Isaiah 40:1-11; Luke 1:24-45
Before I begin, I would like to highlight for you the opportunity we have to participate as people of faith in calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, through the Office of Public Witness of the PC(USA). The letter calls for the return of hostages and the protection of all civilians, pressing all parties to abide by the Geneva Conventions and for the collective punishment imposed upon the civilians in Gaza to be brought to an end. As we seek to further the Gospel imperative of love, peace, and justice for all, we can be firm in our belief that atrocities against civilians are never justified. There is more information on the Westminster website on how we are invited as a community to advocate for a ceasefire in Gaza by sending notes to elected and appointed officials.
Following this service, Westminster’s Palestine Partner Team will share how our partners are Christmas Lutheran Church and Dar al-Kalima are responding to the war in Gaza. I trust you join me in continuing to pray for peace, and for our Jewish siblings that they might be able to gather safely as they celebrate this season of Hannukah.
This second week of Advent we continue our movement through the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, examining the ways in which we rejoice, the way the world rejoices, in the midst of weariness. Last week we heard the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the news from the angel Gabriel of her pregnancy. This morning as we enter the story again, Elizabeth has been alone for months. Dr. Wil Gafney translates Luke 1:24 as, “and she hid herself for five months,” rather than the notion that she remained in seclusion, arguing that the language for Elizabeth’s seclusion is strong and should be translated in a way that expresses that. Certainly she was weary from months alone with Zechariah, who is still unable to speak.
This morning, we hear of Gabriel’s continued visitations, as he meets Elizabeth’s relative Mary. Gabriel tells Mary that she is the favored one with God and he shares the unexpected news that she, too, will conceive and bear a son who will be named Jesus, and he will be great beyond measure.
We don’t know a lot about Mary’s travels after Gabriel departs from her, but we know that she is filled with the belief that nothing is impossible with God and that as unlikely as all of this may be, Mary understands herself to be a servant of God. In that confidence she makes haste to travel to the countryside to greet Elizabeth. Good news has begun to take shape in Elizabeth and when the women greet one another, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy.
I imagine when we think about the stories and movement of this season, we may be quick to jump to Mary’s journey with Joseph to the manger in Bethlehem. But what about the significance of these travels, which she initiated, in the early days of conception? It seems that she traveled alone, which could not have been an easy endeavor for her.
Today’s passage offers us these parallel experiences of the weight that Elizabeth has carried as a childless woman all her life in a time when that was considered a disgrace, and the suddenness of Mary’s pregnancy as one who is so young and unwed. How could either find joy in the shame that society placed on both and yet, in the company of one another, not only do they process what is happening to each of them, they comfort one another and even more- rejoice! Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims that Mary is blessed for believing in the fulfillment of what has been spoken to her.
Henri Nouwen comments on this encounter saying, “I find the meeting of these two women very moving, because Elizabeth and Mary came together and enabled each other to wait. Mary’s visit made Elizabeth aware of what she was waiting for. The child leapt for joy in her. Mary affirmed Elizabeth’s waiting.”I would add that not only did they affirm the other’s waiting, they also shared their sense of being overwhelmed, weary, and worried, while also finding connection and joy.
Rev. Cecelia D. Armstrong speaks to this particular type of joy between these two women. “Shared joy is one way that a weary world can rejoice. It is when [Mary and Elizabeth] are connected that they experience shared joy. It is when they come out of their isolation that joy becomes the connection. If comfort is a necessity in this weary world, then rejoicing should be done in the company of others. Mary and Elizabeth have shown joy in joining and comfort in connection.”
In Isaiah 40 we hear that message of comfort repeated, and the Hebrew word translated as comfort has a more basic meaning to describe not just a feeling, but a reversal of one’s mind, a change of a state of being. It can also be translated as “to have a change of heart.” This is a message to people who are weary from suffering captivity, dispersion, exile, loss of homeland, and loss of loved ones.
The promise to them is that from the depths of their anguish and isolation, they will be reassured with God’s compassion and care. It is a reminder that God will gather in the flock and that the promises of the word of God will stand forever. John Calvin is said to have proclaimed that this Isaiah 40 text “comprehends the whole Gospel in a few words.”
Theologian Willie James Jennings makes an interesting case for the importance of a joy that comforts and joins, a particular kind of shared joy, and cautions against what can happen when we don’t have it or don’t make it possible for all. He focuses on the concept of joy work and that it is critical for people of faith to participate in a joy that “joins people who would never imagine their joy work together, [who] are usually forced to imagine their joy work in isolation or against one another for fear or exploitation.” This kind of joy, according to Dr. Jennings, must be understood as a reality of the creature. There is always an opportunity for it to link us in new ways that are limited only by our imagination. He reminds us that Jesus presents a joy that gathers, and that “too many Christians continue to promote segregated joy work bound as it is by racial reasoning and geographic segregation.”
This joy work, according to Dr. Jennings, can become a way of life, and in the face of weariness and struggle, the connection of shared joy work is ultimately “an act of resistance against despair and its forces…against all the ways that despair wants to drive us toward death, violence, war, all the ways in which life can be strangled.”
