Thirty-three years ago we lived on 620 Lincoln Road, just north of Lititz, Pennsylvania. We were expecting a first son (born the following June), and I remember playing a record of Christmas music over and over again: “Freude, freude, grosse freude.”
The theme of joy—“O that you would reveal your joy”—is one of the most basic of all human desires. As a young man C.S. Lewis was an atheist, convinced by the loss of his mother to cancer, by the cruelty of children in the schools he attended, and by his experiences in the trenches of the First World War that God could not exist. If there was a God, that God must be cruel and unloving.
But throughout his life Lewis had glimpses of joy and beauty. In music and stories, in landscapes and walking tours and friendships, he kept experiencing glimpses of joy, so beautiful as to break one’s heart. Through long conversation with his closest friends, who happened to be Christians, he came to realise that God is the source of all real joy, and that we are created to live for God here, in the hope of eternity with God, bathed in joy and delight beyond human description.
We heard the text from Mary’s song in Luke 1. I will mention also Isaiah 61 and Psalm 126. Through these Scriptures we approach the theme of joy and we learn something of the joy that God wants to give us. As an old hymn puts it (#267 in the old brown Mennonite Hymnal):
My God, I thank Thee, who hast made The earth so bright,
So full of splendor and of joy, Beauty and light;
So many glorious things are here, Noble and right.
I thank Thee, too, that Thou hast made Joy to abound;
So many gentle thoughts and deeds Circling us round,
That in the darkest spot of earth Some love is found.
I thank Thee more that all our joy Is touched with pain,
That shadows fall on brightest hours, That thorns remain;
So that earth’s bliss may be our guide, And not our chain.
I thank Thee, Lord, that Thou hast kept The best in store;
We have enough, yet not too much To long for more:
A yearning for a deeper peace Not known before.
It is not only that we want God to reveal joy to us, but also that God desires even more deeply that we find the fullness of joy promised to us as we approach eternity with God in Heaven.
We being with Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
These verses are familiar to us from Jesus, who read this passage from the prophet Isaiah in his inaugural sermon at Nazareth (Luke 4). You hear how the prophet proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favour”, the Jubilee Year described in Leviticus 25, when all wrongs are made right, when all injustices are overturned, when justice and peace rule in the land and we all know joy.
You notice who is to receive justice and joy in this passage. It is “the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, all who mourn, and those who grieve in Zion.” Note this progression well. The coming joy is not promised to those who are “at ease in Zion”—that is, to those who have joy already on this earth, but to those who are in trouble, who are consumed by sorrow and grief. We will return to his point.
Isaiah gives this prophecy in the context of the Return from Exile. I am presently reading Ezra and Nehemiah, and I am impressed with how difficult it was for the Jews when they returned from Exile. They were again the Promised Land, but they knew hardship and sorrow. To them, broken even when they could see God working—to them in their grief and pain God promises full joy through the Spirit of the Lord.
As a side note, which I will not try to work into the larger sermon this morning, I like the way that the principle of Jubilee—complete equality and justice for all who participate—was echoed in the founding of Steinbach. From an Internet search:
Most settlers accepted the scattered farm pattern inherent in the section survey, but the Mennonites were permitted to establish their traditional farm-operator villages, which characterized their Russian colonies. Twenty farmers lived in the village of Steinbach, tilled strips in the various parts of the village lands, and shared in the community pasture. Only the outside boundaries of the village land pool were determined by the section survey. The original layout of Steinbach was in lots called Feuerstatten, 2 1/2 hectare (6 acre) strips about 70 meters (225 feet) wide running off a wide main street, which had been hacked out of the poplar bush. The strip-fields proved to be unsuited to mechanized farm practices, and by the turn of the century many of the East Reserve settlers began reverting to the original township-plan homesteads, causing most of the farm villages to dissolve.(Map source: John Warkentin for article entitled Mennonite Agricultural Settlements of Southern Manitoba, in The Geographical Review Vol.49, No.3 1959. HRB Map # 059.)
