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Our Quest for Joy

June 27, 2010


Sermon:  Our Quest for Joy
Text:  Isaiah 51:1-11


“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness
     and who seek the Lord: 
Look the rock from which you were cut
     and to the quarry from which you were hewn;
 The Lord will surely comfort Zion
     and will look with compassion on all her ruins; 
he will make her deserts like Eden,
     her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. 
Joy and gladness will be found in her,    
     thanksgiving and the sound of singing. 
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
     look at the earth beneath;
the heavens will vanish like smoke,
     the earth will wear out like a garment,
     and its habitants die like flies. 
But my salvation will last forever,
     my righteousness will never fail. 
“Hear me, you who know what is right,
     you people who have my law in your hearts: 
Do not fear the reproach of men
     or be terrified by their insults. 
For the moth will eat them up like a garment;
     the worm will devour them like wool.
But my righteousness will last forever,
     my salvation through all generations.” 
Awake, awake!  Clothe yourself with strength,
      O arm of the Lord;
awake, as in days gone by,
     as in generations of old.
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.

A reporter for the Los Angeles Times interviewed a fellow named Ed after he was arrested, booked at the Los Angeles County Jail, and released on bail.  The reporter wanted to know what had prompted Ed to do something so bizarre.  Ed explained, “I was just bored and disgusted and depressed.”

Ed’s story is one of my all-time favorites.  I get tickled every time I tell it.  Some of you have heard this story before, but I want you to hear it again. 

Ed was fascinated with airplanes.  As a little boy, he wanted to be a pilot.  When he graduated from high school, he applied to the US Air Force Academy but was not accepted.  He joined the Air Force and had a long career, but he never got to fly a plane.  He was not qualified, so he was assigned to work with ground maintenance.  He watched other people fly the planes. 

When Ede retired from his job in the Air Force, he began working in maintenance with a commercial airline.  Finally, when laid off by the airline, he stayed pretty much to himself.  Living in a home near LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport, he would sit out in his backyard in a lawn chair and watch those big jets take off and land.  The desire to fly never quite left Ed. 

One day, Ed had a very unusual idea.  He decided to tie some large weather balloons filled with helium to his lawn chair and launch himself skyward.  He first anchored his chair to the ground and attached a self-made seatbelt so that he would not fall out.  His idea was to just shoot out one balloon at the time with a BB gun when he got up so far in the air, allowing himself to gently float back to earth.  Ed laid his BB gun across his lap and cut the line that was anchoring himself to the ground with a hatchet.  His lawn chair indeed went skyward.  It went 10,000 feet straight up in the air.  Prevailing winds quickly carried Ed out over the Pacific Ocean.  Petrified, he could not fire his rifle. 

Jet pilots landing and leaving the airport radioed to the control tower at LAX and said, “There’s a guy in a lawn chair up here!  He is going to get killed, and he’s going to kill some of us!” 

The controllers, of course, called many emergency crews, seeking assistance with this situation.  Finally, the Navy sent a helicopter to pursue this man in the lawn chair.  Eventually it was able to snag Ed and his balloons and bring him back to earth.  Police immediately arrested him for endangerment to himself and others. 

Following Ed’s release from jail on bail, the reporter asked, “What were you thinking?”

“I was just bored and disgusted and depressed” was the reply

People will do almost anything to escape.  Some try doing something bizarre, like this man Ed.  Some try things that are addictive.  Others try geographical solutions like running away. 

I would describe the current spiritual situation in our country as a kind of spiritual malaise.  The word “malaise” is actually a medical term describing symptoms that are not quite defined.  Malaise is a general feeling of disease, discomfort, fatigue, even apathy, but the person cannot quite put a finger on the problem.  The person feels out of sorts, bad or less than well.  We have a kind of spiritual malaise in our country, a general feeling of discomfort or unhappiness, a general feeling that all is not right with the world. 

One of the Traveler’s Insurance commercials has hired a great marketing employee.  I hope you have seen one commercial that I find particularly amusing.  A little dog is guarding his prized possession, a bone that looks like the leg bone of a lamb.  He does everything he can think of to guard that treasure.  He tries hiding it in the laundry basket and under a rug.  He tries burying it in the backyard and even goes so far as to riding a bus to a bank and putting it in a lockbox.  Regardless of what the dog does, he is unable to get comfortable or sleep because he is so fretful about the safety of this treat.

