Evening Prayer Homily: Real Joy

March 18th, 2015

Preacher: Jonathan Roberts

Scripture: Psalm 42; Philemon 7–12; 3 John 1–5

In late January Doyt gave a sermon entitled “Really Real Moments and Small Groups.” In the sermon he shared the following anecdote:

“It happened when Bryan was singing after Communion. The altar team had sat down. As I was sitting there in the sanctuary, listening, I felt water sprinkling on my head. It was a gentle mist. At first I thought I was imagining it. I turned to Steve Clemons and I asked if there was water on my head. He said there was. So I looked up, thinking it was a leak. No leak was visible. I finally realized it was actually raining through the stain glass window right over me. A thousand tiny raindrops were coming through the window down upon me, and it was a moment embossed upon my heart as a Really Real Moment.”

A few days later the newly formed Epiphany small group that I am part of I discovered that many people were also struck by this anecdote. Cory Carlson asked those present what experience like that each of us had along those lines. We went around the table and shared stories of a child’s birth, an experience in nature, the loss of a parent, etc. Each of these stories seemed to be connecting to some deeper truth. Most of our stories weren’t remarkable in and of themselves, but they were Real and it felt like they were what we benchmarked our lives by. A couple of weeks later I heard a similar story from the father of a classmate of our daughter Elyse. He shared a story about the man he purchased his Sun Valley ski condo from. The seller was one of the original Austrian Sun Valley Ski Instructors who had stayed and built a life there. One day this man shared a story from his own childhood with my friend. The man had a loving but very, very austere childhood growing up in the Depression era Austrian Countryside. As a young boy one Christmas he gave his Dad a finely crafted wooden box for knickknacks that he had spent months working on. When he gave it to his father, his father cried. Almost seventy years later this was the pre-eminent childhood memory he shared with a new friend. I teared up hearing about it.

It turns out, the Bible is full of these Really Real moments; they are called Joy. The sections we’ve heard today all touch on various aspects of Joy. In Paul’s letter to Philemon, where he basically slaps Philemon upside the head and tells him to treat his repentant wayward slave lovingly, he’s connecting to the Really Real that goes beyond human power. “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement.” He then makes his case, but before he does he says, “I appeal to you on the basis of love.” In the Third Letter of John we hear John, the apostle, thanking a church in Asia for supporting teachers sent by him. “It gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in truth.”

In thinking of Doyt’s experience, those of my Men’s group, the Austrian Ski Instructor, and those in the Bible, it seems each instance of Joy is directly associated with being in a relationship where Love is present. Joy in each of these contexts is a grounded thing that can be happy or sad or any other type of emotion. It’s quite different then extreme happiness or exhilaration since it’s not based on adrenaline or dopamine. Hitting the winning tennis shot and beating your opponent may feel good but it is not joy. Shaking hands afterwards and laughing about the match and connecting on a personal level quite possibly is.

The question is, what is Joy connecting us to? Today’s Psalm’s gives us a clue. “As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God.” What is this longing? What’s behind this longing? Well, you’ve been waiting for it, so here it is, my first C.S. Lewis reference. I believe this is the longing Lewis describes in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Joy is what pulled Lewis forward through his life. Joy is what propelled him over a twenty year period of time to first believe in God and two years later come to accept the divinity of Christ. According to Lewis we live our lives in the “Shadow lands” a la Plato’s cave. What’s beyond is the real, real world he calls heaven. The way we reach heaven is through relationships.

The important thing to note is that the most important relationship is with God. We often experience this in nature. Perhaps you’re like me and you catch yourself saying a little prayer of thanks when crossing 520 and seeing Mount Rainer in all its glory. It’s natural to do so because the beauty we’re experiencing is a reflection of God giving us a glimpse of the heaven which is all around us. It’s interesting to note that G.K. Chesterton felt that Paganism, which is traditionally defined as the worship of nature, is legitimate in that it indirectly connects to the divine but unsatisfactory since it doesn’t take you anywhere or fully engage your mind and spirit. Experiencing this reflection is perhaps what people mean when they say they are spiritual but not religious. They are truly experiencing the reflection of goodness, but the question is, to what end? Is there more to Joy than just the off chance of experiencing it?

So, how do we experience more Joy? Chesterton gives us another clue when he observed that Christianity is entirely unique in how it combines mythology, which he defines as a structure trying to connect with the divine, with reason. In all other traditions they are separate which is why the mind and reason pulled the Greeks, Romans, and countless other advanced societies away from their beliefs. We also know that we’re both animal and spirit, or “an amphibian” as described by Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. As such, the habits of prayer, worship, tithing, and etcetera also leads us toward an active relationship with God with Joy being the bi-product. After becoming a Christian Lewis described this feeling as seeing signposts along the freeway. After awhile they occurred so often he stopped noticing.

Finally, in addition to Joy being the heavenly signature of true relationships, it also puts us firmly in God’s Kingdom. A remarkable example is the description of Dietrich Bonheoffer as he was walking to the gallows in Flossenburg. Gerhard Liebholz, a man who was with him during those last days, wrote in a letter in October 1945: “Bonhoeffer was very happy during the whole time I knew him, and did a great deal to keep some of the weaker brethren from depression and anxiety.” Bonheoffer lived in constant connection to the Really Real. He lived with Joy and in the Kingdom.

Fortunately, our trials aren’t as significant as Dietrich’s but our Joy can be as real. If Joy existed in his world and he was able to live within the Kingdom of God even when the Kingdom of Man was as dark as it ever has been, it means that Joy, and the Kingdom it draws us into, is all the more attainable for us.

During this Lenten Season I’m trying to be attentive to my relationships starting with God and I’m opening myself up to the glimpses of heaven, experiencing the Really Real—otherwise known as Joy.