April 24, 2016
“The Joy of Being a Christian”
And in that day you will say: "O LORD, I will praise You; though You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; 'For YAHWEH, the LORD, is my strength and song; He also has become my salvation.'" Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And in that day you will say: "Praise the LORD, call upon His name; declare His deeds among the peoples, make mention that His name is exalted. Sing to the LORD, for He has done excellent things; this is known in all the earth. Cry out and shout, O inhabitant of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel in your midst!" Isaiah 12
There are different things that pass for joy in this life that are anything but. A group of guys at a drinking party laugh as they drink themselves into oblivion. Is that joy? Some people find satisfaction in inflicting pain or discomfort on others. Is that joy? It is joy to enjoy what you know to be wrong? Does it bring joy to cheat, lie, or steal? If we skip church for no good reason, ignore the word of God when we do hear it, take God’s name in vain, or neglect our prayers, do we rejoice in any of these things?
The ancient Greeks promoted virtue for the sake of virtue and they knew nothing of Christ. They found a joy that escapes many people today. There is a sense of inner joy in knowing that you have met an obligation, kept your word, and suffered for a noble cause. It’s called self-respect. The old virtues expressed by the mythical age of chivalry were expressed in a song popular about forty five years ago: “To Dream the Impossible Dream.” It went like this.
To dream the impossible dream;
To fight the unbeatable foe;
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To strive with your last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star
This is my quest to follow that star,
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right without question or pause
To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause
And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest
That my soul will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest
And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star.
The song hit a chord. The pop culture was promoting the idea that you find true joy by doing whatever turns you on. That’s not true. True joy is found in serving others. It is found in giving. It is found in service and humble obedience to the truth. True joy doesn’t come from doing whatever you feel like doing. Doing what you feel like doing is often the wrong thing to do. Doing wrong doesn’t bring true joy.
There is a reason for this. The reason is that we are made in the image of God. Even after the fall into sin we are essentially the same humanity that we were when we were innocent. That is, our essence hasn’t changed. Rather, it has been corrupted by sin. But even in the depth of sin and spiritual blindness and depravity that is so deep that we can do nothing at all to set ourselves free from it, we remain human. God made us in his image. Even with the image lost in spiritual death, the fact is that a human being is made by God and for God and will never find true joy except in communion with the One who made him.
God did not create us as he created the animals. The animals do what comes naturally and they are incapable of sin. When we domesticate a dog and teach him things, we often pretend that he is almost human. We say “good dog” and “bad dog” as if a dog is capable of sinning or acting virtuously. But that’s not true. Dogs don’t sin against the Fifth Commandment when they fight and kill other dogs. Cats don’t break the Sixth Commandment by committing adultery. And while foxes do steal, we wouldn’t accuse them of breaking the Seventh Commandment, would we? They do only what comes naturally.
But when we do what comes naturally and it is opposed to God’s commandments we know that it is our nature that has been corrupted. Our consciences tell us this. We are made by God and for God. This is why Augustine prayed, “You have made us for yourself and our souls are restless until they find their rest in you.”
“And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest that my soul will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest.” Ah, but Don Quixote was insane. He chose his own quest. We don’t get to choose. God does. He brings us into this world and he gives us things to do and to say. He puts us in a home. He gives us a father and a mother. He may give us a husband or wife and children. He gives us a job and puts us under the authority of others. He puts us in the classroom and gives us assignments to do. In every station of life God gives us things to do and it isn’t our choice or quest which determines our duty. It is the commandments of God. They aren’t quite as exciting as marching into hell for a heavenly cause. They are not as impressive as righting the unrightable wrong. The Ten Commandments are very ordinary every day stuff to do that nobody will even notice – nothing as noble as running where the brave dare not go.
But despite the ordinary down to earth requirements of the Ten Commandments, we have not obeyed them. God threatens to punish those who transgress his commandments. “I, the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” God punishes sin because sin makes him angry.
If there were a law or a virtue or a deed that could bring us deep down joy, wouldn’t you go out and do it? Do this. Practice that. Follow these instructions and you will find satisfaction in life. Well, then, what is it? What should we practice and follow and do to find true and lasting joy? Surely, we know what makes for virtue, don’t we? If not, listen to St. James once more. “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness.” Do this! Then you will find joy in life.
But you haven’t done this, have you? So where is joy to be found?
And in that day you will say: “O LORD, I will praise You; though You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; For YAHWEH, the LORD, is my strength and song; He also has become my salvation.” Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Where is true joy to be found? Not in our doing, not in our striving, not in our dreaming the impossible dream and failing ever to obtain it. True joy is to be found in the Lord God of Israel whose anger we deserved but has now been turned away. True joy is to be found in his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who bore the anger that it might be turned away from sinners like you and me. True joy is to be found in the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, who gives us to drink deeply of the wells of salvation, quenching our thirst for forgiveness.
Those who despise the life of virtue and who will not strive to do what is good cannot understand their own sin and don’t have any idea of what I’m talking about. Those who live only for themselves and think that joy in life is serving themselves cannot begin to hear of Jesus. They are like the dogs and the cats and the pigs. They were made in God’s image and their souls are restless, but they don’t know it. They think life is all about pleasuring themselves pretty much at the expense of everyone else. The Holy Spirit does not convict them of sin because they don’t think in categories of right and wrong. They live and they die like animals. But they will be judged as men and women and the Day of Judgment will be terrifying. They will know on the last day that they were offending the majesty of their Creator when they refused to bow before him in humble obedience.
Far better to face this judgment now. To face it in ourselves. To acknowledge it for what it is. To bend our heads in sorrow before the One whom we have offended. For when we do, we hear something that lifts us out of sorrow and fills us with joy. God does not hold our sins against us. He does not punish us. He does not make us pay for our wrongs. No, he doesn’t. He chooses for reasons that we cannot understand to pay for our sins. He chooses to punish his Son instead of us. Jesus bears the anger to take it away. The Holy Spirit comes into our lives to tell us this, and to give us this.
This is the joy of the Christian life. We live under grace. We live, day by day, under the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. We are filled with the Holy Spirit who pours his love into our hearts and applies the balm of his grace to our self-inflicted wounds. He loves us with the love that was manifested on Calvary. By so loving us, he draws from deep within us a joy that cannot but be expressed in praise.
So here we are. Cantate means to sing. We are here to sing praises to God because he has set aside his anger against us. We declare his deeds. We don’t come here to celebrate our religious sentiments. We don’t come to congratulate ourselves on our piety or on how fearless we have been in our quest to do the impossible. We come to receive the waters of eternal life and to declare the excellent things our God has done. Nothing can excel the gracious forgiving of sinners. This is what brings us the deepest joy imaginable. This is what marks our lives. This is what we tell the world by confessing it to whoever will hear us. God is not angry with us, though we surely deserved his anger. For Christ’s sake he has absolved us and set us free forever. Nothing and no one can bring us greater joy than does the Spirit of truth when he convinces us that this is true.
Rev. Rolf Preus