Our calling as a church is to be connecting people to each other and to Jesus. A transformational relationship with Jesus–not perfection, but connection.
Our task is process. Not giving all the answers, not elevating any one person, but together struggling with spiritual reality that walks us towards Jesus.
Our mission is to be within walking distance. The Body of Christ is to be so much more than a grouping of people on a weekend. The Body of Christ is synergy, relationship, connection, proximity.
Our outreach is in redefinition–moving from angst, indifference, and apathy by redefining, not just informing.
And as our communities are all represented here today at our UNITED Service, our community values synergy. (I can’t believe we get to do this together!)
As we take a week to step away from Leviticus, we as a pastoral staff were processing what to talk about today and it became obvious to us: joy!
I don’t know if you have noticed, but life has piled many things on us. Gun violence, police brutality, poverty, global warming, social media addiction, unaffordable housing, mental illness, inflation, air pollution, traffic, obesity rates, income inequality, pandemic, corruption, political division, hate crimes, and so much more.
And now I have an expectation for you–JOY!!!
There is an obvious question: what is joy? There is a Christian answer–a feeling of good pleasure and happiness that is dependent on who Jesus is rather than on who we are or what is happening around us.
I believe that. But today as we are together, I want us to process deeper. Deeper than obligation or guilt or feelings of failure. Deeper than simple answers or a hollow process. So here’s a question to start us off today:
What is a culturally appropriate amount of joy to have in our heavy world?
Sometimes the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other. On one side, it swings way over here:
How can you smile in a world like this? I feel sorry for kids and what they have been born into. There is no escaping the treachery of this world or the pain around every corner. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, to look forward to. I know you think I am just being a little extra right now, but I am telling you Eeyore had it right in how he saw the world. Why see the good, because it is just going to end up bad in the end? I don’t understand people. I don’t understand our country. I don’t understand our world. When I see kids laughing on the playground, all I can think is how great it must be to be oblivious–if they only knew what I know. How can you feel joy in a world like this? How dare you feel joy in a world like this?Shame on you for feeling joy in a world like this.
Now the pendulum doesn't just swing one way. On the other side, it might look like the lie that everything is good:
Good morning! How are you? I’m so good!! I’m blessed, everything is wonderful! How are the kids? They’re great! How is your job? It’s GREAT! How’s your husband? HE’S GREAT!!! How about you?! I’m great!
You know what feels really uncomfortable? Being honest about how you’re feeling. So we just pretend. How many people were asked how they were this morning? And how many people said “good!”? And how many of us were actually “good”?
When someone asks me how life is going, I feel the impulse to give a list of everything that is good about life–without sounding like I’m bragging of course. In the moment, it’s easy not to share your burden with other people. It’s easy to not feel like you have a right to say something isn’t great. Someone else had a much harder week than you did, so you shouldn’t complain. It’s easy to put a nice happy sugar coating on a not-so-nice time in life.
In more traditional churches, I’ve heard people say, “Oh, my body isn’t doing so well. I’ve been feeling sick this past week. BUT, Praise the Lord, I’m surviving!” Or, “My house burnt down and my car was towed, BUT I’m blessed!” As soon as we say the word BUT, we’ve negated everything we just said. Sometimes, we use these words to sweep it under the rug that maybe things aren’t so good. Sometimes it’s our grown-up way of playing pretend.
So there is the swing way over to the doomsday downer–no joy in this world. There is the swing way over to the ‘everything is great externally while imploding on the inside’ liar. Where else can the joy pendulum swing?
What are some other extreme responses to the expectation to be joyful?
Sometimes the world feels like it’s falling apart. Sometimes we can even feel guilty about FEELING joy. When horrible things are happening around the world, and there's a moment for celebration in my life. I think, “How can I be celebrating when they are suffering?”
And it IS important for us to lament. It is important for us to stop and express our grief and our pain. It’s important for us to feel heartbroken when tragic things happen in our world.
There’s a whole book about lamenting in the Bible. It means something.
a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:2-8)
These past few weeks as I’ve felt sorrow for the children’s lives lost in Texas, I have resisted sitting in that pain. It hurts to really think about what happened, the fear those kids, the teachers and their parents experienced. The pain that led up to that moment. What could have been different.
And I know that sometimes when we feel that deep grief, it can move us. It can move us to respond. I know it’s important to grieve, even when I don’t want to. And usually I don’t want to.
But I also know that we can get stuck in grief. I can sit in it for so long, my heart is so broken, and I lose hope. I can sit in grief without seeing anything to be thankful for. And it’s hard for me to keep moving forward.
Without gratitude, without joy, I lose hope.
I lose the desire to keep moving forward, connecting with my community and those that I love, blessing the people around me. It’s hard to be a blessing when we don’t see joy and blessing in our own lives. It reminds me of that verse in Proverbs 13:12, Hope deferred makes the heart sick.
