Sermon 25


Rejoice in the Lord

Ecclesiastes 2:25

August 12, 2007


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

            With so much suffering in Christianity (Matthew 10:25; 1 Peter 2:21), you might think there wouldn’t be any joy at all. But that’s not so. For even though Christians are called to deny themselves (Luke 9:23), that doesn’t wipe away all joy. And just because we’re to renounce all things (Luke 14:33), that doesn’t mean doing away with every kind of joy. And even though we’re to make “no provisions for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14), that still leaves room for joy in our hearts. And just because we’re to take up “the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12), that doesn’t mean we’ll have no time to rejoice. And because we stand against drunkenness, fornication and adultery (Galatians 5:19-21; Matthew 5:27-28), that doesn’t make us sourpusses. Nor does that happen because we’re against “laying up treasures on earth” (Matthew 6:19). And just because Jesus taught that our family isn’t necessarily our blood relatives, but only those who “do the will of God” – whoever they may be (Mark 3:33-35) – that doesn’t make us lonely and forsaken. Williams Blake (1757-1827), therefore, doesn’t have the last word when he writes these memorable, biting lines [Complete Writings ( Oxford , 1969) p. 215]:


And Priests in black gowns

were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars

my joys and desires.


Joy Unparalleled

No, in spite of all these misgivings and concerns, Christians still are joyous people – in spite of all their voluntary suffering and loss. Christians, in fact, even believe that “apart from God” (Ecclesiastes 2:25), there can be no true joy! And this is because having everything we want doesn’t save us from “vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11) – no, never. And furthermore, there’s what has been called a “hedonistic paradox,” which says, that the more we try to please ourselves, the less happy we actually are [Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (1884, 1907, 1966) pp. 48, 136]! This paradox makes the report especially pitiful, of a Janet Downes in Bellevue, Nebraska, who married herself in front of her own mirror, with friends looking on, because she was “happy with herself” (Newsweek, June 29, 1998, p. 19).

Now this deep, gloomy impediment to human happiness is confirmed again and again throughout the generations. So it’s worth noting, the somewhat crude observation, that


pornography is a form of utopian literature and, like the advertising of desire, it set a standard that brought on paralysis. When an erectifying drug was put on the market [Viagra], the millions who rushed to obtain it numbered the healthy young as well as the ailing old, and women at once demanded its feminine equivalent. It was apparently not known that desire must be damned up to be self-renewing [Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000) p. 790].


In the face of this paradox, Christianity offers something else. Instead of trampling down all joys, as the critics allege, Christianity offers a durable joy that cannot be found elsewhere (John 6:68) – an unparalleled joy from God himself. For he not only takes away (Luke 14:33), but also “lavishes” abundance upon us (Ephesians 1:8; John 10:10; Psalms 31:19, 36:8, 145:7). So even though the Christian life is troubled over many things, Christians still are “always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). This is because Christians pray that they might have their hearts “fixed where true joy is found,” namely in the joys “that are eternal” [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) pp. 21-22].

So being superficially happy isn’t enough because it doesn’t last long – for whatever’s quickly acquired is hard to keep. We therefore want something more durable and thorough – and we can find that only in a life with God. This is better because it’s not subject to the “fleeting pleasures” of earthly life, but rather dwells in a “lasting city” (Hebrews 11:25, 13:14). And that city is our life with the Almighty and Everlasting God. So when the vicissitudes of history strike us, this joy won’t give way (Matthew 7:24-27). And when the calamities of life befall us, it doesn’t cave in. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), therefore, rightly compares this stability to a refreshing spring:


Imagine a solitary in the desert; almost scorched by the heat of the sun, dying of thirst, he finds a spring. Ah, delicious coolness! Now I am provided for, God be praised…. Your faithful coolness, O beloved spring, is not subject to change. In the cold of winter, if it were to reach here, you do not become colder but keep exactly the same coolness; the water of a spring does not freeze! In the noonday heat of summer you keep exactly your unchanged coolness; the water of a spring does not become tepid!.... O God, you Changeless One, you, unchanged, are always to be found and are always to be found unchanged…. No one strays so far away that he cannot find his way back to you, you who are not only like a spring that lets itself be found [but also] like a spring that even searches for the thirsting, the straying (Kierkegaard’s Writings 23:280-281).


