When I was a teenager, my favorite series of books, which I read multiple times as a teen and young adult, was “The Dark Is Rising” by Susan Cooper. It was a series of five modern-day fantasy novels in which a group of five children, aided by historic figures like Merlin and King Arthur, had to save the world from the forces of Darkness which sought to control the affairs of humanity.
The series was completed in 1977, so I can hopefully tell just a little bit about the ending without spoiling it for anyone. In the final book, the five children succeed in their quest. One of the children was required to continue on as a watchman to protect the world from future attacks of evil, but the other four had their memories of all the events wiped, allowing them to live out normal lives in the world they had just rescued.
I had never read a book where the ending affected me so deeply. I was used to reading books with happy endings. And while this book didn’t exactly have a sad ending, I wouldn’t describe it as fully happy, either. It was haunting. Later I would learn a word that described the feeling I experienced when I read that book – the word was “bittersweet.” Bittersweet means “pleasant, but tinged with elements of sadness, pain, or regret.”
At the time I first read it, my experience of life was simple, and everything was either happy or sad. The notion of carrying both of those emotions in my heart simultaneously was not something I’d ever really considered. But you know that this is true: it’s possible to be simultaneously happy and sad. Especially if you’ve lost a loved one, you know that when memories of the one you loved come to the surface, they bring this strange mixture of happiness and sadness, laughter and tears. Holidays, especially, can be a dizzying, emotional rollercoaster.
It’s important for us to hang on to this idea – that human emotions are complex and confusing, and we can carry opposite emotions in our hearts side-by-side. It’s important, because we’re going to talk today about JOY, and most dictionaries define joy as “great happiness.” When combined with Scripture verses like “rejoice in the Lord always,” a simplistic view leads us to end up with songs like “I’m inright, outright, upright, downright, happy all the time,” or “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light, and the burden of my heart rolled away; it was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day.”
The truth is, these songs don’t match our day-to-day experience of life in this mixed-up, broken-down world. We are not happy all the time, or happy all the day. Furthermore, there’s nothing in Scripture that suggests we should be. Jesus himself said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” All of this is my way of saying that, as we explore the fruit of the Spirit and consider today the fruit of JOY, we need to toss out some simplistic understandings of both joy and human emotions, because simplistic understanding can lead us in some unhealthy directions.
Our scripture reading this morning is Luke 5:27-35.
When Jesus found and called Levi the tax collector to be one of his disciples, Levi thought the occasion was worthy of great celebration. It’s easy to understand why; tax collectors were very unpopular (hated, even), and to have a great rabbi like Jesus say, “I want you to come with me,” would have been a moment of great excitement; finally, someone accepted him!
So, Levi throws a great dinner party, and invites the only people who would come to one of his parties: other outcasts. “Tax collectors and sinners” is how the Pharisees described the guest list. The Pharisees are upset by this whole event and launch a couple attacks. First they complain to the disciples that Jesus is hanging out with sinners. Jesus responds with his famous statement that it is the sick who need a doctor. When that attack fails, they launch a second one. This one is something we’ve talked about in our study of Galatians: comparing people to see who is the holiest. “Did you notice,” they ask Jesus, “that our disciples, and John the Baptist’s disciples often fast? But not your disciples! They just keep right on eating and drinking and living the good life.”
For the Pharisees, fasting was a sign of sadness and mourning. Basically, they were saying, “Your disciples aren’t sad enough to suit us.”
In response, Jesus gives a scenario they would all have been familiar with, and we are familiar with it as well, even though our traditions are very different: a wedding.
If you are married, do you remember the joy of that day? The excitement, the anticipation? And even if you’re not married, do you remember that same sense when a dear friend or family member got married? To watch a friend embark on a new phase of life with someone they love – that’s a wonderful thing. So Jesus says, “When a man is getting married, all of his friends are excited and celebrating.”
But what happens after the wedding? The friend’s time, energy and resources are taken up with beginning this new phase of life. The result is that the groom’s friends now have their joy tempered with the sadness that “things aren’t the same anymore.” I’m sure you have experienced that as well; someone goes through a significant life change – maybe a marriage, or a move, or the birth of a child, and suddenly nothing seems the same between you anymore.
