The Gift of Joy

How many of you are happy all the time? Every waking minute of your lives? C’mon now… raise your hands! No one? No one at all?

How many of you are joyful? How many of you have the joy of the Lord in your heart every day? Maybe a few?

This morning – we have the blessed opportunity to remember the Spirit’s gift of JOY in our lives. This IS the day that the Lord has made, so let us rejoice and be glad in it… Let us pray.

The first question that comes to my mind when we think about this thing called joy is: What is it? In the scriptures, we read about joy all the time. We hear familiar scriptures about how we are supposed to rejoice always, about how the faithful break out into joyful song and shouting… but really… what is that allusive thing called joy… and how do we experience it?

Let’s take a journey back into time and revisit one of those familiar stories from our childhood. Shari has already reminded us of this tale of adventure and miracle, as Moses led the people through the waters of the Red Sea.

I want you to imagine yourself for just a second as one person among the masses of people waiting there on the edge of the water. You are tired, you are completely out of your element, and suddenly you realize that the very people you are escaping from are about to over take you. You can see the dust from their chariots rising up into the sky and they are coming closer… and closer… and you are camped by the water and there is no where to run.

Are you experiencing joy? Do you have any sense of happiness pouring through your veins? Probably not.

But then, something amazing happens. Behind you, there on the edge of the water, Moses raises up his arms and the winds start to blow. And though you can hardly believe your eyes, the waters are pushed to the side by this blustery breeze and a path of dry ground begins to appear in the midst of the sea.

The people around you begin to shout and Moses commands you to move through the water and fearfully at first, but then in absolute wonder you pick up your pack and move. It is a long journey across, but something propels you. There were signs and wonders done back in Egypt, but this is something else. These walls of water that surround you and threaten to fold in any minute is proof – is a witness – to the fact the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is with you!

Tired you reach the other shore and turn yourself around to see how far you have come. Your people are still making their way across, but they are making it! And that is when you realize the Egyptians have reached the other shore and are about to come through that same miraculous path that was just your salvation.

But then it happens. That strange pillar of cloud and fire that has been traveling before you and behind you descends upon the Egyptians and their chariots get stuck in the mud. They fearfully turn to make a retreat, but the last of your people have reached the shore and Moses steps up to the waters and in an instant, the sea covers the Egyptians and leaves you safely on the other side.

What do you feel now? Standing there in the awesome presence of God’s mighty works… what comes to your heart… go ahead – shout out the first thing that comes to your mind!

As Shari helped us to remember, the first thing the Israelites did was sing… they sang a song to the Lord saying: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation”

This song of praise is but the outpouring of joy in the lives of these people. They have witnessed first hand “God-with-them” and like the hymn we just sang… Joy to the World… in the presence of our God, joy fills our hearts.

In Greek – the word for joy is chara which comes from the word “charis” which means grace. Joy is not a state of emotional happiness… joy does not come from within or from other people or from things… joy is the experience of the presence of our God.

That’s not so hard to believe, is it? As King David pours out his heart in the scriptures, he reminds us that he is filled with joy in God’s presence (Psalm 16). As Paul writes to the Philippians from a prison cell – he knows he is surrounded by God’s presence and so he is able to say “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)

The joy that comes into our lives by the grace and presence of God is not the happiness of this world. For in the midst of some of our most painful and trying and difficult times – in the midst of times of grief and sorrow and tears… sometimes that is when joy surrounds us.

Joy comes to us in those dark times when we recognize that the Spirit of the Lord is still with us. Standing on the edge of the Red Sea, looking back and recognizing their salvation… the Israelites sang for joy. Standing at the graveside of a loved one and yet feeling the comfort of God’s presence – we find the strength we need to sing out of joy a song like How Great Thou Art. In the midst of a battle for health, when all else seems dim, we know that we are surrounded by prayer and by God’s spirit and so a smile does come to our face and laugher does echo across the room.

William Wordsworth wrote about being “surprised by joy”–when the grief and pain from his daughter’s death vanished and for a moment he forgot she was no longer with him. He experienced this amazing feeling of joy and it so overwhelmed him that he turned around to share it with his beloved daughter – only to remember again that she was gone. While the poem is about the grief that he feels nearly constantly… even that dark grief and longing is broken into and light could pour into his heart – even if for a moment – because of joy.

C.S. Lewis took that phrase from Wordsworth and he wrote a book describing his conversion to Christianity called Surprised by Joy – in which he pointed to his “accidental discovery and consequent search for the phenomenon” that he came to know as “JOY.” In Lewis’ mind – joy was something akin to the idea of longing… an experience of something so good and so unattainable that it could not be explained.

Joy is what we experience when we know we are in the presence of God. And joy is also our longing to know that presence of God more fully – each and every moment of our day.

So maybe the question that remains is: why aren’t we joyful every minute of every day?

Let’s go back to that familiar story of Moses and the Israelites and the Red Sea. Because, it’s easy to end the story there and have it all wrap up nicely and neatly. God saved the day and the people rejoiced! YAY!

But, this is not an episode of Veggie Tales Tthis is not some isolated story. . Chapter 15 in Exodus goes on with verse 22: Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went for three days in the wilderness and found no water. 23When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah. (which is Hebrew for bitter) 24And the people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’

Three days. Just three days of walking into the desert and already the Israelites have forgotten what God did at the Red Sea. Just three days in the wilderness and they forgot that God was with them. They forgot that God was on their side. The songs of joy in their hearts drifted into songs of despair.

Now, I don’t know about you… but if I learn a new song – it gets stuck with me for quite some time. I think I’ll be singing those VBS songs about God being my hero for weeks to come. In just three days, could they really forget the presence of God?

Apparently they could. And I must acknowledge, apparently we can, too. No matter how beautiful the sunrise is in the morning – sometimes I forget the joy of the Lord by lunchtime. Other things of this world crowd into my mind and my heart and I let the presence of God go unnoticed in my life.

The Israelites began thinking of their calloused feet and their dry lips and the weight of their packs and they thought less and less about how God traveled with them. And so when they reached a place of water and it was bitter, it was the last straw. They sat down and threw a temper tantrum. What are we going to drink?!?!

And in the midst of their despair, they were reminded again of the presence of God. Moses cried out and God showed him a piece of wood, and when Moses threw the wood into the water, the water became not only drinkable… but sweet.

When we believe that God has left us… and when we forget his presence, then joy is not our friend. As Jesus prepares his disciples for his death, that is his reminder. In John, chapter 16, Jesus tells them very plainly that when he is gone from their sight at his time of death – they will weep and mourn. There will be no comfort for them… because everything they think they know about him will have vanished… But that pain would turn into joy for very shortly they would see him again.

In the presence of God, we experience joy. Our hearts are filled with the knowledge that the one who made us is with us… that the one who saved us stands beside us… that the one who loves us leads us on to perfection.

We may not always see God. We may not always recognize God’s presence. But open up your hearts and mind… sit still for just a moment and you will know that God is with you – and you will rejoice.

Amen and Amen.

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