JOY: A Time To Dance
Any roller coaster enthusiasts here this morning? How about “I used to be, but not anymore?” How about “Never ever in a million years. Not then. Not now. Not ever?” Whether you are or ever have been a roller coaster enthusiast or not, we all ride roller coasters. Our emotions make life seem a lot like a roller coaster, don’t they? One minute you’re on top of the mountain. The next minute, you’re in a valley of despair. One minute you’re feeling content and satisfied. The next, you’re whipped around, feeling restless and uncertain. Some days you don’t know whether you’re upside down or right side up. Emotions are complex and mystifying. Even the experts are not sure exactly what causes us to experience emotions. Both social science and neurobiology have tried, and failed, to explain the origin of emotions. For many who follow Christ, emotions can seem troubling, frustrating, and untrustworthy.
The Bible teaches that human beings are both body and soul, so a biblical view of emotions sees them as interplay between body and soul. Emotions are physical sensations combined with thoughts and beliefs. The biblical book of Psalms express emotions clearly. Psalms is the longest book of the Bible and it was written by various people. And while the rest of the Bible is directed to us, most of the Psalms are directed back to God, as his people use these inspired lyrics to express their hearts to God. John Calvin called Psalms “an anatomy of all parts of the soul.” One scholar of the Psalms, Walter Brueggeman, divides the Psalms into three categories: Psalms of orientation—the psalmist’s outlook is, “Life makes sense.” Psalms of disorientation—the psalmist’s outlook is, “Life doesn’t make any sense.” And Psalms of reorientation—the psalmist’s outlook is, “Life is starting to make sense once again.” Over the summer and into the fall, we’ll be looking at all three of these kinds of Psalms as we look at God’s wisdom for experiencing and managing our emotions.[i] Today, we’re looking at JOY. Turn in your Bibles to Psalm 33.
When most of us think of joy, we think of happiness. We usually view joy as happiness on steroids, like really intense happiness. But joy in the Bible isn’t always an emotion. Sometimes, joy is a choice, a decision to be obedient to God. You see, the Bible actually commands joy. In Philippians 3:1 St. Paul says “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord.” A chapter later, in Philippians 4:4, he says “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” And in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 he writes, “Rejoice always.” Now, if joy is happiness on steroids, it isn’t possible, or biblical, to be joyful, because happiness comes and goes and is dependent on happenings. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Most of us don’t associate weeping and mourning with joy. But if there’s an appropriate time for pretty much everything, from laughing and dancing to weeping and mourning, and we are supposed to be “joyful always,” Joy must be deeper than happiness. It sometimes, even often, includes happiness, but its much deeper.
Nehemiah 8:10 says that “the joy of the LORD is your strength.” Joy is, at its core, confidence, trust, that God is in control. I am happy when life is good and not so happy when life isn’t good, because my happiness is so often dependent on what is happening in my life. Joy is based on trust. Placing your faith, your trust, your hope, in God leads to joy. Loosing a child has been called one of the most difficult things a parent can endure. And Becky and I have held not one but two of our boys, Corin and Zeke in our arms while they died. When God through Paul says “Rejoice always,” he isn’t expecting me to be happy, even now, almost give years later, that my son died. He certainly wasn’t expecting me to be happy about it then. What he is telling me, though, is that I can find a peace and a joy that is deeper than happiness, joy that leaves room even for crying, in any circumstance that I encounter in my life. Because joy grows from trust. If you place your faith, your trust, in something or someone who isn’t secure, something that can be taken away, someone who is flawed and broken, you won’t find joy. But if you place your hope, your trust, your faith in Jesus Christ, you’ll find the joy that God promises to all who follow Christ.
In Psalm 33, the Psalmist tells us that we can find joy in any circumstance first of all by remembering God’s faithfulness in the past. Look at Vv. 4-9. The “word of the Lord” here means God speaking and acting. It is everything God says and does. And we can be sure that God is first of all faithful. He is worthy of our trust. The Old Testament goes to extremes to show that God is the only one worthy of our trust. It emphasizes over and over again not only the strength and the power and the might of God, but also the goodness and the undying love of God. From the unimaginable and incomprehensible immensity of the universe to the tiniest speck of dust that you wipe off your coffee table, all that is was created, out of nothing, by the voice of God.
