Joy

A Work Within Us

Third in the Advent/Christmas Series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Isaiah 35 (NRSV)

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
   the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
   and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
   the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
   the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
   and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
   “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
   He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
   He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
   and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
   and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
   the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
   and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
   but it shall be for God’s people;
   no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
   nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
   but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
   and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
   they shall obtain joy and gladness,
   and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.


In chapter 35, Isaiah continues with images of healing and holiness, and again, this promised time seems to benefit not just humanity, but all of creation. And of course, as we have discussed already, Jesus Christ provides the path to this great act of restoration.

The closing words of this chapter remind me that while there are great changes to come, the greatest of God’s restorative work may be the one wrought within us. Have we not prayed for such work in the deepest recesses of our souls? Oh, to have everlasting joy and gladness; oh, for sorrow and sighing to flee us forever.

These are all expressions of the heart. Our choices, our very lives, are driven by the pursuit of gladness and the avoidance of sorrow. Joy and sighing also can be quite literally matters of the heart, directly affecting its rhythm and longevity for better or for worse.

Most of us have lived in broken creation long enough to know what it is like to sigh and even sob. As we draw near the close of 2016, I as a pastor know the pains my congregation has experienced. Yes, we have had great joys, too, but the pain has remained. I also have been a pastor long enough to know that many people wrestle with private pain too deep to reveal, even people in the close community we call church.

The little holiday moments certainly help. When Our Girls recently brought us their Christmas music special at Luminary, we collectively paused and experienced a kind of joy we did not want to slip away.

There have been and will be similar moments as we move through Advent toward Christmas. Fleeting or sustained, they are powerful, and can be like glimpsing God’s face.

Yet, in the midst of all of those moments, there also have been events that seem to re-tarnish the world God is polishing. Tragedy and suffering both locally and globally can seem overwhelming at times. For people experiencing recent pain, the contrast during Advent and Christmas can be too much. The lights and laughter, the word “merry,” even the notion of a better day to come—it all can seem meaningless or even unintentionally mean.

Whether it is this season or a season to come, we all have to learn to cope with the stark contrast between joy and pain. Short of Jesus’ much-anticipated return, we have no way out.

Here’s the helpful lesson I take away from Isaiah 35. Those joyous moments are permanent. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, God will retain them for all eternity. Those sorrowful moments, as painful as they are, are fleeting, and will vanish like mist in the light of God’s truth, grace and glory.

It helps to make a conscious decision to call joy permanent and sorrow temporary. For example, when a great hymn or other piece of Christmas music stirs you, whisper to yourself, “This glory goes on forever.” When there is death or suffering, remember to say, “This pain will have an end.”

When we respond to life in such a way, we get to the same place the Apostle Peter tried to take us in his first letter to the churches.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3-9)”

Remember, those of you who are Christians, such promises from God go to the very core of your faith. Church is a lot of things, but we should never lose sight of what is central to being the church.

We do good works, but we are not simply a group of people gathered to do good works. All sorts of civic clubs can do that.

We perform rituals when together, but we are not simply a people going through some motions. Cults and the very worst religions lean heavily on corrupt rituals.

We are a people who seek justice and equity in the world, but those efforts alone are a poor way to define us. People have done the same through governments and revolutions for centuries.

We certainly are a place for fellowship and friendship, but again, fellowship and friendship are not primarily why we exist. The local bar, gym or sports team can offer you that.

We gather because we believe everything is changed through Jesus Christ. Because of the cross, joy is everlasting and sorrow will flee. To quote Revelation, every tear shall be wiped away. Even death shall be undone, and there shall be much to sing about.

A prayer to live by: Joy, I accept you as my permanent state. Sorrow, while I may have to live with you for awhile, don’t expect me to embrace you, for you will vanish, thanks be to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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Seeing Christ in Full

This is the first in an Easter season series on Revelation.

Revelation 1:4-8

When I was in seminary, one of my pastoral duties was to provide support for a very large assisted-living apartment complex in Lexington, Ky.  A dozen ladies there asked if I would lead them in a Bible study focused on the Book of Revelation.

What surprised me was the reason they wanted to have the study. In short, they were afraid.

At the time, there was a lot of talk about Revelation, in particular because a set of books known as the “Left Behind” series had been getting a lot of attention. Not one of these ladies could have been younger than 80, and I’m sure most of them had been going to church most of their lives. But all of a sudden, what is essentially the end of the biblical story kept them awake at night.

