Joy is My Name

Poor Zachariah. He was cranky one day at work‚ÄĒnot enough coffee‚ÄĒand he just wanted to get his job done. His hands held a stick aflame, ready to burn incense in the temple. He was interrupted by an angel‚ÄĒthey tend to hang out there‚ÄĒthis one was talking crazy, the whole thing surreal. One sarcastic retort and he was doomed to nine months of silence‚ÄĒno voice from the time he left the temple to the day he named his son, John.

William Blake engraved by Luigi Schiavonetti

What was it like for this father? He was an old man who had long since gave up hope for an heir to see his pregnant wife. In his silence, he remembered the angel’s words:

He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the LORD. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the LORD their God. And he will go on before the LORD, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous-to make ready a people prepared for the LORD.

Luke 1:14-18

I imagine the joy he had the day he first held his son! The words of William Blake’s Infant¬†Joy come to mind:

I have no name 
I am but two days old.‚ÄĒ¬†
What shall I call thee?
I happy am 
Joy is my name,‚ÄĒ¬†
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee; 
Thou dost smile. 
I sing the while 
Sweet joy befall thee. 

‚úī

It is different for us dads. I remember when my wife was pregnant with our first child, a daughter. Of course I was excited and eager to meet this little one. But she was not inside me, pushing my organs aside, making room for herself to grow. She didn’t widen my hips or make me tired or make me gain weight (though I did). My wife felt her kicks and prods a long time before I was even able too. There were ways that this child was still abstract to me. I worried as a dad that I just wasn’t feeling enough and wondered how I could love this stranger.

Then labor and delivery. I spent the night at the hospital listening to our baby’s heartbeat quicken and slow with every contraction, comforting and encouraging where I could, but feeling helpless and useless as my wife pushed out a tiny human. Then I held her, and was instantly smitten. I knew that I would do anything and everything for this child. My heart grew. My joy was full.

‚úī

An incident at work left Zechariah speechless for three-quarters of a year. He watched, he waited, he regretted his stupid reply to God’s messenger. Then the day came. He held his little one. He fell in love. The child was joy and delight to him. He wondered at the angel’s promise and the man his little boy would become.

On the 8th day, they came to circumcise him. Elizabeth explained to Rabbi that the child’s name would be John. They silenced her and went instead to Zechariah who wrote on a tablet, “He is to be called John.” Suddenly Zechariah’s words returned and he began praising God:


Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
 salvation from our enemies
¬†¬†¬†¬†and from the hand of all who hate us‚ÄĒ
 to show mercy to our ancestors
    and to remember his holy covenant,
     the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
    and to enable us to serve him without fear
     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
 to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.‚ÄĚ

Luke 1:68-79

A father’s hope and joy‚ÄĒthe frustrating months of silence swallowed up in praise.

‚úī

The Advent promise is that our tears will be turned to joy, that shalom awaits us, that the Day of the Lord is near and our hope is secure.

And yet, like Zechariah it is still abstract to us. We are still here. Our bodies have not changed to make room. Our day of joy is coming soon.

Sweet joy befall thee

“The King” and the Coming King of Kings

Thomas Dorsey wrote some of the greatest gospel songs of the 20th Century. One that gets special attention this time of year is There Will Be Peace in the Valley.  Here are the lyrics:

Oh well, I’m tired and so weary
But I must go alone
Till the lord comes and calls, calls me away, oh yes
Well the morning’s so bright
And the lamp is alight
And the night, night is as black as the sea, oh yes

There will be peace in the valley for me, someday
There will be peace in the valley for me, oh Lord I pray
There’ll be no sadness, no sorrow
No trouble, trouble I see
There will be peace in the valley for me, for me

Well the bear will be gentle
And the wolves will be tame
And the lion shall lay down by the lamb, oh yes
And the beasts from the wild
Shall be lit by a child
And I’ll be changed, changed from this creature that I am, oh yes
There will be peace in the valley for me, someday
There will be peace in the valley for me, oh Lord I pray
There’ll be no sadness, no sorrow
No trouble, trouble I see
There will be peace in the valley for me, for me

The version I remember best is Elvis Presley’s. As one of Elvis’s best-loved¬†gospel hits, it is included on the B side of his Christmas album. So if you are like me, and you have a cache of Christmas CDs you haul out every year, you’ve heard it recently. Maybe as you read the words above, you heard them in Elvis’s voice and your¬†upper lip curled up just a little.

I love this song. It inhabits this hopeful, future-oriented Advent space, a time when there will be no sadness and sorrow, and God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). Predators like bears, wolves, and lions will be tamed, a little child will light the world, we will all be changed (Isaiah 11:6-9, 1 Cor. 15:51).¬†But if I could excise one word from Dorsey’s lyrics (and Elvis’s performance), I would get rid of the word “someday.” To me, that word is too passive, too pie-in-the-sky. We can’t just sit back and wait for a world we want. What difference does it make if we wax poetically about lions and lambs if we willfully participate in systems and structures that devour our neighbors?

The Advent season marks time before Christmas, it acknowledges that we have not yet arrived, that we should not be satisfied with what is, and it stokes hope for the coming of Christ when all the world will be set to rights.  But it is more than this. Advent calls us to respond. If not a come to Jesus moment, we are called to a Jesus is coming moment. We are called to be Shalom agents now and prepare the way for the Lord!

At Jesus first Advent, his cousin John preached a gospel of repentance. Luke 3:4-6 (cr. Isaiah 40) says:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‚ÄėPrepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God‚Äôs salvation.‚Äô‚ÄĚ

If we believe this stuff, then the call isn’t for us to sit, wistfully dreaming of¬†someday.¬†Jesus is coming and things got to change.¬†Someday¬†is cold comfort to the hurting.

What can we do today, to alleviate inequity, suffering, pain? How can we make our crooked roads straight? How will the wounded, the wicked, the victims and victimizers all see God’s salvation? It is when we finally start living and acting in ways that are cognizant with¬†the reign of the coming King of Kings.

A friend recently tweeted, “How are you complicit in creating the conditions you don’t want?” I can’t think of a more Advent-y question.

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons