We had a video malfunction at St. Paul Church last weekend, so the service didn’t get recorded. Since it was the second week in a four-part series, I thought it would be nice to make the sermon available, in case someone was trying to follow along. So, what follows is the manuscript of the sermon from June 29. The series is called “Hope Overflowing in You!”, and the structure and content are related to the series I taught at this year’s Joni and Friends Family Retreat in Muskegon, Michigan. If you are interested in the videos of the other sermons in this series, you can check out our channel on Vimeo.
Jesus the Son is Your Source of Joy
Charles Spurgeon was a preacher in England in the late 1800’s. He has been called by many “The Prince of Preachers”, for there is no preacher who has had an output to match his, he had enormous impact upon the lost in his day, and he was a skillful preacher. However, as is the case with any pastor, he had his critics. One of those critics had this to say:
“His style is that of the vulgar colloquial, varied by rant … All the most solemn mysteries of our holy religion are by him rudely, roughly and impiously handled. Common sense is outraged and decency disgusted. His rantings are interspersed with coarse anecdotes” It sounds like at least on these counts, I can relate to Spurgeon!
Others said he was too jovial, bringing too much humor into his messages. He responded that his critics would close their mouths if they knew how much of his humor he left out.
At the same time, for all of his robustness and apparently offensive humor, Charles Spurgeon lived with sorrow. In 1856, when he was only 22, but already wildly famous, he scheduled a service at the Music Hall of the Royal Surrey Gardens because his own church could not hold the expected crowd. In fact, the Music Hall was also too small, and the crowd swelled to an estimated 10,000 beyond the hall’s capacity. When someone yelled “Fire!”, there was a great panic, and in the stampede 7 people were killed and scores more were seriously injured. Spurgeon was overcome with grief, and the event haunted his thoughts for the rest of his life. Many who were close to him believed that it was one of the elements that fed his life-long battle with depression.
He also knew sufferings at home. His wife Susannah dealt with physical ailments which rendered her homebound by the time she was 33; she was virtually never seen in public the last 27 years of Spurgeon’s life.
And he knew physical sufferings of his own. He suffered from gout, rheumatism and Bright’s disease (inflammation of the kidneys). His first attack of gout came in 1869 at the age of 35. It became progressively worse so that it was estimated that “approximately one third of the last twenty-two years of his ministry was spent out of the Tabernacle pulpit, either suffering, or convalescing, or taking precautions against the return of illness”.
In other words, for more than half of his ministry, he endured chronic, debilitating pain that kept him from his labor which he adored. And then, at age 57, he died while convalescing in France.
Charles Spurgeon lived a life of suffering, and yet he also still had great joy, which people seemed ready to hold against him.
There was another preacher who was considered a bit too much of a partier. His critics didn’t like that he consistently choice to hang around with a dubious crowd.
And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luk 15:2 ESV)
Have you ever had the parenting experience of a child having a meltdown in public? Do you remember the withering looks of judgment you got from the people around you? Imagine the looks Jesus got!
And clearly, the word got around to Jesus (as it usually does to preachers, eventually), because he responded:
“The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man, and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!’ (Luk 7:34 NAS)
Clearly, his critics thought that Jesus was enjoying himself too much. And it does seem that many who encountered Jesus went away with joy. At the same time, Jesus lived a life that clearly mingled joy and sorrow. His compassionate grief moved him to action when he encountered those who were suffering. Matthew and Mark tell us he had compassion on the crowds who he saw as being like sheep without a shepherd. And he ultimately gave his life in sacrifice, enduring torture and then a horrible, criminal death on a cross. And he knew this was coming. We don’t know how far in advance he knew what he knew, but he clearly knew that he was going to suffer. And in the midst of the suffering of his creation, and the awareness of his coming pain, Jesus lived with joy.
I think of John as the gospel of Jesus’ joy, because John records Jesus not only living with joy, but teaching in chapters 15-17 about his own joy, and his mission to extend his joy to those who follow him.