How do we cultivate that joy, especially if we feel individually or collectively burdened or worn down with weariness? How do we nurture and co-create that joy if we stay separated and disconnected from one another? Jennings emphasizes that “joy is the currency flowing between hands in different circumstances and that joy work is serious work and not fully the people’s work. It is work we pursue with one another and with God.” He believes that joy is fundamentally tied to space and that, as Mary and Elizabeth did, we “have to put our bodies in space together for shared joy,” and that we must look toward public rituals bound to real spaces that allow us to attend to where we find real joy.
Willie James Jennings makes the case for how churches specifically can create joy. He invites us to ask, “How are churches places of joy, surprising joy, instead of spaces of exclusion?” There is a joy that is set in motion in gathering and he says, “we need to think more critically how the constitution of such spaces can be a fundamental part of our discipleship as Christians.”
Extraordinary things can happen when we connect for shared joy, as these two women show us. Jann Cather Weaver makes the point that Mary and Elizabeth sought to live faithfully in response to their call from God, and that “not unexpectedly, these women lived lives like those of their soon-to-be-born sons.” She asks the questions, “Do you think John and Jesus just ‘knew’ how to live radically faithful lives? How to be preachers? How to be as eloquent as the Magnificat? How to be healers? John and Jesus knew how to live radically faithful lives because they were sons of two women who had faithfully faced a terrifying yet expectant reality.” (Imaging the Word, vol. 1, 90). They had faced a terrifying and expectant reality together and found their joy work together, and the world turned.
This past summer, our family viewed the exhibit at the Walker Art Center featuring the art of Pacita Abad, a tour through the galleries that was filled with her paintings, masks, clothing, and photographs.
Perhaps she is best known for her trapuntos, a form of quilted paintings made by stitching and stuffing canvases rather than stretching them over a wood frame. Abad covered her large trapuntos in beads, shells, mirrors, and other textures that brought to life her vibrant colors and abstract images. Born in the Philippines, she was a largely self-taught artist, who incorporated the stories and experiences of her world travels into her work. Her trapuntos have been described as resurrecting what was dying…These works not only [embodied] her personal experience but also [allowed] these representations to continue to speak for themselves.” Abad’s younger brother references the political turmoil of the Marcos dictatorship and the Vietnam war that put her home country in a place of instability and political tension, forcing her to leave, and he said it was “this environment that shaped Pacita’s thinking and would explain later on her social commentaries and even the directly political commentaries in her work.”
In visiting refugee camps in Thailand, she spent time with people and invited them to share their stories and then she would go back to her studio and paint. She gave workshops with twenty or thirty participants sitting around on the floor with canvases in the middle and some who didn’t have thread brought the spooled ribbon from cassette tapes. And if you are under the age of 40 and wondering what a cassette tape is, find me after and I will explain! In reflecting on one of those gatherings Pacita Abad said, “I never realized you could do that. It’s interesting because I learn so much from them and they learn from me, so it’s collaborative.” She is describing joy work, rejoicing in connection that is born of people coming together as a response to weariness and despair, as an act of resistance, as comfort found in shared experiences, as hearts and minds changed.
She has been described as “a painting in herself” and someone who created spaces that communicated enjoyment, where no one felt alienated or excluded. What I remember from the exhibit is that it was an explosion of color and texture, surprise, playfulness, and joy, but also a strong commentary on systems that allow some voices to be heard and while perpetuating the silence of others. There is an urgency through her art to tell the stories of those not included, or as Julia Bryan-Wilson describes it as the way her “work with materials, garments, and her environment asserts…a strategy to amplify oneself literally and metaphorically, to be visually ‘loud’ and take a stand in the face of repressive systems that wish to mute, dampen, or even erase one’s presence.”
Pacita Abad’s work was a powerful, joyful, collaborative message of an artist who herself could not be silenced, who created something in specific spaces and drew others into the people’s work of joy. If you would like to know more about her and view her art, there is an exhibit book available here in the Westminster library for the next few weeks.
In a few moments, we will hear a poem from Artist-in-Residence Wendy Brown-Baez, created for this day as we consider weariness and joy, connection, and action. In weary isolation, we can find joy, but in community with God, creation, and one another, that joy multiplies and expands and becomes the work of God in a weary world, through the people of God.
May it be so.
 Commentary from Dr. Wil Gafney from “A Sanctified Art” Advent Worship Planning Series.
 Nouwen, Henry, “Waiting for God,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Mary Knoll, NY: Orbis), 2001, p. 35.
 Commentary throughout sermon from Rev. Cecelia D. Armstrong from “A Sanctified Art” Advent Worship Planning Series.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Vol. III (trans. Wm. Pringle; 7 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948) 3:212.
 Commentary from Dr. Willie James Jennings from “A Sanctified Art” Advent Worship Planning Series.
 Imaging the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource, Volume 1, p. 90.
 Xiaoyu Weng, “Vessels for Multitudes: The Masks of Pacita Abad,” in Pacita Abad, edited by Victoria Sung, Walker Art Center, 2023, p. 105.
 Victoria Sung and Pio Abad, “Pacita Abad: An Oral History,” in Pacita Abad, edited by Victoria Sung, Walker Art Center, 2023, p. 157
 Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Pattern as Politics,” in Pacita Abad, edited by Victoria Sung, Walker Art Center, 2023, p. 281.