Hebrews 12: 1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
I. Introduction: Lent is a 4 letter word
I try not to use loaded, shock value four-letter words anywhere, especially not in church, but I have to use one today. Its the four-letter word “Lent,” the season of the church year for many Christians that began this week. I can tell that “Lent” is a loaded word of high-impact shock value just by some people’s involuntary reactions whenever I say it. Some people’s responses remind me of Inspector Dreyfus around Inspector Clouseau in the old Pink Panther movies: anything from a nervous tick, to moans and groans, or worse.
I know why: its that time of year when winter overstays its welcome (in a normal year at least), the snow is peeling back to leave gritty residues of sooty black ice and slush, revealing six months worth of trash along the roadside, taxes are due, all the songs and scriptures at church are about how Jesus is going to suffer and die, indeed everything is about suffering, death, repentance and confession.
And we can’t even eat chocolate?
Bummer. How quickly can we make the next seven weeks until Easter pass?
II. A Positive Lenten Journey?
Which is why someone on our worship committee asked last month, “Is there any way we can make of Lent a positive experience, rather than just something depressing to endure?” That’s partly why we came up with a home-grown Lent program instead of the denominational program that many other MCUSA churches will use. In keeping with that theme of a positive, anticipatory kind of Lent, we are doing something home-grown. Our Lent season focus will be on the passage you just heard, in particular, the words, “for the joy that was before him.”
Don’t worry, we kept the deacons and the church council informed about that.
The Typical Lenten Themes—conflict, confession, repentance, sacrifice & suffering
Still, our scriptures, sermons, stories and songs will confront us with the typical Lenten themes of confession, repentance, spiritual housecleaning, the cross, the conflicts and the sufferings that Jesus endured on the cross and on the way to it.
But The Arresting Insight of Hebrews 12:2
And yet the focus verse for today’s message, and the whole Lenten season, gives us something other than the usual take on the cross: that it was joy that drew and motivated Jesus and kept him coming in its direction. Not the joy of the cross itself—for there is none—but the joy of what lay beyond it, when there was no way around it but through it. My hope then for this message, and this season, is that we too pay attention to this very important matter of joy, just as we pay attention to the fuel gages of our cars. To go too long in our Christian walk without some measure of joy is to run on empty, and eventually stall out. Joy also gives us some clues as to our callings and gifting from God. As Elizabeth O’Connor put it, “Where our deep joy meets the world’s pain, that is our calling.” That’s why this is an important matter, even for the Sundays and the season of Lent.
3. Don’t love those things, but…..
So its not because Jesus loved loved suffering and dying so much that he went to Jerusalem, knowing that a cross awaited him there. He didn’t love such things, and nor should we. If anything, we should always do whatever we can to avoid or put an end to unnecessary or unjust suffering. But some suffering is just inevitable, either because life in a fallen world, this spiritual battle zone, is so mysterious and imperfect, or because the greatest joys always require a choice and a cost, and sometimes “therein lies a tale of woe.” But heaven is not stockpiling rewards according to some pain meter on earth. That would be sick.
III. What Motivated Jesus: Joy
Joys experienced & Anticipated:
It wasthe joy of his union with God His Father that drew Jesus on toward the cross in costly obedience, and in his anticipation of all the greater joys to come. We know how the story ends; I’m not letting the cat out of the bag when I mention the empty tomb, the forgiveness of our sins, the exposure and defeat of all the powers arrayed against us, and the throne of honor and power at the right hand of his Heavenly Father that would follow the cross. Those joys that Jesus anticipated also include out eternal life, and our ascension to his throne with him. In effect, we are the joy the set before him. All these joys are symbolized by the crown and the royal purple robe you see draped on the cross this season. I think its not only okay to remember such joys, and even to anticipate them, as the Lenten season scriptures walk us through the conflicts and sufferings of Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem. I think its necessary. I highly recommend it.
IV. What Is Joy?
Which leaves a question begging, of course. What do I mean by joy, and how does it differ from pleasure, satisfaction, happiness or fun, some of which is good, or at least harmless, some which can be dangerous and enslaving? To answer that question, think for a moment about a memory or a moment of joy in your life………..about 15-20 seconds here…………. First thing that comes to mind. …….Does it have to do with an event? Music? Nature? A relationship? An activity or a place? For me, it was hearing our daughter Emily’s English horn solo in a particularly beautiful song during a high school orchestra concert.
