The Meaning of Joy
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Philippians 4: 4 -9. Focus on how pleasure never brings joy, but joy is found in confronting loss and anger and overcoming it. Check out Jody Sinkway and the choir following the sermon.
The story of the Golden calf reminds us that we do not come into the kingdom of heaven on our own terms. And the same can be said of joy because joy isn’t something that we can give ourselves. Joy is a rare and precious thing – something that is a gift from God.
We have synonyms for joy words like happiness and pleasure but there really is nothing that equals joy. Happiness or pleasure has to do with what and how we pursue the things of this life. For some it might be the pursuit of money or things, or the acquisition of knowledge or power or personal gratification but when the Bible speaks about joy it is speaking about something that transcends the natural pleasures we pursue in life. Joy as the Bible understands it is the pursuit of God.
Look at human relationships especially between the sexes. It is possible to use another person to obtain pleasure or to escape pain but it is not possible to do so and obtain joy. And the reason for this is that pursuit of pleasure in and of itself cannot fulfill who we are. It may accomplish the goal of offering us pleasure or the avoidance of pain, but it does not offer joy because it does not see the other person as a human being but as an object or a means to an end.
I think this is why there is so little joy alive in us today. Our whole way of being it seems is to see each other as objects to be either sought after or avoided. The way we do business, the way we engage in political discourse the way we treat each other has less to do with who we are as human beings today than it does with trying to manipulate others for our own gain, be it political, economic or personal gain. It’s as if life has become a commodity where the only thing of value is what I can get out of you or you out of me.
And when this happens we have a fundamental breakdown in reality. God has told us that what is of value are people and the creation. What we have told ourselves is that what matters are these things that we have created things that we call currency. Things that we can trade or hoard, things that we have given ultimate value to, but things that were never built into the creation by God.
So in a sense the divisions within our society and the breakdown of civility in our discourse and in our disagreements might be nothing more than God’s wake up call to see that what is disappearing is our illusion of what is real and what is important. The destruction of the idea that all that matters is money, power and things. We haven’t exactly turned the corner yet where we have come to the conclusion that what matters is this process of valuing each other that God calls us to be about. It is in this process that joy can be found. In this sense joy is nothing else than being fulfilled and valued for who we really are. And this fulfillment is possible only if we come together as human beings.
When the Bible speaks of rejoicing in the Lord it is calling us to wake up from our illusion that what we have created is fundamentally more important to reality and life than what God has created. As human being we can create things but only God can create a human being. And by making us in the divine image what God is saying to us is that people matter more to God than anything we create be it a golden calf or a monetary system. People are more fundamental to life than are things.
So when we abandon rejoicing in the Lord we pick up lesser pursuits that have a way of creating the illusion that things – the things we make – are more important than what God has made, which is you and me. Joy is born out of the union with all the others who have been created in the image and likeness of God. That’s what’s fundamental that’s what we’re called to dwell on. All the other stuff is human made. It is secondary to the purpose of creation.
I think one of the reasons we desire after our pleasures rather than God’s joy is the feeling of emptiness, sadness or pain that’s inside of all of us from time to time. So we try to escape from the loneliness of being stuck inside ourselves, but instead of reaching out to other human beings or the world in a genuine way we end of using others and the creation for a kind of pleasure, which leads to a shallow distracting greedy way of being with one another. It’s a kind of pleasure that is easily commercialized because it depends upon calculable reactions and results.
The most manipulative technology can be found in the “Like” button on Facebook, because it creates an addiction to Facebook. How many likes did I get today? Why didn’t more people like what I posted? Why did my friend get more likes than me? Wow so and so sure does get to go to many more places than I do.
But its biggest detriment of it all is that it lacks the one essential thing that is needed for all life, which is love. It manipulates us on purpose, they have psychologists that study our emotions and then they design what will get our attention and hold it. This is nothing new, Madison Avenue was built upon this but when you can reach over 2 billion people per day, its impact is enormous. It creates a false sense of community where you feel like your connected to others but you are not. Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying to disconnect. I’m saying be aware of its illusions.
Of all the dangers that threaten us, this is one I worry about the most, because it is the escape from our emptiness through pleasure or anger, which makes joy impossible. Joy comes out of sorrow and pain, which require direct connection first to God and then to one another.
We can deal with and understand sorrow, because it is the feeling that we all get when we are deprived of something essential, something that belongs to us and is necessary to our fulfillment. But it is precisely to this state of sorrow that Jesus tells us that his joy shall be with us and that our joy shall be made complete. And do you know why? Because joy has something within itself, which lies on the other side of sorrow and that something is called the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.
And the reason this is good news for us today is that it does not come from us, it comes from God who does not diminish the reality of risk, suffering or loss, but instead embraces them and in so doing gives our lives meaning and fulfillment. And where there is meaning and fulfillment there is joy – the inner aim of all life – the very essence of God’s kingdom and of salvation itself. Amen