Yesterday, was my anniversary; 25 years here at Hillside Christian Church. I don’t know why that date is etched in my mind. I came here at a young 35, thinking I was going to change this place and I’m not sure who has changed who. It reminds me of the young Associate Minister, fresh out of seminary and thinking that he had the world by the tail. The new Associate came to serve under a Senior Minister who had been at the church for 30 years and was very well loved. The new Associate felt he could preach on any topic and could do so on the spur of the moment. After all, he had made straight “A’s” in his homiletic classes at Phillips Theological Seminary. So the wise old Senior Minister said, “You can speak this Sunday morning and I will put the topic on a piece of paper under the pulpit and you can read it just before you speak.” Sunday morning came and the young Associate was excited and stepped up to the pulpit and took the piece of paper and opened it to get his sermon topic. “Constipation”. He looked out at the congregation and said, “Moses took the two tablets and climbed down from the mountain.”
I am mindful of the opening line in Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult.” Life is difficult, sometimes it is hard and cruel. We cannot always control what happens in our lives. I can’t even begin to guess how many funerals I have conducted or weddings that I have presided at. How does the Christian keep his/her joy in a difficult world? People die and we are not joyful about it. People get divorced and that is no fun. People become ill and what happiness is found in that? Some lose their jobs, others have financial pressures, all of which can rob us of our Christian joy.
Research has shown that the average adult will laugh 15 times in a day. A child on the other hand will laugh an average of 400 times a day. There is a lesson in this for us. If my happiness (or health) depends on what somebody else says (or does), I guess I have a problem. LUK 10:1 The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. Life wasn’t easy on this journey! The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” The Bible nowhere speaks about a “happy” Christian; however, it talks plentifully of joy. Happiness depends on things that happen, and may sometimes be an insult: joyfulness is never touched by external conditions, and a joyful heart is never an insult.
At about 445 B.C., Nehemiah finds himself being the cup bearer for King Artaxerxes. Following the Babylonian Exile the reorganization of the Jews was largely the work of Ezra (the scribe) and Nehemiah (the governor). The Israelites have been in exile for 150 years. The city of Jerusalem had been leveled. The Temple destroyed and no wall around the barren city. The people were very poor and had almost lost touch with each other. Some were farmers and herdsman in the countryside. Most were slaves in Babylon. When all the people were gathered they numbered 42,360.
Ezra stands on a large wooden platform and reads the law. The people are touched by hearing the word of God. Remember, most of these people and even their parents have not read the word of God. They are moved and motivated. Nehemiah is a realistic man, how can he take 42,360 people and rebuild a city? How can they build a wall around this mountainous town? How can they raise food to eat? How can they have a revival that will spiritually renew the people? Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Faith does for our living what sunshine does for stained-glass windows. I did a funeral for a man who died at the age of 43. It was an unusual service to say the least. The service climaxed to the music of “Love Potion Number 9.” The sad part was that this man had lived all of his short life looking for joy in all the wrong places. Two failed marriages. Never really happy at work. Tried to find it among the motorcycles, the tattoos, etc.
Very few Christians could say with Paul’s conviction, “For me to live is Christ.” Joy is not external, it is internal. People seem to believe that they have an inalienable right to be happy–“I want what I want and I want it now.” People walk into my office and say they are Christians, but I see no difference except that they want to be happy and now expect God to make it so. Ever watch a tree grow?
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness….We love to go to exciting worship services. Raise our arms and sing. Get “filled with the spirit” and dance around. But what happens after we leave? Joy is not entertainment, it is a way of life. I cannot tell you how many times someone has said, “You are doing so well following Vickie’s death.” As I stood there beside her bedside as she died, my life changed. This one that I had courted for two years was gone. This one that gave me two children, would not be there to help. For 18 years she was my companion and my best friend. But you see, there was also something there at her bedside that did not change. A JOY that not even death can take away. A joy that is the result of believing that Jesus is the Christ. A joy that is the byproduct of a life well lived.
1TH 1:6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. Take away my capacity for pain and you rob me of the possibility for joy. Take away my ability to fail and I would not know the meaning of success. Let me be immune to rejection and heartbreak and I could not know the glory of living. Know I understand what Paul means when he writes, 1TH 5:16 Be joyful always; it is a way of life.