That was when I first began to understand that teaching—or in this case, preaching—is a special case where Revelation is involved. A lot of Christians have poorly formed or misinformed ideas about the book, and I generally have to convince people to put their preconceived notions aside if we are going to travel to the place Revelation wants to take us.

The author’s name is John, a man we know to have been imprisoned for his faith on the island of Patmos. He may or may not have been the Apostle John; that matter is highly debatable, although ultimately irrelevant to the message the book sends. John’s point in writing Revelation was to communicate a powerful vision he had to churches who apparently knew of him.

The first thing I want to note is how, in his greeting to the churches, he used a couple of important words to set the tone for his vision. “Grace to you,” he told them. “Peace.” And he rooted this greeting in the holy, loving nature of God, as expressed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

His greeting expressed freedom, particularly freedom from the power of sin. John spoke of power and hope for Christ’s followers, not punishment. Fear was not an emotion he seemed to be trying to elicit.

John’s greeting continues to remind us of where our story is headed. Christ will return in a most undeniable way. The “tribes of the earth” may wail, but only because they failed to acknowledge a great truth still serving as the core of our faith, the truth of Jesus Christ as savior for all of humanity.

These words of hope and peace make Revelation a wonderful way to explore the continuing Easter season. Christ’s resurrection was just a beginning, a promise of more to come. A remaking is underway, and it will continue until it ends with everything in heaven and earth conformed to the will of God, made holy by the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross.

I want you to keep that good news of the ultimate outcome in mind as we go through the next few weeks. Because, again, Revelation is a strange book, and it is easy to become confused.

Part of the problem arises because we have no other forms of literature like it. Westerners try to read it like a story, a standard kind of narrative familiar to our culture, but it was never intended to be read in such a way.

Instead, it is:

A special genre known as “apocalyptic.” Time flows differently than it does in a standard Western narrative. Viewpoints shift from heaven to earth with little warning. Reading Revelation as a straightforward narrative can generate some bad theology.

Highly symbolic. Very little of it is intended to be taken literally, but at the same time, there’s a deeper meaning communicated by the symbols. For example, after the text we’re hearing today, John launches into a vision of Christ in heaven. This description symbolically shows our Savior’s deeper nature—his purity, his all-knowing mind, and his uttered words as the purest truth, capable of cutting through worldly confusion.

An invitation to imagine. Apocalyptic literature was written for audiences facing persecution. They were being asked to see a better day, a great Day of the Lord promised since the Old Testament. We also are being invited to imagine and work toward the same dream.

Back to my ladies in Bible study: When we were finished studying Revelation, one of the oldest ones, a lady around 90, came up to me with tears in her eyes. “I’m not afraid any more. It’s about joy!” she said.

I pray that when we’re done with this series, we will all feel the same way.

Of Crows and Cardinals

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.1 Corinthians 1:18

To the world, the message of the cross is like cake crumbled in the snow.

I like cake very much, particularly yellow cake with chocolate frosting. My wife knows this, and being an excellent baker and cook, she sometimes makes yellow cakes with chocolate frosting from scratch for me, a loving and time-consuming act in a Duncan Hines culture.

They usually do not last long. But shortly after she made the most recent one, I caught that nasty stomach virus that has been going around. With my first and second child out of the house and my third child very sick with a cold, half the cake went stale before being eaten.

When I recovered, I found the remaining cake in its container. Not wanting it to be completely wasted, I carved the chocolate icing off the top, crumbled the cake, and scattered it in the front yard, where I could watch the birds eat it from the parsonage’s front window as I worked.

This was Thursday, Jan. 30, the last of the bitterly cold days we’ve experienced in Northeast Tennessee. I figured the birds would be quite hungry for yellow cake at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Hey, I usually am. And as I scattered it about, I even heard a rising, collective twitter from the trees at the edge of the yard.

I went back inside and sat down before the window. This is when I began to learn the message of the cross is like cake crumbled in the snow.

About 30 minutes after I put the cake out, two enormous crows landed in a large maple tree overhanging the winter treat. These two will have it all eaten in five minutes, I thought. And they certainly seemed to study what was on the ground, cawing and turning their heads.

