“Overwhelmed with Joy”

I hesitate to admit this, but I’m not really a dog person. I’ve never had a dog as part of my household so I don’t quite know how to act around them. I get grossed out when they lick my hands and annoyed when they jump on me. Felix, a schnoodle, belongs to my brother’s family. At a year old, he’s tall, strong, and incredibly energetic. He’s very loveable, and very hard to handle sometimes. He nipped my sister-in-law’s hand as she tried to drag him away from the garbage he’d gotten into. The kids’ New Year’s Dance party sent him into a fit of barking and whining. He chewed up Jen’s new book and Alice’s Lamby. Needless to say, he spent most of our Christmas visit at my parents’ house with the loop of his leash tied to the leg of the couch.

On New Year’s Day, some of us took a walk in the woods, climbing up the bluff at the nearby state park. The path was deserted and my brother, John, let Felix off the leash. With jaw-dropping speed, he would tear off ahead of us on the path. Soon he would return, nearly knocking us over as he whooshed by in the other direction. Then he would dart into the woods, his tags jingling merrily as he dashed up and down hills, plowed through branches, and rooted in thick piles of leaves. True to his name, Felix was full of joy. His constant motion was sheer joy to watch. Given my ambivalent feelings about dogs, I was surprised by how his joy captivated me, how it moved me. I felt a sense that, through him, I was being given a blessing of joy for a new year.

In that moment I was, like the magi in this morning’s Gospel text, “overwhelmed with joy.” What I notice about joy is that it’s not something I create. I’m not in charge of it. It sneaks up on me. It happens to me. Joy is not necessarily a light-hearted feeling. It’s more like a deep sense of connection and well-being that arises within me or descends upon me. Does this sort of joy ever happen to you? Was there a time you were “overwhelmed with joy?” Bring that moment to mind, recall where you were, who you were with, how it felt in your body.

I think I noticed the joy of the magi in today’s text because it’s somewhat rare for the biblical authors to dwell on emotions in their writing. I began to wonder: what was it about this joy that came over the magi that made it important enough for Matthew to mention? Likely these mysterious travelers were priests of the Zoroastrian faith, one of the world’s oldest religions. Magi were students of the stars, interpreters of dreams, and tellers of fortunes. They were considered wise and often called upon to advise rulers. The magi were probably coming from Persia, or what is Iran, today.[1] It’s about a thousand miles from Tehran to Jerusalem. Such a trip would have taken months or even years and brought many dangers and hardships. No wonder the magi were overwhelmed with joy to reach their destination safely.

Their joy is also presented as a contrast to Herod’s fear. When the magi came into Jerusalem, they asked around town for “the child who has been born King of the Jews.” Matthew says: “When King Herod heard this he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod may have been power-hungry and jealous, but his fear was probably also practical. Rome had appointed him to keep the Jewish people in control. I’m sure he worried what the emperor would do to him if he failed. The people were afraid, too, of the repercussions of resisting Rome.

Chad Ashby points out that the magi in Matthew are part of a long biblical tradition.

He writes:

The book of Daniel chronicles how [Daniel] and his companions spent 70 years exiled among magi in the East. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was in the habit of gathering the best and brightest from his vanquished foes into an advisory body of wise men, stargazers, and dreamers.

This group included Daniel, who ended up interpreting a dream that none of the King’s other advisors could figure out. And the story about Daniel was probably an echo of an earlier tale about a Hebrew exile name Joseph, who became the Egyptian Pharaoh’s most trusted advisor. Ashby concludes:

At Jesus’s birth, recognize how the tables have turned. This time, a star led the Magi into exile, sojourning in search of the scepter rising out of Israel (Num. 24:17). This time, they do not find a man seated at the right hand of Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar, but a child seated on his mother’s lap.[2]

The magi were overwhelmed with joy to meet this child. Like the star, the child, himself, was a sign. In a world shadowed in fear, the face of this little one was a beacon, casting the light of true wisdom, revealing God in our humanity. His defenseless poverty offered a new way to conceive of power, and promised freedom from the ways of tyrants. A dream warned the magi not to become entangled in Herod’s deathly agenda and so they chose to take another road home. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were not the only gifts the magi offered the child. They disobeyed a direct order from Herod so that the infant Jesus could live, so that the joy he offered the world could flourish.

On January 19, we are invited to gather as ISAIAH with the Muslim coalition, with barbershops creating change and the Black church collective, with the latinx coalition and the sanctuary network, with childcare workers and parents, with people of faith from all over Minnesota. Oh, and the newly elected leaders of our state will be there too. By our very act of coming together as a diverse, multi-racial, multi-faith community of Minnesotans, we are claiming the path of the magi, the path that leads us home by another road. We stand in a threshold, a moment of decision. Will we resist the tug of fear? Will we heed the call of joy? We can create a common future, in which we all have a voice and stake in our democracy, in the health of our community, and of our planet. There many ways to participate in this joyful, life-giving movement. You can attend the assembly on January 19 (sign up in Pilgrim Hall). You can make a gift to our January special offering for ISAIAH. You can become (as our household is) a sustaining member of ISAIAH. You can offer the energy of your prayers.

Growing up, my faith was shaped profoundly by authors like J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. In an essay called “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien once wrote:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn.” . . . This . . . joy is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat. . . . giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. (p.22)

He goes on to say:

The Gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable [good] catastrophe. . . . The Birth of Christ is the [good] catastrophe of [human] history. The Resurrection is the [good] catastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. (p.23)

I would argue that the Christian narrative is not the only true one. Still, I believe it tells the truth. I believe that the story of God taking flesh in a child and God dying and rising as one of us is a glimpse of the joy for which we are made. Joy happens to us, joy surprises us, joy overwhelms us. The star of joy leads us on a journey into foreign lands, through places of exile and tyranny, and then home by another road. This pilgrimage takes time—months and years and lifetimes. The gift is, we are not alone. We travel this path together. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931

[2] https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2016/december/magi-wise-men-or-kings-its complicated.html