Playing in the background of this commercial is a mournful soul song by Ray LaMontagne.  We hear the words, “Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble been dogging my soul since the day I was born.  Worry, worry, worry, worry, worry, worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone.  Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, feels like every time I get back on my feet, she’ll come around and knock me down again.  Worry, worry, worry, worry, worry, worry, sometimes I swear it feels like worry is my only friend.”  I hope you have seen that commercial and heard the woeful words of that song.  That commercial perfectly describes the mood that is so prevalent in our country today.  Why? 

Economists have coined the term “the misery index,” which they say is a combination of the rate of unemployment and the rate of inflation.  I would like to use the term “misery index” to describe a spiritual condition very much like the heat index we have experienced this past week.  The actual measured temperature really does not count.  What matters is how the temperature feels.  The misery index works the same way.  It is how we feel about the situations happening in our lives, the events occurring all around us. 

Three factors contribute to this general malaise, to this misery index.  One is the news we watch on television.  We all need the news, but hour after hour after hour after hour of the most miserable circumstances are presented in living color and in high definition.  We hear about the terrible economic conditions.  The stock market reports, even reports in other countries, are reported every hour on the hour.  We hear about the pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, the terrible financial strain, and the blighted environment. 

What are we to do?  Should we sit in a chair, ring our hands, and join the news commentators in criticizing all the oil company executives and the politicians while sipping sweet tea and turning the air conditioner up full blast?  Will that help?  I think not.  We are engaged in two wars that are not pretty.  All wars are bad.  We change generals like we change chess pieces on a board.  We hear all kinds of questions about strategy.  Talk about Monday morning quarterbacks!  We have a country full of people, second guessing every decision made.  Does any of this help?  I think not.  How can we help?  We can reduce our own carbon footprint.  We can certainly pray about people who have to make hard decisions, decisions I could not begin to make.   

A second factor that contributes to this misery index and to this general spiritual malaise is a three-headed monster:  suspicion and fear and prejudice.  Christians, of all people, should respond differently.  Did you know that an Islamic family from Iran visited this church quite a while?   Bede Jeffords led one woman in that family to accept Christ as her Lord, and I baptized her.  Christ died for these people.  They need to know the love of Christ, not suspicion, fear, and prejudice.  If Christian people are not agents of the love of Christ, we are simply not doing our job.  We cannot love people if we are afraid of them.  We cannot love people if we are suspicious of their motives.  We cannot love people if we fall into prejudicial stereotypes.  I know that we must be wise.  We must be discerning.  Jesus himself said that we are to “be wise as serpents and gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16). 

You can make yourself miserable in a thousand ways.  You can hold a grudge.  You can try to “keep up with the Joneses,” by comparing your lifestyle to the lifestyle of someone else.  You can decide that life has been unfair to you.  The truth is that life has been unfair to everybody.  You can cling to petty thoughts that somehow you have been slighted by another person.  You can lament that you never got the break you really deserved.  You can feel despondent by thinking that nobody understands.  The list goes on and on and on.  The refrain from the old television comedy Hee-Haw is perhaps appropriate for those who are guilty of focusing on the despondent side of life:  “Gloom, despair, and agony on me.  Deep dark depression, excessive misery.  If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.  Gloom, despair and agony on me.” 

Let me ask you a question.  Would you like to have joy in your life?  It is available to us.  We are to be on a quest for this joy that we so desperately need.  This joy will not be found by tying weather balloons to a lawn chair.  That is not going to help. 

Joy does not depend on external circumstances.  Happiness, which comes from the word “to happen,” depends on what happens to you; but joy occurs regardless of the circumstances.  It occurs even in the midst of trouble.  The book of James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).  James sees joy as being productive.  Testing produces faith.  Faith produces perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete and lack nothing.  Joy comes in the midst of even the most difficult circumstances.  We can see that God’s hand is at work trying to do something creative and good within our lives. 

