Joy in Jesus

Message Delivered on May 12, 2013

In 1987, I visited the ancient city of Philippi, where Paul and Silas had been incarcerated.  In Greece there are “documented” sites and “traditional” sites.  As I looked at the hillside where Paul and Silas had been incarcerated, I could still see the iron rings where the shackles on Paul and Silas’ feet had been attached.  I could imagine the intense heat of the jail by day and the penetrating cold after the sun had set.  The two missionaries had been flogged before being imprisoned and their feet secured in stocks for good measure.  It was a grim bit of news recorded in Acts but at midnight, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns to God.  I doubt their choruses were happy tunes; after all, jails were designed to make their residents unhappy in those days.  Paul and Silas were not wailing tunes of despair, rather they remained surprisingly calm throughout the ordeal.

I cannot imagine what Paul and Silas were feeling in this dungeon, but as Christians their hope in God remained paramount.  Recall the days of your childhood and learning the tune, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands…stomp your feet…nod your head.”  There were sixty kids in the primary department of my Sunday school and after a rousing chorus of this song (I now call Christian calisthenics), even the usual “antsy-pantsy” students had an opportunity to expend energy, calm down and be receptive to the morning Bible lesson.  At a youth rally one of the speakers emphasized that because the kids were Christians and had the good news of the gospel, they should be happier than other people and smiling all the time.  One of the kids responded, “O great, now I have something new to feel guilty about; I am a Christian and I do not feel happy every minute!”

When Charles Schultz died, the next day the Peanuts cartoon pictured the faces of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the gang resting on a fence with tears rolling down their cheeks.  The master cartoonist, who had brought joy to many, was gone.  In one of Schultz’s early comic strips, Lucy was acting philosophical and asked Charlie Brown, “Why do you think we are put on earth?”  After pondering this profundity, Charlie replied “To make others happy.”  Not a bad answer from the round-headed kid.  Lucy was momentarily happy, but then a scowl darkened her brow, “I don’t think I’m making anyone happy, but of course, nobody’s making me very happy either.”  In the final cell of the strip, Lucy screams out in big, capital letters: “SOMEBODY’S NOT DOING HIS JOB!”

The notion that Christians should be happy all the time is one that just won’t go away.  Pop-gospel writer, Gary Paxton, penned: “If You’re Happy, Notify Your Face.”  I learned in anatomy/physiology in college that it takes more muscles in the human face to frown than it does to smile.  On varying occasions our faces project pain, anger and joy.  Most of us find it impossible to be happy all the time.  Life is too complicated for that.

Scripture tells us a lot about joy in the lives of those who try to serve God and follow Jesus.  Joy in the biblical sense is something different from happiness, even though the two often coincide.  The Bible does not command us to feel joy or to notify our faces or any other parts of our body to reflect joy.  Joy is what life looks like when we really trust God. 

Captivity and liberation are themes that run through the biblical account of Paul and Silas in jail.  The scene is set when a slave girl, possessed by a spirit, is liberated by Paul.  The slave girl’s owners are displeased because they have lost the spectacle that made them money.  Paul and Silas are consequently brought before magistrates who order them to be flogged and thrown into prison.  Divine intervention frees them from the jail by an earthquake.  Having every opportunity to escape, Paul and Silas call out to the jailer and save him from committing suicide because he assumes the prisoners have escaped during his watch (The death penalty was issued to Roman guards failing to carry out an assignment).  The jailer leads Paul and Silas to safety.  The jailer is further liberated by Paul and Silas when they teach him and his family about salvation, to be set free from sin by belief in the Lord Jesus.  The jailer and his entire family are baptized into the body of Christ.  God’s liberating activity transforms the lives of the faithful.  The incarceration of Paul and Silas is a reminder that God’s faithful will never face adversity alone.  Even as Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns to God in the midst of their imprisonment, Paul and Silas demonstrated how they were spiritually liberated by God, even before they were physically freed by God through the earthquake.

Paul and Silas were Roman citizens and servants of God, but they were accused of being Jews and following customs that were unlawful for Romans.  They had professed to be servants of the MOST HIGH GOD, rather than citizens loyal to the emperor.  Another common theme throughout this passage is that God is proclaimed.  The power of God and merely mentioning the name of Jesus chases away the spirit from the slave girl.  The way of salvation is made clear.   The God with the real power to control the cosmos shines forth and this God has provided the only means of salvation for all who are willing to believe.

The Bible does not tell us what to feel, and we have no Christian obligation to demonstrate joy.  But when we are in the darkness and trusting God, joy is simply a description of what is happening in our inner beings.  I shared childlike joy when I sang “I Love to Tell the Story of unseen things above; of Jesus and his glory; of Jesus and his love” in Sunday school.  As I grew in faith and trust in Jesus, my joy became, “I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.  I’ve got joy like a fountain in my soul.”  As mothers and fathers, care-givers of young and old, may we share the joy that comes from knowing and trusting Jesus as our Savior, the lesson Paul and Silas have given to us for today.  Amen.  Happy Mother’s Day!

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Heaven is for Real

Message Delivered on May 5, 2013
John 14:23-29; Revelation 21:1-4, 10, 22-22:5
Upon viewing my liturgical calendar for this coming week, I noted that Ascension Day, the day that Jesus returned to the Father in heaven after his resurrection, will be remembered on Thursday.  I can only imagine the mixed feelings of joy and grief as the beloved Savior prepared to leave his disciples.  I know the mixed feelings I have every time I officiate at celebrations of life, remembering friends and trusting God to care for them in their new life in heaven.  Jesus’ words of comfort to his friends before leaving are consoling and help us to look forward to our new life with God forever, but how do we deal with grief caused by losses? Today’s passages give us some insight to God’s words for us in difficult times.

