Monday, January 1, 2007

joy (a sermon)

Following is the text of a sermon on joy that I gave at the beginning of week 3 of Advent. I hope it helps you in some way.


a sermon by Troy Cady

The shepherds were in the fields, tending their sheep, when a messenger from heaven gave them this birth announcement: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11).

“I bring you good news of great joy.”

Christmas means joy. Sounds good, but what is joy and what is its importance? I’d like to spend some time now thinking about that, so we have a better understanding of it.

In answer to its importance, one could say that, after a fashion, joy seems to be the primary pursuit of our human existence. Sigmund Freud once wrote that this is what people “show by their behavior to be the purpose and intention of their lives…They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so.” Though Freud uses the word “happiness” here, he seems to really be talking about joy, for he describes the common human goal as “becoming happy and remaining so.”

(And here we catch a glimpse as to the nature of joy—a kind of enduring hope.)

At any rate, happiness seems to be what everyone, without exception, seeks. And, if we could rightly say that what they’re really talking about is joy, then, by extension, we could more accurately say that joy is universally and eternally our quest.

Look around the world and this is what you see. Dr. Armand Nicholi of Harvard University, writes this: “No aspect of life is more desired, more elusive, and more perplexing than happiness. People wish and strive for what they believe will make them happy—good health, attractive looks, an ideal marriage, children, a comfortable home, success, fame, financial independence—the list goes on and on.” Then, he adds: “Not everyone who attains these goals, however, finds happiness. Unhappiness appears to be at least as prevalent as happiness.”

In fact, Sigmund Freud points out another problem with happiness: specifically, that “unhappiness is much less difficult to experience.”

Think about it. Happiness seems to be a condition that requires effort. We work and strive. We plan and save. We scheme and push and pull to become happy.

So, what does it take to become unhappy? Well…have you ever seen a joyless person? I have. They’ve given up.

Joylessness is a kind of emptiness, a kind of giving up, of resolving oneself to what seem to be life’s cruel jokes and twists and misfortunes.

Some time ago I recall seeing a picture of my sister before she had become a Christian. At the time this particular picture was taken, she was a teenager. Like many teenagers, she was simply seeking to be happy. And, without proper guidance, she tried the same kinds of things her friends seemed to be trying: sex, drugs, and parties.

It makes sense that she would turn to these kinds of things, thinking they would make her happy. I mean, setting aside the factor of “peer pressure”, they really were the shortest roads to the most intense feelings of physical pleasure. The only problem is: those forms of pleasure carry with them a very short half-life. The pleasure wears off eventually, and, in most cases, quite quickly.

So, in this system, one needs to keep exposing oneself to the things that provide pleasure with increasing frequency and, perhaps, with increasing levels of intensity.

But, as you do so, it begins to wear on you, through and through: physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

This is the effect it had on my sister. In the picture I saw of her, she was hard, her chin set, her face gaunt. But what haunted me the most about this picture was that her eyes seemed empty, hollow, black. Her life was meaningless, devoid of joy.

And this is what happens when we try to grab hold of joy through merely physical means. This is what I call “you can’t get there from here.”

Now: taking into account the amount of people who regularly expose themselves to these kinds of things (that is, sex without limit and drugs--many, many people!), it’s obvious that much of the world thinks “Oh, but I can get there from here.” It’s obvious that there are many people who think the road to happiness lies in the satisfaction of physical desire, the repeated, sustained experience of physical pleasure. So, we need to ask: “From where does this kind of thinking come?”

It seems we are more products of those who have determined our worldview than we realize.

Listen again to what Sigmund Freud writes: “Happiness is a problem of satisfying a person’s instinctual wishes…What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been damned up to a high degree…” So, he goes on and says that “...sexual (genital) love…affords the strongest experiences of satisfaction...[and provides] the prototype of all happiness.” This is what Freud calls the “pleasure principle” and he says that this principle “dominates the operation of the mental apparatus from the start.”

With this in mind, for Freud, the difference between happiness and unhappiness, then, is merely a matter of living according to the “pleasure principle.” And since Freud denies the existence of God and, therefore the spirit, satisfying the “pleasure principle” becomes primarily a function of satisfying our bodily desires.

With this in mind, Freud identifies certain obstacles to our own happiness:

First, there is the problem of pain: we do what we can to avoid pain which includes illness and the effects of aging. But Freud also rightly observes that another source of pain is encountered in relationships with other people. Sometimes a friend betrays you or a lover cheats on you. This causes pain. So, we do what we can to avoid those kinds of pain. This is why some people think joy or happiness can be found in isolation.

But, there is another problem we encounter in our search for happiness according to the pleasure principle: we discover that pleasure is merely what Freud calls “an episodic phenomenon.” In other words, pleasure lasts for a moment and then needs to be repeated.

A third problem lies in cultural restrictions and prohibitions. In other words, we feel guilty if we break, what are assumed to be, excessively restrictive social rules and laws. So, Freud dreams of a day when we will no longer have this obstacle. He writes: “If one imagines [civilization’s] prohibitions lifted—if, then, one may take any woman one pleases as a sexual object…--how splendid, what a string of satisfactions life would be!”

Now: with all due respect to Mr. Freud, I just have this to say: WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!!! ARE YOU CRAZY? HAVE YOU LOST YOUR FREAKING MIND, MR. FREUD?

