Joy – Hidden and Revealed
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 25, 2020
Reading: Luke 10:17-24
In the mornings, I like to listen to several different radio stations on my way to the office. One that I listen to frequently, is boom FM 97.3. This is not an advertisement, but I listen to Stu Jeffries in the morning, and there is a feature that I really like, called, “Tell Me Something Good”. What they do in this segment, is highlight some good event, good deed or humorous story. Now, unfortunately those great sentiments often get mitigated once the actual news comes on. It always seems that we’re surrounded by negative messages, bad things happening, numbers of COVID-19 cases creeping up, things being shut down, or somebody saying something awful to somebody that has caused trouble. So, you often feel that good news is exceptional and bad news is ordinary. Therefore, “Tell Me Something Good” seems to me to be a necessary thing right now. Even more so, because as we know, people are suffering from a form of depression. There is clinical depression, that would occur regardless of circumstance, but there is also depression caused by circumstance, where we’re not able to find the good news simply because there is a bleakness at work.
I’ve thought about that because one of the features of our faith is predicated on good news. At the very heart, the very centre of what we believe, is this word “gospel” or in Greek, “evangelio” – good news. At times, the good news gets trampled, or lost, or we forget about it. We get caught up in sentiments and forget the wonderful vicissitudes of our faith. Today I want to correct that. I want to reflect on the good news and do so through this passage from the Gospel of Luke. It’s a strange passage in some ways. It is about joy and rejoicing, and you see those words appearing in the passage three times. On the other hand, it seems like a strange collection of things, and I think it’s fair to say, and biblical scholars agree, that Luke has taken a couple of stories that happened in the life of Jesus, and put them together. But having put them together, they have power, wisdom, and joy all their own. The passage is about trampling on snakes and scorpions, it’s about victory over evil. It’s about how Jesus is unique. We might think that there is nothing much for us in this, but that would not be true.
The story is very simple and beautiful. There is joy in the service of Jesus Christ. We’re told that there were seventy-two sent out to do the mission work of the church. Now, these seventy-two are a loose collection of people. We don’t know who they are by name, but we do know that they followed some instruction from the twelve disciples that Jesus had set apart. These were earliest followers, those who were really on board with his campaign for the kingdom of God. Jesus had given them instructions as to how they should go about their work. He said to go two-by-two to share the good news of the kingdom of God, the imminent presence of God, and the work that is going to happen through Jesus Christ.
They are told that if people invite them to dine, they will dine with them. (I love that part of being a disciple of Jesus: sit down and dine with people). If people reject you shake the dust from your feet and move on – this is where the phrase comes from. In other words, if you don’t get a reception, don’t argue, simply move on and do something else somewhere else. They're told to be itinerant, to keep on the move, but not to wander. So, these seventy-two go out and are astonished by what happens. They come back to Jesus rejoicing, “they have joy in the Lord” Luke tells us. They report to Jesus what they found. They said, “It is remarkable, because even the spirits submit to us in your name.” They are astounded at the spiritual power, and how well this mission is going. They are euphoric. They have joy in the Lord, are achieving great things, and are caught up in it. When you look at the ministry of Jesus, you can see that there are great moments of joy for those who serve Christ and his ministry.
Very often we talk about the cost of discipleship. How following Christ is a costly thing, and sacrifices need to be made. Last week I talked about the necessity of making sacrifices for the good of others, especially these days. Let us not forget that even though there is a cost to discipleship, there is also fundamental joy. There is this overwhelming sense that what we have in our hearts, in our lives, in our faith, and in our community, is good news, because Jesus has come to have victory over the bad news, over evil, and even over the power of death. Jesus has come that we might have life, and have it abundantly, as he said to his disciples. So, we must not be consumed by the cost of discipleship at the expense of the joy. We need to keep them in balance.
Look at Jesus’ own ministry, at his parables, and teachings. Look at the moments when he healed people. Have you noticed, there is always an overwhelming sense of joy? The parable of the ten minas, as they call them, the coin, the value, and how it multiplies if used. The same with the parable of the talents, if you use your talents, they will grow exponentially. Look at the feeding of the five thousand, what turned a few loaves and fishes, into many bringing great joy. Look at the parable of the prodigal son coming home. What do we read? There was great joy and celebration, a feast of fatted calf and robes on the one who returned. Look at the story of the lost sheep, the one that Jesus implies he goes after. There is joy in finding the one, the one that understands that they're precious in God’s sight. Look also at the good Samaritan, and how there is joy in the healing of the man who had been beaten on the side of the road, because of the compassion of the Samaritan.
My point is, that in many instances in the life of Jesus, even before his death and resurrection and the ultimate joy that that brings, he talks about the joy of service, the joy of ministry, the joy that God feels when people’s lives are redeemed, saved, and changed. I think that one of the deadliest things that can happen to us here at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, and indeed to the Church in general, is that we forget the joy of our discipleship. We still enjoy the wonder of worship and beautiful music, and even though we are constrained by current circumstances, we are reaching out to young people through a virtual Sunday school at ten o'clock.
Remember there was also a time when there was even a greater joy, when our sanctuaries were full in celebration. When we looked forward to high moments like Easter and Christmas, the centurions and children singing and the bright lights in the trees. There was joy in that. There was joy in being able to bring seniors together for tea and cake at homecoming services. These great and glorious moments. I don’t think we should lose sight of those moments. They are an integral part of celebrating the good news of Jesus Christ. They will return. When we sing, pray, and do things now, we do them in anticipation of God continuing to do great things for and with us. There is joy in serving the Lord, and this joy is a powerful thing. Let’s not lose sight of that, and let’s maintain it in our hearts, memories, and expectations. Tell me some good news.
