The Joy Brigade

Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary with Baby John

ADVENT 3: JOY (Grace Embodied, Part 3. Go here for Part 1, and here for Part 2)

There was a joyful story going around social media this week, shared by a mom who was traveling alone with a 2 and 5 year old, and all three had reached the end of their rope. When they got to the airport security line, the mom was near tears, and one child was screaming. "Out of the blue, one mom stops the line for security and says, 'Here, jump in front of me! I know how it is!' Wyatt fell asleep and I was trying to carry everyone's carry-on when another mom jumps out of her place in line and said, 'Hand me everything. I've got it.' 
“When I said thank you to both of them they said ‘don’t you worry, we’re going to make sure you get on that flight.” The second woman helped them all the way to their gate. 
And then on the plane, her son began to scream again when a third woman stepped in. “After about 45 min, this angel comes to the back and says ‘you look like you need a break’ and holds Wyatt for the rest of the flight AND walks him all the way to baggage claim, hands him to [my husband], hugs me and says ‘Merry Christmas!!’”
This mom had posted a photo of the stranger holding her sleeping son in her lap on the airplane, and that posthas been ‘liked’ on Facebook nearly a half million times. 

There are these moments where we glimpse the fullness of life – how life is meant to be, where we live in God’s love and care connected to one another instead of living isolated or against. They come as a surprise; life where there shouldn’t be life.  They are a taste of joy. 

I like to collect stories like this, glimpses of the Kingdom of God.  I collected several this week. The second one was an unlikely collaboration between older adults with dementia and toddlers who come every day to visit them. They come together and tell one another stories; they sing together and work on projects and share snacks. The joy on the faces of the children and the adults is infectious, as they take in one another just as they are, asking questions and following the train of thought, telling each other something they’ve dreamed up, or an idea they’re working on.  An improbable community of love and care has formed that holds and values each person as they are, and it’s buzzing with energy and bubbling over with joyful life where you wouldn’t expect to find it. 

The third story I collected this week is about a man who has been traveling the country for ten years in a solar powered camper. At every stop he brews a pot of tea, puts out a rug and some chairs, throws open the doors to his van and welcomes strangers for a cup of tea. “When I first started serving tea, I was lonely.” He says, “And that’s what sparked the whole thing. “It was loneliness. I wanted to invite the world in.  In my search for genuine human connection, I began putting on pots of tea. Random passersby would stop and sit with me.”  Years later, his little tea bus has become a place strangers meet, conversations happen- friendships, marriages, entrepreueral collaborations, new bandmates have all found each other because he puts out his rug and puts on his pot of tea, and listens, reminding people that we are people, creating a space for people to be seen and heard. Out of his loneliness, an abundance of community emerges for others.

Each of these stories begins with people in their weakness or need, in their human situation of impossibility whatever it may be, whether circumstantial, like traveling alone with small kids, or life-defining, like living with dementia.  Each of these stories shows life coming where it is not expected, of rediscovering our connection with each other, of joy.  And joy can’t help but be shared.

In front of us today is the story of Old Zachariah and Elizabeth, and Young Mary.  We almost never hear their stories together – we unbraid them, and tell them separately, each on their own. There’s the isolated incident of the two women meeting with the baby bumps and the leaping fetus, and then we separate the stories again. But these stories are intertwined – they are the same story, the story of God coming in. The story of impossibility, and joy, and a community that can bear the impossible and testify to such joy. 

The first messenger of the impossible in this story is the angel Gabriel.  
Zechariah, your prayer has been answered! The angel announces to Zechariah in the temple. 
Wait, what? Zechariah answers. That’s impossible! We’re so old.  How can I know this is true?

I stand before the throne of God! Gabriel throws his credentials at Zechariah. You can’t receive it, so you will be made a silent spectator to the story as it unfolds. 

When the impossible happens, when we experience the life of God in an unexpected way, at some point, we will need to tell the story. Zechariah isn’t ready to tell it. He’s still stuck on the impossibility of it. He wants it explained, understood. So he must be silent to experience it first.
But neither is Elizabeth ready to tell the story. She needs to dwell with it first, let it sink in, and she’s nobody to tell it to anyway; who would believe her? For five months she hides. Even in her joy, she remains secluded. Who would receive such an impossible story?  How can she even receive it?

And then here comes Mary.
Mary had asked Gabriel the same question that Zechariah did. How can this be? How can this be, since I am a virgin?  
Nothing is ever impossible for God, Gabriel had answered. 
And then he told Mary about Elizabeth.

Mary agreed to be part of God’s impossible plan.
But as soon as Gabriel leaves, she high-tails it to the home of her relatives –over 100 miles away, on foot.  Because Mary isn’t ready to tell the story at first either. It would sound absurd, like covering up shame, unbelievable and inane. It would sound as impossible as it was. 
So she makes this long journey to share this with the only other people on the planet who might understand. She goes seeking the community of the impossible. 

Joy demands to be shared. It is the tasting of transcendence, the experience of the fullness of life, and it is always a story that needs telling.  

Here it gets told three times; through three pronouncements of the impossible; all three members of this unlikely little gang of God-bearing, future-glimpsing people get to tell the story.  Elizabeth is first. 

In her sixth month, Elizabeth looks up one day from under her sunhat and stands slowly from her weeding, to see the young, weary traveler approach, and suddenly the child inside her flails wildly, and the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth and she just knows
Here is the one she has been waiting for, without knowing she’d been waiting.  Here is the only other human on the planet who will know and see and be able to bear with her the enormity of what is happening.  She throws open her arms to Mary, and a song of pure joy pours from her, in a prophetic pronouncement: “Blessed are you among women! And blessed is the fruit of your womb! How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?!” 