See, what I mean to say is: THERE IS SUCH A THING AS THE SPIRIT. Just because you can’t quantify it scientifically does not mean it isn’t there! And, yes, THERE IS A GOD. And the thing you’re talking about (happiness) is really called joy. And you can’t find it by going up, you can only find it by going down.

What I mean by this is that human nature is like a river. And, at the bottom of the river lies sunken treasure. If you were to open up that box, you would discover among the jewels there, yes, joy. And yes, this treasure proves elusive. On that point I will agree with Mr. Freud. But, no, as you’re swimming in the river of human existence, you can’t find this treasure by swimming up to the surface. You can only find it by plunging down to the depths.

See: on the surface level, we are physical beings. But, on the bottom level, we are also spiritual.

If Mr. Freud is right about the pleasure principle, then, what is one to do should one go up to the surface and it should happen to be raining or hailing up there? Or what if it’s cold or excessively hot up there? What is one to do then? Give up the pursuit of joy because the weather has changed?

Freud is right that what we seek is more than mere pleasure. Deepen pleasure and you find happiness. But where he goes wrong is that he doesn’t go deep enough.

And this is where the story of the shepherds comes in. We know there is such as thing as enduring happiness, a condition of the spirit that “remains” called joy because the shepherds were told of such a thing and they exhibited it after having seen the Christ child.

I find it interesting that the announcement of joy to the shepherds comes from a spiritual being. This tells us that joy comes as a delivery from the Holy Spirit to our spirit.

Further, I find it interesting that this message of joy is a message of rescue. The angel says that the good news of great joy is this: “A Savior has been born…” The word Savior could also be translated as “rescuer”. Jesus comes to save us.

From what? Well, from the one thing that destroys and kills the spirit: sin. That’s why the Savior would be called “Jesus”, after all. Because the name “Jesus” literally means “he will save us from our sin”.

What does this have to do with joy? Well…Question: what happens when the spirit is harmed? It loses joy. And what harms the spirit? Sin. So: Sin kills joy.

So, what happens when the spirit is restored and renewed? It gains joy.

This pattern accords with the experience of another shepherd: King David. During the beginning of David’s reign, he was known as “a man after God’s own heart.” In other words, David’s spirit kept in step with God’s Spirit. This is why, during his early years, he was found to be leaping up and down for joy when the ark of the covenant was carried into Jerusalem. But, later, David sinned against God and against others: he committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba and murdered her husband, Uriah.

Is it any wonder that, as David wounded his own spirit through these two gross sins, he came to recognize that his “bones were crushed” and his joy gone? In Psalm 51 he writes of this experience and asks God to “restore joy” to him by putting right his heart, his spirit, through forgiveness.

Is it any wonder that, when the angel came to announce news of great joy, that his message was attended with the announcement that Jesus would save us from our sin, that Jesus would be the Savior?

Thus, we see how to find joy: Joy is found in the depths of spiritual integrity, spiritual wholeness. But, we can’t find spiritual wholeness unless Jesus forgives, bringing healing to our spiritual brokenness. Forgiveness (the forgiveness that Jesus offers) takes us right to the base of things. And, as we swim down deep there with God, we discover joy. And, as we discover joy, we see some other things:

First, we discover that it can be raining on the surface, but the rain does not affect the depths. Joy persists even in the midst of suffering. And that, too, is news of great joy.

But, conversely, we also discover that joy, because of its depth (because it is indeed a base), can make waves on the surface. To say that the body does not always affect the spirit is not to say that the spirit cannot affect the body. As currents move underneath, you can often see the effect on the surface.

Let me tell you about another photograph of my sister. At the age of 17 or 18 she saw her need for a Savior. She saw her need for Jesus. And she asked Jesus to come live his life inside her. She asked him to penetrate to the depths of her heart, the depths of her spirit and there to cleanse her heart of sin, to forgive her and heal her. Some time after that a picture was taken of her.

Here’s what you would see if you were to look at this picture now: her face has a softness to it, a lightness. There’s life there. You can see it. She’s smiling—wait a second, she’s not literally smiling, but you can see she’s clearly happy, through and through. And her eyes: there’s something in them. Her life has meaning, purpose, love. She has found joy.

And this is also what we see in the case of the shepherds. The joy within bubbled up physically. Their story concludes with these words: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.”

You know, praise is like taking the word joy and turning it into a verb. The word “rejoice” could literally be translated as “to joy”. But we don’t do that, because it sounds strange to us. But, it needn’t be.

There is an operetta called “Amahl and the Night Visitors” that recounts the Nativity. In the musical, the varied biblical characters pay their visits to Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus. Of course, in the operetta the shepherds are represented. And they bring all that they can to the baby Jesus: a dance of great joy.

Now, what’s strange is: in college I played one of those solo dancers. It was not a pretty sight, let me tell you. I laugh about it now, but…

What’s perfectly natural is that this child of joy would evoke a dance of joy (and He still does to this day!). For to live in joy is to live in praise. And to live in praise is to dance.

Joy, real joy, from down deep (the shepherds remind us), bubbles up in praise, song, dancing. And, though we rarely see people dancing in the streets, we need not say it is strange. On the contrary, it could be the most natural thing in the world. Indeed, it may be the very thing for which we were created. We just may not know it yet.

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