The Joy of a Promise
Passage: Jeremiah 33:14-16
Date: December 2, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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Is it right to experience joy when there is so much suffering in the world?
If you’re not much of a sermon listener, consider yourself done for this morning and contemplate this question during your week. If you’re still with me, I’ll ask the question again: is it right to feel joy when there is so much suffering in the world?
We can answer that question using theology. Because joy is a gift from God, then yes, it is not only right but it may be our religious obligation to experience joy.
This fall, Yale Divinity School began a project on the theology of joy and the good life. In describing the project, they write, “Joy is fundamental to human existence and well-being, yet it is an elusive phenomenon that resists definition. For more than two millennia, the articulation and cultivation of joy was at the center of Jewish and Christian scripture, theology, and practices….
“…the very idea of joy has all but disappeared from modern theological reflection, is all but ignored by the social sciences, and is increasingly absent from lived experience. The consequence is a “flattening out,” a “graying,” of human life and communities and a sharp bloom of individual and communal dysfunction.” (https://faith.yale.edu/joy/about)
Is it right to experience joy when there is so much suffering in the world? We can also answer that question in terms of our spiritual lives. The Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once observed that, “Joy is the surest sign of the presence of God.” If in our spiritual lives, we wish to be reminded of God’s presence throughout, then acknowledging joy means acknowledging God. So again, yes, it is right and good for our souls to experience joy.
Is it right to experience joy when there is so much suffering in the world? We can also answer that question in terms of our mental and physical health. When we experience joy or even mere happiness or just plain fun, our brains release endorphins. Endorphins help our immune systems. When we are healthy, we can engage fully in life, which includes being present to others who are suffering. So again, yes, it’s okay and maybe even necessary to experience joy even though others are suffering.
So we’re good. Right? Well, maybe.
We can apply all the logic and data we want to answer that question and having done that, I must tell you that I’m still not comfortable answering the question. Is it right to experience joy when there is so much suffering in the world? My mind says yes. My gut says something else. It feels hard-hearted to rejoice while others suffer; it seems apathetic, uncaring. It doesn’t seem like the Christian thing to do. I feel a little guilty. And yet, to ignore joy when it stares us in the face also feels unfaithful.
Maybe that’s what all those prophets struggled with as they received their commission from God. Today we have heard from the prophet Jeremiah, but it could be any of them – Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea. Those who were entrusted to deliver the word of God faced the real suffering of their people, but they also were called to proclaim the promise of God even while their people suffered.
The snippet of hope we heard from Jeremiah this morning comes in the midst of a lot of doom and gloom, which makes up most of the book. Jeremiah lived through the fall of Jerusalem, when that city that was the center of both political and religious life was destroyed by the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Jerusalem fell, and then in final insult, the great temple of Jerusalem, the heart of the people, was destroyed. To get a sense of the destruction, imagine the bombed out cities of World War II or modern day Aleppo in Syria. Everything was lost. Most of the people were taken into captivity in Babylon, exiled from their homeland, their religious practice, and their God.
Jeremiah saw all of that and was given the word of God to offer to these people in exile. Sometimes it was a word of condemnation, reminding the people of their sin and faithlessness. But sometimes it was a word of hope, a promise that the day would come when things would be better.
Beginning around chapter 30, the tone of the prophecy changes. Jeremiah speaks of the exiles returning to their homeland and talks about the restoration of rule. The words we heard today echo that sentiment: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”
Jeremiah spoke of a messiah, the one who would come not simply to save his people, not only to restore what was broken, but to establish things in such a way that all the people would know peace and prosperity. Because the king will practice justice and righteousness, the people will be able to live fully, in the most mundane ways. They will have bread to eat; they will have homes; they will have community. And they too will be righteous, which is to say, they will honor the rules of living in covenant community.
Jeremiah’s is a joy-filled promise, and we who believe that the Messiah has come in the person of Jesus are recipients of that joy. We begin this Advent season with joy, anticipating that it will grow. But as one commentator noted,
“…we [also] begin in the shadows of despair, war, sorrow, and hate. For it’s precisely there that the God of grace will arrive, and accordingly, it’s precisely there that God’s church is called to light candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. It’s worth remembering this deep poetry: as the Christian new year begins, we join hands and enter the darkness, actively waiting, singing, and praying anew for God’s light to overwhelm the world.”
Is it right to experience joy when there is so much suffering in the world? I think it is, because it is our way of bearing witness to the love and power of God who will not let us suffer in darkness forever. We would die without joy; the world would disintegrate without joy. We must have joy to counter all that is wrong; it’s a way of bringing light.
Gregg and I have a neighbor, a friend, who was diagnosed with a stage-four glioblastoma, brain tumor, a year ago. He is in his forties; he’s married to a wonderful woman and they have a child in elementary school. It’s pretty awful, and we try to help when asked and to give them the private space they also crave. Earlier this fall, they celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary and had a renewal of their wedding vows. Gregg and I went.
Let me tell you: when someone whose head is wrapped in a full bandage, who is undergoing chemo and so many other invasive treatments, says to his wife, and she says back to him, “I take you in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health”… Well. They are living out their covenant relationship in joy amid suffering every single day.
Since we have reasoned that it is right to experience joy, even in the midst of suffering, what shall we do about that? Does experiencing joy call us into a response, or even an action? Theologian Miroslav Volf suggests that it does. “… joy has an activist dimension. … joy wants something; all emotions do…. What kind of future does joy want? As it projects itself into the future, joy doesn’t aim directly at changing the world; it simply delights in and celebrates the good that is and proclaims, implicitly, that it is good for that good to continue to be.” (https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/2014/10/21/what-difference-between-joy-happiness/)
Friedrich Nietzsche, of all people, once wrote that, “All joy wants eternity – wants deep, deep eternity.” So when you and I experience joy, we are being swept into something that began long before we were born and will continue long after we have gone. It is eternal and it is of God, and so it is a gift that we receive in humility and gratitude and hope.
What shall we do about joy? Embrace it when we receive it; share it when we can; pray that others know joy too, even in the midst of their suffering. And in so doing, we keep faith in God, and in so sharing, we keep faith with each other too.
To the glory of God. Amen.