Sunday, June 22, 2014

In God's Joy and Service

Preached on June 22, 2014. My first official sermon preached as pastor of the Riverside Presbyterian Church of Desert Aire, Washington.
Scripture readings: Zephaniah 3:9-17; Luke 10:1-3, 17-24.

I remember the summer when I was nineteen. I had just finished my studies at the local community college, and I was gearing up for going away to a state college.
My faith garden; May/June 2014
I was nervous all summer long, knowing that school would be different. I knew it might be a lot harder. And I would be put together with a lot of new people. And I knew that I needed money (a lot more money) than I had in the past. I was worried about money.
My Baci (“babcia”), my Polish grandmother, was spending that summer with us. One morning, she was in the kitchen cooking, as usual. And I went out to get the mail, and brought it in, and was sorting through it on the kitchen table, and there was an official looking letter for me.
I opened it. It was the announcement of a scholarship that had been awarded to me. All of a sudden Baci was on top of me. She had me in her arms, and she was hugging me and kissing me, and she was spinning me around the kitchen, and saying, “Oh Denny! That’s so wonderful!”
My Baci was very good at joy; much better than I have ever been, or probably ever will be.
The joy of my Baci is a good picture of the joy of the Lord. As I studied the scriptures for these verses, I was reminded that there are several Hebrew words for joy.
Where Zephaniah tells us that the Lord will rejoice over his people with singing, the word rejoice describes what my Baci did that summer day when there was something to celebrate.
That particular word for joy and rejoicing is “gil” or “yagil”. It means to circle, or to make a circle: like Baci when she was making circles with me around our kitchen. Sometimes “gil” is a dancing word.
More of faith garden
Or it’s what a football player does in the end zone when he makes a touchdown, if he’s still on his feet. It’s what a winning team does on the field or the court, at the end of the game.
It’s what young kids do when they’re happy. They start running in circles and jumping up and down. It is like Snoopy’s happy dance.
Zephaniah tells us that this is the joy that the Lord wants with his people. It’s what the Lord wants to do with us. Deep in the heart of God is a fountain of joy that sweeps around, and around, and around.
Jesus is God in the flesh and he shows the same kind of joy. When the seventy-two disciples came back from their mission journey, they shared their joy with Jesus and he shared it right back at them. Then, in verse twenty-one, Luke tells us that Jesus was “full of joy in the Holy Spirit”. The Greeks also had several words for joy. And this one (agalliaomai) is the Greek match for the Hebrew-dancing-joy.
So picture Jesus among that crowd of seventy-two, doing an ancient Hebrew dance around them, or grabbing them at random and swinging them in circles. It isn’t a far reach to say that.
The ancient Bible joy is a physical joy. It’s completely un-cool. Jesus has a dancing joy. In Jesus, God has real feet like our own feet for dancing out that dancing joy.
Now I will tell you why this is important to me. Sometimes the secret of joy is not a feeling or an emotion you have within yourself. The secret of joy comes from knowing that you are the light of someone else’s joy. You know that there is someone, someone who wants to hold you and swing you around in circles.
This is the secret of a happy church. God doesn’t only want to swing us around individually. Well, he may want to do that as well. But his joy is for us as a whole; as a body, as a family, as a community, as a congregation.
More of said garden
I was embarrassed by being the focus of someone else’s joy. And my moping around and worrying about money, and about my future, looked stupid and foolish in the light of the loving joy of a person who was much better than me.
A church or a congregation must learn not to mope. A church must learn not to carry a burden of responsibility too heavily; not to worry, not to be embarrassed, and maybe not to apologize for what it doesn’t have or what it hasn’t done.
At the same time, learning to accept the joyful love of God does not put an end to ambition. If you are convinced that you are joyfully loved, you have more hope and ambition than ever.
The proof of being the people of God and people of faith is to live a life that is changed because you know that you are joyfully loved. But the proof is in knowing that your bragging rights are not found in your own power and your own accomplishments. Your bragging rights are found in the grace and the mercy that claim you.
That is real grace. God wants to bring you joy, and he does it in many ways: through many reminders of his beauty, his love, and his strength.
The strongest way God has of sharing his joy with you is by reaching out to you from his cross.
In the letter to the Hebrews (12:2) we are told that Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame” that is treating the shame and pain of it as if it were nothing, nothing at all, compared with the joy that was set before him.
A view from the cucumbers
And what was the joy that Jesus saw before him, that made it all worth while? It was the people he was going to claim through the cross. It was you. You were the strange unspeakable joy in Jesus’ eyes when he died on the cross.
Now in all the Greek words for joy, the joy of the cross was not a dancing joy. It was graceful joy. There is a word for joy that is related to grace. The word for that joy is “chara”. The word for that grace is “charis”: “chara” and “charis”.  It is the joy of the Lord to give you his grace. It is the grace of the Lord to open your heart to his joy.
What more can we see about the secret of joy? When the seventy-two returned with joy, they said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Luke 10:17)
Do you know what those devils like to do to people like you and me? They like to fill us with the fear that paralyzes us: to give us the fear that curdles our stomach; to give us the fear that makes us run in such a panic that we lose our way. More secretly those devils like to fill us with the fear that saddens us, depresses us, and beats down our ability to live thankfully and hopefully.
The disciples, in their mission for Jesus, found that speaking and working in their master’s name had the power to make the most frightening powers of darkness run and despair. Jesus is stronger than any devil, and you can take Jesus with you, into your greatest fears, into your greatest paralysis, and into your greatest sadness.
You can rely upon Jesus. You can call upon Jesus, and he will deliver you. He will be at home with you and make you at home with him.
