December 17th, 2017

Joy, Joy, Joy!

Only Jesus brings unshakable joy.

Genesis 46:28-30


Echo Carol

Our theme today is joy. As of today, I’m an expert on joy, since our first grandchild was born yesterday – a little boy, Arlo Hunter Thompson, born to our son Phil and his wife Carlie in Honolulu. There’s nothing like the birth of a baby to bring joy!

Our hymns today have the theme of joy, including of course “Joy to the World,” which was not written as a Christmas carol. Isaac Watts wrote it as part of a collection of new settings for the psalms – this one based on Psalm 98. The closing hymn includes the line, “Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why these songs of happy cheer?”

I chose the hymn that preceded the sermon because Linda and I have it on a cassette tape (yes, it’s that old) of Christmas songs we still enjoy from seminary days. In addition to the fact that I love the song, the theme of “Joy, Joy, Joy” stood out. Only later did I learn that this is one of three carols attributed to a man named Theodore Baker (1851-1934), who wrote three Christmas carols around themes not found in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth. He has one about bagpipes that we don’t sing very much, but also one about roses – “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” The one we sang today has an alternate name: “Echo Carol.” Echoes are not in Luke or Matthew. I’ll say more at the end of the sermon about why the echo is a perfect fit for this sermon.

This sermon is about joy. Joy is not a common word in our day, even for Christians, except at Christmas. “Enjoy,” maybe, but not “joy.” There are some exceptions, like the word “joystick” originally coined by a French pilot for his flying experience and now also used for video games. There’s also BMW’s marketing slogan.  One commercial says, “We realized a long time ago that what you make people feel is just as important as what you make. At BMW, we make joy.” Do you buy that?

What is joy? Is joy something you feel? Or choose? Are there degrees of joy? Does knowing more about joy produce more joy?

Do we know more about joy than biblical writers? Yes. For example, we know more about the chemistry in the body, and especially in the brain. Among the factors that rob joy are physical factors sometimes hard to control. I wouldn’t want this sermon on joy to discourage those who would love to choose more joy, but the factors draining your joy are so much more complex than they are for the rest of us.

Stuck in Genesis

This week and next week (yes, Christmas Eve), we’re finishing a series of messages that began in August on the first book of the Bible, Genesis. This is a book of “beginnings” – that’s what “Genesis” means. During Advent, we’ve been connecting the stories in Genesis to the traditional themes of Advent – hope, peace, joy, and love.

As we come today to the theme of joy, I have to admit that it’s hard to find “joy” in Genesis. In Genesis, we see the beginning of the world, of life, of marriage, of sin and salvation, of family, of covenant, of promise, of faith, of so many ideas critical to the rest of the Bible. Honestly, though, it’s hard to find joy in Genesis!

For the past few weeks, we’ve focused on the third and arguably the pivotal patriarch, Jacob. We’ve learned that his name means “Liar,” and he came out of the womb trying to best his older twin brother, “Esau.” As Jacob’s story plays out, we see there’s not a lot of “joy” in deceiving and being deceived. He winds up heading a very messy family, and contributes to the mess by openly favoring a younger son, Joseph, whom he appoints supervisor over his half-brothers. That backfires, and they sell him into slavery. Worse for Jacob, though, the brothers lead their father to believe Joseph has been killed by wild animals. Jacob suffers for decades believing his favorite son is dead. It’s not just that he grieves, it’s that he chooses grief. He insists, “I will never let myself out of this pit of despair. No one else matters to me and nothing else means anything to me.”

Later when he appears before Pharaoh he will say that his “years have been few and difficult” (47:9). Jacob lived his life in fear – fear that he wouldn’t be significant, that what he had would be taken away, that what he had lost was irretrievable. Fear is the opposite of joy.

The one moment in Jacob’s life where he experiences joy is when he is reunited with his son Joseph in Egypt. When we left the story last week, Joseph’s brothers had learned that he was not only alive in Egypt, but the vizier, “the lord of the land.” There had been a tearful reunion of all twelve of Jacob’s sons in Egypt, and Joseph had sent his brothers back home to bring their father and the rest of the clan to the fertile Nile delta where the famine would not threaten their survival – now or in the future.

When the brothers arrived in Canaan at the end of Genesis 45, their donkeys loaded with the best of Egypt and additional carts packed with supplies, they reported to Jacob, “Joseph is still alive! In fact, he is ruler of all Egypt.” Moses, writing this story down, says, “Jacob was stunned. He did not believe them.” Who can blame him?

Jacob then viewed the evidence before his eyes – all his boys back home safely, provisions piled up in a time of famine – and his “spirit revived.” Then he said, “I’m convinced! My son Joseph is still alive. I will go see him before I die.”

