Shout for Joy
Every now and then we we run across a saying that puts into just the right words some idea or insight that we have been pondering. One such, for me, was Robert Lewis Stevenson’s, “Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well." I may have been aware of it before, but suddenly it came into sharper focus when put in the context of how some people are being victimized by the current state of society. It is held that because some segments are better off than others, there must be something unfair going on. Those who consider themselves victims claim that, since “all men are created equal,” such social inequity ought not to be.
Stevenson would not agree. His axiom acknowledges the existence of inequality – one person may have a good singing voice and another the physical structure necessary for professional football – but genuine equality has to do with the freedom to make the most with whatever we were given by God. We are not “equal” in terms of gifts and natural endowments, but we are where it really counts. We are free in our opportunity to deal successfully with what we were given. It is interesting that the current call for “social justice” is spearheaded by a group whose average salary is over $2,000,000 a year. I believe that the equality that counts is the freedom of everyone to make the best of what was given to him.
A person's worth is not determined by what they have or what the have done, but by how well each has handled what they were given. Stevenson might put it this way, “At the card table of life you get the hand that was dealt to you, so if yours is a “lousy 2, 4, and 6 of hearts along with a 7 and jack of spades, simply make the most of it.” Think of it as an exercise in character building. How you play your hand will exhibit the quality of your character. I know a man who has really made it in the material world, but, sitting in the midst of his luxuries, he is dismal. I know another man – this one with Downs syndrome who exudes joy after an expressive display of Christian dance before his family and friends. He plays his hand well and is rewarded appropriately. Both men are equal; one took the high road.
One additional word: If we who believe keep in mind that our life is a mere stepping stone to the endless joy of heaven, we should certainly rejoice in the “hand” that God has dealt us, no matter what it is. So, while most of us may never become filthy rich here on earth, I ask you, “Would you trade heaven for whatever could be yours down here?"
The prayer that begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven” is normally referred to as the Lord’s Prayer, but since his disciples had just asked him to teach them how to pray, it should probably be called the Disciples’ Prayer. In any case, a bit later on in his Galilean ministry we are privileged to listen to Jesus as he prays. It is recorded in Matthew 11:25: "Inspired with joy by the Holy Spirit, I prayed: "I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that although you have hidden these truths from the wise and discerning, you have made them known to the childlike.” So much can be learned if we allow him to be our mentor and show us how to pray as he did.
The first thing that strikes me about his prayer is that it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. It was the joy of the Spirit that moved him to pray. So often we think of prayer as a serious obligation to stay in contact with God and bring before him such issues as physical health, how to meet the traumas of life, and thanks that it didn’t rain. By contrast, it was the sheer joy of the Spirit’s presence that called forth praise from the Son of God. How can we not pray if we realize that the Holy Spirit is actually right there and wants to talk it all over with us? Remember that the Spirit is one with God the Father and God the Son. Some have referred to him as the “shy member of the trinity” as though he wasn’t quite sure of his status and didn’t want to draw the spotlight. To genuinely sense the presence and power of the Spirit leads to an incomprehensible joy that must of necessity give birth to prayer.
The other thing that stands out is that the eternal truths he was teaching were hidden from “the wise and discerning,” but were made known to “the childlike.” Why is it that spiritual truth doesn’t seem to make sense to the intellectual but is easily grasped by the innocent? Perhaps because the world’s intellectual giants are by definition those who have ventured on ahead and don’t need any insight we might come up with. Ignorance is such a serious fault because it doesn’t know that it doesn’t know. The childlike can accept spiritual truth because it doesn’t threaten their certainty that there is nothing they need to learn. The truly wise know how little is know even of our natural world, to say nothing of all that lies in regions beyond.
Jesus, inspired by the joy of the Spirit, lifts his voice in praise, thanking the Father for revealing his truth to the childlike. Three quick suggestions: stay open to the Spirit, grateful to the Father, and active in praise like the Son
The book of Proverbs has to do with wisdom, not knowledge in the sense of information about the world, but moral insight into life’s deeper issues. Wisdom teaches us how to live so as to escape the follies of a thoughtless life and discover in our days the satisfaction of time well spent. Here in chapter 4 a father spells out to his son the benefits of acquiring wisdom. In verses 4b–11 are listed three of the most important, with the first being life itself: “Live by the principles I am teaching you and you will experience life as it is meant to be lived.” Life is not the passing of time but our opportunity to experience, in the deepest sense, the rewards of living as God desires.