From God’s Perspective
Let’s look at that moment or memory from God’s perspective, as well as our own. For as C.S. Lewis wrote, “Joy is The Serious Business of Heaven.”
- Joy Is Heaven’s Calling Card, telling us that God is near to us, and that we are drawing near to God. Joy is a gift from God, and a signpost from God that says, as Lewis wrote, “It is not I! I am only a Reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?” Joy is nothing less than the way God says, “You were made for something more and better than anything you can imagine right now.” Its also God’s way of saying, “Here I am; keep coming my way,” or “Here I have been all along, closer than you knew.”
- From Our Own Perspective and Experience—Joy is Paradoxical, its a two-sided sword that draw us toward God even while it cuts us off from all that the cheap, tawdry and common God-substitutes in the world. Joy is like taking language lessons…..for heaven. And so it involves mixed experiences of…..
- Awe & Assurance Awe, wonder, even fear and trembling over all that is sacred, good and true, at how rare, fragile and precious are such things, even while we feel the assurance that there’s plenty more of all that in store for us. So the words of the old hymn capture joy perfectly: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” Joy also touches us with….
- Gratitude & Longing, Gratitude for what we have been given, while leaving us longing for more. Which is why we may sometimes cry with joy, because we are experiencing…
- Delight & Mourning, delight at the sheer gift that is life and love, and yet mourning that we have ever settled for less, or that we might settle for less. Joy also is an experience of….
- Release & Commitment, release from our preoccupations with all that is untrue, unloving and life-destroying, even while we resolve and commit ourselves to seek and do more that is true, loving and life-affirming. Such experiences are also…..
- Momentary & Timeless—Moments of joy do not last long, we can’t keep the feeling going, nor can we necessarily provoke them, engineer them nor repeat them at will. I’ve played that song with Emily’s English horn solo many times on a CD since she played it, and its nice. But no chill runs down the spine again, no tears come to the eyes now. And yet we come from such moments sensing that we have stood on the threshold of eternity and have felt the fresh air of timelessness, like when artists look up from their work and see that three hours of time have just passed by, and they wonder, “Where did the time go?” And yet they don’t regret a minute of what they were doing; they may not even be tired; they are deeply content and refreshed instead. Some of you quilters, potters and wood-workers know what I’m talking about. Finally, Joy is both…
- Received & Anticipated. We are “joy junkies.” God made us that way, so that whenever God leaves his calling card of joy on our heart, we will hunger and thirst for more joy, and seek it in areas of life that put us in reach of more of heaven’s joys.
V. So if “Joy Is The Serious Business of Heaven,” Why the Themes of Sacrifice, Suffering & Sorrow in Lent?
- We Can’t Make Permanent Addresses out of Waystations on The Road to Joy—Like pleasure, fun and entertainment. They have their place. But don’t confuse a good nap, an entertaining book, good food, or the cheap thrills of an action/escape movie for the joy of Jesus.
- Joy Requires Costs & Choices In fact, sometimes we’ll have to say No to such things, even some normal, good things, if we are to open space in our lives for joy, or to put ourselves in reach of heaven’s joys.
And There Are Many Dangerous Counterfeit Substitutes To Joy….
which turn out to be false goods and dead ends, anything from the passing, momentary rush of power whenever we cheat, steal or destroy something, or someone, to the dangerous, addictive high of drugs, to the simple passive avoidance of disagreement or tension, when maybe some disagreement or tension would have been constructive. As we saw in the drama about temptation this morning, good things can go bad and become idols, while bad things can come to seem good and enslave us. Either way, they are cheap joy substitutes.
To avoid these traps and sidetracks, or to free ourselves of them, we may have to fight with ourselves, or better yet, against our besetting sins, and to say No to those temptations that lead us astray from God’s greatest joys. Again, that’s not because we hate pleasure and love pain, but because we we won’t take any wooden nickels as old-timers used to say. We won’t settle for anything less want than the true joys that God gives with his blessings and commands. As Psalm 16: 11 puts it, “You make known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
If we observe Lent, or however we observe the season and prepare for Easter, don’t do it just to add pain, sorrow, misery or drudgery to your life, as though heaven was giving out gold medals in exchange for self-inflicted misery. It isn’t. Do it for the greater joys you anticipate. Do it because you know where true and lasting joys are to be found, and because you won’t settle for any cheap substitutes. Do it for the same joys that drew Jesus to the cross, through the cross, and beyond. God wouldn’t offer such joys if he didn’t want give them.