Finding the Source of Joy
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, July 12, 2020
Readings: Romans 5:1-8; Proverbs 8:1-4
It was a scene of unbridled joy when 76-year-old Jessie Jacobs was released from Oakville Trafalgar Hospital last week, after suffering from COVID-19 for three months (one on a ventilator). She survived. When she walked out of the building, her family was gathered on the sidewalk and members of the medical and nursing team lined the pathway with balloons. She had the biggest smile on her face that you have ever seen. It was a moment of unbridled joy, one that we will never forget.
Similarly, there was a moment of profound sadness when we heard that Nick Cordero, a singer and actor died in Cedar Sinai Hospital in the United States. A young actor from Hamilton, Ontario, with a wife and one-year-old child, who was at the height of his career. He was the pride of many people in Hamilton. But he died, even though he was treated in one of the great hospitals in the world, and it was profoundly sad that we’d lost someone with such talent.
I couldn’t help but think of the contrast of the unbridled joy that we saw with Jessie, and the great sorrow that we found in Nick. It made me realise that sometimes our sense of joy is simply coming through and being saved from difficult circumstances. Facing challenges and coming out of them. How many times do you see people coming out of a hospital greeted by a crowd with balloons and streamers? Not many! But in the time of COVID, it has made us rethink how joyful we should be at the blessings that we do have. When you realise how fragile we are, and the fragility of our human life is clearly manifested in so many of the challenges that we face right now, so we need to find some real joy and harmony.
We face crises that we haven't seen for a long time: environmental, economic, social, and health, with a pandemic that continues to take lives all over the world, and we’re not sure how to deal with them. Many of the things we previously found joy in, seem almost banal. That is what makes finding joy and gratitude so important amidst the struggles.
Some years ago (feels like it), when we were able to go freely in shopping malls, there was a display of these great big padded chairs, with heating, vibrations, and stimulants, they could put you in a myriad of positions. But it was the sign that was next to them that really caught my imagination. It said: sit on this and your life will be changed. So, I sat on the chair, put it on maximum vibration, and loved every minute of it, but then I got up and it was as if nothing had changed at all. The promise of a change was not there. It was transitory, of the moment, then it was gone. But we still need to find joy in life. I'm not one of those people who believes that there is no joy in this life. In fact, I think joy is something that we should seek, something that is meaningful and important. But not a banal joy, that is fabricated, that promises a change that doesn’t really come, but joy that is much more meaningful.
When Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in prison, and in his great book, The Prison Chronicles, he talked about, of all things, joy, and this is what he wrote:
We mustn’t try to say there is no joy in this life and not seek it. Nor can we say that joy is a permanent thing that we’re always going to find. Joy really is in having a true assessment of what life is really about. For example, if my back is not broken and I can get up in the morning, is that not joy? If I have sight from both my eyes, if I can use both my hands, if I can hear with both my ears, why should I envy anyone when I have such things? No, what is important is that I put a piece of my heart aside so that I might know what is truly important. Namely, the love and the affection of people who are dear in my life.
Someone separated from those he loved, in the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn, still found joy. There is nothing wrong with trying to find joy in life. But joy can come, and joy can go. Our passage today from the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans, talks about joy, not in the transitory things of life, but in a change in our being. Something that carries us through all of life and gives it meaning and purpose. A joy that is not based on a feeling, but on the love and the grace of Almighty God.
Many things are joyful, give joy, and are worthy of our praise. For those who have been putting pictures from their cottages of sunsets on Facebook, there is joy in the beauty of nature around us. Someone actually sent me a photograph of a big steak that they’d barbequed (they hadn't had steak for three and a half months) and they were joyful – and well, I was envious. There is joy in a hug from someone that you have only been able to see virtually. There is joy in hearing beautiful music, the harmony of a Brahms, or Ed Sheeran or Selina Gomez. These are things that give us joy, but be under no illusion, they are transitory. What Paul was talking about in this passage from the book of Romans, Chapter five, goes much, much deeper than that. In fact, I have heard it called the gold standard of theology in the New Testament. Greats, like St John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, Karl Barth, James Dunn, and Elizabeth Achtemeier, have written about this passage with great power and clarity. I want to remind you of it again, a portion of today’s passage, but please notice my emphasis today.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand. And we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
Here was Paul’s sense of enduring joy in a nutshell; born out of a new relationship with God that would see him through suffering, give him endurance, and give us character. Here was the real foundation of all joy, and not one that comes and goes with the sunset and the sunrise. One that is permanent. It is one that is born out of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. As you look at this passage, you can see that there are words that are clues to how we understand this joy.
I dedicate this sermon to the great New Testament scholar, James Dunn, who I studied the Book of Romans with at Acadia and who died just a couple of weeks ago. Dunn’s brilliant commentaries on the book of Romans are standards for all that read. He says that when Paul had in mind this notion of justification by faith in God, it also included that word access. The word in Greek is “prosogoge”, coming into the presence of God. He believed, as did others, that there were two main images usages of the word “prosogoge” and both of those become a source of joy. The more I’ve dug into this passage, the more I've realised this is our source of joy.
