Morgan Park

 Baptist Church

11024 S. Bell Avenue 

Chicago, IL 60643


Sermon October 11, 2015

John 15:8-11

8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth

“Freude! Freude! Freude, schoener Goetterfunken …” - “Joy! Joy! Joy, beautiful spark of divinity …” are well-know lyrics. They open the famous “Ode to Joy” from the fourth movement of Beethoven’s magnificent Ninth Symphony. The question this morning: is joy really a spark of divinity? I think it may well be!

Now if I ask us to recall the last time we felt joy – might that be not long ago or only a distant memory? According to our preaching text, the primary reason Jesus came among us is so we might have the joy of Jesus – a complete joy – with no sadness intermingled within it.

If this is true – as it appears to be from our text of John’s Gospel - then why are few Christians joyful? I’m afraid joyful Christians are a rare breed. Is this not so? Christianity has seldom been noted for its joy. Yet maybe it should be. What better purpose in life is there than joy? What better goal to have in life than joy?

Yet in religion we easily and often get caught up in proclaiming ourselves as the good guys and those who are not in our religion – or in our narrow brand of religion – as the bad guys. As the southern novelist Walker Percy noted: “Every religion is – in some major sense – a failed religion.” I would add that to the extent one’s religion does not promote joy and help make joy more possible – then to that extent – it is a failed religion.    

So let’s take a look at what joy is. Joy can be easily misunderstood. I believe joy is best seen as a great contentment residing deep within a person. Joy is a priceless and precious gift. Perhaps the most priceless and precious gift available to us. Joy is proclaimed 58 times in the New Testament. The Greek word translated as joy is chara. While usually translated as “joy” – it can also be translated as “gladness” as well as “delight.” But what lies at the heart of joy? What is the core ofchara?

To prepare for this sermon, I explored every use of the word “joy” in the Bible – 114 joys of the Old Testament and the 58 joys of the New Testament. Which book of the Bible has the most “joy” in it? Yes, the Book of Psalms with 27 references to joy. The Psalm reference I like best is this: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

There are a few other references about joy I want to share with us this morning. These come from the Book of Proverbs. “A cheerful glance brings joy to the heart.” (Proverbs 15:30) Something for all of us to keep in mind! Here is one I share with my students at Moraine Valley Community College: “To make an apt answer is a joy to anyone!” (Proverbs 15:23) “The parent of a numskull has no joy.” (Proverbs 15:21 – New American Bible) “Deceit is in the mind of those who plan evil, but those who counsel peace have joy.” (Proverbs 12:20) And, finally, “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evil doers.” (Proverbs 21:15) This last proverb should be placed at the entrance of every court house everywhere.      

Let me ask: are joy and happiness the same? Not according to the Bible! I believe joy is a more subtle emotion than happiness. I believe joy is more elusive than happiness. Happiness is, as we know, fleeting. Happiness can come from events like the victory of the Cubs this past Wednesday evening and last night.

After all, being a Cubs fan is not the easiest route to happiness, never mind joy! Beth’s 97 year old grandfather wrote the Tribune suggesting that the Cubs need to get it together soon so he can celebrate the Cubs winning a world series in his lifetime.

Joy is not primarily a feeling of happiness; it is deeper and more lasting. Yet – if joy is subtle – how do we know when we experience it? This can be a problem. I believe joy is rare among us because joy is subtle and subtle feelings, subtle experiences, are almost foreign to us today. 

To help understand why this is so, let’s listen to the psychiatrist and spiritual writer, Gerald May, from his book, The Dark Night of the Soul: “To put it in … modern psychological terms, most of us (today) become desensitized … to the especially delicate experiences of life. Most of us live in a world of overstimulation and sensory overload.

“Without realizing it, we erect defenses against our own perceptions in order to avoid being overwhelmed. (But) to (a real) extent, this deadens our sensitivity and dulls our perceptiveness. We find ourselves no longer appreciative of the subtle sensations, (the) delicate fragrances, (the) soft sounds, and (the) exquisite feelings we enjoyed as children.