I suppose crows have reason to be suspicious of anything unusual. In Tennessee, people can hunt unlimited numbers of them for sport from June through February, despite the fact that no one wants to eat crow. I’ve seen shotgunners do this, using electronic calls to draw them in like black clouds and then drop them like rain. You’re not being paranoid if people really are trying to kill you.

But hey—this was cake, in the midst of the hungry season! Surely the crows would find life in the midst of death. But they did not, overthinking the situation. After a few minutes, they cawed again and flew away. I wondered if their cries meant “foolishness, foolishness” in crow talk.

Other birds remained in the surrounding trees; I couldn’t see them, but their little chirps continued. Finally, two brave female cardinals ventured forth.

The first one out hopped around the edge of the crumbs, looking but not touching. She chirped loudly, in what I suppose is excitement for a cardinal. But she would not dive in. She finally flew from my view. I supposed the cake must have been too different for her, too.

The second one was bolder. She began pecking at the tiny crumbs, and you could see her excitement build. She would stop and chirp loudly, and then return to eating. Once, she briefly flew up in the tree, chirped again, and then went back to the ground, eating some more. She had found what she needed, and not only that, I’m convinced she was trying to tell the others, “Look what I’ve found! Come and have some!” No one joined her, however.

Finally, she grabbed a thumb-sized chunk in her beak and carried it off, again out of my sight. I wondered if she shared it.

I could hear birds chattering through the rest of the afternoon, but to my surprise, the cake remained. As the sun set and the landscape once again hardened into a deep freeze, the crumbs were still there. The scene made me sad.

A postscript, though: When I looked out just after sunrise the next day, the cake was all gone, replaced by dozens of tiny footprints in the snow. The suburb’s undesirables—racoons—had come during the coldest, most desperate hours and found what they could not have expected to receive.

I thought of Gentiles taking up what most good Jews had rejected; I thought of the drunk, the drug addict, or the prostitute accepting what a thinking, affluent person might deem a risk or a waste of time.

The message of the cross is like cake crumbled in the snow. Christ has been broken for us, and in that breaking we have the opportunity to find joy and eternal life. It is a strange message, one now scattered all across the landscape. And it does look foolish to those who are used to the ways of a sinful world.

The message of the cross is a joy to be consumed, however. It also is a message to be carried to others. And be you a crow, songbird or racoon, it is for you.

Four Parts of Worship: Celebrate!

So, we’ve talked about what it means to gather ourselves in search of God, and we’ve talked about how God is consistently revealed in Scripture. What is an appropriate response to God’s presence?

A celebration! The third part of worship is like a thank-you, praise-you party thrown for God, where we declare our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer the jolly good fellow, the one worthy of honor.

Again, it’s one of those reasons I like to put the declaration of God’s word up front as much as possible in a worship service. I think a lot of people struggle with worship because we don’t spend enough time rejoicing, and it’s hard to celebrate until we’ve really heard from God. When we fail to celebrate in worship, we miss out on the joy of being Christian, a joy available to us regardless of our circumstances.

I know—we may not always feel like rejoicing. Poor? Sick? Lonely? Broken by sins committed? Victimized by another’s sin? Those aren’t ideal situations to be in, but our current circumstances brighten considerably when we put them in the light of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. The temporary nature of this life becomes obvious when the Holy Spirit begins to work in us through God’s word, giving us a taste of what it means to be citizens of an eternal kingdom.

The joy of the resurrection—first, Christ’s, and later, our promised own—is something God offers us whenever we immerse ourselves in his story and praise him.

You see such celebratory worship in the Old Testament. One example would be the story in 1 Chronicles 16:1-6, when David returned the Ark of the Covenant—Old Testament evidence of God’s presence—to Jerusalem. Even before these verses, there are recorded acts of worship on the way to Jerusalem: sacrifices, singing, dancing and music, most of it quite exuberant. It all continued once the Ark was in place, with people appointed to keep it going.

Celebratory worship continues in the New Testament, particularly after the victorious nature of Christ’s work on the cross is made clear in the resurrection. We’re told in Colossians 3:16-17, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

God’s word begets gratitude, and with gratitude in our hearts, we sing and direct our celebration toward our audience, God. We can rejoice in such ways during appointed worship times, at 11 a.m. on Sunday, for example. We can rejoice when gathered in small groups. We can rejoice in our one-on-one time with God.

I know not everyone rejoices and celebrates in the same way, just as people will enjoy a party in different ways. I’ve always been more of a wallflower at a party. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy parties; it just means I’m not necessarily going to put a lampshade on my head.

