Sunday, September 10, 2006

(Life on the Vine: Joy) Finding joy in a joyful God

Life on the Vine: Cultivating joy, in the midst of manufactured desire
John 15:8-11; Psalm 16:8-11; Deut. 30:9-10; Luke 15

The writers of the Declaration of Independence declared,
as self-evident truth, that human beings had the unalienable right,
to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
They were right, but I’ll bet they had no idea
230 years later America would be pursuing happiness
with such a desperate, frantic, and feverish intensity,
and still coming up empty-handed.
We’re not a very happy people in this country,
despite our best efforts, despite the money we spend trying.

There is a whole field of science devoted to happiness research.
There’s a scientific journal called Journal of Happiness Studies.
Surveys measure what makes us happy.
Research found that marriage makes us happier,
pets do, but children generally don’t,
Youth and old age are the happiest times.
Money does not add to happiness.
Lottery winners, after a year, are no happier than before.
People disabled in an accident, become almost as happy again.
Could be partly genetic.
Identical twins are equally happy or grumpy.
A British psychologist developed a World Database of Happiness,
and a map of world happiness, ranking countries by happiness level.
The United States,
despite being at or near the top of the world
in power, wealth, health, and education,
ranks #23 in happiness.
Costa Rica is happier than we are.
So is Iceland.
So are lots of countries way up north near the Arctic Circle,
that don’t get lots of sunshine.
Denmark is #1.
Which caused someone to quip,
“Something is rockin’ in Denmark.”

If happiness is so hard to find in our country,
how much harder must it be to find the higher virtue—joy—
the second fruit of the Spirit.
What, in fact, is the relationship between joy and happiness?
There’s got to be some connection.
Intuitively, we would say that joy is like happiness, only deeper.
Happiness is the emotional state
that you can seen it in the face, or the eyes.
Joy runs deeper.
It’s an underlying sense of well-being,
even if the outward feelings have their ups and downs.

Might be true, but this morning our point of reference is not intuition,
nor our culture’s common knowledge,
nor scientific research.
Our point of reference is the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
the Jesus who said that he came
“so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
(John 15)
We accept as Gospel truth,
that joy is a “fruit of the Holy Spirit.”
That is, when the Spirit is at work in our lives,
and thus in the life of the Christian community,
there will be joy.
Like the other fruit, it manifests itself in our lives individually,
and it becomes a characteristic of our life together
in Christian community.
It is a reflection of the character and mission of God.

As Ross already noted this morning,
God knows how to rejoice.
In fact, one of the defining characteristics of the life of God, is joy.
God is a joyful God.
We don’t often think about that fact.
We talk about God’s love, God’s justice,
God’s all-powerful, and all-knowing nature.
God’s magnificence and majesty.
But how often do we simply celebrate the fact that God is joyful?
that God takes delight in things? in people? in the world?

We see God’s joy bubble up all through scripture,
beginning in Genesis, at creation.
After each day of Creation,
God’s stood back and looked at it, and said,
“This is good!”
And when it was all said and done, God said,
“This is very good!”
And then God rested.
And it had nothing to do with being tired,
worn out, or needing a break.
God took time out to enjoy and take delight in the creation.

God’s joy also comes out in the psalms.
The one we just heard says,
“In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

And there is nothing that brings more joy to God,
than when God’s people or creation
are brought back to the state of wholeness, or shalom,
that they had when God first created them.
Ever the fall of humanity, and the dis-ordering of creation
because of sin and the evil one,
God’s main agenda in the universe is restoration,
healing,
reconciliation,
in other words, recreating shalom.
And wherever and whenever shalom breaks out,
God is overcome with joy and delight.
Deuteronomy 30 says the people of God wandered in sin,
and suffered,
but the tide changed when they returned to God, and it says,
“The Lord will again take delight in prospering you,
just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors.”
Nothing makes God happier than seeing shalom return.

