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Joy to the World
based on
Luke 1:39-55
by Rev. Randy Quinn

I've seen the plot played out in a variety of settings.  I'm sure you have too.  We see it in Movies.  We see it in Books.  We see it in Television Shows.  What we see is a simple storyline that includes a sense of longing that is fulfilled.

         There have been parents longing to be reunited with children.  Sometimes the children have run away; sometimes they have been taken away.

         There have been spouses longing for the return of their loved ones.  Sometimes their spouse has been captured physically; sometimes their emotional attention has been captured.

         There have been towns and communities and businesses longing for a sense of vibrancy and vitality.  Sometimes there had been vitality in the past; sometimes it had only been dreamed about and never existed before.

         There have also been children longing for a white Christmas and there have been adults longing for peace at Christmas.

You can probably name as many or more examples than I can.  The human story is filled with longing and yearning and artists have been capturing that yearning in a variety of media for generations.

On the way home from San Francisco last night, I sat with two different people, each of whom was yearning for something, proving to me once again that yearnings are a part of the human experience.

One was a college student on her way home for Christmas.  She was longing for the warmth and love of home.

The other was a retired physicist who was on his way to a committee meeting of a national association.  His yearning was more subtle the young woman's.  His was a yearning and a thirst of knowledge that was a part of his work.  He was yearning for the fulfillment of his dreams that his work as a physicist would be used in helpful and meaningful ways.

When our longings are fulfilled, there is a sense of joy that cannot be described in words.  It's overwhelming.

Mary and Elizabeth both experience that kind of joy.  Elizabeth, as you probably remember, had been longing for a child.

         In a society where children were signs of God's blessing, Elizabeth was barren.

         In a society where children were the best form of security in old age, Elizabeth was anything but young and had no children to whom she could turn for support.

She may not have doubted God's blessing in her life, but her friends and neighbors had often whispered about it and she knew it.  She longed to have a child, to know God's blessings, and for her neighbors to know she had been blest.

Now, finally, in her old age, her longing was fulfilled.  And she is exuberant.

Mary, on the other hand, seems to be longing for God to address society's ills.  She is looking for God to deliver her people from poverty and oppression.  She is longing for God to overcome the evil of the world.  She is longing for God to fulfill the promises of old.

Elizabeth seems to be concerned with her personal joy; Mary is looking toward a joy that fills the whole world.

Certainly, each has some sense of both.  Elizabeth is also concerned about the joy that her son will bring by preparing the way for Christ and Mary has experienced joy in knowing that she has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus.  But the primary source of joy for Elizabeth comes from the fulfillment of personal longings while the primary source of joy for Mary comes from the fulfillment of corporate longings.

That becomes clear when Elizabeth meets Mary.  Elizabeth realizes that something wonderful is happening.  Even the baby in her womb leaps for joy.  But she seems to misunderstand the source of joy for Mary.

She looks at Mary and pronounces her blessed as if it was a personal celebration.

Mary knows the truth.  The joyful news isn't for Mary alone.  It's for the whole world.  The good news is for every living creature.  And so she sings a song that hearkens to the song of Hannah, a song that celebrates the work of God, a song that proclaims the salvation God brings, a song about the fulfillment of society's longing.

"Joy to the world!" she says.

I don't know if you have been following the story or not, but there is a celebration going on in Japan.  It began last month with the birth of a baby.  After eight years of marriage, the crown prince and princess of the world's oldest genetic dynasty are now proud parents of a baby girl.  She is the emperor's granddaughter.

There is no doubt that her birth is bringing joy to her mother and father.

And for the first week or so, the celebrations were family celebrations.

But eventually the festivities turned to the larger community.  It isn't just the members of the royal household who are happy; it's a whole nation.  Her birth is bringing joy to her people.

I confess that I haven't been following the story very closely or I would be able to tell you both the names of the parents and the baby.  But I know my first exposure to the story was in an article this summer about the controversy over the royal pregnancy; a controversy that ironically served as a prelude to the controversy her birth has now brought.

You see, Japanese tradition does not allow for a female heir to the throne, but there are some who are wanting to change society's rules.

As I remember the stories from earlier this summer, the baby's mother is well educated and was well respected for her business sense.  She was a hero among many young women because she was proving that Japanese women don't need to remain silent and invisible.  But when she became pregnant, she gave up her prominent role and took the traditional place of a mother in waiting.  And as near as I can tell, she is remaining silent in the current controversy as well.

Her actions remind me of Mary's response to Elizabeth.

In essence they both say, "This isn't about me.  It's about the baby.  I'm not the center of attention here, the baby is."  Mary adds the sense that it's not her story as much as it is God's story that is being revealed at Christmas.

It's about the joy that God brings to the world.

Yearnings have been fulfilled.  In Japan there has been a yearning for an heir to the throne.  There is also a yearning for equality between men and women in society.  For Mary it's a yearning for an heir to David's throne and a yearning for God to be revealed.

As a young child in the late 17th Century, Isaac Watts yearned for better music in church.  When he was 18 years old, he reportedly complained to his father about the hymns they sang in church.

Sound familiar?

His father's advice was simple:  "If you don't like the hymns we sing, then write a better one!"

And so he did.  And he kept on writing them.  For the next 222 Sundays he wrote a new hymn each week.  By the end of his life, he had written over 600 hymns!  Our hymnal only includes a dozen of them.  But you probably know them all.

He wrote "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."  His name is also found on the hymn "Come, We That Love the Lord."

His work as a pastor is hardly remembered.  The fulfillment of his yearnings, however, have both inspired and brought joy to generations of Christians.

In 1719, Watts published a book of hymns inspired by the Psalms.  Among his paraphrases of the Psalms in that collection is probably his best-known hymn, a hymn inspired by Psalm 98 that is better known as the Christmas Carol, "Joy to the World".

When we sing it in a few minutes, I hope you'll listen for the joy that he speaks about, the joy that comes from God's fulfillment of all our longings, the joy that makes us smile on the inside, but most importantly the joy that God brings to the whole of creation, not just to individuals.