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Finding Joy in a Broken World

April 29, 2007

Philippians 4:4-15

Sermon ideas come from many different places, and I especially want to thank Holly Irvin for this one. When the staff met Monday morning and I told Holly the title of the sermon I had originally planned for today, she told me, “The anthem does not fit that topic at all. We are planning to sing, “‘Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.’” I said, “OK, I will change the sermon.” That is what I have done. Today’s sermon is “Finding Joy in a Broken World.”

I hope you saw the wonderful picture Gerry Pate took here in this sanctuary Tuesday afternoon at Judge Littlejohn’s funeral. That picture of this choir, grinning from ear to ear, appeared in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, the Augusta Chronicle, and the Charlotte Observer. I just cannot imagine the reason they are all smiles. You would recognize some of the members immediately, but others had become so tickled that they had bowed their head. I suppose they were tickled. The members of the choir see my best side all the time, but I do not turn around and look at them very often. I am afraid I would find that some of them, like some of you, are deep in prayer. I know you are praying because you bow your head and close your eyes. Thank you for praying.

Inell Allen, Judge Littlejohn’s daughter, sent an e-mail to Clare, commenting, “That picture shows Christians that are filled with joy while worshipping, even at a funeral.” The Christian life is supposed to be filled with joy. We are supposed to convey that message to the world; but the problem, of course, is that we do not always feel joyful.

How can we find joy in a world that is so broken?

We have all seen the silly commercial where a young couple is entertaining his parents who have come for dinner. As soon as the mother-in-law enters the house, she walks straight to the dining room, looks at the table setting, and picks up a plate. A woman who has obviously failed the Dale Carnegie course, she says, “I can see myself!” This commercial for Joy dishwashing detergent illustrates how we have trivialized joy in our lives. The concept of joy in that advertisement might be appropriate for the superficial yellow smiling face. Real joy is not superficial. Real joy goes deep, beyond the circumstances of life, to the heart. Having a joyful heart is a part of being a Christian.

At least two places in the New Testament make statements about joy that might anger us. How do you feel when someone tells you not to worry? Jesus does that. Why worry when you can do very little about the situation? The problem is that worry robs us of our joy. Chuck Swindoll claims that worry is a national addiction, a national epidemic. We find ways to address the issue of joy. We use the word joy to teach little children a way of remembering to consider “Jesus first, others second, and yourself last.” It is a helpful way of reminding ourselves that if we are going to find joy, we must put the Lord first in our lives. We certainly need to think of other people ahead of ourselves. You would agree with me that even that technique of remembering this path to joy is not deep enough for those of us experiencing adult anxiety. John Kenneth Galbreath called this the age of anxiety, especially since the events of 9-11 and the hurricanes – especially Katrina – hit the Gulf Coast. We now live with a kind of pervasive anxiety in this country.

How do we live in a broken world and still find joy?

I went to see Carlyle Marney, who was a mentor of mine, right after Christmas one year. He lived in a restored apple barn on the side of Wolfpen Mountain, near Waynesville, North Carolina. During our long conversation before an open fireplace, he told me about his having many worries. I do not know what to make of his comments exactly, but I have pondered them ever since. He said, “The remedy for worry is hard work. When I worry, I go to the top of this mountain to cut and split firewood. I use an old-fashioned sledge and wedge, not a power log-splitter. My remedy for fatigue comes through worship.” In other words, Marney was saying that our worry should eventually lead us to worship. We find joy through that connection.

We might think that our Lord would give us certain instructions when he told us not to worry. We might think Jesus would say, “You need to pray, read your Bible daily, and obey all the commandments.” Instead, Jesus tells us to pay attention to the birds and flowers when we are worried. He calls our attention to the wonderful creation because worry causes us to lose our focus. We begin to be so preoccupied with our own problems that we fail to think about the kingdom of God, as stated in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Then everything else will fall into place.”

Jesus makes a second point. He admonishes us to remember to whom we belong. God is sovereign. The same God who feeds the birds and clothes the flowers is going to take care of us. We belong to Him. Third, Jesus says that worry is a waste of time. Can you add one cubic to your life? Can you add even one hour to your life by worrying? A Chinese proverb says that those who find joy extend their lives, and those who worry shorten their lives.

The second place in the New Testament that may anger us in reference to being joyful occurs in the apostle Paul’s letter. He tells us not to worry in Philippians 4:4 in a passage that begins with the word Rejoice. As if we did not hear the word, Paul says, “Again, I say rejoice.” We might feel like slapping Paul in the face and asking him, “How can you tell me not to worry? You do not understand the problems in my life. You do not understand the difficulties I have with my children. You do not understand my financial concerns or the worries I have about my job. I am afraid I might be unemployed. How can you tell me not to worry?” Let me remind you that the apostle Paul wrote this passage while imprisoned in Rome. He was on death row. He encourages us not to worry because he wants to lead us back to joy.

Paul marks out a clear path for us to find this joy. First, he tells us not to “be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer with petition, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). The word petition means asking for what you want. “Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7). Throughout the New Testament, we find other references to this need to petition God. James says, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2). Simon Peter says, “Cast all your cares on God because He cares for you” (I Peter 5:7). The point is that we have to ask, being very specific as we do so.

Perhaps you have read the book entitled The Prayer of Jabez. In that little book, Bruce Wilkinson includes a wonderful story about being specific in prayer. He tells a story about Mr. Jones who went to heaven and met Simon Peter. While looking around heaven and taking in all its glories, Mr. Jones saw a huge windowless building that looked like a warehouse. When asked about it, Simon Peter told him, “You do not want to know about that building. You can ask about anything, and you have access to everything in heaven; but you really do not want to go there.” Mr. Jones persisted, “Yes, I do.” They went inside the warehouse, which contained innumerable shelves piled with beautifully wrapped packages with large red ribbons. Mr. Jones asked, “Is one of those packages for me?” Simon Peter replied, “Yes, one has your name on it.” Mr. Jones said, “I would like to see it.” Seeing that the packages were arranged alphabetically, he looked down the rows to the “J” section. Once he found the one with his name, Simon Peter cautioned, “I don’t think you want to open it.” Mr. Jones was determined and found that it contained blessings, blessings God had reserved for him but had never given to him. Mr. Jones had never asked for God’s blessings.

When we make our requests to God, we have to be specific. “In everything, by prayer and supplication, petition, make your requests known to God.” Paul tells us that if we want to deal with our anxiety, we have to be specific in our prayers. He puts in little parentheses, saying that we must include thanksgiving with our prayers. Dr. Hans Selye, known for his definitive work on stress, said that a thankful heart is the single-most important stress reducer in life. Having gratitude reduces our stress. When we pray with a grateful heart, making our requests known to God, we not only pray for the blessings we desire, but we also recall the blessings we already have. Our prayer should not just be begging God for favors. It is a relationship. We are to continue to make our requests known, but we are also to show our gratitude for what God has done.

Paul advises us to channel our anxiety into prayer, offering petitions with thanksgiving. Then he tells us of a remarkable promise: the peace of God beyond human understanding will keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. We all want peace of heart and peace of mind. The way to access that is through the life of prayer. Through prayer, we learn a secret. Did you notice that Paul said that he had learned the secret of contentment? The foundation for Christian joy is learning to do with or without, learning to face very circumstance with a sense of contentment, a sense of peace. Joy does not depend on external circumstances. It depends on a relationship to God and Christ, a relationship in which we receive nourishment and replenishment, no matter what our circumstances.

The Clarion Sounds played a beautiful song this morning, “It Is Well with My Soul.” The choir sang that same hymn at Judge Littlejohn’s funeral service Tuesday afternoon. Horatio Spafford and his family had planned a trip to England before he lost his business in the Great Chicago Fire. He sent his wife and children ahead of him while he tended to matters. Somewhere in the Atlantic, the ship his wife and children were on collided with another ship. The ship sank, and all of his children drowned. When Spafford received a telegram informing him of their deaths, he began the journey across the Atlanta to be with his wife in England. As he was crossing the ocean, he asked the captain of his ship to show him the place of the collision. After the captain called him to the bridge and showed him the exact place where his children drowned, Spafford returned to his cabin and penned these words: “When peace, like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.” You cannot come to that sense of wellness in your soul until you discover the peace that comes through the life of prayer.