I told you last week that Hope is a word which has a far more robust meaning than we usually assign to it. We talked about it as a kind of Holy Dissatisfaction with the way life is, and a confidence in God to deliver the shalom he has promised. The same is true of the word Joy, which is in our sights this morning.
The cultural usage of Joy is essential the pinnacle of happiness. A synonym of words like delight, jubilation, glee, exuberance, elation, euphoria, bliss – but, of course, still an ephemeral experience, something that is subject to change when our circumstances change. But I want to assert today that that’s not joy – there’s something bigger than that. Something that Charles Spurgeon got. Something that Jesus got! Something that some of you already get, and that I believe the rest of you can take hold of today.
You may have heard preachers say that joy is not merely extreme happiness, because happiness is about our circumstances, and joy is not. I’ve said the same thing myself in the past, but I want to amend that idea today. Today I want to tell you that joy is related to happiness, and at the same time it supersedes happiness. The key is that we need to improve our definition of what “our circumstances” are.
Right now, take your index finger, and hold it up about six inches in front of your face. Focus your eyes on that finger, and as you do, recognize how everything beyond that is out of focus. Then, while keeping your finger where it is, shift your focus to the distance, perhaps to something on the wall of the room you are in, or to the greatest distance you can see. When you put the deepest part of your field of vision into focus, your finger is still in your sight, but it’s completely out of focus, and instead you are seeing much more.
Your finger is like the circumstances that are happening to you right now. Meanwhile, the longest of our circumstances is actually the eternal Kingdom which we are awaiting when Jesus the Christ returns. Since we believe that is a sure hope that will come to pass, and because God has invited us to live in that Kingdom, that is part of the circumstances of our lives just as much as what is happening right this minute. Joy is the state of God-centered pleasure that comes from looking at the deepest or longest view of our circumstances, which brings into view the full restoration of all things by God through Jesus Christ and puts our present circumstances into proper perspective. It goes beyond happiness because happiness is normally grounded in a short view of our circumstances, and is therefore subject to change when short-term circumstances take a painful turn.
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth described joy in the Bible as “…’a defiant ‘Nevertheless!’ that Paul sets like a full stop against the Philippians’ anxiety….”
I think that’s what Charles Spurgeon understood – in spite of his near-term circumstances, he was fully confident in the hope that God has brought through Jesus Christ, and so he lived a defiant nevertheless against anxiety and despair.
Now think about the life experience of Jesus. Jesus came to earth and lived in the midst of the sorrow of his own broken creation. Imagine that! My cousin Michelle lives in Washington, Illinois, which suffered a devastating tornado last year. We are grateful that their family was safe, and in fact the storm’s damage path was just blocks from their house. We have all seen pictures of families walking back into their homes after that sort of devastation, looking at the bits of framing that are left, things twisted and bent out of shape, perhaps a few family heirlooms scattered around. Now imagine for a moment if you had built your own house, with your own hands and labor. Imagine what it would feel like to walk through that wreckage knowing that it was not only your financial investment, but your creative energies, your craftsmanship that had been leveled.
Jesus came and walked the earth, every day for three decades, and saw the devastation that sin had wrought on his creative craftsmanship, the ways that human rebellion had twisted souls, had mangled lives. And yet, Jesus was able to convey joy. How can that be?
Because he had a longer view. Because he knew that he had come to announce and begin the coming of the Kingdom of God. Because he used the power of God within him to give a preview of that Kingdom over and over again – restoring brokenness in people’s bodies, and also brokenness in people’s spirits. Because he came bringing salvation. Jesus could have joy, even as he was sorrowful over the state of people being like sheep without a shepherd, or the death of a dear friend like Lazarus, or even the cup that he had to bear in going to Calvary, because he knew that deeper in the frame was the resurrection, and his ascension to heaven to prepare a place for his disciples, and the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of billions of disciples, and his return as the King with the fullness of restoration, and the reign of a kingdom which has no end.