You may be a fairly laid-back, reserved person in worship. Not everyone wants to jump up and shout “Amen!” while holding their hands up in the air. (Thank God for the worshipers who do such things; they are great help to a preacher and to worship in general.)

But if you’re reserved in nature, ask yourself this: Am I celebrating? Does that joy regarding Christ’s gift wash over my soul, at least as a quiet, tender experience?

Do I let the music take me back to the revelation of God I’ve just heard, connecting my emotions to my logic? Do I understand the prayers we lift up corporately as an open door to heaven? When I come to the table for communion, am I expecting to meet the one who will feed me for all eternity?

God calls you to such celebratory experiences whenever you stand before him in worship.

Good Music

I don’t usually make commercial endorsements, but this one seems worth making, even though I’m not getting paid. Occasionally as Christians we find something that moves us and even sustains us, and I’ve found that in the music of Page CXVI.

The group arranges familiar, sacred hymns in innovative, modern ways. I find many of the songs to be astonishingly beautiful. One of them, “Joy,” seems quite strange at first, until you let it play out. Then you realize you’re hearing some very mature theology being expressed musically.

Now if they would just tour on the east side of the country.

Story’s End

Revelation 7:9-17

Every great story has a masterful ending. The magnificent story told in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation has the greatest ending of all.

Our main problem is teasing that ending out of Revelation, the most complicated book of the Bible to read. Before we get to that wonderful conclusion, a primer on how Revelation works is in order.

I should begin with what Revelation is not, as improper readings of this last book of the Bible have led to a lot of bad theology in recent years. It is not a type of literature otherwise familiar to us in Western culture—in fact, this type of literature existed among Jews and early Christians for just four centuries, from about 200 B.C. to about A.D. 200.

We now call this type of literature “apocalyptic,” and we know it does not follow what the Western world considers the normal structure of a story. For example, our stories tend to follow chronological order, with the exception of an occasional flashback to reveal details from the past, or some foreshadowing to hint at what is to come.

Time is not an important feature of apocalyptic literature. An event may be described once and then described from a different perspective later in the text.

Also, apocalyptic literature is highly figurative, where Western literature is by default quite literal, with forays into figurative language usually easy to detect. All of the resulting symbolism in apocalyptic literature functions in part like a code; for example, numbers and creatures usually point to something else, like the concept of completeness or a particular empire.

The people who wrote apocalyptic literature were heavily oppressed, and didn’t want others to understand immediately what they were saying. So, if you try to read Revelation chronologically and literally, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, errant conclusions the letter’s original audience would never have made.

But enough of the primer. With all of that in mind, let’s look at that glorious story’s end.

Scattered through Revelation are images of humanity and God in full reunion, thanks to Christ’s infinitely powerful work on the cross. They are like snapshots of what is to come.

These images resolve the problem that arises early in Genesis. There, we see God’s desire for a relationship with his creation, and we see that relationship broken by willful disobedience, the kind of sin we all have committed at one time or another.

The rest of the Old Testament can be seen broadly as God’s efforts to woo humans back to holiness and a full relationship with their maker. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) in the New Testament reveal to us how God ultimately succeeded: He took on human form among us as Jesus Christ, becoming a sinless sacrifice to atone for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection is proof the plan worked. All we have to do is believe.

Those reunion images in Revelation are designed to give us great hope, reminding us that what is to come is so much better than what we experience now. One of those snapshots, found in the seventh chapter, beginning at verse 9, gives us a picture of eternal, ongoing worship, a glorious celebration of what has been accomplished by Christ, depicted as the Lamb.

The author of Revelation, known only as John, said that in one of his visions “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” He went on to describe the praise and singing by both the redeemed humans and the creatures of heaven.

He also gave us a hint of what we should be doing now, as we exist in the part of the story where we now live, a time of tribulation and ordeals brought about by evil’s death throes. In a conversation with one of these heavenly beings, John is told that those clothed in white “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

In more literal language, they symbolize the people from around the world who follow Christ as Lord and Savior. Yes, salvation is freely available, but this washing of robes symbolizes our need to pursue this relationship, to grow in our faith and live as people who believe.

As the Apostle Paul writes in the second chapter of Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Every individual Christian story intersects with God’s great story, leading to the same glorious ending.