Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 24, 2017
“Joy’s First Step”
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
The book of Philippians is a fascinating book. It is God’s little book of joy. 14 times in this short book the Greek word for joy (chara) is used. You know some of the verses found in this book even if you didn’t know where they came from. Here are two of them – “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” That verse is from Philippians. (4:4) Following almost every sermon a word from this book is spoken, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (4:7)
Joy, that emotion that speaks about the fascination with life, is God’s gift to us. Joy is shown by the smile that begins at the mouth and encompasses the entire body. Joy is the confidence that God has only good for us and that we are always under His care. Joy finds itself in God’s love, Christ’s forgiveness and the promise that we are His forever in heaven. Joy is the final step that God has for us.
Joy’s first step is much different, however. It doesn’t look much like joy, but, it is part of God’s design for us. Joy’s first step is suffering, difficulty and repentance. Paul writes this book from prison. (As he does for Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon) It is about the year 61 and he, without a lawful reason, is put into jail.
When Paul was converted, when God found him, turned him from one who always resisted the ways of God in his life to knowing and believing that Jesus Christ was God’s answer to redeem this world, he was told that joy’s first step would be suffering. God said of Paul, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people in Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15-16)
It was 10 years before this that Paul had met the Philippians for the first time. Around 51, Paul and Silas, after doing a miracle, were seized and dragged before the authorities. Acts 16 gives us this scene, “The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully.” (Acts 16:22-24)
You would think that they would be behind the prison bars hollering at the guards, demanding their lawyer, talking about how they were going to sue them. But that isn’t what we read. Joy’s first step was suffering. God was going to open the doors of that prison for them, but first they were up at midnight praying and singing hymns to God.
Do you ever see that? Joy is a great gift but it doesn’t appear until after going through hell. Joy and sorrow can even happen at the very same time.
I read in Friday’s paper a review of the movie “Stronger”. The movie is about the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Jeff Bauman, an irresponsible, me-first guy, a guy-that-drinks-way too-much has gone to a bar near the finish line and is trying to win back his girl friend by finally showing up for her. She is in the race and he is going to meet her at the finish line.
But Bauman, already tipsy from his midday binge, looks like a mess with stains on his shirt. And in an instant, the moment the terrorists detonate the bombs, both his legs are blown up. I would like to say that such suffering changed his life forever, but it wasn’t so simple. Alcohol continued to rule his life for a long time. Since then, Erin, his girlfriend, then wife, and the mother of their daughter Nora, has separated from Bauman.
But this double amputee is a hero to many. When he threw out the first pitch at a Boston Red Sox game some time ago he was mobbed by the people during the game. They wanted to see him. They had stories about what they went through. They saw him in his wheelchair as an inspiration to them – his story touched their story.
Jeff Bauman is getting better. Though he’s not there yet, he certainly experienced joy’s first step – suffering. Beginning October 8, and then through the winter, many of you are going to come face to face with joy’s first step. On that evening, if we have severe weather, up to 35 homeless will spend their evening in our Fellowship Hall. You will see the faces of those who are the homeless – street people. Some that you will get to know face mental illness, some abuse, or have abused alcohol or drugs, some have made very poor decisions, or have had a long session of bad luck.
It doesn’t look pretty. You’ll actually see lives that face joy’s first step. I invite you to get involved in this, in some way, staying overnight, bringing a meal, helping greet them or getting the sleeping area ready for them. It is joy’s first step.
But it isn’t joy’s final step. Suffering is not the end; nor is it the final word. Jesus has the final word. Jesus provides mercy and healing and forgiveness. In that opening chapter of Philippians Paul makes sense of his imprisonment, “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” (Philippians 1:12-14) After Paul mentions that some may be proclaiming Christ for wrong motives, he concludes, “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motive or true, Christ is preached. And because if this I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:18) Because of the false accusations that put him in chains more people who would never have heard that Jesus had come to pay for the sins of the world, and their sins, got to hear the message of Christ crucified and Christ risen. Because he has been hauled off and had his freedom removed, other folks who would have never had the courage to speak publicly about Jesus were encouraged and compelled to be a witness of Jesus Christ. “And because of this I rejoice.”
When Peter was preaching on Pentecost Sunday and he demanded that his listener’s take full ownership of the crucifixion of Jesus (“and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23b). He insisted on repentance and grief and sorrow – joy’s first step. The first step was taken and the second one came. “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified both Lord and Christ. When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.’” (Acts 2:37-39)
Suffering is not without purpose. It is not meaningless. But it is not the purpose of existence!! Repentance over sin is necessary. We must experience that brokenness caused by sinning against God’s holy ways. We must become empty, of ourselves. But that is not the purpose of repentance. Joy’s first step is sorrow and repentance and difficulty and suffering. But the next step is greater!!
Psalm 30 says, “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning…Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me; O Lord, be my help. You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever.” (Psalm 30:5b,10-12)
Jesus brings us joy. Your sins have all been paid for by Jesus. You are forgiven. You are clean and pure, considered complete through the blood of Christ. That is joy. You are going to live forever in heaven. No doubt about it!! You will live in the best mansion and enjoy the splendor of God’s peace and love. Jesus rose from death, your hope for salvation rests not in your deeds, but in His. You have a hope of forgiveness and are given eternal life in Jesus. That is joy.
Joy is knowing that God is in control today. How else can we understand Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose”, unless we believed that God is in control? That is joy.
From a prison cell Paul talks about joy. His circumstances didn’t remove God’s gift of joy from him. Joy’s first step can be hard. But it is not the final step. God has grace and mercy though Jesus for us. That is joy, without end. Amen!!