Joy Unrefined

But even this durable joy from the eternal God cannot turn life into a bowl of cherries – where all we have is pure, refined, unmixed joy and nothing more. No, even with this gift from God, tribulations remain (John 16:33). For we still live in a crooked, perverse and adulterous generation (Mark 8:38; Philippians 2:15) which saddens us. We know we’re not safe here – being subject to roadside attacks, political tyranny, and many other hazards (Luke 10:30; Acts 7:58, 8:1-3). And wars still continue to erupt because we’re greedy (James 4:1-3). Demons also attack us on every side (Ephesians 6:11-16; 1 John 5:19). In his Large Catechism (1529) [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) pp. 428-429], Martin Luther therefore writes:


It is unbelievable how the devil opposes us…. Like a furious foe, he raves and rages with all his power and might…. He stirs up [our flesh and the world], fanning and feeding the flames, in order to hinder us, put us to flight, cut us down, and bring us at once more under his power…. For this end he strives without rest day and night, using all the arts, tricks, ways, and means that he can devise. Therefore we who would be Christians must surely count on having the devil with all his angels and the world as our enemies and must count on their inflicting every possible misfortune and grief upon us…. Let nobody think that he will have peace.


And, as if this were not enough, death itself pursues us as our final, worst enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). Yet all this sadness cannot drown out the light that brings us joy (John 1:5; Matthew 16:18).

            So our joy is an unrefined, mixed bag, remaining riddled with sorrows. For indeed, “Jesus Christ did not come to bring a design for an ideal society, [by] making the kingdom of God come on earth by means of our reforms and our political and social activity” [Jacques Ellul, “On Christian Pessimism” (1954), in Sources and Trajectories (1997) p. 106]. Wishing and imagining such pessimism away, is only a dream born of spiritual blindness. And this blindness leaves us looking delusory and silly. It flies in the face of our Scriptural revelation. For there we learn that Jesus himself was “consumed with a constant sorrow,” leaving him not “much joy during His earthly sojourn” (Luther’s Works 22:236-237; Luke 19:41). So, even he, would have sounded silly, walking the roads of Capernaum, whistling, say, Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” (1936), or George Bruns’ “That Happy Rag” (1957), or the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” (1964), or the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (1968) – since “worldly gaiety” wasn’t his bag (LW 52:108). No, a far better song for him would have been the 17th century German hymn, “Soul, Adorn Yourself With Gladness” (LBW, Hymn 224), sung to that sober tune of Schmücke dich.

            So Kierkegaard indeed had it right to see joy trembling with pain – for only then is it truly Christian:


Just as Scripture says that faith and hope without love are only sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal, so also joy proclaimed without mentioning the pain is only sounding brass and tinkling cymbal; unheeded, it whistles past the ear of the suffering one; it sounds on the ear but it does not resound in the heart; it agitates the ear but is not treasured within. But the voice that quivers with pain and still proclaims joy – yes, this forces its way in through his ear and descends into his heart and is treasured there (Søren Kierkegaard’s Journal & Papers, Hong Edition, §2:2183).


Joy Unbounded

Christians therefore are joyous – but they “let joy size, at God knows when, to God knows what” [The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Fourth Edition (1918, 1970) p. 103]. That is to say, their joy isn’t ordinary – it’s not bound by the usual ways of looking at happiness. No, it rather conforms to God’s ways (Isaiah 55:8). So, like Christian peace, which passes all understanding and isn’t of the worldly variety (Philippians 4:7; John 14:27), Christian joy – which is another offspring of that same divine Spirit (Galatians 5:22) – also “marches to the beat of a different drummer” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854). It, like Christian peace, is also unworldly and godly – anything but ordinary.

This is because Christian joy has a different grounding. It doesn’t fluctuate with the stock market or according to one’s health – for they don’t determines its size, if you will. No, this joy is instead determined by God – he is its source, its grounding, its origin. And so we are famously told to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). This is an exuberant joy that refreshes us always. Rejoice in the Lord always, it says. In fact “a Christian, as a child of God, must always rejoice, always sing, fear nothing, always be free from care, and always glory in God” (LW 29:177). And that constancy makes our joy formidable – and us “mettlesome” or brave (BC, p. 553). It therefore can sustain you, whether you’re rich or poor, sick or healthy, popular or rejected, lonely or busy. That is because “adversity and good fortune” are “alike in us” (LW 4:149, 8:10), since our internal life with God is neither verified nor falsified by what happens around us – externally. So we strive to be “neither elated by praise nor cast down by insults” (LW 27:102). This gives us a “poise” that breeds joy (LW 44:77).

 So without this joy, you’re in deep trouble, for the peace and hope that it brings with it, will be lacking as well. And then fear will set in and with it greed and selfishness, from which will follow cruelty and violence. So Christian joy is not insubstantial. Rather it can change lives mightily – making us strong by its presence or wretched by its absence. For the same happens with Christ – being the stench of death to unbelievers, but the sweet fragrance of hope for his followers (2 Corinthians 2:16). So “simply cleave to and cling to Christ…. If you have that, you have all; but if you lose that, you have lost all” (LW 23:55).