Still, though, I think his joy is diminished. It’s still mingled with fear. The reason I say that is that God speaks to him again in chapter 46. This is the first time in at least 25 and possibly as many as 40 or 50 years. On the way to Egypt, Jacob stops in Beersheba to offer a sacrifice, and God says, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there.” Why would God say that to him if Jacob weren’t still trembling with fears of what might go wrong? He was now leaving the land God had promised to Abraham and Isaac, as well as to him. What if his family assimilated in Egypt?  What if they never came back? Would he always be remembered as the ancestor who destroyed the dream by leaving the land of promise?

With God’s assurance, though, Jacob finished the journey. As he crossed from the Sinai Peninsula into Africa, he sent his son Judah ahead “to get directions to Goshen.” Meanwhile, when Joseph heard his father was getting close, he hopped in his chariot – Air Force 2 we called it in a previous sermon – and arrived before Jacob did.

In a scene so emotional it rivals Joseph revealing his identity to his brothers, Joseph “threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time.” Jacob is now 130 years old (47:9), and one can only imagine that he’s a bit fragile physically. Emotionally, though, this is the high point of his life. He’s never been better. He exclaims to his long-lost son, “Now I am ready to die, since I have seen for myself that you are still alive.”

This is one moment of Jacob’s life where he experiences joy. One gets the impression that the rest of his entire life is miserable, difficult, fearful. He only has joy when something unexpectedly good happens. Even his direct encounters with God – the famous “stairway to heaven,” the all-night wrestling match, the vision of assurance we talked about a moment ago – they don’t seem to raise his joy-meter. He consistently returns to his deception or his fear or his grief.

One wonders how Jacob’s life might have been different if he could have had the “crow’s nest” perspective? What if he could have seen, as we can see, the rest of the story –  not just that he would see Joseph again, but the larger picture of God’s story, that his legacy would produce a nation, a Messiah, salvation for the whole world?

Alas, many people – even Christians – are stuck in Genesis, where there may be the beginning of many things – life, family, even salvation – but joy is still tied to what happens. There are moments of joy, of course, but those joys are directly related to how life is unfolding. Isn’t there a better way?

Lessons on joy

Jacob’s story, of course, comes early in the Bible.  That prompted me to wonder this week what else the Bible says about joy. I realized fairly quickly there is a series of lessons on joy that build on each other from one end of the Bible to the other.

Lesson 1:  Joy rises in giant God-parties. Centuries after Jacob, Moses gives God’s law to the people. You know the Ten Commandments, but some of the laws have to do with the festivals. Moses prescribed three pilgrim festivals, when the descendants of Israel were to assemble at their holy place (later Jerusalem). He equates joy with these events, as in Deuteronomy 16:14, “Be joyful at your Feast – you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns.”

Jews excel at celebration. Linda and I happened on a non-biblical festival on one of our trips to the Holy Land – Simchat Torah, which literally means “Rejoicing in the law.” There’s something about a giant God-party that lifts the soul. Notice Moses even included servants and foreigners and orphans and widows – people who might not otherwise have a lot to celebrate. There’s a great principle here. People in general, but especially the people of God, need to plan celebrations that will give a reason for joy. It’s about remembering, it’s about sharing, it’s about being together in a crowd that feeds you with energy. It’s one reason we have services like Candlelighting that are designed to engage larger crowds. When we come together in a giant God-party, what we say we believe seems even more real. That’s just lesson one, though.

Lesson 2:  Joy is linked to the place where you meet God. When we move to the next part of the Bible, we find that joy is associated with the ark of God, which represents his presence, and by extension, the temple where that ark came to rest. When Solomon dedicates the glorious temple, all the people “went home joyful and glad in heart for all the good things the LORD had done for his servant David and his people Israel” (1 Kings 8:66). Whether David is bringing the ark into the city or Solomon is giving it a home, or people are bringing tithes and offerings to the temple, or the temple and festivals are being restored after a time of unfaithfulness, when God’s people are near him in the temple, there is joy.

This is lesson 2. The place matters. Can you worship God out on the lake or on the golf course or in your BMW? Of course. But this lesson is that sacred places are key to joy. When you lose your joy, you can sometimes go back to a place where you met God and recover it. Sometimes it’s about being with other believers, but sometimes your heart and mind are simply re-centered in the church where you first knew him, or where a decision was made, or where you experienced a provision. Places matter for joy.

Lesson 3:  Personal joy requires personal choice. The psalms are full of joy. The word “joy” or “rejoice” occurs 99 times in the 150 psalms, more by far than any other single book of the Bible. And what we notice is that joy requires participation, it requires a choice, it asks for your voice and your body. “Worship the LORD with gladness,” Psalm 100:2 says, “come before him with joyful songs.”

It’s not enough to just show up at a God-party or worship with other believers in a sanctuary. You have to put yourself into it. Stand up, clap, raise your hands, shout, sing. If you come to church and don’t leave any different than you came, maybe it’s because you didn’t participate in it. There’s something to be said for choosing to put yourself into the actions of joyful worship. Even if you’re not feeling it, do it. Rejoice!