There is also another side to this, and that is, the disciples had joy in the acts of God. Their joy was not in themselves. Jesus put it very bluntly to them: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit in your name but rejoice that your name is written in heaven.” The joy that the disciples needed to have was not in their own accomplishments. Sometimes I know, we get a little carried away, even in religious circles, with the things that we do and how wonderful they are and how people respond. That is not what it’s about. There is joy when that occurs, but there is a greater joy in the very grace and the act of God.
Jesus makes this abundantly clear: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit in your name but rejoice that your name is written in heaven.” This notion of names being written in heaven, of course, is symbolic language, but it’s there in the Book of Exodus in Chapter 32, where Moses talks about people’s names being recorded. You will find the same in the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 12. You will also find it in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Chapter Four, where he talks about some of the great saints of the early church and how their names are recorded in heaven. This notion that our names are recorded in heaven, dates back a long time. It is not a literal writing, it is, however, a statement that we matter, that we count, and that God recognises us. That our name is remembered by God.
Something that’s really bothering me right now is that with all the pandemic statistics – and I know I talked about this in late April – there is a tendency for us to think in mathematical terms about what is going on in the world. I know you, like me probably wake up and want to know what the latest numbers are for those who have tested positive with COVID-19. We look at those statistics and under another column we see the number of deaths, and we talk about those deaths as numbers. We reach milestones and our hearts break, but we sometimes forget that behind every one of those digits is a human life known and recognised by God the Creator. For those who follow him, for those who serve him like those seventy-two, or like those disciples, their names are written in heaven.
Jesus says, “Do not get carried away with all your own successes and values, rather celebrate and rejoice in the fact that you are known by God.” The problem is, in a materialistically world, where numbers represent finances, where we think that the accumulation of things is more important than the recognition of our lives being known by God, it is hard to learn the value of life and the precious nature of it.
The great writer, Leo Tolstoy, tells the wonderful story of Pahom, who really wanted to get ahead in life, but wasn’t very wealthy, and thought there was no path forward, no way to be successful. Until one day a farmer brought Pahom to him and said, “I will give you a thousand roubles – or, for a thousand roubles, you can have all the land that you can see. For a thousand roubles, you can have everything.”
Pahom had to think about whether he should take the thousand roubles. He decided to take the thousand roubles and then go and get the land. The deal was this, that whatever land he could walk on and come back to by sunset, he could own. Well, this was incredible for Pahom. He thought. “For a thousand roubles, I can go and get all this land.” He heads out and goes as far as he can, until he realises, “Oh, I’ve got to be back by sunset, I might have gone too far.” So, he quickly rushes back. He’s worried he’s going to lose his thousand roubles, he’s going to lose this land unless he gets back by sunset. He would have nothing at the end of it, not the roubles, not the land, nothing. His greed had driven him so far, he wanted so much land, so he runs back exhausting himself, and finally collapses on the ground just as the sun is setting. The land is his. The problem is, when Pahom fell over, he died and never got to enjoy the land. He was greedy and had gone too far to be able to come back safely, losing his roubles and the land.
Tolstoy asks: “How much land does a person really need?” The answer was, six feet, for that was the size of the coffin Pahom was buried in. Tolstoy was showing that greed can kill us, that putting other things ahead of life can kill us.
Very often that is the big problem in our lives; we’re so driven, we want so much that we forfeit life itself. Jesus was saying to those seventy-two, “don’t be greedy, don’t worry about yourselves, don’t get caught up in yourselves, remember that life is precious and your name is written in heaven. That is the most important thing.” And, the Lord knows, we need to remember that now.
Jesus also looked at the joy in his ministry, and here’s the last part of all of this. It seems strange that Jesus would talk in this ways. He says, “I have joy, or I rejoice in the Holy Spirit, and I am thankful to my Father, who is the Lord of heaven and earth.” He rejoices in the power of the Holy Spirit and what the Holy Spirit has been doing in those seventy-two, but he’s also celebrating what’s happening in his life. In his own ministry, there is victory over evil, healing, and restoring life. Jesus thanks his heavenly Father, the Lord of heaven and earth, for all that is being done.
These are the earliest signs perhaps, of the language that reflects the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is not just a doctrinal statement, it’s about Jesus’ profound sense of gratitude and praise of God the Holy Spirit and God the Father. He knows that his ministry is vital, and he rejoices in this. But what is he rejoicing in? He’s rejoicing in the relationship he has with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. It’s about the bond, the fellowship that exists. When that relationship with God seizes us, we are joyful in that relationship first and foremost. It is almost an inexpressible joy, and it becomes the joy above all other joys. It becomes a foundational joy in our lives.
One of the most beautiful books – and I do recommend it to you – that I have ever read –is Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. In it he talks about his own sense of being grasped by this God who is in relationship with him. He says:
You must picture me alone in my room at Magdalen College, night after night, feeling whenever my mind lifted, even for a second, from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him who I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared has at last come upon me.
In the trinity term of f 1929, I gave in. I admitted that God was God and I knelt and prayed, perhaps that night the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England. I did not see then what is now the most shining and obvious thing, the divine humility, which will accept a convert, even on such terms. The prodigal son at last walked home on his own feet.
“The hardness of God” writes Lewis, “is kinder than the softness of humanity, and His compulsion is our liberation.”
Lewis was grasped as a reluctant person, a person absorbed with himself, someone brilliant in mind, outrageous in imagination, skillful in the things of this world, sitting in one of the most beautiful Oxford colleges. There he is grasped by God. This is when he was surprised by joy, joy grabbed him, and joy held onto him. Even in the darkest moments of his life that came later, it was that joy that sustained him.
Tell me some good news: that in this great God, you have found joy. Tell me that you have found in this God your great compassion for the lives of others. Tell me that you have found this great rejoicing in your heart. Tell me, tell me, tell me some good news. This is what we need to hear. Amen.