We’re going to take a few moments to talk about Paul. When Paul was traveling around the Middle Eastern world in the New Testament as a missionary, he wrote letters to different churches he had visited. Sometimes these church communities are in difficult circumstances, and sometimes Paul, the author, is.
I look at all of Paul’s writing, and usually the first thing I think is, “How can Paul talk about JOY and gratitude so much when he’s going through so much pain–when the church community is going through so much pain?”
Over and over again we see Paul giving thanks. We see Paul telling the people he’s writing to that they should be grateful. We see Paul rejoicing and experiencing joy. We see Paul experiencing joy in the middle of experiencing sorrow.
Joy is complicated, and having joy doesn’t mean that you don’t have sorrow. It doesn’t mean that you’ve let go of all that has brought you pain. And it isn’t always easy to find joy. But sometimes we need to find joy and gratitude to keep us moving forward.
When I look at Paul’s letters, I see him finding joy in the people, in the beauty of community, in what Christ has done in his life, in other people’s successes, and in his relationship with Jesus. He finds joy through gratitude.
Over these past few years, so many of us have ended our year saying, “Thank goodness that year is over. Next year is the year! Next year is going to be AMAZING!” And we think the entire year has been full of dread and sorrow. But if we pull out our phone and look at our photos from the last year, don’t we see moments of joy and beauty and times for which we are grateful?
Those moments, we quickly forget. We bury those moments of joy under our sadness. But Paul keeps bringing those moments forward. In his suffering, he sees things that he is joyful for, that he’s grateful for. He isn’t taken out of his suffering, but he doesn’t let it overcome all hope, joy or gratitude.
So here’s our next question to talk through:
When is it important to experience sorrow? When is it important to experience joy?
Here is another aspect that I want to dwell on: choosing JOY in the midst of hardship or in spite of circumstance; choosing JOY when it is not easy or natural (and it is maybe never easy or natural); choosing JOY not as a production or a lie, but choosing joy.
Our final conversation is going to be on removing the “or.”
Feel this: Are you happy or sad? Are you content or unsettled? Are you mad or calm? Are you ok or not? Do you feel joy or…?
1 Thessalonians is probably one of Paul’s earliest writings. On Paul’s second missionary journey, we see Paul and Silas go to Thessalonica (Acts 17). They arrive there and go to the Jewish synagogue as they normally do and begin to tell people about Jesus. After a month of being there, they saw many Jewish and Greek people become followers of Jesus, and they formed a new church community there. And they lived happily ever after….? Well, no.
That is not the end of the story. Trouble came. Paul’s declaration that Jesus was the true king of the world led to suspicion of the people in this new church, and eventually they were accused of defying Caesar–the king of the region–and they were persecuted. The persecution got so intense that Paul and Silas had to run from the city in order to not be killed. This was a very painful moment as Paul and Silas didn’t want to leave. They loved the people and it was crushing to be forced to flee.
So the letter Paul writes–1 Thessalonians–is Paul reconnecting with this STILL THRIVING and STILL BEING PERSECUTED church community. The letter has two movements: a celebration of faithfulness and a challenge to keep growing.
The followers of Jesus in Thessalonica dealt with persecution. Because of their culture’s polythesitic beliefs, they faced separation from family and community by being followers of Jesus. They dealt with political oppression as their following of Jesus was offensive to the Roman following of Caesar.
Paul builds perspective: Jesus faced persecution. He (Paul) faced persecution. And now they (members of the church in Thessalonica) face persecution. Paul built a perspective that is fascinating:
For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews. (1 Thessalonians 2:14)
This was not a masking of the hardship but a feeling it, seeing it, knowing it. Paul is not pretending that all the challenges are fake or no big deal. Instead, he speaks sober perspective into their context:
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
So feel this perspective:
I know things are hard. I know things have been discouraging. I know there are unimaginable challenges. I know life is incredibly heavy
Rejoice. Pray. Give thanks.
Here’s a final question for you–a final moment of processing. It’s not a moment of commanding, because we know that doesn't work.
What is key for you in feeling joy and life’s ups and downs fully at the same time?
Take It Deeper Questions
- Read Romans 15:13.
- When have you felt unusually strong in the midst of unusually difficult times?
- When have you felt unusually weak in the midst of unremarkable circumstances?
- What does it mean to be the God of hope?
- Why is hope connected with joy?
- Why is the Holy Spirit brought into this conversation?
- How are you challenged, focused, encouraged, and/or challenged by this text?
Bible Reading Planjoy
- 1 Samuel 28
- 1 Samuel 29
- 1 Samuel 30
- 1 Samuel 31
- 2 Samuel 1