Lesson 4:  Joy comes in trusting what God will do. This is the lesson from the Old Testament prophets. The overarching theme of the prophets is that what is happening right now may not give reason to rejoice, but your God is not limited to the present. For the prophets, often the people are rebellious and the temple is in ruins and you might be far from home and there might not even be enough to eat. 8-year-old Lincoln Hardy expressed it this way:  “Love is the dough; joy is the biscuit.” Even if you feel mired in the messiness of the dough, you realize that the biscuit is on the way.

But you can still rejoice because of the character and promises of God. Isaiah 12:2-3 speaks of “that day,” saying, “Surely God is my salvation. I will trust and will not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” If like Jacob you can only see the present pain and grief, then you limit God to your corner of the world and your moment in time. But you can find your joy in knowing that a faithful God will give you reason to rejoice again.

Lesson 5:  Joy and Jesus are intertwined. Now we come to the Gospels. Oh, the gospels! The good news books! From the beginning of the story, joy is tied to birth of babies – the announcement first to Zechariah and then to Mary about the birth of a son. The night the angels appeared to the shepherds outside Bethlehem their spokes-angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).

Jesus’ miracles bring joy – to a wedding, to those who are healed and raised. In John’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples the night before he dies that they will know grief in the short term but their grief will turn to joy that no one can take away. Luke’s gospel is full of joy, including the joy in heaven over one sinner that repents. Luke continues this theme in the book of Acts as there is joy when the gospel spreads and the church grows. Lesson 5 is that you can’t know full and unshakable joy without Jesus.

Lesson 6:  Jesus Joy embraces trouble and displaces anxiety. Here’s not only the big surprise but the climax of this Bible survey on joy. There were hints of this earlier in the Bible, but it is a consistent theme of the New Testament letters that joy is not only possible in hard times, but it is actually integrally connected. It’s almost as if Christian joy requires affliction to prove itself real. In other words, joy in good times is not genuine joy. It’s just happiness. As Karl Barth said in his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “Joy is a defiant ‘Nevertheless!’, which Paul sets as a full stop against anxiety.”

Paul says in Romans 5, “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings” because of what suffering ultimately produces. That’s not an isolated idea in Paul’s letters – it’s a consistent theme. It’s why joy is the fruit of the Spirit. This is not ordinary joy. James says, “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds” (1:2). Peter says to those who are suffering, “Rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 4:13). Yes, this is crazy talk, and not everyone is ready for that Lesson 6. It’s very advanced in the biblical world view. If you’re not there yet, go back to a previous lesson.

How, then?

I’ve spent most of my life hearing and even saying that joy is not a feeling, not an emotion. I’m walking back on that today, at least somewhat. In my study of joy in the Bible it is almost always connected with cheerfulness, happiness, delight. If you’re grumpy and gloomy and negative, you’re not experiencing joy. How, then, do we experience true joy – not just at Christmas but anytime?

First, understand the difference between thrill and joy. Sorry, BMW, a new car is a thrill, it’s not joy. The Christian world view is not opposed to thrills, but within boundaries, of course. God created those opportunities for enjoyment of a good time. Believers know thrills come and go, and we can’t depend on them for joy.

Second, choose what will increase and sustain joy. You don’t have a joy switch in your brain – something you can turn on and off to become more cheerful. But you can make choices. One of the wisest comments I heard this past week was from someone who’s had a really tough year. He said one difference for him was that he stopped isolating himself. He chose community – specifically the community of fellow believers. All through the Bible, when we join the God-parties, and sing out our praise, and search the Scriptures about what’s real and lasting, and draw closer to Jesus, the joy-meter rises. There’s so much we can’t change, but also so much we can. I can choose gratitude, I can choose contentment, I can choose trust. All of that will increase my joy.

Finally, focus on the character and promise of God through Jesus Christ. This is why we associate joy so closely with Christmas! We should focus more on joy all year long, I suppose, but we are also right to make joy one of our major themes. No Jesus, no joy. Why? Because Jesus brings truth up close and personal. We know, even from the Old Testament, that God is faithful and good and wise. We know that from Moses and David and Isaiah. But we see it in Jesus.

This is the crow’s nest view that Jacob needed. If he could only see what God can see, he would know joy. That’s true for us as well. Ultimately joy comes down to embracing who God is, magnified, illustrated, and brought home in Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection. Remember that our salvation is not the “end.” It is the means to the end. The end is to be in perfect relationship with God forever – to experience perfect peace, love, and joy in his presence. His character is the promise that will happen to all who come to him through Jesus Christ. Focusing on him brings joy that never ends. Amen.

Leave a Response

You must be logged in to post a comment.