Preaching Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)
The theme of this text is joy--the joy of Mary and Elizabeth sharing their anticipation, and the joy of God sharing his Son with mankind. Here are several approaches to that joy.
Approach I: Joy
Long before Joy to the World was a Christmas hymn, it was the insignia of the Christian Church. Joy was the mark of those faithful men and women of antiquity who faced persecution with the stamina to overcome it and problems with the strength to conquer. Paul called his friends to a life of joyful living which enabled them to withstand anything. Consider this counsel: "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess 5:16-17). The list is headed by joy. There is a lesson here.
The New Testament has 11 basic words associated with varieties of joy. These include exultant joy; optimism and enthusiasm; gladness; pleasure; courage; hilarity; boasting; blessedness; leaping for joy; inward joy; and shared joy.1
A sermon could approach the text and ring this happy note from it. Are contemporary Christians too sophisticated to feel and to live joy?
Approach II: Leaping Joy
Sometimes life is filled with the glory of God, and we see grace in each face. Joy comes bubbling to the surface, and we feel like jumping for joy. This was not invented by kids on Christmas morning. As far back as we can remember in our religious faith, people have expressed their joy through movement. David danced before the Lord, even if his wife did think he had lost his mind. (See 2 Samuel 6.) Luke tells us that such joy is a light, skipping movement. When Mary visited Elizabeth before the birth of either of their children, Elizabeth said "As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy" (Lk 1:44). In Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Christian experienced forgiveness at the cross, and then, "Christian gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing."
The church should be the focus of life and warmth, of laughter and mirth, of deep feelings expressed in significant actions. Most of all, the church should be a place of joy where people worship God with a sense of anticipation and quiet enthusiasm. How unbiblical is a drab, yawning, lethargic group of people who have dragged themselves out of bed and to the service, and who think about everything except the fact that they have more right to a leaping joy than anyone else on earth!
As I think back about some of the people I have known, I remember some who have reflected such joy. There is the woman who simply smiles at church. This seems so trivial, but as I scan the faces poised toward me on Sundays, I realize that her joy-reflecting smile is anything but trivial. There was a man, now dead, for whom life was a celebration instead of a wake. He simply could not help but live as if life were as kind of perpetual circus, because for him it was. God did not make some sort of ghastly mistake when he gave us the gift of life or renewed life in Christ. We can leap for joy--the sheer joy of knowing Christ and being known by him.
Approach III: Accepting Joy
W. B. Wolfe reflected on happiness and realized that joy cannot be chased down like a dollar bill blowing in the wind. This is what he said: "If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under the radiator. He will not be striving for it as a goal in itself." 2
One sermonic approach is to strike the theme of joy with a glancing blow. It cannot be grasped from the front by intentionally chasing it. It has to be accepted as a gift.
Approach IV: Getting Outside of Ourselves
As strange as it seems, joy pushes us outside of ourselves. It breaks the grip of self-imposed isolation and helps us focus outward. Holy joy comes from knowing we are not alone. But someone who is self-absorbed can never know joy. One who cannot get outside his own skin can never find joy. He or she is too wrapped up in his own tiny universe to be concerned about others or about God. When the space shuttle Challenger tragically exploded in March of 1986, the major networks carried the coverage live that day. Local television stations reported being swamped by angry callers who did not want their soap operas interrupted for any reason. A secretary at one station tried to explain the tragedy and said some people responded, "Yes, that it is tragedy all right. I can't watch As The World Turns."
How could such a person ever hope to know something as other centered as joy? The sermon could seek to push us beyond our selfish concerns to the ecstatic (which means to stand outside of ourselves) experience of joy.
1. William Morrice, Joy in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984). 2 Quoted in Speaker's Illustrations For Special Days, edited by Charles L. Wallis (New York: Abingdon Press, 1956), p. 164.