I Believe in God Even When God Is Silent
I Believe in God Even When God Is Silent (Third in the “I Believe Even
When . . .” series)
December 13, 2020
Isaiah 57:14-19; Luke 1:26-56
Rev. Deborah Dail
Denbigh United Presbyterian Church
It shall be said,
“Build up, build up, prepare the way,
remove every obstruction from my people’s way.”
For thus says the high and lofty one
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.
For I will not continually accuse,
nor will I always be angry;
for then the spirits would grow faint before me,
even the souls that I have made.
Because of their wicked covetousness I was angry;
I struck them, I hid and was angry;
but they kept turning back to their own ways.
I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;
I will lead them and repay them with comfort,
creating for their mourners the fruit of the lips.[a]
Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the Lord;
and I will heal them.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Much of my life I have believed that joy could only co-exist with joy. As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered that joy can co-exist with many other emotions and circumstances, including times of suffering, struggle, fear, and even those times when we feel that God is silent. Joy has a way of surprising us and of showing up in unexpected places, times, and ways.
Of course, this begs the question: “What is joy? What is the joy of which the Bible speaks?” The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu met together in 2015 to celebrate their birthdays and during their time together they discussed joy at length. They sought to answer this question: “How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering?” These two men exemplify joy even though together, in their respective lands, “they have survived more than 50 years of exile and the soul-crushing violence of oppression.” “Their courage and resilience and dogged hope in humanity inspire millions as they refuse to give in to the fashionable cynicism that risks engulfing us.” (Book of Joy, Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams, p. 3)
The book that emerged from their conversations about joy is The Book of Joy. According to the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu, “joy is much bigger than happiness.” “It is not dependent on the vicissitudes of circumstance.” (p. 2) “It is not an ephemeral state . . . but an enduring trait; not just a fleeting feeling, but a lasting way of being.”
“We are fragile creatures, and it is from this weakness, not despite it, that we discover the possibility of true joy.” (p. 11)
Today, we have read the account of Mary, the mother of Jesus, receiving the shocking and unexpected news that she will miraculously give birth to a child who will be the “Son of the Most High.” After the birth announcement and Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, Mary sings a song of praise to God. She rejoices. She speaks and sings with joy.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure that would have been my reaction. Yet, we see that Mary’s joy co-exists with perplexity and confusion, with fears and doubts, with the anticipation of struggle and pain. She acknowledges herself to be a humble, fragile human being. In light of this, I suspect Mary was herself surprised by her joyful response to the news of an unplanned pregnancy.
When asked about joy, one of the things that Archbishop Tutu said was: “ . . . ultimately our greatest joy is when we seek to do good to others.” (p. 59). Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s call to become the mother of Jesus is telling: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Perhaps Mary’s greatest joy, which would co-exist with her greatest sorrow, would be to serve God by carrying in her womb the light of the world, by nurturing and caring for him, by staying with him even at the cross. Mary’s greatest joy would be to bear the One who would lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and redeem the world.
We know that Mary’s life was not always happy. I suspect there were times when Mary felt that God was silent, especially when no angels showed up; when she, Joseph, and Jesus were on the run for their lives and lived as refugees in Egypt; when she watched Jesus suffer and God not show up or speak when Jesus begged to be spared the cross. Yet, I would suggest that she knew joy – the joy of surrendering her life to God and God’s purposes, the joy of being a servant of the Lord. For Mary, joy was something far more profound than happiness. For Mary, joy was not something that depended on pleasant circumstances. For Mary as for us, joy co-existed with a host of feelings other than joy.
The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu outline 8 Pillars of Joy. I find Mary’s response in most of the eight pillars. Today, I would like to highlight four of the Pillars of Joy. Perspective, Humility, Acceptance, and Gratitude.
First, Perspective; that is, seeing yourself and your problem from a wider perspective. Mary seemed to embrace that she was part of something bigger than herself. Her “problem,” a surprise pregnancy as an unwed mother, was indeed a problem. No doubt about it. Yet, Mary was granted the grace to step back, to look beyond her limited self-awareness and self-interest to receive a “God’s-eye perspective” on her life circumstances. She didn’t just focus on herself, she focused on others and on God’s plan of which she was to be a part. What can we learn from Mary about Perspective?
Humility: Mary says that God has “looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” According to the wise ones who spoke of joy, “Humility is essential to any possibility of joy. When we have a wider perspective, we have a natural understanding of our place in the great sweep of all that was, is, and will be. This naturally leads to humility and the recognition that as human beings we can’t solve everything or control all aspects of life. We need others. Our vulnerabilities, our frailties, and our limitations are a reminder that we need one
another. . . We are totally dependent on others, whether we are a Dalai Lama or a beggar, whether we are an Archbishop or a refugee. We are all children of God. (209-210.) What can we learn from Mary about Humility?
Acceptance: It appears that Mary accepts her circumstances instead of fighting them. But once again I suspect Mary went through various stages of coping with her unexpected life circumstances. I imagine she did fight some within herself and with God. Perhaps there were times of resignation and defeat. But, what we see in Mary in our scripture for today is a mature acceptance of her less-than-ideal circumstances with perspective, humility, and joy. In The Book of Joy, we read: “Acceptance is not resignation or defeat.” “Acceptance . . . allows us to move into the fullness of joy. It allows us to engage with life on its own terms rather than rail against the fact that life is not as we would wish.” (p. 225) What can we learn from Mary about Acceptance?
Gratitude: Mary’s Magnificat – her song of praise – oozes with gratitude to God for what God has done and what God will do. It oozes with gratitude for who God is. Gratitude is fundamental to a life of joy, yet we struggle to be grateful and thus joyful. I read this week that “scientists report that our brains have evolved with a negative bias. This helped humans to survive (in earlier times). It helped them see what was dangerous – what was not right. (p. 247) Millenia later, this seems to still be our “default mode.” But gratitude helps change the default mode of our lives.
But we might ask if gratitude leaves us naïve or makes us complacent about what isn’t good and right with the world? Here is another example of how attitudes can co-exist. We can be grateful for what is and still be interested in and devoted to working to make things better in our world. Mary’s gratitude to God did not make her forget the lowly who needed to be raised up or the hungry who needed to be fed.
I think the song “Mary Did You Know?” captures our imagination about how much Mary actually knew when she said “yes” to the Angel Gabriel and to God. The truth is, she didn’t have a complete picture then. She did not know all that would face her or her son. She did not know the specifics of what he would become. She did not have a crystal ball into the future. Yet, she said yes. She accepted the call with perspective, humility, gratitude, and joy. What can we learn from Mary about Gratitude?
Joy can be elusive if it is rooted only in circumstances of life or feelings. Joy can be elusive if we believe that it cannot co-exist with other feelings. Joy that is rooted in a relationship with God is different from situational joy and the “Joy of the Lord” can indeed co-exist with other feelings. On this third Sunday of Advent when we focus on joy, we may be feeling less than joyful due to the circumstances we are facing. Yet, because of Christ, we have a “deep, deep joy down in our hearts.” It is a joy that can be difficult to access, at times, but it is there. This is a joy that has nothing to do with our circumstances but has everything to with God. God is with us, God loves, and God has a purpose for us to fulfill just as God had a purpose for Mary to fulfill. In this is joy – the joy, joy, joy down in our hearts to stay.