In the Old Testament the Israelites dealt with loss and disappointment by remembering the creation account. It was in the Garden of Eden that sin was first introduced and people have been seeking to reverse its damage for eons. Christ came to offer forgiveness, hope, and the promise of new life; a new beginning with God forever. In the times when we are feeling lost and alone, God promises to be with us. “I am making all things new.”

God had promised the Israelites after the Babylonian captivity to bring them home to the land of their ancestral birth, to restore the city of Jerusalem, to rebuild the ruined temple and to re-establish Israel as a sovereign nation. This morning’s text in Revelation speaks of the eternal realm after the great resurrection as both a new genesis (re-creation) and a New Jerusalem (new world). Creation is renewed not by destroying the old and starting over but by transforming the old into something different, better and transcendent. Creation’s renewal is modeled after the transformation and resurrection of believers (1 Corinthians 15:35-53). In the same way that sinners become a new creation because the old has passed away and the new has come, the first heaven and the first earth have passed away. They have discontinued in their current condition because God is restructuring the old created order into a new state of glory: creation changes without losing its former identity and becomes “a new heaven and a new earth.” God has not abandoned this world, and neither should we. Because God plans on transforming the old created order, the church should be faithful stewards of the planet and not exploit its resources. God’s city, the New Jerusalem, is an epiphany (a light show) revealing three major movements: 1. the initial descent of the city, 2. the measurements and the materials of the city, and 3. the internal content and landscape of the city of God, heaven.

In John’s gospel for today, believers are called to keep the word. In knowing Jesus, God’s presence impacts peace and love and builds a home for those who abide in God’s word. As Jesus prepares to go to the Father, He promises to send the Holy Spirit in his absence to continue in the instruction of Jesus’ words. The revelation of God in Christ will go on.

Last year we read Heaven is for Real in which a young boy of three died in surgery, came back to life, and gradually related to his parents his account of being with God in heaven. Revelation 21:3-4 is often included as one of the “words of comfort” I use at a celebration of life to depict the Kingdom of Heaven we look forward to seeing in God’s glory. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be there with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Belief in an after-life is comforting.

Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurobiologist, trained at Harvard University as a neurosurgeon. He was a religious skeptic, but on November 10, 2008, he woke up with a splitting headache that devolved into seizures. An ambulance took him to the same hospital where he worked. He was shrieking, “Help!” and he learned that E.Coli had attacked his brain in a rare form of bacterial meningitis. In a coma, his colleagues felt that he had very little chance of survival. If he lived, he would be severely brain damaged.

Amazingly, Dr. Alexander made a complete recovery; a medical miracle. An afterlife experience during the coma turned a skeptic into a faithful Episcopalian. He penned Proof of Heaven, making the New York Times Best Sellers List for non-fiction after only four weeks. He recalls the medical miracle and shocking after-life experience of heaven he had while in his coma. “While brain dead, he described himself as a hyper-aware speck of consciousness in the midst of darkness, but a visible darkness—like being submerged in mud but also being able to see through it.” He was plunged from that place by a spinning orb of white light that emitted a beautiful melody. The light drew him in and then opened like a portal into an unending valley—“Below me was countryside: green, lush and earthlike. It was earth but at the same time, it was not.” A celestial being spoke to him without using words. He sensed three messages about that eternal place: 1. “you are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.” 2. “you have nothing to fear.” and 3. “there is nothing you can do wrong [that cannot be made right].” These images and words have some overlap with scriptural notions of heaven in Revelation. Alexander had no knowledge of this text or any need for it. Heaven had been dismissed as religious nonsense. He described his near death experience as subconscious hallucinations created by the neo cortex of the brain, based on memories of what the person had previously heard or imagined about afterlife. The E.Coli infection was spread across the entire outermost layer of the brain responsible for all of higher functioning. Brain scans during the coma showed zero activity in the areas that could access memories, create dreams, or imagine visual and audio sensations. Alexander’s vision of heaven could not have happened within his physical brain. He was convinced there is a heaven and a loving, personal God.

Revelation 21 is not a vision of angels and harps, it is a vision of the arrival of the New Heaven: 1500 miles long, wide and tall (Revelation 21:16), great perimeter walls made of jasper (verses 12, 18), foundations crusted with precious jewels (verses 19-20), and city and streets made of pure gold (verses 18, 21). The wonder of the city is not what it is made of—but what it represents: 1. No temple in this city. There is no need because Jesus is the mediator of forgiveness and relationship with God, not a building. 2. The Heavenly City represents the fullness of human purpose. In Genesis the garden was created and perfect. Revelation 21 is the true fulfillment of Genesis 1. God is pleased and makes this city in the middle of heaven—his throne. The glory of all civilizations flows into the city as the worship of God (Revelation 21:6).

The implication of how we view our work is huge because God is honoring human work. The proof of heaven is in the work of our hands. Our “city-building” includes all work done in the Genesis mandate to create and cultivate; this fulfills God’s design for humanity. It literally brings heaven to Earth. Of all the images of heaven that God could send to John, he chose a city: Heaven as gritty and earthy and tangible. Alexander’s afterlife experience/vision was his proof of heaven and we can all look for our own proofs of heaven today.

We long for a peaceful world without pain. It is in our sense of satisfaction that comes through holiness—of overcoming the momentary satisfaction of sinful choices that we can find peace. It is in the goodness of the everyday work of our hands—work that fulfills our purpose now and builds a heaven that will come. We are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) in the present tense, and our lives today can be the proof of heaven as we live, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The Lord God is our guiding light at all times and in all places. Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon