27 March 2016

Joy Comes With the Morning

Luke 24:1-12

Resurrection of the Lord
27th March 2016

“Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” So sang the psalmist about three thousand years ago.  Psalm 30:5, to be exact, the source for the sermon title.  Here’s how this came to be.  Several weeks ago, I arrived at the church one morning just having come from Atwater’s.  I parked my car on Beechwood Avenue, in front of the Church House, got out, closed the door with coffee in hand, thinking about nothing in particular, when I was struck by these words, almost out of nowhere, “Joy comes with the morning.”  That was it.  I thought, Hey, that would make a pretty good sermon title for Easter morning, and then, I thought, This could be the making of a pretty good sermon—but you and the Holy Spirit will have to be the judge of that.

We didn’t hear the word joy in Luke’s account of the resurrection, at least not in his story of the women at the tomb.  If you keep reading through Luke 24—and I encourage you to take time later today to read the rest of the chapter—you’ll find other occasions when the Risen Lord appeared throughout the day and region: Jesus walked to Emmaus, that evening when he was invited to share a meal with his disciples, unknown to them at first at first but became known when he “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (Luke 24:30).  He then disappeared, only to reappear with the disciples back in Jerusalem, saying, “Peace be with you.”  “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:36-39) Jesus showed them his hands and his feet.  And Luke tells us that, “…in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering” (Luke 24:41).  While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.

Joy is all the more powerful when it’s not expected.  The women who went to the tomb at dawn were not expecting the stone to be rolled away.  They didn’t go searching for resurrection.  They went in their grief and sorrow and discovered in the place of grief and sorrow and death something else.  What they found was nothing; at least not what they expected to be there, for the body was missing.  And, yes, they were terrified when they realized what had happened, not unlike the shepherds, whom, we’re told earlier in Luke’s Gospel, were terrified just before they heard tidings of great joy (Luke 2:10).

Joy seems to follow Jesus around, doesn’t it?  His birth was the occasion of joy.  In an odd, paradoxical way, his suffering and death are also occasions for joy, given what God revealed to us and accomplished through them.  And, of course today is all about Easter joy!  We began with the brass blazing forth Beethoven’s (1770-1827) “Ode to Joy.”  The choirs just called us to "shout for joy."  Perhaps that’s why churches are full on Easter morning with believers and unbelievers and everything in between because today speaks to a hunger we all have, it speaks to that deep desire for joy.

It could be argued that Christianity is a “unique religion of joy.”[1]  Joy, not happiness.  They’re related, of course, but they’re not the same.  Joy is deeper than happiness; it’s far more profound.  The Greek word for joy, chara, is related to the Greek word charis, meaning grace. Joy, like grace, is a gift.  Joy flows from grace.  Grace is God’s mercy and compassion. Grace is reconciliation.  Grace calls us home.  Grace brings life and wholeness where formerly there was only sin and brokenness and alienation and death.  Grace yields joy.  And Christian joy is found in the presence of death, it’s even found in moments of senseless suffering when we experience something of God’s life in us.  Joy can be found even when everything around you seems to be falling apart and the world comes unhinged, joy can be there, nevertheless. 

This is particularly important to stress today given last week’s attacks in Brussels.  For many faith has been shaken by events.  It’s important for us, as Christians, to be Easter people, to affirm the presence of God’s joy, even in the face of terror.  Jesus said, in John’s gospel, “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).  No one has the power to take away you joy.  No one has the authority to take away your joy.  So don’t allow the news to take away your joy.  I know that’s easier said than done, but it helps to know that joy can be found in the midst of pain and suffering.  This joy isn’t rational, it’s not an idea or concept. Think of it less a noun than a verb, something that happens to us, which erupts from within us, that doesn’t make any sense. Actually, little about today makes any sense, little about today is rational, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Jürgen Moltmann, one of the leading theologians of our day, put it beautifully, “Joy is strength for living, the empowerment to love, the delight in a creative beginning.  It wakes us up, and makes us alive from within.”[2]  It wakes us, like the dawn, into a new day, a new life, a new world, and then propels us forward into life, as we share something of that joy within us, knowing that new life emerges from death.  “Real joy stimulates the soul, makes relationships flourish, makes the heart light and limbs nimble, mobilizes undreamed-of powers, and increases confidence.”[3]  Joy is life in all its fullest.

Like grace, joy is a gift.  We don’t look for it; it confronts us.  We don’t try to earn it; it’s given.  We don’t discover it; it finds us, discovers us, confronts us, comes upon us, especially when we least expect it and in questionable places, such as a tombit comes upon us.  We are, then, as C. S. Lewis (1889-1963) said, describing his own conversion to Christianity, “Surprised by joy.” 

This joy might even scare the life out of us.  That sounds odd, how could joy scare us?  That’s what Brené Brown has discovered in some of her recent research on vulnerability.[4]  Her studies led her to this unexpected conclusion.  “Joy,” she says, “is the most vulnerable emotion we experience.”  It’s powerful and intense. Some people can’t tolerate it, won’t allow themselves to go there, won’t allow themselves to really feel joy.  “And if you cannot tolerate joy,” she found, “what you do is you start dress rehearsing tragedy.”[5] You second-guess joy, you become critical, doubtful, negative, imagine the opposite of joy.  You think real joy is too good to be. It’s not possible—all of which might be strategies to protect you from being let down or getting hurt.  But what if the possibility of joy is too good not to be true?

That’s what the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) discovered one evening in an extraordinary religious, mystical experience.  When Pascal died in1662, in Paris, a piece of paper was discovered, sewn into the lining of his coat. Here’s what was written on it:

This year of grace 1654, 
Monday, 23rd November…
From about half past ten in the evening until half 
past midnight: 
God of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, God of Jacob, 
not of philosophers and scholars. 
CERTAINTY, heart-felt, JOY, JOY, God of Jesus Christ,
Thy God is my God…
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy….

May we each experience something of this joy today, again, or for the very first time.  May we be struck by it, surprised by it, enlivened by it, transformed by it, propelled by it out into a world that is hungry, starving for joy, not for happiness, but for joy. 

May Easter joy break forth from every dark, cold, lifeless tomb!  And may we experience something of this joy here at the Lord’s Table, whether you’ve been a Christian all your life or not sure what you are now, may the Risen Lord become known to you, become known to all of us in the breaking of the bread.

[1] Jürgen Moltmann, The Living God and the Fullness of Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 90.

[2] Moltmann, 88.

[3] Moltmann, 97.

[4] See Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead  (Avery, 2015)

[5] Brené Brown, Huffington Post, October 18, 2013. 

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