ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MAY 19, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Psalm 126 (responsive); 1 Peter 1: 3 – 9; John 16: 16 – 24
When I crafted this sermon, it was the end of April. Severe flooding was occurring along the St. Lawrence, St. John and Ottawa rivers affecting parts of Quebec, New Brunswick, Ottawa, the Muskokas, the Trent Severn system and Manitoba. Lake Ontario was rising at a rate of 123 Olympic sized swimming pools per minute! Thousands of people have had to leave their homes. Over 1 million sandbags were placed along the Ottawa side of the river alone. With two sump pumps running 24/7 and the water near my home rising everyday, I spent some time praying (and arguing with Terry) over what would be the best contingency plan for when we’re away. Since at the time of writing this, I chose to use the past tense, I’m sincerely counting on the waters subsiding before Noah finishes the ark or April 19, whichever comes first. The overflowing rivers show us the power of water, it’s unstoppable nature, it’s all-pervasive presence and its ability to saturate everything it touches, and leave us overwhelmed, awed and even humbled. We are not in control!
Imagine, though, if all that water was “joy”. Not happiness, frivolity, cheerfulness, exhilaration or contentment, but joy – real, pure, deep, light, all-encompassing, ever-lasting joy. Treacherous flooding may not be the first things we associate with joy, but if we lived in a desert where an over-flowing river is a rare and appreciated delight, we may have a different perspective. In John’s gospel record, when Jesus speaks to his disciples about his death and resurrection, he uses the image of an overflowing river to depict the joy his friends and followers would feel when they see him again; when their sadness turns to gladness. This isn’t hard for us to imagine. If someone we loved whom we had just buried, appeared to us alive, our joy would be beyond words.
Jesus also compared the disciples’ pain at his death to the pain suffered by a woman in childbirth – and I just happen to know something about that, too! We read, “When a woman gives birth, she has a hard time, there’s no getting around it. But as soon as the baby is born, there is joy in the birth. This new life in the world wipes out memory of the pain” (John 16: 21). The time frame here is proof the scripture was written by men. While finally holding your new born in your arms is sheer bliss, the memory of the pain doesn’t dissipate quite that quickly. However, the pain does eventually fade from memory or we wouldn’t need to worry about the population explosion; no one would have more than one child. However, kidding aside, the analogy’s a good one. The anguish of child-birth is intense and severe, but the joy of a brand-new life is a miracle which surpasses the pain and transforms any suffering into ecstasy.
Jesus tells his disciples that they will mourn his death, while the world celebrates it. They will know pain of grief, but their sadness will become joy. Just as his dead body would resurrect to new life, the disciples anguish would transform into joy – an ever-lasting joy that no one can steal away. And, if we’d rejoice at the resurrection of a loved one, how much greater is the joy Jesus’ resurrection brings? Jesus resurrection is not just for himself, but also for us. The resurrection of Jesus impacts us here and now, giving us hope for the future. Peter writes, “Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now!” (1 Peter 1:4).
So, how do we understand joy? The world thinks of joy in a lot of ways:
• Joy is something we create; it’s not a gift from God because, apparently, we are our own gods
• Joy is chemically induced
• Joy is found in new experiences and constant stimulation
• Joy comes from being joyful
• Joy is contained in a cup of coffee
• The source of joy is music
• Or perhaps joy is too much to ask for – this from the great philosopher, Brad Pitt
Scripture tells us that joy is not within our control. It’s not something we create. It’s not found in a pill. It’s not dependant on outward circumstances. We cannot manufacture it by willing it or trying harder. It isn’t in a cup of coffee, a pizza or even in tofu. While music can be an expression of joy, music doesn’t equal joy. And despite of all this, joy is a real possibility for every human being. Joy comes from the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Joy is ours because God wills it. Joy is the by-product of the destruction of and victory over death and sin which are the things that suppress abundant life within us. And this joy, true joy, can never be taken away. The things people claim bring us joy are transient. They are based on external factors. Those influences can be removed or changed. Jesus is risen eternally, and nothing can change that. Nothing can rob us of our joy.