Look closely at V. 7. When did God gather the water of the sea as a heap? When the Israelites crossed over the Red Sea with the strength of the Egyptian army, the most powerful army on earth, hot on their heels. He’s drawing their attention not just to that specific event but to all of the events involved in the Exodus, the wilderness wandering, and their entry into the land God had promised them. To ten plagues that came upon the Egypt as Pharoah refused to let the Israelites go, each one targeted at a specific Egyptian false deity to show the power of the living God over the false idols they worshipped. To the Israelites trapped between the impassable Red Sea and the pursuing Egyptian army, the Israelites crying out in terror, saying that they should have stayed in brutal slavery in Egypt instead of being slaughtered out in the desert on the shores of the Red sea. And then the pillar of cloud, God’s presence with them, which always went in front of them, moved behind them as God placed himself between the Israelites and the Egyptian army while his wind blew the waters back and hardened the sea bed so that Israel could march through on dry ground. And then, as they entered the Promised Land, and stood before the mighty city of Jericho. A city with high stone walls so thick that the residents of the city held chariot races on top. Impregnable. Resistant to siege. Easy to defend and impossible to attack. And God told the Israelites to march around the city once each day for six days, and then seven times on the seventh day, and then the Levites were to blow their trumpets and all of the people were to shout and when they shouted, the walls of the city would fall before them and they would take the city. The armies of Israel, armed and battle ready, massed at Jericho, and no one lifted a finger. Not exactly something they teach in tactical classes at West Point. Not something armed warriors, and Israel had them, would think to do back then either. It made no sense. But the people obeyed and God moved and they took the city.
Why all the weird military tactics? Why did God lead Israel to a place where they were easily trapped, and then taking them through that, to use the weirdest siege strategy ever invented at Jericho, the mighty city. Because God wanted them to understand something. They had arms and armor and an army that would fight for them, but they weren’t to place their trust in their might and in their strategies, but in him. When the Psalmist takes us back through history with one phrase, “waters of the sea in a heap,” he is reminding us of God’s power and faithfulness in the past.
Now look at Vv. 10-12. The Psalmist shifts his attention from the past to the present. God’s plan is rock solid. It stands forever. It cannot be moved. But the plans of the nations, the plans of the super-powers of the world God brings to nothing. Jericho had been designed and built to withstand any attack or siege, but God led Israel to victory over the city using less than typical military strategy and without the Israelites lifting a finger.
Centuries later, the people of God had an evil king named Ahab, a king who led the people away from their trust in the true and living God. At the end of his reign, Ahab, consulted several prophets as to whether or not to attack a foe, and one prophet, who remained faithful to God, spoke truthfully and said, “If you go to battle this time, Israel will be defeated and you will be killed. But Ahab opted for war anyway, but disguised himself as a common soldier and not the king of Israel. And 1 Kings 22:34 tells us “But a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the (remember, disguised) king of Israel between the scale armor and the breast plate.” And Ahab soon died from his injury. “The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.”
God wants us as his people to place our trust in him, not just because he was faithful yesterday, but because he is still faithfully fighting for us as our mighty warrior today.
Most of the time, when we’re going through a really difficult time, one of those “no way I am experiencing joy now” times, we’re asking God the question “Why?” And we ask that because we can’t see any possible good that can come out of our situation. One of the few things I’ve learned in my life is that “Why?” is the wrong question to ask. In it’s place we need to ask “What?” “What do you want me to do with this God?” “How do you want me to handle this?” Sometimes it comes out as “What the heck God?” or “Now what God?” and that’s ok. Now, I’m not saying that everything that happens is good. That isn’t what the Bible teaches. And it isn’t true. The worst thing you can do to someone who is going through a really difficult time is say something like, “Well, everything that happens, happens for a reason. God has a purpose in this. So buck up buttercup.” I’ll wash your mouth out with soap if you say something like that. Remember, “there is a time to weep,” and “there is a time to mourn,” just as “there is a time to laugh” and “a time to dance.” God never said, never promised that everything that happens is good or even for our good. But God does promise “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” Rom. 8:28). He doesn’t say that all things that happen are good, or that God causes bad things to happen, or even that God uses all things for my good. He says that in all things, whatever happens, God works for the good of those who love him. So someday, when my time on this earth is over and I stand in the presence of Christ, he might just say to me, “Do you remember what you experienced in your time on earth?” Well, this is what I did with it. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll let Zeke and Corin walk me through all that he did. Oh I still cry all these years later. And sometimes I still ask “why?” instead of “what?” But on that day I’ll cry too, only they’ll be tears of joy.
