(Creative Commons Image by Margaret Almon on Flickr)
“Nepal, Baltimore, school shootings, cancer, suicide, poverty, discrimination, apathy, violence, ignorance, spite, abuse, injustice. Some days it's just too much for my little heart.”
This was a Facebook post this week by a working preacher I know.
I would add to the list sexism, anxiety, broken relationships, and sorrow. I would add disillusionment, distrust, depression, and disregard. I would add questions of where and how and why a sermon will matter.
It’s been that kind of week. It’s been that kind of time. It’s been that kind of world.
Which makes Jesus’ words of joy seem out of place. Out of sync. Out of touch with reality. “Seriously, Jesus. Are you …… kidding me?”
What is joy doing here and now in a time and place like this?
I have a feeling the disciples asked the same questions. After all, here they are in the middle of the Farewell Discourse, Jesus’ parting words to his disciples, and it’s here and now in Jesus’ ministry that Jesus offers statements of joy. There’s already been the acknowledgement of troubled hearts. And the next chapters will be words about rejection and hatred and abandonment, yet even more joy, “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete” (16:24); And later “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17:13).
Joy appears misplaced in passages that deal primarily with Jesus’ departure and impending death. Joy seems inappropriate when you are told that the one on whom you have relied for intimacy and belonging will no longer be around. Joy is a marked juxtaposition to the realities that the disciples face -- that we face. And maybe that’s the point. Because where is joy in the midst of the hardship Jesus described and in the peril that is sure to come? Where is joy when a primary source of your joy is leaving you? Where is joy when you need it the most? Jesus knows that the presence of joy needs to be heard, needs to be felt, when you face things that assume and anticipate a profound absence of joy.
Full disclosure. When writing my book on preaching the Gospel of John for Fortress Press, I really struggled with how to make sense of these passages -- for all of the reasons mentioned above. Joy is not abstract happiness. Joy is elusive. True joy is hard to come by and seems simply impossible when one starts down the road of real life. I’ve had some personal struggles with joy. It escaped me for a while. A long while, to be exact. Why? Well, many reasons, I suppose. So at one point I decided that its pursuit was essential for who I was, who I was called to be, who I wanted to be in the world. But, paradoxically, joy is hard. It takes work. It takes effort. It takes intention. Hanging in my office is a plaque with the following definitions of joy: “1. The emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires. 2. The expression or exhibition of such emotion. 3. A state of felicity. 4. A source or cause of delight.” I read these definitions every day. What do you need to remind you that joy can be present? Who do you need around you to tell you that joy is here? Especially in the face of those who seek to steal your joy away? Those who seem quite determined to make sure that your joy is but a dream? That which tries to quell your joy?
This Sunday, the church may be that place for your people -- that place where true joy is experienced. This Sunday, you may be that person for your congregation -- that person who speaks the assurance of joy in the midst of palpable pain. We preachers would do well to recall that the Greek words for “grace” and “joy” share the same root. Joy may very well be a feeling of grace, the emotion of grace, even the response to grace. Joy is that indescribable sense when you find yourself experiencing abundant grace. In other words, joy amidst all that was named above, all that you can certainly name in your own life, in the life of your congregation, both communally and individually, is not an answer. It’s an affirmation. It’s the guarantee of God’s grace when all that is good seems so far away. It’s the security of God’s love when it appears that love is nowhere to be felt, especially from those you thought would love you. It’s the hope that even in the darkest places of separation, God’s abiding and our abiding in God (1:18;13:23) is promised and present.