Dec. 12 2021 Sermon, “Joy Unspeakable” by Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd


Philippians 4:4-9

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

When I visited a Black Baptist Church decades ago, I was struck by their enthusiastic expression of joy. It was a little bit overwhelming, but also inspiring. I was somewhat aware of the daily racism they experienced and how everything in their lives was a little bit harder than for those of us with white skin. But it seemed as if their suffering somehow allowed them to touch a deeper place of joy.

Womanist theologian Barbara Holmes explains in her book Joy Unspeakable that this ability to tap into the wellspring of joy, in the midst of suffering, is the sustaining strength of the Black churches. This kind of joy is not necessarily happiness or light-heartedness. Rather, it arises out of a “quiet, deep-seated conviction that one’s life made sense”.[1] Those who have touched this deep-seated joy have the ability to be content with what they have without longing for what they lack. But there is intense longing with this deep joy. It is not for things, but for relationships of healing.

This intense longing is accompanied by patience—not resignation or inactivity, but what theologian Dorothy Soelle calls “revolutionary patience”. This kind of patience waits upon God, alert for the Spirit’s next nudge. It is an active, Advent rest as we keep watch for ways in which we called to help usher in God’s reign of healing, peace and justice.

I prayer that when we are able to tap into this intense longing for relationships of healing with revolutionary patience, we’ll find this deep joy that lives in the midst of struggles.

During the most difficult exile of Israel’s leaders, Isaiah offers words of hope accompanied by joy:

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid…

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation…

Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,

For great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 12:2-6)

Walter Brueggemann explains this passage by writing that it is an act of buoyant and determined hope that refuses to give in to debilitating present circumstances.[2]

Even Zephaniah, one of the harshest prophets calling the people to repent of their corruption, writes a song of joy, assuring them of God’s gentle love:

Do not fear…God is in your midst…and will rejoice over you with gladness. God will renew you with love.”

Other translations read “God will quiet you with love” or “God will soothe you will love.”

In his interpretation of this passage, John Calvin writes,

when fear prevails in our hearts we are as it were lifeless, so that we cannot raise even a finger to do anything; but when hope animates us, there is a vigor in the whole body.[3]

Hope frees us from fear and moves us to joy.

From his prison cell, Paul encourages the Philippians, who are struggling with conflict and great suffering, to rejoice in God, to prayerfully set aside worries and to find God’s response of deep peace. One of the ways that Paul suggests this can be done is by setting our minds on things of beauty and excellence.

Just over a week ago, Nancy and I spent a couple of nights in Hecla where we forest-bathed on beautiful, snow-packed trails. On a solo hike, I started out with my head down, ruminating and, yes, worrying about all sorts of things. When I reached the end of the short trail, the white birch groves drew my attention upwards. They said to me, “Lift up your head to receive the beauty of Creation; as you lift up your head, you will lift up your heart.” On my return, I heard a woodpecker, looked up and spotted it in search of its dinner. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I detected more motion. I turned my head and saw a grouse sitting on top of a tree, plucking buds. Yet more movement attracted my eyes to a neighbouring tree where I saw three more grouse feasting on tree buds. As I continued back, I realized how much I had missed ruminating with my head down. These birds were in no hurry and must have been there where I had passed by only minutes earlier. I determined to walk the rest of the way back with head held high, opening to the wonders of creation. And right around the next corner, I saw two fully mature bald eagles sitting only meters from me in a small tree.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry—maybe I did both. In that moment, I felt that elusive oneing with creation—something I rarely experience to that depth. I was held in the holy mystery of nature’s beauty. My worries didn’t disappear, but their weight lessened. When you feel fully part of a greater reality, you realize that you aren’t carrying your load alone. “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden,” Jesus said, “And I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

The Indigo Girls are incredible song-writers. In their song, Watershed, they write,

Up on the watershed

Standing at the fork in the road

You can stand there and agonize

‘Til your agony’s your heaviest load.

We don’t have to go it alone. We have a gentle Creator who loves us into rest. We are part of an amazing Creation that holds everything together in complex harmony. Yes, there are problems. Yes, there is suffering and injustice. But for now, we are invited to simply rest in the bonds of love. And there, held in the arms of Creation, we may be surprised by joy.

Barbara Holmes writes,

Joy unspeakable

Erupts when you least expect it,

When the burden is greatest,

When the hope is gone

After bullets fly

It rises

On the crest of impossibility,

It sways to the rhythm

Of steadfast hearts,

And celebrates

What we cannot see.[4]

[1] Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 67.

[2] Randle Mixon, “Isaiah 12:2-6: Homiletical Perspective.” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Vol 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009): p. 61.

[3] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, ed. and trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 4:303.

[4] Barbara Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), p. 200.