You see, remembering God’s faithfulness in the past leads me to rest in God’s faithfulness in the present, and then I trust in God’s faithfulness in the future. Look at Vv. 13-19. Now the Psalmist’s focus shifts from the present to the future, when everything that God has already accomplished on the cross of Jesus Christ is brought to bear in your life and mine. And to God’s faithfulness the Psalmist adds God’s “steadfast love,” or “unfailing love.” It comes from the Hebrew word “hesed” and is also sometimes translated as God’s “lovingkindness.” This is a special kind of love that only God is capable of. It is the love of God that we see made real in Jesus Christ. Far from the emotion we call love, or even of the commitment to God-like love that we call agape love, a kind of love we are only capable of in Christ, God’s steadfast love is God’s desire, intention, and ability to remain faithful to his promises. To complete the work that he began in this world, and to complete the work he began in you. Just a few verses after St. Paul reminds us that God works in all things for the good of his people, he declares “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). No failure, no financial mistake, no tragic accident, no evil act, no terrorists bomb and no gunman’s rifle can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. And that my friends, is reason for deep, deep joy.
In his book The Pressure’s Off, psychologist Larry Crabb uses a story from his childhood to illustrate our need to delight in God through adversity: One Saturday afternoon, I decided I was a big boy and could use the bathroom without anyone’s help. So I climbed the stairs, closed and locked the door behind me, and for the next few minutes felt very self-sufficient. Then it was time to leave. I couldn’t unlock the door. I tried with every ounce of my three-year-old strength, but I couldn’t do it. I panicked. I felt again like a very little boy as the thought went through my head, “I might spend the rest of my life in this bathroom.” My parents – and likely the neighbors – heard my desperate scream. “Are you okay?” Mother shouted through the door she couldn’t open from the outside. “Did you fall? Have you hit your head?” “I can’t unlock the door!” I yelled. “Get me out of here!” I wasn’t aware of it right then, but Dad raced down the stairs, ran to the garage to find the ladder, hauled it off the hooks, and leaned it against the side of the house just beneath the bedroom window. With adult strength, he pried it open, then climbed into my prison, walked past me, and with that same strength, turned the lock and opened the door.
“Thanks, Dad,” I said – and ran out to play. That’s how I thought the Christian life was supposed to work. When I get stuck in a tight place, I should do all I can to free myself. When I can’t, I should pray. Then God shows up. He hears my cry—”Get me out of here! I want to play!”—and unlocks the door to the blessings I desire. Sometimes he does. But now, no longer three years old and approaching sixty, I’m realizing the Christian life doesn’t work that way. And I wonder, are any of us content with God? Do we even like him when he doesn’t open the door we most want opened—when a marriage doesn’t heal, when rebellious kids still rebel, when friends betray, when financial reverses threaten our comfortable way of life, when the prospect of terrorism looms, when health worsens despite much prayer, when loneliness intensifies and depression deepens, when ministries die? God has climbed through the small window into my dark room. But he doesn’t walk by me to turn the lock that I couldn’t budge. Instead, he sits down on the bathroom floor and says, “Come sit with me!” He seems to think that climbing into the room to be with me matters more than letting me out to play. I don’t always see it that way. “Get me out of here!” I scream. “If you love me, unlock the door!” Dear friend, the choice is ours. Either we can keep asking him to give us what we think will make us happy—to escape our dark room and run to the playground of blessings—or we can accept his invitation to sit with him, for now, perhaps, in darkness, and to seize the opportunity to know him better and represent him well in this difficult world.[ii]
Let us pray.
[i] Timothy Peck, Psalms: Managing Your Emotions, https://www.christianitytoday.com/biblestudies/p/psalms-managing-our-emotions-12-session-study.html
[ii] Larry Crabb, The Pressure’s Off (WaterBrook Press, 2002); pp. 222-223