2 Easter, Year A
2 Easter, Year A
Psalm 16: 9-11
Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Joy. God’s joy. We Christians speak and sing of God’s joy. But, I wonder, do we really give much thought as to the meaning of joy in our lives? Do we experience it or share it with others in our daily routines of life? Maybe it has become so familiar or so commonplace that we lose sight of it, take it too much for granted, and fail to appreciate it. What is joy? What is God’s joy? What does it mean for us to live joyful lives? What difference does God’s joy make in our lives?
Philosopher and sceptic Friedrich Nietzche, once criticized the followers of Jesus by saying: “His disciples should look more redeemed.” In my comings and goings; in my encounters with a wide array of Christians over the years; I too have come to appreciate Nietzhe’s criticism. I have viewed some of the older pictures—including those of my own family—of supposedly devout Christians, including clergy, who wear a frown rather than a smile on their faces; as if to say: ‘To smile, to laugh, to show any sign of joy is to commit the unforgivable sin.’ Moreover, I’ve also met more than a few Christians who seem so oppressed, downtrodden, gloomy and even harsh; that they seem to have lost the meaning and influence of God’s joy in their lives.
In Psalm 16, which, some scholars believe, was written out of the context of the psalmist being healed of some illness and/or God’s providential deliverance out of some death-threatening circumstance: we learn that joy, God’s joy, is associated with healing, health, and overall well-being. The psalmist describes the situation in verses nine through eleven, when he says: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Thus, for the psalmist to live a joyful life meant healing, health and well-being; these were clear signs of God’s grace and favour; God’s blessings.
Martin Buber tells the story of his paralysed grandfather who was asked to relate a story about his great teacher, the famous and holy Baal Shem Tov. The grandfather replied by telling how the holy man used to jump up and down and dance when he was praying. Being swept up in the fervor of the narrative, the grandfather himself stood up and began to jump and dance to show how the master had done it. At that moment the grandfather was completely healed of his paralysis. 1
Buber’s story underscores how contagious God’s joy is in that it has the power to bring health and healing to us. Would that it be so for each one of us here today! Too many people are weighed down and oppressed by life because they lack healing, health and wholeness, which can come only from God’s joy at work in their lives. Is God’s joy contagious among us? Is it something that we are compelled to share with and spread to others, that they might become healed, healthy and whole people?
Another quality of God’s joy is that it enables us to enjoy simply basking in the presence of God. “In your presence there is fullness of joy” says the psalmist. No half measures or fragments here; life has a sense of wholeness, completeness, meaningfulness. Life in God’s presence allows us moments of clarity and contentment, in God’s presence, in the fullness of joy we can truly say: “I have all that I need. I am all that I am meant to be, accepting myself as a child of God, created in God’s image.” Life in God’s presence, in the fullness of joy, allows us glimpses of the big picture. Is our life not robbed of God’s joy precisely because we so easily lose track of “the big picture?” God’s joy sharpens our vision, our purpose, our meaning, our sense of destiny as God’s people.
Three monks made their annual trip to visit a wise and holy man. Two of them asked many questions and shared thoughts and dreams, but the third companion remained silent and spoke not a word. After many visits the Teacher spoke to the silent monk. “Though you come here often, you ask me no questions.” Smiling, the monk replied, “It is enough just to be with you, Teacher.” Ultimately joy means being in the presence of God. 2
In addition to this, the psalmist is able to experience and attest to joy as a gift from God, because it originate from God, and therefore is present now and in the future. God’s joy as a gift; as present right now and in the future; means that it is accessible in every place, time and circumstance of life.
Many things in human life bring joy. From the sense of a healthy body and the exhilaration of a sunshiny day to the deep satisfactions of home and friends—there are numberless sources of happiness. But humanity has always been athirst to find joy in thinking about the total meaning of life. Lacking that, the details of life lose radiance. Not only are there happy things in life, but life itself is fundamentally blessed. Alas for that person who does not like to think about life’s origin and destiny and meaning, because he or she has no joyful faith about God! Some people have what Epictetus called “paralysis of the soul” every time they think of creation, for to them it is a huge physical machine crashing on without reason or good will. But some people have such a joyful faith in the divine that the gladness about the whole of life redeems their sorrow about its details. So Samuel Rutherford in prison said, “Jesus Christ came into my room last night and every stone flashed like a ruby.” For the thought of God in terms of friendly personality is the most joyful idea of God that humanity has ever had. 3
The psalmist, in describing the giftedness, the present and future of God’s joy, says: “in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Now it is true that pleasures can be both positive and negative in nature. We in the Western world are, by and large, a pleasure-obsessive-compulsive culture. You remember, a few years ago, Neil Postman put summed it up very well when he put forth the thesis that we are about the business of “amusing and entertaining ourselves to death.” In this thesis, Postman went on to make the critique that everything we do is given value if it meets the criterion of whether it entertains us. Unfortunately in North America a considerable number of congregations and denominations have “bought into” this criterion and emphasise “worship as entertainment,” epitomized in many of the televangelist’s glitzy, Hollywood-like productions. I sincerely doubt that “worship as entertainment” will stand the tests of time. At the end of the day, it is superficial and cannot meet our deepest needs.
In contrast to this kind of self-centred, pleasure, which is usually focussed on meeting one’s needs by the endless pursuit of materialism and consumerism; the “pleasures forevermore” that our psalmist refers to today is certainly God-centred and, service of one’s neighbour-centred. The “pleasures forevermore” are inseparable from God’s joy. They are one and the same thing. To be awake to God’s presence at all times, in all places and circumstances; to lose one’s self in the service of one’s neighbour; is to discover the deepest meaning and purpose in life.
Is this not what Christ’s resurrection is all about, which we celebrate during the Easter season? As Christians reading Psalm 16, we are likely, especially during this season, to interpret the psalmist’s words in light of Christ’s resurrection. For us, the resurrection is “THE EVENT PAR EXECELLANCE OF GOD’s JOY.” It is God’s RESOUNDING YES in the face of death. It is God’s perfect demonstration of showing forth life in all of its fullness when everything and everyone has given up. It is the perfect example of self-giving, self-sacrificial love for others; in losing life, one gains life forevermore. It is life with a capital L, full of meaning, richness, fulfilment, completeness; of knowing and trusting that all of these and more flow from God to us, through others and back again, without end. It is Beethoven composing and sharing with the world his, timeless “Ode to Joy;” it is Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer giving of themselves in the service of others and seeing each one as if that person were Christ himself; it is you and me doing something as small as providing a cold drink to a stranger or a meal to the hungry or a visit to the sick and lonely in our midst. In all of this and more, Christ is risen and living within and among us; and God’s joy is incarnated in our lives.