The first meaning of the word prosogoge, is a chamberlain or a representative, bringing us into the presence of a monarch. All of this is dependent always on whether the monarch is willing to see you. Think of it in our worldly terms. No one just drives up to Buckingham Palace, rings the bell and says, “hey, Queen Elizabeth, I would like to have tea with you today, how about it?” No, of course you don’t. You don’t just go into the presence of royalty or a royal representative without an invitation.
Paul uses this word access through Jesus Christ, our justification by faith, and our peace with God, as the means of coming into the presence of God. Writing to the Romans, Paul was convinced that gentiles and Jews alike, needed to know that they had access to God, that despite their sinfulness, which estranges people from God, they could be forgiven and put into a right and peaceful relationship with God through the forgiveness and the acceptance of Christ. The image that he has in mind is that of a chamberlain, or a means of welcoming you into the presence of a monarch, into the presence of God. I think that this sense of being welcomed by God is important. It means that when you come into the presence of God, you have access to all the things that God gives us, all the blessings that flow from God and strengthen us, give us courage, character, and endurance. This is joy. This is the joy that Jessie felt when she came out of the Oakville Trafalgar Hospital.
One of the things that I'm going to miss this summer, and that I'm driving all my friends nuts by talking about it, is the opportunity to be part of medical teams’ chaplain at a Formula One race, and also at the Indie. But it was not to be. I was thinking back to when I signed up to become a chaplain with the medical team, I had to get a credential to hang around my neck. It determines where you can go on the racetrack, and with whom you can meet. There is a little sticker that they put on it, with two words: All Access. If you have that little sticker – and they change the colour every year – you have gold. You can go into the pits and meet the drivers, go into the medical team, the journalists’ room, anywhere except in the stands where the fans are. I needed the all-access pass to care for people, should there be a problem.
I thought that’s what Paul had in mind: an all access pass to the presence of God, all the benefits, all the beauty, all the joy, all the wonder. It’s not dependent on how we feel at any given moment, it is dependent on a new status that we have through Christ, to come into the presence of Almighty God. What an incredible gift it is. No wonder he rejoiced in it.
There’s a second image, and that image is of being brought into a safe harbour. Prosogogey is access into a harbour. Paul lived all his life around the Mediterranean, whether it was on the coast of Palestine and Israel, or the coasts of the islands of Crete or Tarsus, or even the Mediterranean around Italy, as we now know it. The Apostle Paul knew what it was like to be at sea. He was shipwrecked at sea. He knew how dangerous the waters could be. The boats that sailed the Mediterranean, which could be very choppy at times, were crude in the first century BCE. So, Paul knew how dangerous it was to be in the waters of the Mediterranean. He also knew how important it was to come into a safe harbour. James Dunn, who I referred to earlier, says that it’s like standing on terra firma when you have been thrown about by the problems of life, the world, and our own sinfulness; and that standing on terra firma gives you a sense of permanence.
Look at the passage again. Paul says that we have access, contrary to being tossed in a boat in the storms of life, you come into the safe harbour, the safe place, the terra firma, and there you can stand. This was his great sense of joy for Paul. He learned to be content in all things. It didn’t matter where he was, whether he was in prison, on board a ship being taken to Crete. It didn’t matter to him. He knew that he was secure. He knew that he was safe. Jesus, for him, was like a pilot, bringing him safely home, into a harbour and giving him access to God’s grace.
I woke up yesterday morning thinking about this sermon, and I don’t know why, it’s one of those things that comes into your head when you're least expecting it, but I thought about a poem I read at funerals; I’ve read it at three of the burials that I have done during this pandemic. You would think, why would you want to introduce a poem that you use at a funeral into a sermon on joy. I thought I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to use it on Sunday, but the more I thought of it and the notion of access, and Christ as a pilot, bringing us into the safe harbour of God, the more I thought of this poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. You've probably heard it many times, and if you're hearing it for the first time, you will see the importance of access through the pilot. These are his words:
Sunset and evening star and one clear call for me,
and may there be no moaning of the bar when I put out to sea.
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
too full for sound and foam,
when that which drew from out the boundless deep
turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell, and after that the dark.
And may there be no sadness of farewell when I embark.
For though from out our borne of time and place,
the flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face-to-face
when I have crossed the bar.
For Tennyson, the Pilot brings us eternally into the safe harbour of God. I think that sense of the welcoming, the greeting, and the security, gives us peace with God through Jesus Christ.
Today, you may feel that your world is being tossed in a sea of uncertainty. We may even feel within our own hearts, sort of a metaphysical estrangement, a sense that we are abandoned and we’re not quite sure where our life is going. We don’t even know, do we, where people are going to vacation this summer, if they vacation at all. We are like people who were on that sea, and we need a safe harbour. We’re feeling uncertain about ourselves and we need to know that the Monarch loves us and welcomes us. For the Apostle Paul there was no question. There was the joy of knowing that we have an all access pass to God. This is not a joy that comes and goes. This is a joy that lasts forever.
May you have that joy this day. Amen.