A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on May 13, 2012.
Psalm 98: John 15:9-11
In a couple of days I will mark my 21st anniversary of ministry at FBC. That means I will have worked almost 1100 weeks in this place. And I can promise you not one of those weeks has been boring!
This past week was no exception. You may have heard that a movie is being filmed in town with some very prominent actors, including some of Saturday Night Live fame. Much of the movie is being shot downtown, and so the movie director asked if his actors might rehearse their lines in our facility. Long story short—we rented these actors space in our bridal suite located directly beneath my office for their rehearsals.
One day as I was working in my office, I heard these folks laughing. Apparently, they are filming a comedy, and they made themselves laugh over and over again as they rehearsed their lines. About every 10 minutes or so a blast of laughter would drift up through the floor and I couldn’t help but wonder what was so funny. And I couldn’t help but notice how heartwarming it is just to hear people laugh.
And their laughter set me to thinking about how comparatively sad and humorless we Christians appear to be. We’re not exactly known for our joy. Most people don’t consider us to be a barrel of laughs. “Prim and proper”, “rigid” and “judgmental” are the usual adjectives applied to us. Which is a shame, because that’s not what Jesus had in mind.
I think what Jesus had in mind for us is better illustrated by the picture of Tessa Turner on the screen. Not even actors who appear on Saturday Night Live can duplicate the wide-open sense of joy and delight expressed by children. I can get pretty revved up when I travel. But I have to admit Tessa Turner leaves me in the shade when it comes to expressing pure joy over that part of creation we southerners call “the beach”.
But wait a minute! I thought the Christian faith dealt with the weighty matters of life. There’s a reason children celebrate with reckless abandon—they don’t know any better. Who can jump for joy when there’s always the ugly matter of our sin to contend with? And the ever-present suffering of the poor and oppressed to address? And the problems of the world and our own issues to solve?
I look at myself, and I realize I am often guilty of acting like I’m joy-impaired. I can be so preoccupied with my responsibilities that I miss the beauty of daffodils on a spring day. So worried about my challenges that I fail to see the humor in anything. So perfectionistic I can’t celebrate something because it didn’t come off perfectly. So busy preparing to deal with what’s next that I never fully appreciate what’s now.
And if I’m not careful, I talk myself into believing only innocent children and naïve adults can be joyful. To be chronically melancholy sounds so honest, so true to life until I remember something Jesus says in John 15:11 after teaching his disciples many things…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
Friends, this is a stunning statement made by our Lord, and overlooked by the church of my youth. I had the distinct impression growing up that God was the great killjoy of life who never wanted you to have a good time. And God sent Jesus to straighten me out.
But Jesus is saying he came and taught to inebriate his followers with joy. The problem with human beings, says Jesus, is not that we are too joyful and God wants us to be more serious. The problem is that we are joy-deprived, and God wants us to dive deeper into his joy. Why does God want this? Because the joy we see in Tessa Turner and other small children is just a fraction of the joy that lives in the heart of God.
G.K. Chesterton put it this way—“God has an infinite capacity for joy.” Chesterton adds, “It may be that God has the eternal appetite for infancy, for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
Isn’t that something! The God who is older than the hills still laughs like a baby. Because in his essence God is pure joy. That doesn’t mean, of course, that God only feels joy. God’s own son was “a man of sorrows, filled with grief.” But as John Ortberg observes, the sorrow and anger of God are always temporary responses to a fallen world. And they will be banished forever from God’s heart on the day the world is set right.
This is why the Bible, God’s word, pulsates with joy. Over 500 times the scriptures invite us, even commands us to rejoice. For example —
This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118:24).
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, rejoice! (Philippians 4:4).
And then there is a scripture we know less well—Psalm 98. There’s a lot we don’t know about this passage. We don’t know who wrote it, or the specific occasion for its writing. It may have been written to celebrate the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, or the return of the Israelites from Babylonian exile, or the victory of the Israelite army in an important battle. What we do know is this psalm throbs with joy, and offers an explanation for why we should rejoice.
O sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.
Why do we rejoice? Because of the great and marvelous things God has done. For the Israelites that included their exodus from Egypt, and their days of glory under the rule of David and Solomon, and their return from exile to their beloved Jerusalem.
But history shows that early Christians also loved to sing this psalm of joy in their worship services. Psalm 98 sings of the rule of God over the earth, and as far as Christians were concerned, the birth of Christ was one of the many marvelous things God accomplished upon the earth.