A second benefit of wisdom is protection, not simply from the dangers connected with living, but from missing out on all that could have been ours if we hadn’t forgotten what we have learned (v. 6). Wisdom has a tendency to be overlooked when some immediate pleasure appears.
Then in verses 7-9 we see that wisdom desires to honor us – “Cherish her and she will exalt you; embrace her and she will bring you honor.” So, Solomon assures us that if we focus our energies on becoming wise (i.e., doing the right thing on every occasion) we will discover real life, be protected from all that would harm, and enjoy the honor justly given to the wise.
Well, that all sounds really good. Let’s just learn from God and we will enjoy the benefits that follow. My question is, Then why aren’t we all wise? I believe the answer is that wisdom is not that high a priority for most. The NIV translation of verse 7 is right on target: “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom!” The wisest thing a person can do is to determine to become wise. Wisdom isn’t acquired by the passing of time or a laid back approach in the process. Wisdom begins by wanting it. “Though it cost you all you have,” says the NIV, “get understanding.”
We admire the athlete who trains for years to compete in the Olympics; should not we put the same dedicated effort into living life as God intended, that is, becoming wise?” Wisdom begins by the desire to be wise and rewards us, as we learned, with life, protection and honor. God’s ways are inevitably the best.
Psalm 4 opens with the psalmist calling out to God in a time of need. Then he turns to his adversaries and reminds them that God always comes to the help of his people. In the last stanza he asks the Lord for the joy and affection that allow him to lie down in peace under the protection of God.
It was Aldous Huxley who gave us the memorable line, ”After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” If music had not played such an important role in my life, it would probably be best for me to stop right now and give you what Huxley says is even better — silence. However, let’s take the second best and think together about the wonderful gift of music.
Literature is full of mankind’s appreciation and enjoyment of music, whether it be the soft and tender strains of love or the cacophonous violence of evil. In a cinema, music does not simply provide an appropriate background for a particular scene, but is an integral part of that scene. Good music is less something we listen to, than it is the experience of listening itself. In some beautiful cathedral where we go to worship God, the music must be a fundamental part of that experience. It must, in a real sense, embody the One who is worshiped. Put simply, the choice of music in a particular church reveals how those in charge view God; it is a musical expression of who they hold Him to be.
Literature is full of accolades to the role of music in human history. Plato held that music is a moral law: “It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” Some 2,000 years later, Martin Luther wrote, ”Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” The insight that speaks to me most movingly is that of the French novelist, Victor Hugo, who said, rather enigmatically, “Music expresses that which cannot be said on which it is impossible to be silent.” His outlook on music is not dissimilar from Zen’s view of language, which holds that truth is always just beyond any verbal expression of it.
One morning while traveling, my wife and I were visiting a distinguished musician (then retired) and his wife. Together we listened to some of his compositions through a professional amplifying system. For two hours no one said a word — we just experienced the glory of God as we listened with one another to the choir of a magnificent Lutheran church where he had served for years as choirmaster. Words cannot communicate the euphoria of that “worship service.”
It is not accidental that Christianity is the only religion that sings. Others may chant, but the message Christ calls for singing.
Biblical scholars tell us that the letter we call 1 John was written toward the close of the first century and was occasioned by the rise of a heretical movement called Docetism. This approach denied that Jesus every lived here on earth in a physical form, but that his “body” was a celestial substance. Since he never really died in a body like ours, no sacrifice was made and we are still in debt for our sins. No wonder that John, the beloved disciple, begins his letter – “That which was from the beginning . . . we have seen with our eyes . . . our hands have touched” (v. 1). Then in the following two verses he repeats three times that he saw him. John declares that his message is “what we have seen and heard” (v. 3).
