May 24, 2020 / 7th Sunday of Easter / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Acts 1:6-14 / 2nd Reading 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 / Gospel John 17:1-11
O Be Joyful!
I truly miss singing together in church. Singing gives full expression to my joy in the Lord. And even more, singing with all of you with fills me with profound joy. God puts the song in our hearts and giving voice to praise is truly exhilarating and inspiring. Let me share a brief sample of what I’m talking about (music clip). That’s just a small taste of great joy. I’m sure you long for it as I do.
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The church takes seven Sundays to celebrate the joy of Christ’s stunning victory over sin and death. One Sunday is not enough to contain all the joy of Easter. It is the joy of our salvation, the joy of liberation – like the exuberant celebrations that broke out spontaneously around the globe at the end of World War II – only more so.
The whole creation rejoices at the goodness and greatness of God. Scripture describes how the trees sing, the mountains and hills rejoice, and the rivers clap their hands – FOR JOY, SHEER JOY IN THE LORD! Isn’t that marvelous?
Today God calls on us all to rejoice even in this strange and difficult time, even though we now are apart for a while, even though many have suffered and died, even though the economy is a mess and millions are unemployed, even though we don’t know when or how this pandemic will end.
Listen again to God’s call in today’s psalm, one of the oldest psalms in the bible, Psalm 68:
“Be glad and rejoice before God, also be merry and joyful.”
Do you get the message? These are not idle or thoughtless words. This verse serves to remind us that in any and every circumstance, we have reason to be joyful. Even now, in this uncertain time, we can rejoice. I came across a verse in Psalm 149 that is quite appropriate for all of us who are worshiping at home today, sitting in our living rooms:.
“Let the faithful exult in glory, let them sing for JOY on their COUCHES!” (149:5)
That’s right: rejoice at home on your couches. Why? Because our God is gracious and merciful. Listen to what Psalm 68 says of our God:
Sing to God, sing praises to his NAME; exalt him who rides upon the heavens;
YAHWEH is his Name, rejoice before him!
Father of orphans, defender of widows, God in his holy habitation!
God gives the solitary a home and brings forth prisoners into freedom;…
You sent a gracious rain, O God, upon your inheritance;
you refreshed the land when it was weary.
Your people found their home in it;
your goodness, O God, you have made provision for the poor.
God is our Savior – a present help in time of need – and our eternal home.
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Yes, there is sadness and grief and frustration – heartbreaking losses. We are imperfect people living in a broken world. Every day there is suffering and injustice and disappointments. You know this. However, we are never without a reason to rejoice, because we are never without the gracious love of Jesus. This is why St. Paul, who definitely experienced more than his share of pain and struggle, could so confidently say:
“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice!
Not just now and then, not only on Sundays – ALWAYS. You and I do not have to wonder if God will be good to us, if God will bless us. We know beyond doubt that God is good, that we are richly blessed. As we hear in Psalm 126:
“The Lord has done great things for us, AND WE ARE GLAD INDEED.”
We have been redeemed. Our sins are forgiven. We have been freed from the power of death. We are blessed with eternal life. Today Jesus reminds us what eternal life is all about: not only life after this life – eternal life is lived here and now: it is knowing and abiding in God, being ONE with the Father and the Son. To be sure, we have our losses and our burdens, but keep in mind God’s promise:
“Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,
will come again with JOY, shouldering their sheaves.” Psalm 126:6
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Faith is not a matter of somehow pretending that all is well – that pain is an illusion, that grief is not real. Faith is the steadfast trust that nevertheless there is abiding joy in the assurance that we are loved with an abiding love that will never let go.
What we see in the way of Jesus can also be our way in this world. As it says in the Book of Hebrews: We look to “Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the JOY that was set before him endured the cross and disregarded its shame – and has taken his seat at the right hand of God.” (Heb 12)
Another verse points to our reason for joy: “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy.” Psalm 16:11
Here’s the truth: Great joy is set before us, now and every day. This life doesn’t lack for joy – only for a sense of the joy that is ours in Jesus Christ. You and I can miss the boat because often we are looking for a joy that begins with ME: a joy that is all about things going my way, me getting what I want, life meeting my personal expectations, the kind of joy that puts I, ME and MINE at the center of everything. I remind you of the banner that hangs on the wall by the entrance to our sanctuary. You’ve all seen it. Simply and directly it reminds us how JOY is spelled: Jesus | Others | You. Joy doesn’t begin with me (how could it?), it begins with Jesus: with his grace and truth, his steadfast love, his promise to be with us always.
Joy continues with you – and all my neighbors. It is in loving you and others that I can lose my egocentric preoccupations and experience the joy of serving. And then when we’re in touch with love for God and love for neighbor – we find there is a place for each of us in God’s great design – we know the joy of being welcomed and included.
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Friends, we can’t wait for this pandemic to be over in order to be joyful. We need to signal to the world the JOY of Christ in this time, this moment. We can do so by focusing on what we have in Christ, rather than on what we are missing. Together, we can be a sign of the UNITY that God intends, the UNITY that Jesus prays for in today’s gospel. We can aim to be ONE in our love, in gratitude, in hope and yes, in JOY.
A member in a past congregation had a wall plaque that we would all do well to have in a prominent place in our homes. It presented a simple yet essential message: O BE JOYFUL! Joy is not a matter of pleasant or fortunate circumstances. Joy is remembering and welcoming the presence of Christ in all circumstances.
Know this: with us or without us, there will be joy. This is the point of the parable Jesus tells abut the wedding banquet which some invited guests declined to attend. If we choose not to come to God’s great wedding feast, God will find other guests to celebrate – there will be rejoicing. Instead of fretting, let us gladly join the celebration – lending our voices and our lives to rejoicing with our God.
It is indeed right, our duty and our joy that we should at ALL times and in ALL places offer thanks and praise to God our Father through Jesus Christ our Lord. Here’s the thing: you and I need to join with the chorus of all creation. Everything God has made has the capacity – and the motivation – to rejoice in our Creator. Isaiah says it beautifully:
“You shall go out in JOY, and be led back in peace, the mountains and hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12)
So this is what I want you to do: Stand up, right where you are (even if you’re still in your pajamas). Repeat after me:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord
My whole being shall exult in my God.
For he has clothed me with the gift of salvation
Praise the Lord!
Thanks be to God!