You may rejoice for the friend’s great blessing, yet mourn over what you have lost.
What exactly is Jesus saying? He’s saying, “My disciples have nothing to mourn over, because I am with them. A day will come when I will be taken from them, and on that day they can mourn and fast. But while I am with them, they rejoice and celebrate.”
He reiterates this idea later, on the day he is arrested:
In both passages, Jesus’ message is loud and clear: “I am the source of my disciples’ joy.” All around you, people find their joy in temporary pleasures, but the joy of the Christian is to be deeper than that. It is to be found in a two-fold assurance that comes from Christ himself.
The first is this: “Surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20b) Jesus said this just before being taken up into heaven – at a time when it would have seemed to them that He was not with them anymore. He wanted to assure them that His physical presence with them was not required for Him to be near.
Considering all that the disciples would face --imprisonment, exile, and even martyrdom, this promise from Jesus would help keep them going. When nothing went as they expected or wanted, when the world hated them, when everything was lost to them, there was one thing that kept their heads above water: Jesus was with them.
The second assurance is this:
Not only is Christ near to us in spirit now but also, He will one day draw near in the flesh to welcome us into our heavenly home.
When Paul told the Philippians to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” and followed that up by saying “The Lord is near,” I found myself wondering, “Does he mean the Lord is near in spirit now? Or does he mean that the Lord’s return is near?”
Then I realized: both are true. We can rejoice because in the worst that this world throws at us, we know that Jesus suffers beside us and with us, and we are never alone. We can also rejoice because the worst that this world can throw at us is only temporary. Jesus will come again, and all suffering will end.
Paul wrote in Philippians 3:10 that it is possible to be drawn into deeper fellowship with Christ through suffering. And in 2 Corinthians 4:17 he wrote that our light affliction in the present time is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory.
Rejoice. Not because you suffer, but because any suffering you face in this life brings you into fellowship with Christ and His sufferings, and because they add to the glory you will experience in eternity.
This does not mean that we go through life with smiles pasted on our faces and saying, “now I’m happy all the day.” We must not lose sight of the fact that Jesus told us it is good to mourn, and that He Himself is known as the “Man of Sorrows.” In addition, we must not forget that we have been instructed not just to rejoice with those who rejoice, but also to weep with those who weep.
We are complex beings capable of extraordinary ranges and mixtures of emotion. When a loved one passes, we experience the great joy that comes with memories of love and shared experiences, and simultaneously experience the deep mourning and lamenting that comes from loss.
There will be times in this life that you feel like you can barely keep your head above water. There will be times that you feel like you are drowning in tears and troubles. There will be times when you feel like one more straw will break your back, and there is no escape.
Do not feel guilty for feeling this way. It is what Christ felt when he stood before the grave of His friend Lazarus. It is what He felt when he prayed in the garden before His crucifixion. This is the price we all pay for living in a troubled and broken world.
Throughout Scripture we see repeated evidence of this. In today’s Scripture reading, we saw that “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” In Psalm 43, which is a litany of David’s troubles and griefs, David concludes his lament with these words:
“I may be grieving now,” David seems to be saying, “but I can keep my head above water, because of the hope that I will rejoice again someday.” Joy, in this way of thinking can be seen as the inner peace that comes with hope.
In the book of Habakkuk, the prophet writes these words:
No matter what is happening in this world, the Sovereign God is with you, and gives your life balance to walk even in the most unstable terrain.
Jesus is near! Cling to him like you would cling to a life-preserver. In Jesus, and in the promise of His nearness, we find the joy that never leaves, even in the deepest sorrows.
Lord Jesus, draw near to us in our sorrows, join with our tears as we join in the fellowship of Your suffering. Remind us each day, each moment, of Your presence with us, and fill our hearts with the joy of our Lord. May we, like You, endure faithfully, because of the joy that is set before us. Strengthen our hearts and make us fruitful in Your joy and balanced in the unstable terrain of life. Amen