Diane M. Komp, a pediatric oncologist, wrote a remarkable article in the Yale Theological Review in which she takes to task the theologians surrounding her. She wrote that theologians sit around, drink coffee, and have theological discussions, batting around ideas as if they were playing badminton. Then they utter the word mystery, “lingering over the very enunciation” and letting it roll off their tongue as if they just took great delight in the word. Komp says that theologians leave us with the idea that the suffering of life, the meaning of life, is all a great mystery. For people like her, that is not enough. She is a physician, a scientist, who feels challenged when she hears the word mystery. She wants to solve it. She becomes “like Teddy Roosevelt leading the charge up San Juan Hill.”

Komp says that when she sees a child with the diagnosis of cancer, she wants to find out what kind it is, where it came from, and how to treat it. Treating children with cancer is a difficult job. She has discovered something theological in her work that is very important. She tells about a time when a friend, one of the brothers at a Trappist monastery, invited her to a spiritual retreat. Having recently experienced a renewal in her spiritual life, she accepted his invitation. During a time of prayer, this monk prayed for her aloud with the group, asking them to pray for “my friend Di and her ministry of healing.” At dinner that night, people gathered around her, wanting to know about her ministry of healing. Hoping for something miraculous, they were somewhat disappointed when they discovered she was a physician. She says that she could not understand why they would think a physician could not have a ministry of healing. Most of the children she sees die from cancer. She says that very rarely does she see anything that could be called a miracle in the lives of those children in terms of their physical healing, but she often sees another kind of healing.

Komp uses the story of a young mother named Naomi whose three-month-old son, Henry, had cancer throughout his body. Naomi told her that some friends who are charismatic wanted to anoint him and pray for healing. She asked Diane if she should allow that to happen. This wise pediatrician told her, “I shared with Naomi some of the struggles that others have faced with that question. I told her that I hoped that if she prayed for Henry to be healed, she would also be willing to ask her husband to join her to put their lives in God’s hands, whether or not Henry lived.” These friends anointed the child and prayed for healing. Within just a few weeks, the child died. Diane Komp says that she saw healing in those parents and in their marriage. She said that the occasion was a spiritual renewal that was nothing short of miraculous for the couple.

I also want to tell you about my wife, Clare. She is not here today. This sermon would have probably been too hard for her. It is still difficult for her to come into the sanctuary because our son’s funeral was here. Parents who have lost a child find it very difficult to return to the sanctuary where the funeral was held. Mothers especially have a harder time. After Erik died, Clare did some writing. One day she read a devotion focusing on Isaiah 35:9-10: “No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast…And the ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; Everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” Afterwards, she wrote a journal entry:

Following the death of our son Erik over three years ago, I went through a period of deep sadness. I experienced a grief that welled up from somewhere way down inside, from a place I didn’t even know existed. Tears came freely, sometimes unnoticed, often unchecked. As time passed I became aware that a companion emotion was emerging. Springing up from the same place the grief originated was also a companion feeling of joy, just as deep as the grief, equally sudden and unbidden. My watchword, my rallying cry, became the popular directive, Party go! I adopted the phrase and began to use it when I spoke with friends and family, when I wrote notes and e-mails, and as a parting wish for them as I said goodbye. Isaiah tells us that when the children of Israel return from exile in Babylon, they will reenter Jerusalem, pursued not by wild ferocious animals, but by gladness. They will be overtaken by joy. I can’t think of a single reason not to take that as the gospel truth. We are free to cease running away. We can allow ourselves to be caught, caught by joy. And if we are caught, we might as well surrender! That’s my personal plan, and it is my prayer for you, that you will be apprehended by joy! And if you are, party on! Party on till we reach the kingdom, or till the kingdom comes to us.

You can have joy in a broken world. It will come to you – not superficially, not stuck on like a smiling yellow face – but from deep inside. We can access joy through the life of prayer. As we pray, specifically making our petitions known to God, we pray with an attitude of thanksgiving, grateful for all that God has done. We discover a peace, peace beyond human understanding, peace that will keep our heart and our mind in Christ Jesus. We learn the secret of being content in every circumstance. Once we arrive at that level of contentment and peace, then joy can flood our souls. My hope and prayer is that all of you will experience that peace. I know many of you have had your hearts broken, but the joy of the Lord can be your strength.

Do you know Jesus Christ as your Savior? Have you acknowledged him as the Lord of your life? If you have never done that, we invite you to make that decision today. Perhaps you have another decision to make, one regarding church membership. If that is the case, we invite you to respond as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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