The three parables in Luke 15—
Ross told one of them to the children—
all demonstrate that God rejoices, to an extreme.
When the lost is found—lost coin, lost sheep, lost son—
God pulls out all the stops and throws a party.
Even if some people might get offended
by his over-the-top joy—
like the lost son’s older brother, for instance,
God still gets the fatted calf, hires musicians and dancers,
decks out the lost son in a robe and gold ring,
throws his head back in joy and laughter, saying,
“Shalom has come again.”

That’s the kind of God we worship, sisters and brothers.
That’s the kind of God who sent Jesus to live among us
in joyful abandon.
Jesus ignored the scowls and wrinkled foreheads
of the religious leaders, and Roman authorities.
He told comical, ironic, or exaggerated stories
to get across a hard truth.
And I’d bet you any amount of money—
if I wasn’t Mennonite—
that when Zacchaeus announced to everyone,
after Jesus had supper in his house,
that he would give half his possessions to the poor,
and pay back everyone he cheated
four times as much as he took from them...
that Jesus let out a great big belly laugh.
Now that’s divine comedy.
That’s the kind of joy that is typical of the life of God.

Believing that God is a joyful God makes all the difference in the world.
Because you see, it’s not a matter of pursuing happiness.
It’s not a matter of running around desperately looking for joy.
No, it’s a matter of locating ourselves where joy can be found.
A deer hunter doesn’t go running and crashing through the woods,
this way and that way, trying to find some deer.
No, he sits and waits in the place where deer are likely to be found.
...Now don’t take that analogy any farther than that.
It won’t hold up.
But that’s how it is with the fruit of the Spirit called “joy.”

We can’t produce the fruit ourselves. We can’t make it grow.
We can only try to create favorable conditions
for God to grow the fruit.
If we locate our life in the life of God, joy will come.
Because God is about joy.

But the more we pursue it, the harder it will be to find.
Joy cannot be pursued for its own sake,
as if joy itself were the prize.
Joy is not the prize.
Life in God is the prize.
And joy is the character of that life.

As soon as we find ourselves pursuing joy, for the sake of joy,
we have guaranteed we won’t find it,
because that kind of pursuit is, by definition,
focused on me.
I want to have joy, so I can be happy, so I can feel better,
so I can experience pleasure in life,
“Give me joy, please!”
No, real joy always draws us out of ourselves,
and toward a larger reality than little old me.

C. S. Lewis wrote his spiritual autobiography, called Surprised by Joy.
In it he says that joy is a byproduct
whose “very existence presupposes that you desire not it
but something other and outer.”
He goes on by saying there are two deadly errors in the religious life:
The first is assuming that a “state of mind” is the goal.
The second is to attempt to produce that “state of mind.”

And in the book Life on the Vine that inspired this worship series,
Philip Kenneson makes the point that joy is different than pleasure.
Pleasure draws our attention to ourselves,
our sensations, our feelings.
Joy draws us out of ourselves.
The difference between pleasure and joy, he said,
is like the difference between consuming a meal
when you’re ravenously hungry,
and sitting down to a leisurely meal with your dearest friend.
The more we are drawn out of ourselves,
the more our delight will have the character of joy.

I probably don’t need to tell you,
that this kind of joy is profoundly counter-cultural.
Our culture is engaged in a relentless pursuit of personal pleasure.
Our whole cultural ethos is one of constant encouragement
pursue our own individually-defined happiness,
whatever promises to give us pleasure.
We could blame it on advertizing.
Because that is the most blatant.
But it’s everywhere.
Advertizing only highlights and takes advantage
of what is already in us—
the tendency to be self-absorbed, and pursue our desires.

And if we don’t naturally desire something,
advertizing looks for a way to manufacture “desire,”
in order to sell the product.

Kenneson gives some statistics,
which probably need updating,
because his book came out seven years ago.
He claims the advertizing industry spends
over a trillion dollars a year, trying to instill desires in us.
Proctor and Gamble alone, spends $3 billion a year,
about one and a half times more
than the gross national product of Haiti.
Advertizing is not just about giving us necessary information
to make better choices.
It plays on our anxieties.
It plays on our self-doubt about our worth as people.
So we are not just buying a product,
we are supposedly buying a better life,
we are buying joy, love, beauty, intimacy, respect.
It’s not enough to mute the TV whenever commercials come on.
Advertizers pay big bucks to put their ads everywhere.
It’s no longer possible to escape them.

