Series: The Other Lord’s Prayer
#5: Christ’s Gift of Joy
John 16:19-22 and 17:12-13 (NIV)
Joy. That’s an odd theme for a service on All Saint’s Sunday! We usually associate joy with the season of Advent, as we light the Advent candles, one of which is “The Candle of Joy.” That’s the time of year we sing “Joy to the World,” and are reminded of the joy of those shepherds “abiding in the fields,” to whom the choir of angels sang, “I bring you good tidings of great joy.”
Or we associate joy with Easter Sunday, as we celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The women and men who visited the tomb and found it empty rejoiced that Jesus was raised to life on the third day, just as he had promised. There is no day in the Christian calendar more joyful than Easter.
But All Saints’ Sunday? Today is a somber day of remembrance of those we have lost. This is a service for comforting those who are continuing to grieve the death of someone they have loved. It’s not a day we associate with Joy.
Yet, here we are – All Saints’ Sunday, and we are focusing on joy. Of course, the reason we are doing so is because, during this sermon series, I am preaching through the 17thchapter of John – a chapter that records the longest prayer of Jesus, the prayer he prayed in the Upper Room just before he was arrested, tried, and crucified. He prayed that his coming death and resurrection might reveal God’s glory, and that God’s glory might come to rest upon all those who place their faith in him. Then he prayed that all believers who put their trust in him might be one in heart and mind, so that the unbelieving world may come to faith. And now, he asks his Father to bless his disciples with a full-measure of joy.
Joy. It still seems out of place, doesn’t it? Here Jesus is, about to endure unimagined anguish and suffering, and his prayer is that his disciples experience – joy. Even though he knows that the disciples are about to face trials and tribulations far beyond anything they could imagine, even though he is aware that less than 24 hours from that moment they would have to watch him die in agony, Jesus asks God to give them joy. How can they have joy? Their master and friend was about to be nailed to a cross and die a gruesome death, and they are expected to have joy?! It doesn’t make sense, does it?
The reason we have difficulty making sense of this is because we misunderstand what Jesus means by joy. The joy Jesus desires for us has very little in common with the watered-down anemic understanding you and I often have of joy, a joy that is fleeting and conditional. Just as in another place in John’s Gospel, Jesus prays that we might have peace, but not a peace like the world offers us, here he prays that we might have joy, but not the empty joy the world offers. And, just as he says that he came to bring us a more abundant life, he offers us a more abundant joy.
What is the nature of this joy for which Jesus prayed? Well, before we look at what this joy is, maybe it’s helpful to say what it isn’t:
It’s not a false joy, the kind of phony “joy” we find in our world. There are people who always seem to be on an emotional high – they are so Pollyannaish that you know they are faking it sometimes. Their “joy” is so sickeningly sweet that they send you into sugar shock. They put on a show of joy – perhaps to impress others, but sometimes they do it to mask the sadness and desperation of their lives. Phony joy is not what Jesus is talking about.
He also not referring to those people who have a “grin and bear it” kind of joy. They know they are supposed to be joyful , so they say, “I’m going to be joyful, even it kills me!” They may say they have joy, but you’d never know it to look at their lives. You’ve known people like that: they call themselves Christians, but look like they were baptized in vinegar. They smile through clinched teeth. Their version of “joy” is just as phony as the sweet syrupy kind.
And Christian joy is also not “fair-weather” joy– a “joy” that is on-again, off-again, dependent on how our lives are going at the time. Jesus warned about this kind of shallow joy when he told the parable of the soils in Mark 4 (:16-17), as he described seeds that fall on rocky ground, that sprouted but soon dried up because they didn’t put down roots. 16… “When they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17 But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” They lose their joy.
Most of us are guilty of this anemic kind of “joy” – I know I am. My joy is often “fair-weather” only. I’m great at being positive and enthusiastic when life is going well. But let something go wrong in my life, and I’m a “Gloomy Gus.” (You can just ask my wife…)
I’m not a “Gloomy Gus” right now in my life, but honestly, I can’t really say I am “joyful,” either. Perhaps it’s the tensions and conflicts we are seeing in America these days. Maybe it has to do with the fact that for the past eight years, my life and health has been overshadowed by prostate cancer and the uncertainty such a diagnosis brings to your life. Perhaps it’s just a “funk” I am in at the moment. I don’t know.
It’s hard to focus on Joy this morning when we are feeling so much sorrow, remembering the saints. Today we are focusing our thoughts and prayers not only on those we have lost, we are also supporting those who continue to grieve. We can almost empathize with those disciples facing their own troubles and grief. Just as they needed to be reminded to be joyful, so do we.
It’s amazing how easy it is for us to lose our joy when life is hard. If our joy is genuine, it shouldn’t be that way, Jesus is saying.
So, the joy Jesus is referring to isn’t phony, or forced, or fair-weather. True Christian joy is deeper and more resilient than that. It’s a joy that flows out of our faith.
I think the problem we have in comprehending this kind of joy is that we have confused joy with happiness. In his prayer, Jesus isn’t speaking of a shallow happiness. He is referring to a deep abiding sense of joy. Happiness is dependent on circumstances – we get a job, and we’re happy; we get married, and we’re happy; we have a baby, and we’re happy; we retire, and we are happy. But what happens when circumstances turn against us – when we lose our job; or our house is in foreclosure, or a loved one dies; or we get sick – what then? We definitely are not happy. But we still can be joyful – in spite of our circumstances.
It is a joy that carries us through the dark and troubled times of our lives. It can do that because it is not dependent upon circumstances. Instead it is grounded in a relationship with the One who gives joy – Jesus Christ. Our circumstances may change, but our relationship with God through our faith in Jesus Christ remains constant.
That’s what Jesus was praying for that night. Of course, as we read the text, it is obvious that he was praying for his friends that, despite the horror that was about to unfold before them, they might not lose the joy they had found in following him. They would need his joy within them if they were to survive what was to come.
But elsewhere in his prayer, he makes it clear that he also was praying for all those who would ever come to believe in him; He prayed that no matter how challenging the situations of our lives may become, God will grant us a deep and abiding joy that transcends our circumstances – a joy that rests solely on our relationship with God.
That was good news to the disciples in that Upper Room, whose lives were about to become exponentially more difficult. And it is good news to each of us on this All Saints’ Sunday. It is good news to know that no matter how problematic our personal lives may be – in spite of the trials and tribulations you and I are going through, we can still experience joy – the “full-measure” of joy Jesus makes available to us when we have faith in the promises of God.
So, that’s why joy is an appropriate theme for us to reflect on All Saints’ Sunday – it reminds us that no matter how dark and difficult our journey may be, even leading to a cross and a tomb, there is joy, because there is the promise of an Easter dawn. The journey those Disciples were on led to Good Friday, but it didn’t stop there – Easter was just around the corner! And there is an Easter around the corner for us, as well!
As Jesus said to his confused and discouraged disciples in John chapter 16, he says to you and me, “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (John 16:22)
A thousand years before the night Jesus prayed for us, King David put the same truth beautifully and simply (Ps. 30:5) when he wrote: “Tears may flow in the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (GNT)
You and I are able to endure the gloom of our own Calvaries, because God has promised that joy will come in the morning!
Those we remember today have experienced that Easter joy. And the good news is that you can, too.
Much of the structure and content of this sermon is based on an audio sermon online, preached by James Jones Jr. http://www.deridderpresbyterian.org/Sermons/john.htm