You see, the original lots had equal access to the water supply (the Steinbach Creek—or Stony Brook). Each lot had equal access to the different kinds of soil. Communal fields supplemented the individual lots. Now that original pattern was swallowed up by the patterns of the larger Canadian society within 25 years, but the basic idea is good: That everyone has an equal opportunity to access the community’s resources.
We continue with Psalm 126
The Psalm is called a “song of ascents”. That is, as people went into Jerusalem (a city built on Mount Zion, so that entering it one ascends) they sang this Psalm as well as the others around it. It makes sense that the people would use these Psalms especially at the great festivals when Jews would come to Jerusalem to worship together.
The first verse suggests a similar context as Isaiah 61: The people come together to worship after the Exiles have returned to the Land of Promise. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed.” The last two verses give the pattern that is expressed by the Restoration of the people to Judah and the rebuilding of the Temple: “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.”
You hear the principle that is stated here? Those who go out weeping return with songs of joy. When you plant with tears, you harvest with joy. Sorrow is, it seems, the necessary prelude to joy. This theme is stated so often in Scripture that we may conclude it expresses a fundamental reality of life. Notice also that you do have to plant, even in sorrow, in order to reap. Those who sow the seed of faith—acting in the way that God calls them to—even while weeping return with joy and a harvest.
What Does This Mean?
The truth is, of course, that one reason we desire joy is that we live in so much sorrow. All around us are those who “go out weeping”. I think of one of my students and his wife, who were expecting their first child. Two weeks ago they found that the wife delivered her baby, but without joy. Last weekend we went to the funeral and grieved and wept with them.
At this point we cannot reasonably ask them to grasp the joy that lies ahead. For the moment, they experience Christmas as the time when they sow with tears and go about their lives with weeping. But it is precisely people in this kind of circumstance that our passages address. They are in the place God uses best to discover the source and power and glory of joy. Not right away. Not in a simple easy manner—“Just thank God and it will be alright.” They sow their seed with tears watering the ground where they plant the seeds of faith, but when those seeds grow they will yield a harvest of joy.
We could use many other examples—from the terrors of ISIS to the generalized violence of our own society, in which police in the US have become so often the agents of death instead of peace, order, and good government. In each case the point holds: We sow seed of faithfulness to God in the context of our sorrow and our tears, and those seeds yield a harvest of righteousness and joy.
I believe that this idea is pointing us towards Heaven, or more precisely to the New Heavens and the new Earth. This desire for joy is actually the desire to be in the fullness of God’s presence forever.
The Trouble with Heaven
Wayne Martindale (an English Professor teacher at Wheaton College) has said that he often asks his class for volunteers of those who would like to go to Heaven in the next two minutes. He rarely has any takers! He observes that our churches are full of people who say they want to go to Heaven, when what they really mean is they don’t want to go to Hell. Sometimes Heaven sounds like a church service that never ends. We will be before the throne and before the Lamb singing and praising, world without end, Amen! We don’t like our worship services here to last much over an hour; why would we get excited about being forced to spend an eternity in one endless boring church service, so that we don’t even get to go to a good Sunday dinner?
Think of the descriptions that we get in Revelations—a city with streets of gold, and this city is 1,400 miles long, wide, and high. Martindale quotes Joni Erickson Tada as saying that it sounds like an incredible huge Mall of America! But of course these descriptions are meant to symbolize perfection and beauty and fullness of God’s presence.
The gold streets let us know that heaven is more beautiful than anything we can imagine. The huge cube is meant to remind the reader of the cube at the centre of Solomon’s Temple, the Holiest of Holies, where God himself dwells. Except that in this case God is fully present in every part of the city that symbolizes the New Heavens and the New Earth.
