23.11.14 – Abundant Joy – Attaining and Retaining

Read John 15:1-17   

In 32 days, on Christmas Day we in this country will celebrate two hundred years of the spread of and devotion to the Christian Faith. As we know, on Christmas Day in 1814 at Oihi in the Bay of Islands Samuel Marsden preached the first Christian sermon on NZ soil, with Chief Ruatara interpreting his words for the Maori people. Samuel Marsden’s chose as his text for the day Luke 2: 10 – “Behold I bring you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Prayer before Sermon

God of Hope and Joy,

We do come before you rejoicing,

for our experiences with you have filled us with joy,

as we’ve relaxed into your faithful love for us.

So draw us now, we pray, into such intimacy with you, that we may shine with the Light of Jesus Christ to all around us.

Through the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, may the words I speak be those You want spoken, may the words we hear be those You want heard, and may we live to Your glory every day,

In Christ,

Amen

Recently I was privileged to share in a day’s Retreat in Oamaru with other women ministers. We all cooked and brought our favourite dishes to share, and our stories of God’s faithfulness through our ministries. The table was laden, and the room was noisy as we enjoyed each other’s company and the broad views of the rolling North Otago hills.  We’re a mixed bunch and many have had significant times of sadness in their lives. Some of them are facing challenging situations in their churches at present and others are needing to make significant decisions, or cope with loss in their lives. But what stood out in our times of prayer and reflections on Scripture, and our chatter and times of stillness together was that we were full of joy – not in our own right, and not a trivial, fleeting frivolity, but a lasting, infectious joy that stems from our individual relationships with our Saviour Jesus Christ.

You probably know lots of people like that – those who although veterans of suffering, or passing through troubled times even now, somehow shine with holy joy, meaning we love spending time with them. And of course it makes sense. When we worship a God who created joy and who commands us to be joyful and who gives us so much to be joyful about, we can’t help but thrive with an inner joy which carries us through some of life’s most challenging experiences. Now when you think about it, do you know a person who genuinely tries to follow Jesus and is not joyful?  Think now of Christians you know who shine with an inner glow, that emanates from the confidence they have that they are not alone, for God is with them.

Now let us jump in our thinking to another dining table in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago. The city was crowded with people who came from all areas to celebrate a Jewish festival. It was the Passover, marking that day when the angel of death passed over the Hebrew homes saving the life of the eldest child and delivering them from slavery under the Egyptians. In the Upper Room, the most talked-about man of his day, the man most loved and most hated, met with his closest associates. He knew that, before sundown the next day, unless a miracle happened, he would be arrested, killed, and buried. He knew, too, that in the excitement with the tense emotional feelings of the people, that his own friends would betray, deny, and desert him. Yet with all the tragedy facing him, he turned to his disciples and said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Can you envisage a man about to be executed as a criminal, talking about joy? There would seem to be only two explanations: either he has gone mad, or else he has resources of joy which the world does not know?  Let’s look at this joy which Jesus spoke about that night.

It makes sense, if we want to grow in our faith to always read our Bibles with a purpose.  One time you can look for the promises of God, another time for the things that God does for people, and another time for some other purpose. If you read the Gospels and look for the joy of Jesus, you will be amazed at the evidence you find. Jesus is not a man of sorrow, as he is so frequently pictured by artists and poets. The Gospels show Jesus to be a joyful person, who brought joy wherever he went. His very presence made people feel better. His greeting: “Be of good cheer,” was well known. John said, “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord” (John 20:20). On countless occasions Jesus was a guest at social gatherings, like a wedding, a banquet, or a celebration with friends. What a welcome guest he must have been. We can trace his path through the country by the happiness which he left behind.

Jesus wanted people to have joy in their lives. It troubled him to see so little joy in the people about him. He came to bring joy to them. “I came,” he said, “that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). What was the secret of his joy?

Well, Jesus knew that God was in control of this world and would live in the hearts of those who trusted in him. There is a well-known and true story about the Reformer Martin Luther which is delightfully cheeky really, and shows a lovely snippet of Luther’s home life. At the height of his greatness, Luther had not only loyal supporters, but bitter enemies as well. Persecution, lies, bitterness, and betrayals brought him into a prolonged mood of depression and despair. One morning his wife appeared at the breakfast table dressed in sombre black. Luther looked at her with amazement and said, “Who is dead?” His wife replied, “Do you not know? God is dead.” Luther scolded her for her blasphemy and replied: “How can God be dead? He is eternal.” “Yes,” she answered, “but from the way you are cast down, one would think that God must be dead.” That act of his wife shocked him from his mood of depression to a mood of renewed confidence.