In this moment, Elizabeth’s seclusion ends. She is given community. She is ready to testify to the joy, and she proclaims the truth Mary is bearing before Mary even has to speak it.  
And Mary hears God’s message through Elizabeth, You are seen, Mary, your story is known; you will be heard here. Here you can tell the story. Here you can live in the impossibility. This is your community.  And the God who sees us, who listens, sees them and listens to them, through one another.  

And now it’s Mary’s turn to testify! 
Having been seen, having been given a community where her story can be held and the impossible is embraced, Mary raises her voice and sings out the truth,
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

And then she too prophesies, 
declaring with confidence what is coming as though it’s already here,

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

And she declares God’s mercy to be fulfilled.

I like to imagine Zechariah tending to these two prophets, these women who have accepted the impossible and are now living inside the new reality it creates, embracing life where life shouldn’t be.  
For three months, he soaks it in, a silent witness to the promise they are bearing and trusting so completely. And it wasn’t all mystical happiness.  It was real-world stuff. Elizabeth was six months further along, helping Mary through all the pregnancy weirdness, and Mary was helping Elizabeth prepare the baby clothes and ready the house. Practical matters. Preparation. And there was probably lots of crying and barfing and aches and pains, lots of questions and laughter and impromptu naps. And silent Zachariah at the center of it, fetching snacks, folding laundry, and taking in the wonder and impossibility of it all. 

Think of the inevitable fear and anxiety that any prospective parent has, now compounded by the old age and the unmarried teenage-ness, and the inexplicable circumstances that brought them into this situation, not to mention who these babies will be and what they will do in the world.  But none of these realities are borne alone.  Because they have been given to one another as the community of the impossible.  They are all three so vulnerable. They are all so connected to God. They are all three bound in love and care to each other. 
Together they minister to one another in their need, in their worry, in their gladness, in the unknown.  The two who bear in their bodies the future hope of God, and Zachariah who listens, doing the holy work of the God who listens.  

Our little trio under this roof: all they used to be is now lost. Who they are is found. They are beloved participants in the divine mystery, love-shareres, hope bearers. They are the joy brigade.

Pain is ahead. They’re not exempt. Maybe they’re in for more if it even than others. Because they are more awake. More aware. More clear sometimes, anyway, on the big picture and what really matters. They’ll cry more.  And they’ll laugh more too. Their eyes have been raised to a further horizon and their arms reached out to welcome it all in. To welcome themselves to the story. To welcome each other to God’s reality that is unstoppably and constantly breaking in.

Finally, Zechariah gets his turn to testify. 
He isn’t ready for a long while. Not until John is born. Not until the neighbors question Elizabeth when she tells them the child’s name. Zechariah has seen these two women telling the story of God’s coming with words and actions, bringing the impossible into the world. He trusts their word; he trusts what God is doing in them.  
But the neighbors question Elizabeth’s authority to name this child something new, a name that means ‘God has shown favor,’ and they gesture to him (like he is deaf and not mute), to stay in the old story, to correct his misguided wife. But he wont. He demands a tablet, and writes, “His name is John.” 
Now he is ready.
His mouth is opened and out comes the story – the God who does the impossible, the God who sees and listens and saves. Coming in to save us.  
He bursts out in song, so that the first time his child hears his father’s voice, it is the sound of praise. Lifting his tiny, fresh son in his arms, Zechariah sings with his creaky, unused voice,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

And gazing into those newly blinking eyes, he says,
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
   for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
   by the forgiveness of their sins.

Raising his voice and startling the dumbstruck neighbors, he continues, 
By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

God brings life where there should not be life. 
That is what God does.  All the time, everywhere, in every moment. 
Like strangers who hustle a teary mom through security and hold her sleeping child in their arms, like those at the end of their lives and memories playing and singing and listening alongside those whose lives and memories are just beginning, like a tea-brewing stranger who rolls into town and rolls out the rug for people to see and hear one another. 
Seclusion gives way to community. 
Without realizing it perhaps, everywhere, all the time, people become participants in the divine mystery, love-sharers.
And when this happens, for a moment these people are connected to all that is, part of the whole, tapped into the knowledge beyond knowing, glimpsing the fullness of God’s Kingdom. They taste transcendence; they feel joy.  Because all these stories are intertwined – they are the same story, the story of God coming in.

But this reality of God coming in needs a community where the impossible is embraced and the story is held.  It needs prophets to accept it together, to testify to the source, and trajectory, of such joy. It needs a gang of God-bearing, future-glimpsing people who will watch for life where there shouldn’t be life, who will learn to recognize God when God comes to us in the ordinary, and will take turns telling about where we’ve seen God in our lives and in the world around us.  
It needs a community, not of mystical happiness, but of real world stuff, that will practice being our vulnerable selves alongside each other, bound in love and care for each other.
To be this community is not to be exempt from pain, but to maybe even walk into it more willingly, because we are helping each other be more awake, more aware, sometimes, anyway, of the big picture, and what really matters. But it also means helping each other be more open to joy, more ready to taste transcendence. It means being hope-bearers, whose eyes have been raised to a further horizon and arms reached out to welcome it all in.  To welcome ourselves to the story. To welcome each other to God’s reality that is unstoppably and constantly breaking in.  

May we be for a pain-filled and joy-soaked world, the community of the impossible, the joy brigade.


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