John wants his readers to understand that the Christian faith is not a philosophy, but a message about a real man in time and space who lived among us, died for our sins and rose again victorious over sin and death. This unique experience sets the Christian message apart from all other religions. Someone once answered the question, “How can I start a new religion?” with the retort, “Have yourself killed and then rise from the dead.”
The Christian faith rests on a solid foundation. It proclaims that God’s incarnate son lived among us, was crucified, and rose again. Scripture records that Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred of his followers at once, most of whom are still alive” (1 Cor. 15:6). Agreement on this basic event is crucial for a logical understanding of the remarkable expansion of the faith. It is critical for fellowship within the assembly. John says that his purpose in writing is “that you may have fellowship with us” even as we enjoy fellowship with Father and the Son (v. 3). It was extremely important in the early years of the Christian faith that the central truths were not compromised by any penchant for change.
And so it has been down through time. Deviant groups have severed their relationship out of a desire to interpret the faith somewhat differently. Denominations have expanded and split. Brand new approaches have clamored for recognition. Major differences have ruptured the status quo, but the true church continues. Jesus said that he would build his church on Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God” and that “all the powers of hell will not conquer it” (Matt. 16:18).
John saw and touched the risen Christ, the church faithfully proclaims the message, and two millennia later you and I are united by faith with John and his first century believers. False doctrines drop along the wayside and truth, although battered, is – and will be – victorious in the end.
Is any one surprised about the way you live? Peter asks that question of the first century believers to whom he was writing. He has just described pagan conduct as “living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry” (4:3). Then he speaks of their surprise that Christians didn’t “join them in their reckless, wild living” (4:4). Not only that, they heaped abuse on them for their sterile lifestyle. Has anyone expressed surprise about the way you live?
I remember a speaker who asked a similar question: “If you were on trial for being a Christian in a dictatorial country, could they find enough evidence to convict you?” It struck me at the time that I was sufficiently like my secular friends that I could probably get by. And that’s the problem! We weren’t called to be like the nonbeliever, but to be like Christ, to be transformed into his image. Since we are but sojourners here on earth we ought to have the accent of heaven. The soldiers around the fire on the night Jesus was being examined by the high priest knew that Peter was a Galilean because he had the accent.
Some have solved the problem by dressing differently. The burka identifies the Muslim, the bonnet the Mennonite. Others have done it with a sort of religious rigidity that makes you want to suggest, “If you’re happy, let your face know it.” Certainly there is a better way. God doesn’t make people look different; he makes them different. And that difference is the result of looking at all of life from a heavenly point of view. It is an inward transformation that permanently alters who we are and how we act. How then should people view us? Well, it shouldn’t be something like, “And what kind of a religious wall flower are you? Come on, the pub’s still open and the bawdy house never closes.”
So, from one standpoint, it doesn’t look too good to follow Christ. It makes us different. Gives others the chance to feel superior. So? That’s their problem. We have the joy of joining the apostle Paul in his deep desire to know Christ and to participate in his sufferings (Phil. 3:10, cf. Rom. 8:17). No one knows exactly what the transformation will mean on a personal basis, but we are to embrace the future with enthusiasm because we are on the right side of history. Be different, I dare you!
What do you think was the first thing that James wrote to his Jewish friends who had come to consider Jesus as the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy? It was, “Consider it an occasion for joy when trouble of any kind comes your way” (v. 2). That sure tells us something about brother James! I wonder if he was that way growing up or was it something that developed once he had experienced the transforming love of God?
I think it is important at the very beginning to differentiate between joy and happiness. I would define happiness as an emotional reaction to something pleasant that happens. On the other hand, joy is a deep contentment that wells up from within. The former depends on some stimulus from without, the latter from something within. And that is exactly why James can tell his readers to “consider it pure joy” (NIV) when they find themselves facing trouble from without. Joy doesn’t depend on what is happening out there, but what has happened within. There is little room for gloom in the sinner who has been saved by grace and given the gift of life eternal!
I believe it important that we get over our inclination to follow the lead of well-intentioned promoters of confident living. What they say sounds hopeful, but it rarely lasts. One such wrote in words quite impressive, “If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy” (JK, not John Kennedy). That may cover the scratch for a while but won’t take care of the deep wound left when we walked away from God. We were created for fellowship with him and joy is ours only when we are back in fellowship with him. Joy is a state of the soul and keeps rising as a flood of pure delight. What James is telling us is that when troubles come, and they will, consider each one as an occasion for pure joy since God himself is there with us all the way through.