“Like addicts experiencing (drug) tolerance – the need for more and more drugs to sustain their effect – many of us find ourselves seeking increasingly powerful stimulation to keep our enjoyment and satisfaction going.”

Sisters and brothers, I believe May is onto something important. Is it not true our world is awash in stimulation of every kind? Is it not true that many of us want bigger and better “bang for our buck”? Aren’t we often bored when things are just normal? As May contends: “It is as if we have gorged ourselves on rich meals for so long that we cannot appreciate the delicate freshness of a sip of spring water. It is as if we have spent so long hammering in a noisy foundry (or steel mill) that we can no longer hear the soft whisper of a breeze.”

If joy is a subtle sensation – how can we experience it if we are always seeking more and more stimulation? Many of us find it impossible to be quiet for an evening without turning on the television to give us our fix of heavy visual and auditory stimulation. Can we be quiet? If the answer is “no” – then joy will elude us.

Brothers and sisters, joy can be spoken of as “grace recognized.” In other words, we experience joy when we come to experience grace – and what is grace? Grace happens when we experience the love of God. But because we are so over-stimulated in our culture, it is difficult for us to notice the love of God quietly arising within our hearts and our souls.

We know from Galatians 5:22 that one of the fruits of the Spirit’s presence within us and among us is joy. But because we often think of joy as akin to happiness, joy escapes us. Joy is the confidence that everything will ultimately turn out alright because God is all around us, loving us and healing us through the power of the Holy Spirit of the Living God.

As I mentioned, overstimulation leads us away from the experience of joy. Another danger that can surprisingly lead us away from joy is affluence. The Oxford professor and economist Avner Offer, after studying the impact of affluence on both developed and developing countries came to this startling conclusion, in his 2006 book, The Challenge of Affluence: “Affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines well-being.”

Brothers and sisters, in our rush to become wealthy, we get trapped into doing more and more in less and less time – which is a classic formula for impatience. The adage: “time is money!” destroys many of us and makes many of our workplaces cauldrons of seething impatience. Impatience undermines joy!

It’s akin to what my favorite Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, argued: “Most people pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it!” It seems impossible to be both impatient and joyful at the same time. Because we are seriously impatient as a nation due to our haste to fulfill the American Dream of Affluence – is it any wonder there is so little joy evident anywhere?

Sisters and brothers, I’m not going to stand here and suggest we should all slow down and smell the roses. I can’t preach this because I myself don’t live this! I am as impatient as most. But here’s at least one difference: affluence has never been a goal of mine – otherwise why would one become a pastor? As another old adage states it: “Contentment is not the fulfillment of what we want but the realization of what we already have!” And my beloved Beth and I are content!

Sisters and brothers, joy becomes possible the more open we become to all the sights and sounds – tastes and treasures – around us. The Holy Spirit is everywhere and no one religion has captured the Holy Spirit for itself. The Holy Spirit possesses the ultimate freedom to do what the Spirit will do. And what is the Holy Spirit doing? The Holy Spirit is always active – “evoking light from darkness, order from chaos, life from lifelessness.” (From Brian McLaren)

I suggest for us this morning that joy is the experience of being fully alive – bristling with the energy of life – wanting to experience joy so that God Almighty might experience more joy. Joy is a sense of connection with life and with all things living.

Brothers and sisters, whatever we experience – God experiences. Every joy and sorrow echoes in the heart of God. What we experience – God experiences. I want more joy in my life so I might add to the joy of God. I want to open my heart and soul completely to God so I might, in some small way, experience what God experiences. This is what happens to those people we call “mystics” – they fall so deeply in love with God that they experience what God experiences.

The way of joy is not easy – but it is the true reason for being a Christian. If I have no joy – then something deep is missing from my faith. If you have no joy – then something deep is missing from your faith. Joy, joy, joy! Perhaps we might experience a touch of it by embracing the core of St. Patrick’s Breastplate – his famous prayer:

“Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me … Christ is the hearts of all that love me, Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger.” Sisters and brothers, we are immersed in the love of Christ – we are immersed in the joy of the Holy Spirit – we are immersed in the love and joy of the Almighty. How can joy not be ours? Amen!

Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Interim Pastor

Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister