke tells us very clearly that Zechariah’s response was not only shock, but fear.

Fear overwhelmed him.

Fear, though is not why Zechariah is struck mute. We are told he is struck mute because he questions this news. Personally, I think Luke (who was likely a physician) needed an explanation for why Zechariah was unable to speak for 9 months…but, that’s a whole other sermon. The point is that fear is not punished because:

Fear and even skepticism are natural responses to unexpected, life-changing (even if it is good) news.

I remember getting the news that I was one of 35 students accepted into an occupational therapy program at the University of Florida. Such great news! And, yet I was afraid – this news meant I would have to move, to commit to something, to work hard and make all kinds of changes that I was scared to make.

Fear & skepticism are natural responses, but the good news, the gospel according to Luke is that we do not have to be ruled by fear.

Notice something very important about this story. Zechariah & Elizabeth’s is the first story told in Luke and it is placed in this context: “In the days of King Herod of Judea…”

Luke places a barren couple from priestly lineage into the world of King Herod. Luke places God’s dream, God’s intentions & God’s hopes for the world into to a fear driven empire.

King Herod lived in fear & ruled by fear.
He had armies to protect his possessions & his people.
He built elaborate fortresses to keep enemies at bay.
If someone defied him, they were put to death!

That’s what fear looks like. Of course, we know that because that’s what it looks like when it creeps in to our lives & threatens to take over. Fear is prone to protect, to hoard & to hold on to people & things. It pouts when it does not get its way. Fear compares, shames & alienates. Fear wants everyone else to be afraid, too, because when you are afraid, you do what you’re told and you don’t cause any trouble.

According to Luke, God’s hope for the world emerges in a fear-driven empire. It involves a barren couple who can’t have children, who can’t believe the news when they receive it & who hide away until their child is ready to be born.

They are afraid, but they do not stay in fear. They follow God’s voice. They return their child to the service of the Lord – to be a voice in the wilderness preparing the way for the promised Messiah.

Instead of fear, Joy is what we hear when Zechariah is finally able to speak:

68 ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty saviour* for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon* us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Where fear protects & hoards & holds on to, joy does the opposite. Joy lets go. It shares, it gives, it celebrates the common good. Joy does not mean we will never be barren again, but it chooses to believe that barrenness is not the end of the world or the end of the story. There is more to come.

Joy is choosing to let God’s voice guide us, not the voice of a fear-driven empire.

What does that look like today? in our lives? in the world?

Two brief pictures come to mind:

The first involves my friend, Eileen. Despair is an almost weekly occurrence in her life. It’s not made up either. It’s real. Work dries up, her health deteriorates or feelings of anxiety make life impossible.

Fear takes over…at least for a few days. But, it never fails. She teaches me what joy looks like.

This has been a tough month & she and her fiance have not been able to make ends meet…again. She called to tell me a story. Her fiance is a painter and earlier this week on their way home from a doctor’s appointment, they thought they were being followed by another car. It turns out they were right. When they got home, a man approached them and began asking if they could use any work. “Uh, yeah”, they responded. The man had noticed the advertisement on their truck and had followed them to find out more. They exchanged contact info and the man was leaving when he turned around. “Hey, my son moved and I have a few boxes of food in my car – mostly nonperishables – do you know anyone who could use it?” “Uh, yeah, us” they responded.

He left and they just looked at each other. While they know there will be setbacks, in a fear-driven culture, they are receiving these signs as God’s invitation to trust and to not live in fear.

Another portrait of joy comes from our mission partner Amani Sasa, a women’s refugee center in Uganda. Here are these women who have literally fled for their lives, many with young children. They are starting over. They have lost families, resources and homes. Yet, here they are, not allowing fear to have the last word.

Earlier this week, I received an update from Missy, their program director. She shared how they had hosted a celebration for over 600 people who have passed through their programs this year. This week, they also hosted the graduation of their shelter residents and a graduation celebration with a sewing student. “God is doing really amazing work here in Uganda as refugees experience God’s healing, transformation and empowerment,” she wrote.

Joy does not pretend there will be no struggles. It just refuses to be defined by them. That’s the scandalous nature of joy.

It looks fear in the face and says, thank you, but no thank you. I’m going to trust God’s voice instead.

What might happen in our world, if when we are confronted with seemingly impossible situations, we chose joy over fear?
What might happen if in the barren places of life, we lived as if God has & God will do a new thing?

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