Jesus will overcome. He will share his strength with you. Your circumstances may not change but what will change is your not being alone without someone who gets joy from loving you.
The joy comes afterwards, when you have lived to tell the tale, as we all will. It becomes part of the good news that you can tell others about.
I would say that this belongs in the garden
What else can we see about the great secret of joy? When the disciple shared their joy at the amazing things they were a part of, Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven.” (Luke 10:18) That’s what Jesus saw.
But what did most other people see? Most people only saw a bunch of untalented and untrained amateurs, spreading out along dirt roads through little villages, who didn’t know what to expect, or what to say or do, and most of the people who saw them were really surprised.
The disciples were surprised too. They were so joyful, because they were so amazed. They could represent Jesus. They could work and speak in Jesus’ name.
The name of Jesus, here, could mean his authority; but what is that? What is authority? When I was a kid, we would play cops and robbers, and the cops could say, “Stop, in the name of the law.”
But those were the days of TV westerns, and we knew that we could say that because we were the law. We were “Lawman”. Doing something in Jesus’ name doesn’t work except to the degree that we are committed to being Jesus, and trusting that he will always be with us and in us. We must be Jesus-men, and Jesus-woman, and Jesus-kids, with Jesus in us. Together, we must be the Jesus-church. We are his and he is ours. What more can we want?
This is what those disciples had. They were surprised, but they were learning.
They were still normal people, just like us. And Jesus would have more than enough opportunities, in the future, to ask them, “Where is your faith?”
“Where is your faith?” But something great was going on here, something that truly defeated and frustrated the Devil.
Standing in a better garden than my own
It was not the power, or the ability, or the competence, or the skill of the disciples. It was the gracious power of Jesus in ordinary people.
You don’t know what to expect. You don’t know what to say or do. But you are on a mission. You are someone who has been sent here to do a job: to do lots, and lots, and lots of jobs.
And there is the power of Jesus.
There is a saying that life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans. I am certain that if I have ever done any good at all in my life, it has had nothing to do with my plans.
In a strange way, whatever good I have done doesn’t even have anything to do with my job: because there are jobs and jobs. There are jobs you get paid for. There are jobs that are roles in life that you think you have, in terms of your gifts, and your abilities, and your understanding of life.
But there are other jobs that belong to you (to each one of us), and you and I know very little about these secret, God-given jobs. If we are lucky, people will tell us later what we really did, once upon a time, without our knowing it.
This is what I know. I have a job in life that I don’t know anything about. I don’t know what I will do or say, or what it will look like when I get to it, tomorrow, or next week, or next year. Whatever it is, I will do it as a human being who belongs to Jesus, and who loves Jesus, but who also needs a lot of help following Jesus. Our help comes from others and it comes from Jesus himself.
Jesus will come through, and one way or another, that will defeat the Devil. And that is where our joy will come from.
Jesus says, “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20)
Now here Jesus does not say, “Wipe that smile off your face.” He is saying, “Yes! You have a lot of things to be joyful for. Now, let me tell you the greatest thing to give you joy. You belong to the family that has its home place in heaven. You belong to me and my Father.”
Heaven is about so much more than living forever. It means belonging forever, and being rejoiced over for ever.
It's my neighbor's garden, to which I was a contributor
Remember that Jesus is celebrating along with his disciples. They are right to be joyful, and so are we. Jesus wants to celebrate with us. He wants us to be joyful.
So Jesus points to a deeper joy. The disciples of Jesus were celebrating success and power. Jesus told them to celebrate something much better and much more important. He said, “Celebrate that you are written in heaven, in my book.”
Jesus’ book in heaven is about love, and mercy, and belonging, and everlasting life. Christians who celebrate the power of God without celebrating the mercy of God are in danger of forgetting the secret of that power.
The power is all about mercy. Otherwise we would never know anything about it. The people who remember the mercy will be better at giving mercy to others: which is what the good news is about.
The people in the villages may not have known who Jesus was before he came to them. They still would not have known who Jesus was if the disciples had only come through and talked about him by name. The people in the villages knew all about Jesus because they disciples did what Jesus did among them.
The healing and the deliverance that the disciples brought were not only acts of power. They were acts of grace, mercy and love. The disciples of Jesus were grace-people, mercy-people, and love-people.
Neighbor Ottis, my farming partner, and his sunflowers
When Jesus followed his disciples into the villages where they had gone, and met the people who had met his people, he was no stranger to them. They were not afraid of Jesus unless they were set against him. When they saw Jesus, they received him as the master of grace, mercy, and love.
The kingdom of God is not just about power. The kingdom of God is about grace, and mercy, and love. If we remember that, then we will have a joy that is gentle, and humble, and healing, for others.
There is a great ambition in reaching out for this. The end of moping is not the end of a great ambition. Now that they knew the joy of Jesus, the disciples wanted to do more than ever.
It will be like the joy of my Baci, who didn’t have one proud bone in her body. Her authority in my life had nothing to do with power. It was only love.

Her dancing me around the kitchen floor embarrassed me in all my teenage pride and it showed me what I was missing. Let’s remember the joy of being rejoiced over by somebody else who happens to be named Jesus, who is (in his very being) all the fullness of God. Then people will see the simple dancing joy of God reaching out to them through us.

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