So “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth… For your life is hid with Christ in God,” where this true joy is found. Therefore “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:2-3, 16). “Abide in the womb of the Word,” so that you may think “in the way Scripture does’ (LW 17:93, 25:261). For Christ is the source of your joy, and that is why you are to rejoice in him always (Philippians 4:4). For “our real joy… is, that by means of faith, our sins become no longer ours but Christ’s…. He took upon himself our sins” (LW 31:190). So


the freedom with which Christ has set us free [is] not from some human slavery or tyrannical authority, but from the eternal wrath of God…. This is a theological or spiritual freedom… that makes us unafraid of the wrath to come (LW 27:4).


So Christ solves our biggest problem and thereby gives us a joy that sails above all the fortunes and misfortunes of life – since they are nothing compared with being damned in hell for all eternity. That’s why he didn’t heal all the sick when he lived in Israel (Mark 1:32-39) – for he had bigger fish to fry, namely, dying for the sins of the world that all who believe in him might be set free from hell (John 3:36; 1 Timothy 1:15, 2:5-6; 1 John 2:1-2; 4:10; Hebrews 9:26; Romans 8:2-4; 1 Peter 3:18). For indeed, “only Christ, the mediator, can be pitted against God’s wrath and judgment” (BC, p. 136; Romans 5:9).

            So this joy in Christ cannot be found elsewhere, since only he died for our sins. Trying to find lasting joy in nature, human companionship or within ourselves is fruitless. These are all blind alleys and dead end streets – born of sinful human flesh. So don’t go barking up these wrong trees! Rather “suppress and cast out the salvation, peace, life, and grace of the flesh” (LW 14:335). This is because this fleshly life is not a source of joy but only of “vexation” (LW 8:114). So our joy “cannot be full until we see… God’s will alone prevailing [in]… the life to come” (LW 24:399-401).


Joy Unfolding

Even though this joy is embedded in our faith in Christ, it also has external ramifications that must unfold – what Kierkegaard called its “existential consequences” (Journals & Papers, Hong §6:6726). For without these developments and elaborations (2 Peter  1:5-11), faith dies (James 2:26) and can no longer produce the joy that give us our strength (Nehemiah 8:10).

            1. Nature. So first, we must wean ourselves off of nature, for it cannot give us a lasting joy. Gripped by the beauty of a sunset or the glamour of a red rose or the majesty of a snow-peaked mountain, we might think otherwise – but to no avail. For the Bible stops us cold in all such ventures. In Genesis 3:18 we’re told that “thorns and thistles” are the resilient earmarks of nature. This is in keeping with Alfred Lord Tennyson great poem, In Memoriam (1850), where he writes that nature is “red in tooth and claw” (§56:4). So we mustn’t sanitize nature. We mustn’t overlook storms (see David Laskin, Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather, 1996), disease (see Donald R. Hopkins, The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History, 2002), epidemics (Pete Davies, The Devil’s Flu, 2000) and parasites (Carl Zimmer, Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures, 2000). Our plant surely needs remaking (2 Peter 3:13)!

            The Bible also keeps before us famines, floods and earthquakes. Nature periodically erupts, thereby discouraging us from finding any comfort in it. Take, for instance, Numbers 16:32, where “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed” up people, households, and goods. Nevertheless, as Gerhard O. Forde (1927-2005) explains (“Without a Card,” Concord , March 1975):

It is hard for us to learn the lesson of creation…. that there is just the gift to be… cared for…. We [instead wrongfully] seek the secret behind the scenes, to wrest from creation the answer to our agony.


Russell Banks, in his novel Cloudsplitter (1998), helps disabuse us of such a Romantic view of nature:


The man was sick with insect bits – his face, neck, and hands were puffed up like an adder. He and his companions appeared to have been stung a thousand times by mosquitoes and by the wretched clouds of black flies that populate the forests here. They swarm like a pestilence and are so numerous as to madden and blind a deer and drive it into the water and cause it to drown. If you don’t cover your skin with grease or carry a smutch, they can cloud out the light of day, fill your nostrils and ears, and swell up the flesh of your face until your eyes are forced shut (p. 198).


            2. Human Companionship. And secondly we cannot trust in others to give us joy either (Jeremiah 17:5-6; John 2:24; LW 1:122, 2:301). In the end they’re just too fickle – despite what they promise. So we sing (Lutheran Book of Worship, Hymn 443):


Watch and see, you are free

From false friends who charm you

While they seek to harm you.


            3. Ourselves. And finally we can’t even find joy in ourselves, since we too are untrustworthy (Luke 17:10, 18:9) – “selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours” (The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, p. 101). This is because we are too distorted by sin which has turned us in on ourselves – incurvatus in se (LW 25:291).

            So “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12), which includes pitting the spirit against the flesh which opposes it (Galatians 5:17). Call on God for help and he will see to it that you prevail (Luke 11:13) for he wants you at work in his kingdom. Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)