May 9, 2021 / 6th Sunday of Easter/ Richard Holmer
First Reading Acts 10:44-48 / Second Reading 1 John 5:1-6 / Gospel John 15:9-17
The Joy of the Lord
If there is no joy in following Jesus, why would anyone want to do it? If there is no joy in belonging to an active community of believers, why bother? If there is no joy to be found in gathering together to worship the living God, what’s the point? If there is no joy to be experienced in serving and caring for others, why go to the trouble? If Christianity is nothing more than a bunch of rules, tired traditions, familiar platitudes, redundant rituals and dull meetings – who needs it? Quite simply, if there is no joy in living faithfully as a Christian, then we are all most to be pitied.
But in fact there is joy. There is great joy for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that are alive and open to the living presence of Jesus Christ.
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Back in 1981 I brought a high school youth group to attend a National Lutheran Youth Gathering at Purdue University. Thousands of students came together from all around the country for several days of worship, presentations, workshops and recreation. One of the featured speakers at that event was a woman named Kathryn Koob. Kathryn grew up in a Lutheran congregation in Iowa and graduated from Wartburg College. She pursued a career in the Foreign Service, which led her to a position at the American embassy in Iran.
Kathryn was one of the 52 Americans taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries back in 1979. She was one of two women who were held captive for 444 days. In her presentation she shared how her experience in captivity was a trying ordeal. Yet she also described how her faith in God sustained and blessed her throughout all those months of hardship. She drew on memories from Sunday School and confirmation, words of Scripture and favorite hymns. She recalled singing carols by heart on Christmas Eve – and how, in spite of the challenges, she experienced real joy. She is still active in her congregation, and recently spoke of finding joy in God’s grace in the midst of the pandemic. She said, “I love being part of a church that believes in teaching the vastness of God’s love and forgiveness – and that the Spirit can fill my life each day with the gift of grace.” Kathryn Koob is well acquainted with the joy that passes understanding. It’s not logical, because it’s not based on pleasant circumstances. Instead, it’s based on the presence of Christ in every circumstance. She can testify that joy is not the absence of suffering, it’s the presence of God.
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For Christians, joy is not something incidental or extra. Joy is not like the frosting on a cake. Joy is central to the life of faith. Face it: it would be hard to continue if our faith journey was just an unrelenting, hard slog – all grim determination, with no delight or gladness along the way. Who would sign up for that?
In the New Testament the Greek words for “grace” and “joy” share a common root – they are organically linked. John points to Jesus as the bringer of grace and truth. Joy comes when we sense that we are blessed and sustained with abundant grace; when we trust the promise of grace, even when goodness seems far away; when we have faith in God’s love for us, even when we may not feel it. And so – even in trying times – we can know the joy of the Lord.
Our Prayer of the Day points to the promised blessing of joy: “O God, you have prepared for those who love you joys beyond understanding. Pour into our hearts such love for you that, loving you above all things, we may obtain your promises, which exceed all we can desire.” The promise of joy is not only for heaven, but also for here and now.
Have you experienced the unexpected, counterintuitive joy that can be present at a funeral service for one we love? I certainly have. Of course there is sorrow and the real pain of separation. Yet along with tears there can be moments of laughter and smiles of gratitude: Shared gratitude for a life that enriched our lives; gratitude for the hope of resurrection and reunion. This, too, is a joy beyond understanding and circumstances – but real, nevertheless.
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At Holy Communion we hear these words: “It is indeed right, our duty and our JOY that we should at all times and in all places offer thanks and praise . . .” We share our Lord’s body and blood because it is right to do so. We commune because it is our duty to obey Christ, who said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And we celebrate communion because it is our great joy: to receive Christ, to be welcomed by Christ, to be forgiven and refreshed. Communion is a celebration – like going to a party or a concert. It’s a blessing, a delight, a true joy.
We hear that word “delight” in our prayer of confession. Did you ever wonder about that? We pray: “Forgive us, renew us, and lead us so that we may DELIGHT in your will and walk in your ways . . . “ I hope you have experienced that delight. As we grow closer to Christ, doing his will is no longer a chore, but a delight – even when it is challenging. Like physical exercise, it becomes its own reward: not something we have to do, but what we get to do.
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We persevere in difficult times because we sense Christ’s grace accompanying us. So James can offer this encouragement “ . . . whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but JOY, because you know the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (James 1:2)
In the same Spirit, St. Paul tells how we can rejoice even when we suffer: “Knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope – hope that does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-4)
Our model is Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame . . .” (Hebrews 12:2) Jesus didn’t enjoy dying on a cross. But he had an unquenchable joy in doing his Father’s will: what is good and true and right. It is the spirit of joy in which Jesus went about his ministry that drew so many to follow him. That same joy is present with us whenever two or more are gathered in his name. This is the joy of coming together for worship.
There is a huge difference between preaching to a camera in an empty sanctuary – and leading worship with all the gathered people of God. This is a vital joy that I hope more and more of you will come to share with us on Sundays in the months ahead. Pentecost is May 23, and on that day we are going to start singing together as a congregation. We will give voice to the Spirit of our Lord and his resurrection: The Spirit of Joy. Today’s psalm invites us to do this: “Sing to the Lord a new song. Shout with JOY to the Lord. Let the rivers clap their hands, and let the hills ring out before God.” We can embrace the joy – and make a joyful noise!
This pandemic time has been a downer for us all. It has placed restrictions and boundaries that keep us from living fully and abundantly. Still, we do have a joy that doesn’t depend on happy circumstances. A joy that abides in sorrow and disappointment. It’s the Joy of the Lord.
Today Jesus speaks these assuring words to us: “I have said these things to you so that my JOY may be in you, and that your JOY may be complete.” We are not promised worldly pleasures or material happiness – instead we have the joy of our Lord.
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I began by asking: If there is no joy in living a faithful life as a Christian, why would anyone bother? Thanks be to God, there is abundant joy in the Lord. It began with a heavenly chorus singing at the birth of Jesus, proclaiming “Good news of great joy, which will come to all people.” It reached a pinnacle when the risen Christ came to the disciples – and they rejoiced. It continues in your heart and mine.
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Damascus Road sings a great song of Joy:
I’m trading my sorrows, I’m trading my shame,
I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord.
I’m trading my sickness, I’m trading my pain,
I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord.
We say Yes Lord, Yes Lord,Yes, Yes Lord!
Brothers and sisters, say Yes to JOY!