In the book of Galatians, we read that joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit.  It comes from our awareness that we are in the very presence of God.  It is not something we manufacture.  It is a gift, a gift of God’s Spirit.  Listen to a remarkable passage from a little known prophet. Habakkuk 3:17:  

Though the fig tree does not bud
     and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
     and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
     and no cattle in the stalls… 
You get the picture that this fellow is having a hard time, but consider his words that immediately follow in Verse 18:  “yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”  How in the world can that be?

Here is the answer.  Joy is a choice that we make.  It is a daily discipline.  “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).  It does not mean that the circumstances are not bad.  This is not a Pollyanna attitude.  It is a decision we make that we are going to face whatever comes with a different attitude. 

I know of no better case study than Paul in the fourth chapter of Philippians.  Let me point out a few verses that seem so important in making joy a choice. 

 Verse 4:  “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again:  Rejoice!”   So, how often are we to rejoice?  Always.  Every single day we are to find joy in whatever comes.  You might say, “I don’t feel like rejoicing.”  God did not say, “Rejoice when you feel like it.”  He said, “Rejoice always.”  Let me remind you that when the Apostle Paul wrote the following words, he was on death row.

Verse 6:  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”  The root of joy is a thankful heart.  If we are thankful, we cannot help but rejoice.  We will know what our blessings are.  This is the way to inner peace.

Verse 7:  “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  Peace of heart and peace of mind come with joy.  It reforms our way of thinking.

Verse 8: Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”  We are not going to get that joy on a 24/7 newscast.  We must go somewhere else to think about truth, righteousness, nobleness, and purity. 

Verse 11:  “…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

Joy is a daily discipline.  Joy is a source of strength.  It is a choice.  It is an attitude of thanksgiving.  It is the way to peace.  Joy reforms our thinking.  It gives us the spirit of contentment.  Our Call to Worship this morning included the words of Nehemiah:  “The joy of the Lord is my strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).  We find the strength to face difficulty in joy.  This is why Paul could say that he could fight the good fight and never quit.  We need a daily transfusion of this joy.  We need strength, which comes from the joy found in the Lord. 

Think about what is happening in your marriage.  Think about your health.   Maybe you have been sick a long time.  Think about your economic situation.  Think about parenting your children.  You possibly need some strength in all of those areas.  Any one of those areas could make you feel like quitting.  Joy is a journey. 

Some of the great works of literature make this point so clear.  Pilgrim’s Progress, written by John Bunyan, is the story about a fellow who was traveling.  Along the way, he goes through what he calls the Slough of Despond.  He is looking forward to his destination and finds joy along the way.  Consider the all-time great American fairytale written by Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz.  Dorothy is just trying to get back home because home is the source of her joy.  Her story sounds similar to the parable of the prodigal son.  When Dorothy and the son finally return home, they both find sheer joy because they are reunited with their families. 

The passage from Isaiah that serves as our text today was written to people who have been in bondage, people who have been in captivity.

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.


Joy is a matter of setting our priorities, putting first things first.  Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God, and everything else will be added unto you.”  Another way of saying that is “Everything else will fall into place.”  In that great passage in John, that passage about abiding, Jesus says, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).  Jesus goes on to explain that this joy comes from a loving relationship with him, a relationship with God.  This joy translates into a loving relationship to other people. 

My mother, who taught three-year-olds for fifty-three years, had a simple way of teaching children about joy.  She told the children, “If you want joy, you put Jesus first.  You put other people second and yourself last.”  JOY – Jesus, Others, Yourself – really is a matter of priority.  The source of our joy is not our own search.  It is not in some escape.  It is certainly not in addiction.  The source of our joy is in the living presence of God.  It is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a fruit of the Holy Spirit that comes to us in our relationship to God and Christ.  Jesus must be first.  Others come second.  You come last.

Do you have the “joy, joy, joy, joy” down in your heart?  Joy is elusive.  Some days you will think that you do not have joy in your heart, but you can have it every single day.  It is not something we manufacture.  It is something we must seek daily.  It is a choice.

If you do not know Christ as your Savior, I invite you to acknowledge him today.  Accept him as the Lord of your life.  Make him the joy of your heart. 

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2010

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