What’s really going on behind these descriptions, what they are trying to point us towards using the language and symbols of the people who lived in New Testament times, is a real place that is better and more wonderful than anything here on earth. I suspect that we will have real work to do there. Lois will have a garden that she can spend eternity puttering around and rearranging, making beauty that glorifies God in ways we can’t even think of now. I may get to really write that book I’ve been working on. Roy will finish a few more histories of those funny people back on earth we called Mennonites.
But of course my descriptions here are also symbols, a feeble effort to suggest how good and wonderful heaven is. Work and play and joyous celebration will merge together in a pageant of beauty and delight that gives praise to the God of all Creation.
What’s Stopping Us from Wanting Heaven?
The truth is that we sometimes don’t really want this promised glory and joy because we have our little pleasures and joys here in this life. If I went to Heaven now, I would miss getting to play with my grandchildren, and that would indeed be a real loss. Never mind that the joy of Heaven is so far beyond even my grandchildren to be that I would never miss them, I don’t want to miss this earthly joy!
As long as life goes along fairly well, and we feel like we can make things good for ourselves here, we don’t really want anything more. Only when what we have here is taken from us do we begin to realize that there is more waiting for us, and we begin to reach out to receive God’s glorious gift. As long as we have enough money to pay for what we want, we think we can bring the joy we seek. We can’t.
Last week I was talking to a close friend. She had to have surgery for a serious back problem, and after the surgery some amniotic fluid must have leaked into the brain. She told us that the resulting headache was like nothing she had ever experienced. Her husband got her in to the emergency room, and she lay on a hospital bed in more pain than she could imagine. She thought, “This must be what it feels like to die.”
As she lay there, thinking that she was probably dying, she started to pray. “God, if you want to take me now, I’m ready. But please be with my husband. It will be so hard for him.” As she prayed this, she told us she was filled with peace.
She looked down to the foot of the hospital bed, where she saw her husband’s head bowed as he massaged her feet. Later she asked him if he was praying. He told her, “Yes. I was letting you go.” And he also had peace. In incredible pain they both were ready for whatever God brought them. Guess what God brings: “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.”
Does this make us “No Earthly Good”?
Sometimes people avoid thinking about Heaven, because they don’t like the idea of being “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” Of course we should not go around with our heads in the clouds, unaware of what is going on around us. Rather we should live for God here and now. That is precisely what looking forward to Heaven enables us to do! It is the promise of an eternity of joy and delight that enables us to rise above the pain and heartache of life in this world. We can live for God now because we know that we will live with God forever. The reality of Heaven is a reality that changes the way that we experience life on this earth.
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that we are sown a perishable or mortal body, and that we are raised with an imperishable of immortal or incorruptible body. You notice that we will have a body. The body of the resurrected Christ—able to be in two places at the same time, to pass through locked doors and walk on water, yet able also to eat fish and bread, and solid enough for Mary to grab his feet—this resurrected body is the promise for all of us. We are told that Jesus is the first fruits of our inheritance: We will be like him.
Wayne Martindale cites an image for the way we will be in heaven that I find quite useful. He compares our present form with the acorn and our resurrected body with the full flowering of an oak tree. No one looking at an acorn would guess how majestic and full it will become after it is buried in the ground to grow. But all the potentialities of the oak tree are in that little nut.
You and I are the little acorn nuts; and you and I are destined to be as fully different from ourselves now as an oak tree is from the acorn; and you and I have all of the potential within us that will be revealed in our resurrection bodies. All of the love and joy of Heaven is potentially present in us now. What waters the acorn and helps it begin to grow into the oak tree? Our tears. Our sorrows. Our pain and grief.
Can you imagine what this church would be like if we began to tap into the potential love, joy, peace, and goodness that we will have in Heaven? Wow! This would be a place where people would be overwhelmed with the sheer goodness of people around them. I think that’s what Paul is describing when he talks about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.
With this in the background, hear Mary’s Song from Luke 1.
“My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
When we are hungry and humble, when we fear God and no one else, when we give ourselves to God without reservation, God gives us peace and joy, a real foretaste of Heaven.
14 December 2014
O That You Would Reveal Your Joy
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11