In the 1700s, Isaac Watts captured the essence of this psalm in a carol we sing every Christmas—“Joy to the World”. The birth of Jesus is so marvelous that not just God’s people, but “heaven and nature sing,” and “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy.” And so it turns out we know Psalm 98 far better than we thought because we sing a version of it every Christmas.
Eventually, early Christians also sang this psalm before and after Easter. Jesus’ death and resurrection were also viewed as marvelous deeds of God, demonstrating that when God rolled back the stone from Jesus’ tomb he also rolled back sin, and sickness, and death, paving a way for his people to have life, abundant and eternal, a life worth celebrating. That’s why Psalm 98 is an assigned lectionary passage in the season of Eastertide every third year, reminding us of the ongoing, never-ending joy of the resurrection of Christ.
But there’s another reason to celebrate, a reason that goes even deeper than what God does because it speaks to how God in Christ feels about us.
God has remembered his steadfast
love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.
“God has remembered his…love.” We see that same language mirrored later by Mary the mother of Jesus when she sings about the impending birth of her son, noting in her “Magnificat” that God has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy. (Luke 1:54)
At the heart of Jesus’ mission was his desire to demonstrate just how much he and God love us. In fact, here is the breathtaking way Jesus describes his love for us in John 15: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.
Because we usually glide over that sentence, let me read it again—As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.
Has it ever occurred to you that Jesus feels the same way about you his Father feels about him? Remember—the love between God and Jesus began before time itself, and continues in that mysteriously intimate web of relationships we know as the Trinity (God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). On the day Jesus was born, God’s angels sang and so did the whole world. On the day Jesus was baptized, God was bursting with pride over his boy, and came down from heaven in the form of a dove to say so. On the day Jesus died, the veil of the temple was torn in two, and so was God’s heart. On the day of Jesus’ resurrection, it was Jesus’ loving Father who personally raised him from the dead.
Do you understand, friends, that Jesus loves you as deeply as God loves him? If you’ve ever spent one minute or one day in despair because you concluded that nobody really cares, that you are a failure, of no worth to yourself or anybody else and the world would be better off without you—hear what Jesus says, absorb what Jesus says, and let it sink deep into your soul: As the Father has loved me so I have loved you.
Before you did one thing to earn it, Jesus loved you with the same love God has for him—an endless love, a matchless love. And here’s the key for today. Our joy is not an earthly happiness, built on what we can attain for ourselves. Our joy is a gift from the God who loves us in Jesus Christ, a love whose breadth and length and height and depth surpasses all our human knowledge (Ephesians 3:l8-19).
Someone has said, “Joy is a contentedness beyond circumstances, an indestructible kind of confidence that says everything’s all right even when everything looks, feels, and tastes all wrong. Joy can coexist with doubt, ambiguity, and pain.”
How can that be true? Because the joy we have is a product of God’s love that knows no end. When you know God loves you in your heart of hearts, you realize your weeping may last through the night, but joy will come in the morning.
Here’s something else you know—joy and obedience are intimately related. Here’s how Jesus put it: If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.
Now for many years I thought that the only way I could remain in Jesus’ love was to obey his commandments. I had to earn Jesus’ love. But that’s not what John 15 says. God’s love in Christ is a given. It’s there before we’ve done anything good or bad, and it will always be there.
Jesus is not saying our obedience wins his love. He’s saying our obedience deepens our sense of his love for us. And it deepens the joy we feel in our soul.
In our society we think happiness is something we pursue—through money, fame, pleasure, etc. But if you’ll notice, people who pursue happiness with reckless abandon, doing whatever turns them on often wind up in despair.
We don’t find joy by pursuing joy. We find joy by pursuing God in Jesus Christ, abiding in Christ, obeying Christ, living as deeply in Christ as we can. If you ask me when I have felt most joyful, I can tell you it’s when I know without a shadow of a doubt that I am doing what God wants me to do in that moment. There is no joy greater than that.
I remember being surprised when I first learned that one of the spiritual disciplines is celebration. I shouldn’t have been surprised because nobody enjoys a good time better than God. Today is Mother’s Day, and if you have your mom nearby, I hope you will do something to celebrate. Live it up! Kill the fatted calf! And have fun in the process.
Lewis Smedes wrote, “You and I were created for joy, and if we miss it, we miss the reason for our existence.”
Sam Shoemaker wrote, “The surest mark of a Christian is not faith, or even love, but joy.”
By this standard, how are you doing in your Christian life?