Personally, the words of C.S. Lewis resonate for me when he said, “Joy is the serious business of heaven”. To bring us joy, God made the serious choices to become incarnate as a human being in Jesus of Nazareth and to die a brutal death for us. I don’t know the process God used to resurrect Jesus, but I’m sure he didn’t do it lightly or on a whim. Lewis also said, “There is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.” In other words, joy transcends moments of giddiness or even deep happiness. The two examples Jesus gives are perfect descriptions of joy – death and life, pain and birth. These always whisper to our hearts that life is a sacred gift. They remind us of God’s goodness. They open us up. They make us tender. They make us realize the fragility of life. They fill us with gratitude and exultation, that we’re on this planet, that God has blessed us and that every moment is a treasure.
That’s not to say that joy isn’t joyful; joy is a tender, bright, sparkling light that bursts open when we meet the risen Christ. To me, there is a poignancy to joy. Joy is the feeling we have when despair and suffering intersect with hope and new life – and life triumphs. Joy fills us with wonder, awe and gratitude. It softens our hearts. It gives us courage, endurance and faith.
I’m sure all of us agree that it must have been incredibly joyful when the risen Christ appeared to his disciples. The disciples had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion. They encountered him face to face in his resurrected body. We don’t have the blessing of meeting the Risen Christ in his bodily form. As Peter told his readers, “You never saw him.” “You never saw him, yet you love him. You still don’t see him, yet you trust him—with laughter and singing” (1 Peter 1:8). Or as the NSRV puts it, “ …and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy”. Like millions of Christians before us, we access this “indescribable and glorious joy” through faith. Through grace, by faith we’re lifted into the presence of Christ. Through grace, by faith, we’re saved, and our eternal life begins here and now. Through grace, by faith, we transcend our circumstances, whether positive or negative, happy or miserable. Through grace, by faith, we live in joy.
Peter writes, “I know how great this makes you feel, even though you have to put up with every kind of aggravation in the meantime” (1 Peter 1:6) Life isn’t a bowl of cherries. Who here hasn’t experienced aggravations, disappointments, suffering and heart ache? As Jesus knew, life here is filled with betrayals and suffering, loss and grief. No one comes out unscathed. Peter continues, “Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved pure; genuine faith put through this suffering comes out proved genuine. When Jesus wraps this all up, it’s your faith, not your gold, that God will have on display as evidence of his victory” (vs. 7). No matter what miseries we face, we need to remember that suffering is a process which strengthens and purifies our faith. Just as gold is put in fire to distill it to its purest form, our souls are tried through the heat of life until our faith is pure, and our joy is genuine. Just as the disciples experienced true joy in the aftermath of Jesus death, we too discover the joy of the Lord through our own trials.
Richard Rohr writes, “Christianity suggests that the pattern of transformation, the pattern that connects, the life that God offers us is not death avoided, but death transformed. In other words, the only trustworthy pattern of spiritual transformation is death and resurrection. Death and life, sorrow and joy are two sides of the same coin; you cannot have one without the other. Each time you surrender to death, your faith is led to a deeper level and you discover ‘a larger self’ underneath. You decide not to push yourself to the front of the line, and something much better happens in the back of the line. You let go of your narcissistic anger, and you find that you start feeling much happier. You surrender your need to control your partner, and finally the relationship blossoms or ends [so that a different life can blossom]. Yet each time it is a choice—and each time it is a kind of dying. It seems we only know what life is, when we know what death is.” We only know the fullness of joy when what is most important to us and has been lost, and then it’s restored and given a second chance to live and thrive.
We live in joy because Christ died and is risen. We live in joy because we have died and are risen with Christ. We can endure hardships joyfully assured that, “God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole.” (vs. 5) And we have joy that no one can take away because we believe and anticipate the day when, “we’ll get what we’re looking forward to: total salvation” (vs. 9). Until that day, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).