You have to really enjoy a man like Mark Twain. Most of us grew up reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and then a bit later, we started to enjoy all of his humorous quips that history noted and has preserved. Having spent the majority of my adult life in higher education, I was intrigued by his somewhat, perhaps, tongue in cheek remark,” I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” The uninformed might say, “Well, after all he was only a riverboat pilot.” Granted, but William Faulkner considered him “the father of American literature” and few would disagree that Twain is the greatest humorist this country has ever produced. It appears that his decision to keep school from interfering with his education was validated by the impact of his creative years.
But let’s considered the quote itself. His position is that schooling and education are not necessarily the same. In fact, Twain is suggesting that time at school may well interfere with genuine education. He makes an important point. The basic task of education is to train people how to think. Time spent mulling over the unimportant could have been better spent teaching the basics of the process of learning. I have taught at every level from the first grade to graduate school and given considerable thought to the learning process. The kind of learning that pays off in the long run is how to take disparate bits of information and consider how they might relate in a way that arrives at a productive conclusion. One might call the process ”intellectual entrepreneurism.” The creative mechanic may well come up with a better way to make a brake that will stop the car more effectively. A creative thinker may come up with a new relationship between certain ideas that will help to explain why a certain process has a more positive result than its alternative. The learning process in both areas is essentially the same. The school in which children are taught how to think, not simply what to think, will prepare them for a significantly better approach to the problems of life that lie ahead.
I remember that period of time in my life when I learned the excitement of learning. Unfortunately, for me it was after college, not in grade school where it should have been. My challenge would be for the entire educational system to take Mark Twain’s clever remark more seriously than he probably intended. It’s the old ”box” analogy. We admire those who think outside that box, but have probably never been told how, or encouraged, to go there ourselves.
I do not think the disciples fully realized what had happened in the resurrection. They had met with Jesus on numerous occasions during the 40 day interim between the resurrection and the ascension, yet they still had the mundane idea of an earthly kingdom. They asked, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus counters, “It is not for you to know” (v. 7. I sometimes wonder if contemporary spokesmen for the details of the last days have read what Jesus has just said?). What is paramount for Jesus is the coming of the Holy Spirit to empower those who will be reaching out through the whole earth to proclaim the message of the resurrection (v. 8).
The critical issue in telling the world that Jesus rose from the dead is the involvement of the Holy Spirit. Words may titillate, metaphors may clarify, but only the Spirit can breath life into the words. And there is a very good reason for this. The gospel is not words on a page or the rhetoric with which it is delivered, but the active presence of God himself in whatever medium is used. Apart from the Spirit it may be an interesting discussion of a spiritual idea, but it will never fulfill its role until the Spirit takes the words and uses them as a medium for the actual voice of God. Ultimately, he is the message, not the words about him.
Jesus tells the disciples that the Holy Spirit will come upon them and that they will be empowered for their mission. They undoubtedly would have liked to discuss this crucial point, but “while they were looking on, (Jesus) was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (v. 9). This left the disciples standing there “gazing into heaven as he went” (v. 10). Imagine how they felt. They had left their work to follow this teacher from Nazareth, watched his miracles and heard his message. In time they acknowledged that he was the Son of God, but then things got out of order: Jesus was tried before the Roman governor, convicted, and crucified. Then, of all things, after three days he came back to life and kept meeting them on an irregular basis. Then he is taken up into the air and disappears. Two men in white tell them, “This Jesus . . . will come back in the same way you saw him go” (v. 11). Granted it was not easy to understand what was going on because nothing like this had ever happened before. However, they had seen the resurrected Jesus on various occasions and they knew that the promise of the Spirit was real and worthy of trust. So spreading the message was the only thing to do.
The immediate response of the disciples was not a valiant display of confidence. Floored by the event, they were not quite sure how to go about it, but they went out proclaiming the message, and it has changed the world, thanks to the powerful work of the Holy Spirit.
Robert H Mounce