It was Jesus’ knowledge that God was not dead that sustained his joy in the Upper Room. While human evil hearts and wild emotions were soon to destroy his earthly life, he knew that God was still in control. “Believe in God,” Jesus told his disciples. Believe that you are in the hands of God, who is goodness, mercy, and power. Believe that God is with you and that with him there is forgiveness of sins, healing for sorrow, strength for each day, courage for every task, and hope for tomorrow. When we cling to that faith, nothing, not even a cross, can destroy the spirit of joy.

In the city we have lost some of the meaning of the shepherd and the sheep which is so frequently pictured in the Bible. The Bible was written for an agricultural society; the writers spoke to the people of their day. I like sheep, and especially when surrounded by sheep farmers in the Maniototo for six years I used to reflect on the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. An article I read during that time about the characteristics of the sheep was helpful. The writer said that sheep “nibbled themselves lost.” He said a sheep is drawn to a clump of grass and then to another one. He keeps following the grass without looking up, and he never knows how far he has strayed from the flock. Finally, when the sheep does look around, he/she discovers himself in a canyon far away from the other sheep. With the night coming on, he is lost. The sheep has no idea when he got lost. This is one way people resemble sheep. And this is the way we drift into danger, into sin, and into heartache.

We get lost because we have wandered from the Shepherd. We get lost because we are misled by the devil who tells us to keep our eyes on the grass. Looking at the grass we begin to question our goals and purposes. We say, “Why should we live up to high standards of values when nobody else does? Why should we submit to disciplines when there are no foreseeable results? Let’s enjoy the grass.” Soon we decide that the grass of our own choosing is good. Before we know it we are lost.

We need a shepherd today as never before. We need to listen to him. Joy – lasting joy – comes in being obedient to his teachings, his commands, and his way of life. Joy comes from keeping Christ’s commandments and abiding in his love (John 15: 10)

Jesus promised us joy in the midst of life’s most difficult circumstances. It is a joy which cannot be blotted out by the events of the world. In a paper as part of my studies at Knox in the 80s I read about some of the experiences pastors went through when they spoke out against Hitler and his German government. While they were taken from their homes and families and placed into concentration camps, they not only experienced an inner joy but were remarkably happy people. They lived without fear. While they were lonely for their families, they were not alone. While they were exceedingly uncomfortable, they were not without comfort. They discovered that hunger, solitary confinement, torture, humiliation, and even the threat of a firing squad could not shake their inward joy. Before he died by hanging on April 15, 1945, Pastor Ewald Kleist wrote to his family: “My mood has often vacillated between hope and the most gloomy anticipation. But on one point my state of mind has remained constant, serene, and firm. I have resigned myself unconditionally to the will of God. Not once have I doubted what God wills even in this situation … Not for one moment have I pleaded or fought with him. Therefore, despite some very gloomy hours, despair has remained far from me.” Then he added, “Strange as it may sound, I have learned one thing in prison – to be joyful.” We can have the joy of the Lord in any and in all circumstances.

If you want joy, that inner joy that puts a song in your heart, hope in your dreams, and security in your days, ask Jesus Christ to take control of your life. Let him be your guide. Obey him. When you do that, you will know the truth of his words:  “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” And as Jesus said a couple of verses earlier in John chapter 15, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”

A couple of years ago, Lynne Barb, the Senior Lecturer in Pastoral Theology in the Faculty of Theology here in the University wrote a book called ‘Joy Together’ – Spiritual Practices for your congregation. Lynne suggests that former commonly practised spiritual disciplines such as hospitality, fasting, contemplative prayer, contemplative reading of the Scriptures, conscious thankfulness and intentional Sabbath keeping have been and still are positive pathways to joy, for individuals and for congregations. I’d love us some time to explore these as a Church Family, and would be very happy to lend Lynne’s book to anyone who is interested in these ‘disciplines of joy’ (again maybe some somewhat of a confusing juxtaposition, on the surface.)

A conspicuous example of someone who would have practised spiritual disciplines throughout her life is surely Mother Teresa. In whatever ways we open up ourselves to God’s gift of joy, let’s make a conscious decision to remain in the love of Jesus every day this week, and let’s pray:

Our Father God, help us in any time of confusion and misunderstanding
to hear again the call of Christ and to follow him in faithful obedience.
Where our vision is faulty, bless us with the gift of your sight.
Where our timidity keeps us walking in familiar circles, give us a hunger for adventure with You.
Where unworthy desires and temptations seek to hold us back,
free us, heal us, and empower us anew, so we may live in your heavenly joy.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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