Our culture also tells us that new is always better than old.
Joy comes from filling our lives with new and exciting experiences.
The past should be viewed with suspicion.
And that includes, of course, the 2,000 year-old tradition
that has shaped the church.

Our culture tells us that more is certainly better than less.
If having one house is good, having a vacation house is better.
If one car is good, two or three would be better.
Having more information, faster, is obviously better,
so don’t let your computers get more than a year or two old.
And having 36 different varieties of Tide detergent,
is way better than just one.
You heard me right, there are now 36 varieties of Tide available.
Recently, they came out with three more.
Tide, with essential aromatic oils.
You can choose between three aromas:
relaxing, refreshing, or romantic.
They call it the “Simple Pleasures” collection.
Tide has just complicated our lives even more,
and they call it “Simple Pleasures”!

The infinite number of choices we have,
is a joy robber.
Studies have shown increased stress levels in shoppers
when there are many choices, as opposed to a few choices.
There are 127 kinds of shampoo on the shelves,
and they are all have different special ingredients,
promising me different personal benefits,
and I have to choose just one,
I’m left wondering, “Did I choose the best one?
Would I have been better off with another?”

Perhaps one of the biggest joy-robbers
is the way our culture breeds fear and anxiety.
Tomorrow is the five-year anniversary of the 9-11 tragedy.
Without a doubt,
one of the most grievous, terrifying events in our country
for many, many years.
Tomorrow will be an awful time for family members and survivors,
for rescuers, and others close to them.
I pray God’s mercy on all of them.

But that event only heightened what was already present in our society.
In fact, Philip Kenneson’s book came out two years before 9-11,
and he pointed it out then.
We are becoming a culture motivated by fear and anxiety.
We are cultivating a way of life that thrives on fear.
Fear of the other, who might be different from us.
Fear that we ourselves might be seen as different.
Fear of the enemy, whoever that might be.
Fear that our way of life is being threatened.
And 9-11 reinforced and deepened those fears
to the point that we are paralyzed by them.
They cause us to think irrationally.
They cause world leaders to think, and to act, irrationally.
And these fears rob us of joy.
They prevent us from living our lives joyfully and freely,
with our arms open wide to the other.
All the more reason for us to stop desperately pursuing joy,
to stop running from fear,
and to locate our life, in the life of a joyful God.

Life located in the life of God,
is a life that bears the Spirit-fruit of joy,
even in the midst of sorrow and loss.

Culture tells us to do all we can to deny or escape
the pain and suffering of life.
But living in the life of God,
gives us an identity that cannot be threatened by circumstances.
There is nothing about deep sorrow and loss and grief,
that is incompatible with Christian joy,
because we’re not talking about an emotional state.
Christian joy can even co-exist with the disease of depression.
Avoiding the world of pain and suffering in order to “be happy”
is our culture’s modus operandi.
It is not the way of the Gospel.

Our hope, and thus our joy,
transcends the situations that life brings,
however threatening they may be.

Joy is not a state of mind.
California may be a state of mind, but joy is a location.
Joy is realizing our life is located in the life of God.
It is a sense of well-being,
but much deeper than any pleasures of life can bring.
It is the sense of well-being that comes
from living in harmony with our Creator.
It is sharing in that joy of God,
when God sees shalom return.

And that is why the community of faith has such a vital role
in cultivating the fruit of the spirit, such as joy.
It is in Christian community
that we are constantly reminded of our real identity,
it is in genuine Christian community
that our location in a joyful God is reinforced,
and where the lies that culture feeds us can be exposed.

Let us, together, stage a rebellion against the assumptions out there,
that joy is about maximizing my personal pleasure,
and protecting myself against every threat to my happiness.
Instead, let’s live as a joy-filled Christian community,
confident that our lives are located in the life of God,
refusing to bow to the fears and anxieties that pervade our culture,
and taking delight in what gives God delight—
the restoration of shalom.

—Phil Kniss, September 10, 2006

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