Jan 27, 2014

Joy to the world...no, really!

I delivered this as a sermon at Lake City United Methodist Church a couple of weeks ago.  I'm going to start posting the manuscripts of my sermons here.  Now, I tend to stray from the manuscript depending on where the Spirit leads, so what is preached is not word-for-word what is shown here.  That being said:

JOY to the world....no, really!

READINGS → 1 Thessalonians 5:14-18, Acts 16:22-26

Google says joy is defined as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness”, but this gets at what we do constantly as a society: confuse joy and happiness. Happiness is largely the result of external circumstances. We have a new car, so we are happy. We had a nice meal, so we are happy. We hear all of the time “money can't buy happiness”, but we know that isn't entirely true. Money can buy things that provide happiness, or at least a sense of happiness, but that happiness is limited and not God-focused.

Joy is something internal, something that comes from the hope of God, something freely given along with the freedom of Christ. Joy is knowing that no matter what the external circumstance, God is bigger than every boogey man of life, every circumstance in life, and loves no matter what. Joy is laying claim to God's promise that he is present at all times, in all circumstances, to all of his children, no matter what. Joy is knowing God has better things in store. Joy is hope.

Let's take a look at Paul and Silas for a moment. To set this up a bit, Paul and Silas have been traveling around doing ministry work in an area where that ministry work was not really appreciated. They had just freed a slave girl who was conducting divination from the demons that allowed her to do so, and irritated the girl's owners, who had them arrested for robbing them of the income they'd received from the girl divining things for others. Anyways:

Acts 16:22-24: “The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave order to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them in prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them in the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.”

So Paul was with Silas in prison. They'd had better days. They had been following the will and call of God, and because of some of their work, they'd been stripped, beaten, severely flogged...and all before being thrown in jail. After being tossed in jail, they were put in an inner cell and chained up.

Imagine this with me: they were sore, bruised, bleeding, and chained up.

How often do we feel like that?

Oh sure, not many of us have been pulverized before being thrown in prison, but life pulverizes people on a daily basis. External circumstances flog us: I have a friend whose mother just passed away unexpectedly. Another friend has a little boy about Drexel's age who was just diagnosed with cancer. I know people who regularly struggle to put food on the table. External circumstances flog us.

Internal circumstances flog us as well. Mental illness buffets away at our stability and resolve to follow Christ. Low self-esteem erodes our ability to fully feel like a worthwhile human being. Personally, I struggle with anxiety a great deal, and this is often resulting from a lack of knowing what is coming. (get animated) I don't know what is coming and so can't structure this thing around certain anticipations, and I don't know where things are going to be or who is going to have done what or what is going to happen....and it robs me of my joy and fills me with fear. Worry worry worry.

And isn't that what regularly robs us of our joy? Fear, uncertainty, anger, worry.

And yet Jesus desires that we be filled with joy? In the midst of all this? What?

Let's return to Paul and Silas. They were chained up, beaten, bloodied, bruised. They were having a bad day. But then it says:

Acts 16:25-26 - “About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody's chains came loose.”

Despite them having a terrible, terrible day, being in a place where they were literally beaten and bruised, Paul and Silas had the audacity to continue believing in this great big God. Not only believing in God, but singing praises to him despite their chains. This is an audacious thing to do! To choose to praise in the midst of the darkness is hard to do. Yet Paul and Silas did so and experienced freedom in a quite literal chains-opening-up kind of way.

Corrie ten Boom is also a woman who did just this. She and her family were Christians during the Holocaust who lived in an area affected by the Holocaust.  They were arrested by the Nazi police for daring to use their home to hide Jews in order to smuggle them out of the area.

In her book The Hiding Place, Corrie talks about an experience with living out the passage from Thessalonians that the reader read today. Corrie and her sister Betsy had just transferred to a new barrack in their concentration camp. Corrie was upset because fleas covered the place, and had been lamenting their living situation. Betsy had encouraged Corrie, based on their earlier reading of the verse from Thessalonians, to praise God in the midst of their difficult circumstances...and Betsy is praising God for everything: that she and her sister weren't separated, that their Bible hadn't been found and confiscated, that the women being so tightly packed in the barracks meant that many more would hear the word of God when they did their nightly devotional. Then Betsy began to praise God for the fleas that Corrie had lamented.

I've condensed it a little bit, but these are her words:

"'Thank You,' Betsie went on serenely, 'for the fleas and for--'
"The fleas!” This was too much. 'Betsie, there's no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.'
"'Give thanks in all circumstances,' she quoted. It doesn't say, 'in pleasant circumstances.' Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.
"And so we stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong."
...she goes on to talk about reading the Bible with other women:
"At first Betsie and I called these meetings with great timidity. But as night after night went by and no guard ever came near us, we grew bolder. So many now wanted to join us that we held a second service after evening roll call. There... we were under rigid surveillance, guards in their warm wool capes marching constantly up and down. It was the same in the center room of the barracks: half a dozen guards or camp police always present. Yet in the large dormitory room there was almost no supervision at all. We did not understand it.
"One evening I got back to the barracks late from a wood-gathering foray outside the walls. A light snow lay on the ground and it was hard to find the sticks and twigs with which a small stove was kept going in each room. Betsie was waiting for me, as always, so that we could wait through the food line together. Her eyes were twinkling.
"'You're looking extraordinarily pleased with yourself,' I told her.
"'You know, we've never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room,' she said. 'Well--I've found out.'
"That afternoon, she said, there'd been confusion in her knitting group about sock sizes and they'd asked the supervisor to come and settle it.
"But she wouldn't. She wouldn't step through the door and neither would the guards. And you know why?"
"Betsie could not keep the triumph from her voice: 'Because of the fleas! That's what she said, "That place is crawling with fleas!'"

