Joy to the World

Matthew 5:14-16

Philippians 4:4-9, 12-13, 19-20

Many of us have struggled with feelings of anxiety over the past two years: we have seen the rise and normalization of racism, incivility, xenophobia, and environmental neglect. We see our social fabric fraying and divisiveness threatens the nation. Each day brings drama and uncertainty, and we ask how can we experience joy in a time such as  this?

We aren’t the first persons of faith to experience the anxiety and trauma of national and planetary upheaval.  When we read the bible, we have to remember that virtually all of it was composed in difficult times – the prophetic writings emerged when enemies and their own nation’s leadership put Israel’s national sovereignty at risk, government and business leaders were corrupt, farms were being foreclosed, or as in the case of the prophet Isaiah, the nation was decimated and exiled.

We need to remember that Jesus lived his entire life in an oppressed nation and was murdered through the collusion of religious and political leaders.  The apostle Paul wrote many of his most inspiring words from behind bars, including the passage from Philippians we’ve just read.  The legendary Esther is called upon to respond to the threat of genocide and Ruth is a foreign widow trying to survive in a strange environment.

How do we live joyfully in challenging times?  How do we radiate joy when we face trouble in the personal or public spheres of life?

How do we live out the message of the hymn, “How Can I Keep from Singing?”

My life flows on in endless song;
above earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

Today, we can’t stand idly by and let the forces of evil destroy our nation and the world…We can’t let them blunt our message…if we are to survive as a church and a people, we must be people of hope, who present a joy-filled message in difficult times…as Harry Emerson Fosdick asserts –

Save us from weak resignation,
To the evils we deplore.
Let the search for Thy salvation,
Be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Serving Thee Whom we adore,
Serving Thee Whom we adore

I believe that authentic Joy radiating from our hearts into the world is a theological and spiritual virtue, grounded in a vision of a world in which the arc of history leans toward justice and God is providentially at work calling us from self-interest to world loyalty.

Joy is a grace, a vision of God moving in our lives and the world, it often comes unbidden but joy is also practiced – like love, it is the result of intentionality.

We recognize the reality of depression and know we can’t conjure up feelings of joy by an act of will.  Sometimes we may need medicinal help to get us back on track. Still, Joy is more than a feeling – it is a powerful sense of wholeness over the long haul regardless of the external realities of life.

Joy emerges from a profound theological vision – and Philippians is the epistle of joy despite Paul’s imprisonment. Paul is joyful because he claims the following affirmations as true:

  • God is doing a good work in your life and the church
  • In Christ, God has come to be with us sacrificing for us
  • Self-giving love is the greatest power in the world
  • We are agents in our wholeness and salvation, working out our salvation and trusting God’s grace
  • We can shine like the stars and have our eyes on the prize
  • God will supply our greatest need
  • We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us

Our lives are part of a larger project! A larger story! That will outlast the tyrants and oligarchs, our sins of the past, and our current physical or emotional condition.

We know this joy that radiates to the world, regardless of life’s circumstances – as a pastor I’ve seen it at the bedside, when a person facing death smiles and says “it is well with my soul, I’ve had a good life, and I’m grateful” and then blesses their friends and family;  I’ve seen it among those with chronic and debilitating illnesses, who get up each morning determined to serve their neighbor; I’ve read of it in the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who – after a mystical call that led her to respond to homeless people, left on the streets to die – marched forward from day to day with deep depression, seeking despite the darkness she felt, to do something beautiful for God.  I’ve seen it in my dad, following a stroke that left him paralyzed, who according his pastor, one day from his wheelchair asserted, “I’m stuck” and then smiled and affirmed, “but it’s ok.”  I’ve seen it as civil rights marchers crossing the bridge at Selma locking arms and singing gospel hymns.  And, the world is changed.

This is hard won joy, not the joy of denial or apathy, but joy that trusts the future to God who enables us to experience more than we can ask or imagine, to do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

Filled with joy in God’s faithfulness, we can be, as Wordsworth writes, happy warriors, working for healing and peace in the midst of strife, knowing that the world is saved one act at time – and that every act of kindness, reconciliation, healing, and justice-seeking is treasured eternally.

Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he (who is she)

That every man in arms should wish to be?

—It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought

Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought

Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought:

Whose high endeavours are an inward light

That makes the path before him always bright;

Who, with a natural instinct to discern

What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn;

Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,

But makes his moral being his prime care.

Let us be happy, joyful, and peaceful warriors, never giving up regardless of the circumstances of life, never turning inward in despair and allowing the forces of evil to defeat us, but reaching out in love to heal the world one act, one gift, one phone call, at a time.