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Sunday, March 19, 2017

True Joy (Luke 21b,25b, Psalm 126, Revelation 21.1-5)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; March 12, 2017; Text: Luke 6:21a,25a; John 6:25-35

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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:: Scripture and Music ::
Singing Together: Trading My Sorrow (Evans)
Singing Together: Bless the Lord/10,000 Reasons (Myrin, Redman)
Offering of Music: O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus - Bobby White, piano; Linda Jenkins, organ
Hymn of Sending: Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts (QUEBEC)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

“What does it mean to be blessed?” Specifically, what does Jesus and the scripture say that it means? And what should we do if we want to know and experience God’s blessing?

Today we are going to talk about True Joy as one of God’s blessings. It is not something easily understood, but it is one of God’s great gifts to us in a world that is full of suffering and sorrow. We will look first at Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6, then consider several biblical texts that expand on his teaching.

The Now and the New (Luke 6:21b,25b)

Let’s start with Jesus’ words in Luke: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh… woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” As we noted last week, the word ‘now’ is critical to beginning to understand what Jesus is saying here. He is not saying that weeping makes you blessed or laughing makes you cursed. There is a here and now that is full of sorrow and suffering and sin. It is worth weeping over! But there is a future coming – God’s future and God’s Kingdom – and those things will be set right. Those who laugh now are, perhaps, those who cause or rejoice at the suffering of others; something about God’s future setting right of things reveals that group’s laughter to be temporary, replaced later with sorrow.

Said another way: what Jesus holds up as blessed is sorrow over the brokenness of this world and joy that God will set things right. That promise has consoled many in this world in the midst of pain, suffering, and sorrow.  The passage we heard from Revelation 21 is one of the classic descriptions of what that future will be like. We often read it at funerals, to remind grieving family and friends that this is not all there is. In his vision, John sees a new heaven and earth, a new Jerusalem, and hears a loud voice from the throne, saying: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them…” (v. 3) God is with us, in our midst. And it’s this next part that speaks to our sorrow: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things [the NOW things!] have passed away.” (v. 4) And Jesus then declares, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (v. 5)

That is lovely and comforting, isn’t it? And yet, it seems so far off. Is all we are to know in this world, in the now, various sorrows and losses? No, there is more to say.

Tasting the ‘Not Yet’

Jesus often speaks of “now and not yet” when he talks about the Kingdom of God. When he does, he isn’t just contrasting this world’s woes and eternity’s joys. A key part of his message about God’s Kingdom is that it is breaking into this world even now: “The Kingdom of God is already in your midst!” (Luke 17:21) While God’s perfect future is still “not yet,” we can know something of it in the here and now. Let me point to two scriptures to illustrate that.

Psalm 126

A significant part of the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament, records the story of God’s people when they were in Exile, far from home, friends, and (they thought) from God. There are Psalms that record the great sorrow of that period in Israel’s history, like Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” (v. 1)

Psalm 126 records what it was like when those Exiles finally got to come back home. It had been so long and so prayed-for, it was like a dream, but it was real: “Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting!” (v. 2) Later in the Psalm comes a sentence much like Jesus’ teaching in Luke, followed by the line that inspired the old gospel hymn, “Bringing in the Sheaves”: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” Note that laughter here is a good thing, precisely because it is rooted in God’s setting right of things.

And that’s the image held out in Psalms: that trusting in God is like planting seeds. There is often a difficult period of “sowing” and often also a period of waiting, but in faith we look forward to the joyful harvest that awaits us. But note that as powerful as that freedom and return from Exile was, it was not God’s eternal justice or Kingdom, it was just a picture or taste of what was yet to come. And indeed, the Psalm says that this picture served as a witness to the nations that the “Lord has done great things for them.” (v. 2)

John 11

I am reminded of a similar picture during Jesus’ ministry. In John 11, we can read the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus’ dear friend, Lazarus. While Jesus was a way, Lazarus grew sick and died. When Jesus came to Bethany to the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, he found the women and townspeople grieving over the death of Lazarus. Jesus spoke to both sisters about the future resurrection – the hopeful “not yet” of what God would do. And they agreed, but continue to weep. In fact, even Jesus wept with them. Weeping over the sorrows of this world is natural and legitimate; it can even reflect our recognition that things are broken and not as God intended.

But do you know the story? After weeping with the women, Jesus went to the tomb where Lazarus had been dead four days. And Jesus commanded him to come out. And he did, much to the amazement of all those around. There is much more that could be said about that miracle, but I want to focus on this: it WAS amazing and was God’s power breaking into the ultimate brokenness of the ‘now’: death. But Lazarus would die again. Like God returning the Exiles home, it was just a taste of the future that one day would see Lazarus raised forever.

A Deeper Well

With all of that as context, here’s what I want to hold out as the takeaway from the two verses in Luke. Jesus sets weeping and laughter off against each other, as he does with other contrasting words. But what he really seems to be describing here is the legitimate response to the broken world we live in: tears and sorrow. And he is pointing us beyond laughter to something deeper: True Joy. I would even go so far as to say that authentic laughter (as opposed to mockery) is itself is a human glimpse of that deeper joy. But as he has done previously, Jesus is inviting us to plunge our hope and faith into the deeper well that is joy, for it is joy that will be our experience of God’s presence in eternity.

And here’s the takeaway point: joy is not reserved for a future eternity. Joy is the present experience of our future hope! There is more we can experience in the ‘now’ than tears and sorrow. Faith helps us to trust in what God is going to do. But God also grants us small tastes of that future, even as He did for Israel and for the family of Lazarus. It is not required for God to do this, but don’t miss it when it does happen. Has God ever answered your prayers for help or healing? Have you ever glimpsed God’s presence, power, or Kingdom? Joy is not a “buck up and stop crying”; it is knowing, hoping, and trusting in God’s future setting right of things in the midst of the sorrow, the fear, and the upheaval.

I believe one of the most powerful experiences of God we can have in this life is JOY IN SORROW. And I believe that is what Jesus speaks of in these verses in Luke. It is my prayer that you will know some measure of that joy, particularly as you live life in this hurting world. Amen.

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