Now, I can't say that if I'd been in the same situation, I would have given thanks for fleas. I mean...ugh! The same goes for mosquitoes! :) And shrews.

But Betsy had a point – the Bible says to give thanks in all circumstances. Not for all circumstances, but in all circumstances: the good and the bad. This is what Paul and Silas did. Beaten and bloody, they gave thanks by singing and praying to the God who was bigger than their awful circumstances.

This is why I believe joy is tied strongly to HOPE. Claiming joy in the midst of the darkness is audaciously telling the bad things in life “God is bigger than you. God loves me. This dark situation does not define me, I am defined as a child of Christ who is bigger than death and darkness!”

As I thought and prayed about this during the past couple of weeks, it struck me that just as joy is tied to hope, it is also tied to POWER. God knew we'd be in the midst of difficult circumstances that make us go “the fleas?! Really?!” We were never promised an easy life as Christians. It is not a surprise to God when we are in a hurting place. God is not surprised by the things that cause the hurting places. God is not surprised that when we are in the midst of the hurting place, joy seems far away.

But what do we allow to have POWER over our being? It is so easy to allow negative circumstances to hold power over us, to allow ourselves to wallow and focus on the negative. It is so easy to be caught up in the bad things that happen to and around us and allow the darkness to have power over our mood and being.

But that is NOT what Jesus desires for our life. He came and loved on us and continues to do so in order that we might see that darkness is NOT the most powerful thing. This is part of the beauty of the Creator whom we worship here this morning and always. He sees those things that cause our hurting places, that throw our hearts in prison, and he desires to give us hope, to lay claim to His promises and wrap ourselves in his POWER, the POWER to overcome the difficult things and hold tight to the promise of light to come.

Now, this is not to say that reacting to the difficult things in life with sadness is a bad thing, or that it is not okay to feel discouraged. Even Jesus was sad sometimes. In Luke it says he cried when Lazarus died. He weeps with those who weep, and mourns with those who mourn, cries out with those who cry out. Daring to claim joy is not a flippant “just smile and everything will feel better” kind of thing. It is, however, a strength that comes from holding tight to the promise of Jesus Christ. Discomfort and sorrow at the difficult things in life is a sign that something in the world is not as it should be, and it is okay to react as we would naturally as humans.

The difference is that as Christians, we have a hope outside of ourselves, outside of our circumstances, that calls us to praise in the midst of the difficulty that we might experience joy, true joy.

Now, I've gotten annoyed at God in regards to this passage. When I am in the middle of a dark time, oftentimes the last thing I want to do is praise and give thanks. Really? Now you want this of me? The question that nagged at the back of my brain about this passage is “why?!” Why are we told to praise in all circumstances? And I always have been the “why child”....

So I prayed, and asked God “why?” He has got to be used to that question from me by now.

As I prayed about this question, I kept thinking about something that scientists discovered while back. They found that when you smile, it literally chemically improves your mood. There is something about the act of smiling that releases endorphins in a person's brain that literally make that person feel better.

What if the same is true for joy?

What if joy is a habit?

What if practicing joy, praising God in the midst of the difficult things, is a way for us to simply feel more joy? To claim right now a tiny bit of the Kingdom of God that exists despite the difficult things? By practicing joy, by practicing hope, by having the audacity to truly believe in God's promise to never leave or forsake us, we feel His love and promise that much more.

Yet I know that in the midst of the difficulty of life, it is the hardest thing in the world to claim God's power over darkness. Oftentimes we need help to see the hope. The point is not to be flippant and somehow say “it could be worse”. The point is to help people practice joy, practice turning the fleas into a praise. This is part of why we were created to be in community with one another, that when we are experiencing nothing but darkness, we can call on someone else to show us the light. That when we see someone else who is experiencing nothing but darkness, we can help show them the light.

But what does that joy look like? For Paul, Silas, and Corrie ten Boom, and elsewhere in the Bible, it is praising and giving thanks out loud in the midst of the pain. For me sometimes it has been a quiet “I trust you, Lord” when the world feels like it's about to cave in. Once, it was laughing when threatened with decapitation by a tired professor for being cheerful at 8am on a Monday. It is not always the huge, exuberant display, though that can be how it is displayed. It is about claiming the power of God's love and light in the midst of a world that would enjoy nothing better than to cloak you in the power of darkness.

I can sense God right now saying “I see your hurt. I see the things that rob you of joy, both the things that others know about, and the things secreted away within you, robbing you of joy even as you sit in the pew. I see it. I know it. I am bigger than it. I love you right here, right now, no matter what.”

God wants you to experience his love profoundly. When we do, we often cannot help but praise him no matter where you are. He loves you desperately, and that, his precious beautiful gem of a child, will never, ever change. Find strength in God, a God who loves you more than you can comprehend, who is bigger than those things that cause you pain. Let his joy and love for you be your strength and hope. Know that he will never leave you, your hope and trust placed in him is never misplaced.

INVITATION: I invite you to think of those things that rob you of joy, and bring them before God right now. Let's have a moment of silent prayer as we lay those joy-robbers at the feet of cross and claim God's victory over pain.