If the Apostles can find it in a dark dank cell,
then what’s stopping us from finding it in our own pit of despair?
(Open with a story about my kids playing Wii. It's a story of filling the house with laughter and joy...)
What kind of things do you think about when you hear the word ‘joy?’ Is there something in particular that triggers an emotional feeling within you? Is it a particular place or a person, or an object? An old memory, a hopeful promise, or a new opportunity? Maybe it’s something you’ve done for others, or something someone has done for you that put a feeling of great pleasure or happiness right here inside you?
For the next few weeks, I’d like to explore joy, and what it means for us. I'd like to do it by looking at Paul’s letter to the churches in Philippi. In this letter the Apostle encourages them, as well as us, to seek joy in all situations and circumstances.
Having only three letters, ‘Joy’ is a pretty big word. It’s the catalyst to countless loves songs and poems; the one emotion that drives us to work harder, encourages us to love better, and motivates us to look beyond ourselves. Heck, many of us can’t get out of bed without some kind of prod or hopeful promise of joy.
So what are those things that give you your greatest joy? Your grandkids? A group of friends? A sunny spring day at the beach? Or perhaps curling up in bed with a good book? For me, it’s hearing the laughter of my children playing together; enjoying a delicious Indian curry; of course, cranking up my guitar amp and stomping on the distortion pedal until the walls shutter and shake.
The problem with finding joy in earthly things is while they might make us feel good, the effect is often temporary. I know my kids will eventually fight, that good meal will come to end, and the neighbors will bang on my door complaining. Like a good book or a perfect day, we want our joys to last. But loved ones pass on, relationships become estranged, and the days somehow drift away.
No matter how good we have it, or how badly we want it...life always seems to find a way to kick the joy out of us. Paul and John knew this well. Both men wrote this morning readings, not from a tropical beach or a private golf resort, but from 1st century prison. I’ve watched enough episodes of Game of Thrones and Orange Is the New Black to know how hard it is to find joy behind bars. But if the Apostles can find it in a dark, dank cell, then what’s stopping us from finding it in our own pit of despair?
Before the U.S. government eased travel restrictions to Cuba, I visited Havana. The Cuban embargo was in full force, causing great need among its citizens. Yet in their poverty there was a sense of richness; a Spirit of joy filled them, and it flowed out of them through music, laughter, and dancing. They had nothing, but yet had everything. Like Paul and John, they focused on what was good in their lives and what brought them true joy.
I’m sure many of us wish we had some internal switch that we could simply flip on and be happy. The only switch I know of that works is the one where we give our life over to God.
“Joy doesn’t simply happen to us,” as Henri Nouwen writes, “We have to choose joy and keep choosing it everyday.” Thus we have to wake up every morning and choose to live as God has called us to live. This requires a sacrifice...one that impossible to make without God's help.
Paul tells the Philippians that true joy is not found in an earthly place or in earthly things. Nor is it found in power, or prestige or having many possessions. True joy, he professes, is found in a person. Jesus Christ. When we open our hearts to Christ, we allow his Spirit to be in us. That Spirit is God's abundant joy...filling us up until we overflow.
It's this Spirit that filled Mary Magdalene at the tomb and empowered her to share the good news with the disciples. It is the very Spirit upon which Paul received on the road to Damascus and draws his strength from in every situation. This is the good news he can't help but share with everyone he meets.
We don’t find joy because life is good, we find joy because God is great. Jesus is God’s greatest joy.
Just as the Easter tomb illustrates, God’s joy is powerful. It's eternal. It does not die. Through Christ...God's joy is fully alive. So no matter what difficult situation we face...nothing is too difficult for God. And no matter how tough our circumstances may be...God is tougher.
When we choose to be with Jesus, to walk as he walked, a switch goes on inside us. We begin to be filled with a deep sense of joy. Best of all, we don't just choose to be with God...God also chooses us. Through us God chooses to keep the Spirit of joy flowing. It walks with us in the way we love and care for one another. It moves and flows throughout the world in way we promote peace, and in the way treat others with dignity; honoring all life in our giving and receiving. With the love and joy of God in us, nothing can defeat us.
When everyday life tries to kick the joy out of us, God kicks it back in.
As Tom Holladay points out, Paul does not tell the Philippians to rejoice in pain and difficulties they face. He simply says, rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice in the one who promises to complete His work in us. The one who supplies our every need. The one who gave Himself up for us on the cross. The one who gives us the motivation, the power and the strength to serve Him with joy in every circumstance; the one who longs to produce joy in our lives.
Through our faith in Jesus Christ, and by the assurance of God’s promise given to us through him, that feeling of joy never leaves us. For God does not abandon us, betray us or reject us.
Instead, God becomes us, loves us, redeems us, and saves us. God has chosen us to find joy. In every step of life, from the cradle, to the cross, to the grave, and to beyond all the mysteries of the universe, God’s joy is your joy if you want it. It's here, right now...
(Move towards communion table)
As we celebrate the second Sunday of Easter, this church invites you to the table of God’s blessing, to share in the joy of Jesus Christ who left us this meal in remembrance of his sacrifice...his death and resurrection. Whether you are filled with faith or with doubt, have a sound theology or many unanswered questions, you are invited to meet God here with us. This is God’s table, and it is our joy to share it with you.