This is why and how Jesus is the source of our joy. His work has created the longest of our circumstances, and he has secured that hope, and he has shown us that it is possible to live in light of that long view, rather than the short view of our immediate context.
The big question for us, then, is how do we access the joy of which Jesus is the source? And the best answer I know comes from John 15-17, which I mentioned before. In particular, let’s look at John 15:4-11, where Jesus speaks about the Vine and the Branches.
4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.
5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.
10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
(John 15:4-11 ESV)
The promise about having access to the joy of Jesus is at the end of the section, but the primary instruction in the passage is in verse 4 – “abide in me, and I in you”. This is a command type of statement, as you can probably tell – he’s not asking, he’s saying, “do this. Abide in me.” What does it mean to abide? Simply, to stay. The word is talking about staying in a place, about residing, or remaining where you are. So, if Jesus says that he is a vine, like the master vine in a vineyard, and he says that we are branches off of that vine, like the shoots that grow off from the master vine, then to abide in him means to retain that relationship. Don’t leave. Don’t imagine that you can collect the wisdom of Jesus but then strike out on your own, and replant yourself without his ongoing nourishment. That’s actually really simple, I think, and it’s related to the first commandment Israel had from Yahweh: don’t have any other gods before me. I’m the one who brought you out of Egypt and slavery – who else do you need? Jesus is saying, “I’m the one who brought you out of the slavery to sin, out of the old way of trying to do things your own way – who else do you need?”
When we do this, he says, we have fruitful lives. When we do this, he says, the Lord gives us the things that we ask for (keep in mind that he is saying that when we are saturated in the mission of Jesus, what we ask for will be things that it is good and wise for God to give us, and he will). Above all, though, he says that when we do this, we abide in his love. And then v. 10 tells us what it looks like to abide in his love: we keep his commandments. Oh, and he says “commandments”, but then in verse 12, he actually gives one commandment. Just one! But it’s a real one: “love one another as I have loved you.” We don’t have enough time to unpack all of the implications of that statement today, but we are brought back to many ways of asking ourselves if the way we are loving another person fits with the way Jesus loved us. Are we being sacrificial? Are we being generous? Are we being forgiving? You see how this goes, right?
When we are really satisfied with Jesus and his work and his provision and his promises, and the hope he has accomplished for us, then we will be content to do what he teaches us, not what anyone else wants to teach us. Then we will be eager to follow his commands, and not to go wandering, and when that happens, then we have his joy. Live his type of life, trust his provision, experience his joy. That’s really it. Simple – but not always easy, right? Not a lot of steps. Not a giant checklist for you. But steps that many of us find consistently challenging, because of the tendency toward idolatry in our hearts. And that idolatry in our hearts springs up from that looking at our near-term circumstances and getting anxious from them. But when we re-focus, when we look at the long-term circumstances, and we remember that Jesus is working out the necessary steps to his eternal kingdom, then we can say “I’m not necessarily enjoying this right now, but I know where we’re going, and I’m looking forward to that.”
We have all seen more than our share of highway construction. Lots of heavy equipment rearranging the terrain, moving earth and removing old pavement. It causes long delays at times and traffic gets backed up. It has become accepted as one of the headaches of traveling.
In one construction area, in Ohio, there was an unusual amount of tension. The motorists were becoming hostile and the workers were frustrated. So, to resolve this tension one worker resorted to some humor and purchased bumper stickers for the heavy equipment. They all said the same thing: “The road to happiness is almost always under construction.”
Let’s change that to: the road to joy is almost always under construction. Or the road to hope is almost always under construction. Or the road to the eternal kingdom. You decide which of those you like best.
The key is that this life is connected to that life. But the key is that we look at that road, stretching out in front of us, and we say, “Nevertheless, we’re still going to the same place, the promised place, the place where he’s preparing for us right now. And we can’t wait to get there!” So we can live here, and now, with Jesus’ joy.