What is real joy and how do you get it?

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Sermon for December 11, 2016


Old Testament Isaiah 35:1–10
Psalm Psalm 146:5–10 or Luke 1:46b–55
New Testament James 5:7–10
Gospel Matthew 11:2–11

What is joy and how do we get it? The pursuit of happiness is at the core of the human experience, and yet for many it seems to be an impossible pursuit. The problem is that human beings have bought into a lot of lies about what happiness is, and what can really bring true, lasting, deep, joy.

If you have bought into a lie about what can make you happy or bring you joy, the fact is you’ll miss it. And it might take you a while to notice.

You might not be miserable—at least not in the short term—because lots of things can make you feel good. Buying something off your Amazon wish list, getting a promotion you worked hard for, or having a few too many beers or glasses of wine can all give you a quick fix of feeling good…but the effect wears of quickly, and it doesn’t work as well the next time you try it. This is how people go into spirals of self-destructive behavior.

You might not be miserable in the short term, but eventually you will either burn yourself out from the effort or exhaust all your temporary options. Either way you are left in kind of a hollow, self-centered state, that leaves you with no happiness in your heart and no joy to share.

The joy that comes from God has nothing to do with money, power, or pleasure, but everything to do with life, grace, and presence.

Listen to what the prophet Isaiah said:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.”

The joy that comes from God doesn’t chip away at your life the way our own pursuits of happiness often do. Rather, it is a response to the new life God is giving you.

He goes on:

The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.

You can’t do anything to get the Joy that comes from God. It comes from God! He’s the one that is creating the kind of new life that results in rejoicing. It’s given to you gift—it is part of beauty of the new creation. You simply receive it.

Isaiah continues:

They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” (Isaiah 35:1–2, ESV)

All of this is done by God so you can see more of God’s glory, so you can experience more of his presence. More of his love, mercy, justice, kindness.

There is a happiness, a light-heartedness, a deep and abiding delight regardless of the circumstances we call joy that can only come because of what God has done and our confidence in what he will do.

Isaiah encourages the people of Israel by telling them, “Look! God is coming. Don’t be afraid, be strong, because of what God has promised to do! Not only is he going to give sight to blind and freedom to the oppressed, but he is going to make a way back to him so even the fools won’t get lost! No sense of direction required! (THANK GOD!)” This is Good News!

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35:10, ESV)

We need these encouragements from the Scriptures—and we need to encourage each other—because we are forgetful of what God has done.

Even John the Baptist, we heard today in Matthew 11, doubted…after all his preaching, after seeing the heaven’s open and literally hearing God the Father proclaim his blessing upon Jesus. Why? Maybe because he was in prison, suffering, and wondering why, if Jesus really was supposed to be a savior!

…Jesus answered them, “…the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them…”

He’s saying, John, take a bigger view. Don’t lose heart because of what is not happening, but be joyful because of what has happened. People are already being called out and put on the road to Zion, the Way of Holiness. Jesus is affirming here that he is the prophesied Messiah and that his Kingdom is being inaugurated, even if it hasn’t been consummated quite yet.

When Jesus says, “blessed is the one who is not offended by me,” I think he is saying he knows this is hard (Matthew 11:4–6, ESV). He knows John probably doesn’t want to hear that other prisoners are going free while he must endure. That could be offensive.

He is perhaps encouraging John not lose his joy, to remember that while Jesus is a healer and a liberator, his Resurrection Kingdom advances in the way of the suffering servant (read the prophecy in Isaiah 53). His Resurrection Kingdom advances in the way of the cross.

If you believe this morning that Jesus is your savior, that he has made you a new creation, set you on the Way of Holiness, and is even now building his Kingdom all over the world—if you believe that and are receiving the joy of the Lord from that—can you imagine any circumstance or any person that could take your joy from you?

You know, my biggest obstacle for receiving joy has been anxiety. I tend to worry and doubt. I tend to think the worst of myself and sometimes others. If I’m not careful this leads to a literal kill-joy—depression. There are seasons where the battle is daily.

If you talk about a struggle with anxiety somebody always throws out Philippians 4:6:

do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6, ESV)

Certainly, cultivating a grateful heart is important, but I always struggled with how exactly that’s supposed to help me with my anxiety and depression. I suppose I could just continually remind myself to be thankful that whatever situation is causing my distress, it could be worse! Not super helpful in the moment. Then I went and looked up the passage. Turns out, verse six starts in the middle of a sentence. It starts in the second half of verse 5. The sentence reads:

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:5–6, ESV)

Suddenly it made sense. God is with me. The one thing that gives me whatever joy and peace I have is my trust in God. In that he has procured my salvation, that he will perfect me—body and soul—and (listen!) in his presence with me through every anxiety inducing situation.

The joy that comes from God has everything to do with life, grace, and presence.

Henri Nouwen said,

“Joy is based on the spiritual knowledge that, while the world in which we live is shrouded in darkness, God has overcome the world.”[1]

Today James encouraged us to “…be patient. “Establish your hearts,” he said, “for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” (James 5:8, ESV)

Whatever your circumstances, take heart, and receive the joy of the Lord. He has come, he is here, and he will come again in glory. Amen.

[1] Here and Now by Henri Nouwen