Finding Joy

John 15: 1-11

Rev. Barrett Ingram

December 13, 2020

Gertrude Behanna was fifty-three years old when she came to faith in Jesus Christ. The shock and wonder of that discovery hadn’t worn off twenty years later, when she wrote an article for Guidposts. There said wrote, “I’d never been to church in my life and I remember how eagerly I awaited that first Sunday. I’d just had a glimpse of God Almighty – me, an alcoholic, a drug addict, rich, lonely, and miserable – already I was beginning to know what joy really was.” Gert was a new Christian. She was eager to attend church to meet and talk with people who had known the love of God for many years. “What ecstatic people these long-time Christians will be!” she thought to herself. Nevertheless, she had a little trepidation about going to church that first Sunday. She said, “I was afraid they would embarrass me with their love and enthusiasm.”

Gertrude did not find the church people as loving and enthusiastic as she imagined they might be. What she discovered was, “Bowed heads, long faces, and funereal whispers.” She expected to be greeted with love and affection for making the right choice and wanting to be part of the church. But, no one welcomed her. In fact, no one even spoke to her the first Sunday she went to church.

“As time went on and I attended other churches,” she writes, “in various parts of the country, I made a bewildering discovery. These long-faced, listless people were present in every congregation.” Then she asked, “How could they come into God’s presence Sunday after Sunday without breathing in the joy that danced in the very air?”[1]

“Joy – how unusual that word sounds to our Presbyterian ears!” Aren’t we more familiar with those long faces and bowed heads? Andrew Purvis is a Scotsman and a Presbyterian theologian who taught for years at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He says, “The term ‘dour’ never seems to modify anything but the Scots, and by implication, Presbyterianism. True to form, one will find no entry under joy in the Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith and only one footnote entry in the whole of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Is a joyful Presbyterian a contradiction?” he asks. There may be good reason for our reputation. “Perhaps we are rightfully fearful of turning Christian joy into a superficial kind of cheeriness, into a good mood.”[2]

Well, today we’re thinking about joy. This is the third Sunday in Advent. In the more liturgical traditions, it is called Gaudete Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday, or Rose Sunday – we light the rose-colored (pink) candle– because it signified the slight lifting of one’s spirits. In Medieval times, Advent was conceived as a penitential season like Lent. I am not using the lectionary texts this Advent; but if I were, you would note that the assigned texts are all somber – about God’s judgment and the need for repentance. Many of the hymns in the Advent section of the hymnal are also more somber. Combine all this with the dreary winter weather outside, and things start to get a little depressing. So, the church thought it might be nice to have an Advent Sunday dedicated to joy – to depart, if for but a moment, from the clouds of gloom and doom that sometimes go with the season. So, today we’re thinking about joy – finding joy. How does finding the Christ of Christmas bring joy to our lives?

The Christian gospel of God’s redemption in Jesus Christ is cradled, beginning and end, by joy. Someone made the interesting observation: Joy is the key signature of the gospel.[3] Just as musicians sing or play an instrument in a key – the key of C, the key of F – so it is with the Gospel. The Gospel plays out in the key of joy. At the beginning of the story, the message of salvation is announced to the shepherds by the angel of the Lord (Luke 2:10): Do not be afraid; for behold – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. In the beginning there is joy, indeed, great joy, because Jesus’ birth is good news for everyone. And then if you go to the end of the story, we have our Lord’s resurrection and ascension. In Matthew 28:8, we are told that the women leave the empty tomb with “great joy” when they hear from the Angel about the Lord’s resurrection. And at the end of Luke, we have the account of our Lord’s ascension. After Jesus is taken up into heaven, (Luke 24:52) we are told that they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. So, at the end there is also great joy, because the Lord Jesus reigns and rules. The whole story of our redemption is cradled in joy. That’s why we sing, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” “Jesus Thou Joy of Loving Hearts;” and at Christmas, “How Great Our Joy!” and “Joy to the World!” And those are just hymns with “joy” in the title; so many have at least a stanza expressing the Christian’s deep sense of joy. Joy is the key signature of the Gospel.

And yet… and yet… Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopal priest, one of the first women to be ordained a priest. She’s in her 80s now. Before her retirement years ago, she served as rector of Grace Church in Manhattan. She writes, one year “I took my mother to church on Christmas morning and we sang the familiar carols. My mother is a remarkable person, not afraid to ask hard questions. As we were driving home after the service, suddenly she said, ‘Joy to the world, the Savior reigns.’ What on earth does that mean? The Savior does not reign. Just look at all the horrible things that are going on [in the world].”[4] She has a point, doesn’t she? With the news about the pandemic, financial concerns, political unrest… a record number of natural disasters upending lives… more tragedies to pock the smooth surface of our would-be joyous holiday cheer. Closer to home, we all know about difficult circumstances that will make it a little harder for some folks to sing, “Joy to the World” this year. Like hope and peace, the joy that we are trying to find can seem elusive at times.

In his book, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis makes a clear distinction between what joy is and what joy is not. This book is autobiographical; he calls it “the central story of my life” – namely his conversion to faith in Jesus Christ. Lewis describes joy as “an unsatisfied desire, which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” He goes on: “I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them: the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.”[5] So, joy is something deeper than happiness and pleasure, deeper than a cheerful mood. Joy goes to the heart of our human longing for completeness. And what robs us of joy is sin: literally, we miss the mark; we miss God’s best for us. It’s the human condition. And so, our daily experiences of brokenness, of fragmentation, of alienation are the consequence of living in a fallen, sinful world.

Joy, then, comes to us in those fleeting moments when we catch a glimpse of “everything in its completeness,” when “we have a whole view.” Someone said, “The moment when it all falls together, either because of our efforts or despite our efforts, is that moment we call one of joy; the broken has been made whole.” So, when we listen to that great hymn of Isaac Watts in a few minutes, “Joy to the world! The Lord is come…” we aren’t being invited to merrymaking and mindless happiness to distract ourselves from the troubles in the world around us. No! The joy we are singing about and celebrating is the fact that the Lord Jesus has come to fulfill the ancient promises of God – that what was separated is now being united and made whole. Also, if you pay attention to the words of the hymn, you will see that Watts did not write it specifically for Christmas. It’s based on Psalm 98, which celebrates the coming of the Lord to judge the world in righteousness. So, the hymn really focuses on Christ’s Second Advent more than his first. At Christmas we need this “bifocal vision.” We need to look back with joyful gratitude for the gift of God’s Son, Jesus. And we also need to joyously anticipate Christ’s return, when God will bring a righteous conclusion to all things. That’s what we anticipate in the 3rd stanza: No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. With the return of Christ, there is no more sin or sorrow; the effects of the curse in Genesis 3 are gone. In other words, what is broken is made whole. It’s a picture of completeness that brings joy.

So here and now, we find ourselves in the already, but not yet. Jesus has already come; but he has not yet come again. We get the idea about joy from what happened in the past and what will happen in the future. But what about this in between place, for us, living here and now? How do we find joy? This is where our Gospel lesson from John is helpful to us. Jesus says in verse 11: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” What is the “this” to which Jesus is referring? It’s what he has been explaining in the first ten verses using the famous vine and branches metaphor. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” He says, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Using this agrarian metaphor, he speaks of a most profound and demanding connection. Christian joy comes from (our connection) our union with Jesus Christ, from our being ultimately grounded in a personal relationship with him, just as his joy flows from his union with the Father.

Note what Jesus doesn’t say: He doesn’t say, “Bear fruit.” He doesn’t say, “Be joyful.” That’s where we often get it wrong: we focus on producing the outward manifestation. What Jesus says is (4), “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” Or “Abide in me, and I in you.” Apart from him we will not bear fruit; apart from him we will not experience his joy. It’s simply not possible, just as it’s impossible for a branch to live once it’s been severed from the vine.

As you make your way through this world that works so hard to manufacture happiness and pleasure, the challenge for this third week of Advent is to think instead about joy – your joy. In the frantic fray of holiday busyness, amid the endless barrage of negative news, you aren’t likely to find much joy. But Jesus said that he wants our joy to be complete. “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” Let every heart prepare him room, and then heaven and nature will sing for joy.

[1] Gertrude Behanna, “The Joyous Way,” in The Guideposts Treasury of Faith, (New York: Bantam Book, 1980), pg. 56.

[2] Andrew Purvis, “The Joy of Faith,” in Panorama (Vol. XLVII No. 1, Winter 2007), pg. 7

[3] Ibid., pg. 8

[4] Fleming Rutledge, The Bible and the New York Times (New York: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999), pg. 57

[5] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1955), pg. 15