You Can Say That Again
Montecito Covenant Church
August 14, 2005
Telford Work, Westmont College
Reading: Luke 9:28-36
A culture of sorrow. My son Jeremy has become a fan of the Series of Unfortunate Events books by the pseudonymous Lemony Snicket. Here is the back cover copy from volume one (The Bad Beginning, 1st ed., Scholastic, 2000):
I'm sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe. From the very first page of this book, when the children are at the beach and receive terrible news, continuing on through the end of the story, disaster lurks at their heels. One might say they are magnets for misfortune. … It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.
With all due respect, Lemony Snicket
This cleverly plays to what I will call our culture of sorrow. It is a common sensibility that life's true character is misfortune and that sadness rules over us. It may seem far away to this room of cheerful southern Californians on a Santa Barbara morning, but it is a lot closer than we think.
In our culture of sorrow, sadder is cooler. Joy may be desirable, but it's not fashionable. What is? Ask the fashion industry! Does that look of aloof, disheveled, emaciated sophistication strike you as happy? Me neither. But it's cool! Or name a big pop band that has looked happy in its photos since the Beatles in 1964. Cool means hard stares, angry sneers, lust, and brooding.
The businessman in me marvels at this. You can't buy happiness, but you can now buy unhappiness! Just spend three figures on this blouse and pout like her. Just buy this band's CD and wallow in the futility of the ghetto. (Or suburbia … whatever.) Hand over a few bucks and enter Snicket's cute, dark narrative world. Want more? Go to a prestigious school and get a whole education in Angst, ennui, existential despair, cynicism, political decline, environmental catastrophe, and social alienation. Master these and you'll be the life of the dinner party. Pull enough all-nighters and you can get the strung-out fashion-model look at no extra cost.
I am not picking on our fashion leaders. After all, we're buying what they're selling. I am just pointing out which attitudes we all associate with coolness, as a society.
Sadder is wiser. Misery has even become our myth, our metanarrative. Joy is liable to be taken as immaturity or ignorance: "Don't they know about all the suffering in the world?" If you want an Oscar, don't go with a so-called Hollywood ending. Go with a gut-wrenching tragedy like Million Dollar Baby. If you don't believe me, find a list of Best Picture award winners and tally them yourself.
Sadder is deeper. What moves a personal relationship from small-talk pleasantries to greater sincerity? Telling the truth, of course. And for us the deepest truth-telling usually involves the disclosure of pain, hardship, and anxiety. Relationships tend to deepen from shallow happiness to more authentic sorrow: "It's hard at home." "I'm worried about the war." "I suffer from depression." "Our finances are precarious." "I am an addict." It is usually with comments like these rather than confessions of deep, abiding joy that we "open up."
Sadder is greater. Joy doesn't make headlines; "if it bleeds, it leads." Pity and guilt raise money to help the destitute, not joy. Anger, fright, and fantasy bring out voters and volunteers, not joy. Fear and greed drive the economy, not joy. Sorrow acts and we react. It calls the shots.
I could write a screenplay for an episode of The Twilight Zone where someone is suddenly teleported into a culture of joy rather than a culture of sorrow and doesn't know what to do. But I don't have to! It has already been done.
A life of joy. There is such a culture, with a whole different approach:
You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit; so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. … Though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated in Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the face of great opposition. … You, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea; for you suffered the same things from your own countrymen (1 Thess. 1:6-7, 2:2, 2:14 RSV).
Those are Paul's words to the Thessalonian believers. They relate a lot of pain. Yet pain is not in control. Joy is in charge here. Lemony Snicket could never have written this.
Plenty of bad things have already happened to Paul even this early in his career. He could be angry at God, bitter at his enemies, worried about the future, and burned out from the constant problems in his churches. Instead he writes like this:
We wanted to come to you – I, Paul, again and again – but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy (1 Thess. 2-18-20).
This is classic Paul: suffering but joyful. Steaming mad at the Galatians for abandoning God's grace, Paul still steers his letter to them toward the joy of walking by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-26). Anguished at the wretched, rebellious Corinthians, he closes 2 Corinthians 10-13 rejoicing when he is weak and they are strong (2 Cor. 13:9). Walking the Romans at length through the problems of Jewish-Gentile relations in the church, he crystallizes the Kingdom of God into "righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17) and encourages them to live together in joyful hope and patient harmony (Rom. 12:12-16). The only letters of Paul that don't mention joy are the ones scholars aren't sure Paul wrote.
His churches are a mess. He is usually in prison, on the run from his own people, or under arrest. His own body is literally a pain. Yet Paul is a joy machine. Scholars debate where he was when he wrote his various letters. Was he in Rome? Was he in Ephesus? I know the answer. He was in the Twilight Zone. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.
A zone of twilight. Twilight is that moment of transition either as morning dawns or as evening becomes night. I don't have to write that episode of the Twilight Zone because Luke did it for me – in his account of the Transfiguration.
Here is the setting: The disciples know Jesus is up to something new, but he still baffles them. Not long ago Peter gave Jesus his best shot when he called him "Messiah," but then Jesus started saying that he had to suffer and be rejected and then be raised. When Peter protested, Jesus rebuked him and promised that his true disciples would face the same. Now he's thinking: I left my family, I left my business, and my reward is a cross? What have we gotten ourselves into? Should I get out? The sun is setting; the future looks dark and miserable.
Then Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. As he prays everything changes. Moses and Elijah appear in their state of glory. A cloud overshadows the whole group. The whole scene is like a reverse solar eclipse: a circle of light suddenly shining in the middle of the night. They really are in a twilight zone! But it's not the twilight of dusk. Dawn is breaking.
The Transfiguration is a dose of the Father's joy, delivered just in time to a world of gloom. And what happens to the people who encounter it? Most of them don't know what to do.
Some rejoice in the wrong things. Soon the twelve will be rejoicing at their power over demons. No, Jesus tells them, you're still hooked on sorrow. You should be rejoicing in your salvation (Luke 10:17-20). Many churches are caught up in illusions and loyalties that keep us from rejoicing at the truth. There is a word for that kind of joy: Schadenfreude, joy for which we ought to be ashamed.
Some rejoice in the right things but in the wrong way. Peter weakly calls Jesus "rabbi." That's like calling Mozart a piano player. This prompts a correction: "This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him!" Then he tries to keep the prophets from leaving with an invitation to hang out and celebrate good times. That bright idea brings on a cloud that shuts down the scene like Mardi Gras at midnight.
Peter is right to enjoy the presence of the Father, the glory of Jesus, and the communion of saints. But his joy is complacent. He is looking back at Sinai and the wilderness when he ought also to be looking forward to Jerusalem. He tries to stay up high while Jesus is starting back down. Like Peter, a lot of joyful churches are rightly glad about the great things God has done for us, but we forget to press on. That's not exactly sorrow, but it is something close: nostalgia. Celebrating good times is good, but anticipating better times is better.
Some refuse to rejoice. James and John are with Peter in the Twilight Zone, but what do they do when they wake up? Apparently nothing worth mentioning. They represent what you might call the Church's silent majority: mute when Peter calls Jesus Messiah, in the boat when Peter walks on water, hiding when Peter is in the courtyard, and quiet when Peter preaches. Many of us feel intimidated by the power of sorrow. Powerless Christians aren't joyful Christians. Or perhaps it is better to say that joyful Christians aren't powerless Christians.
I make all these mistakes. I don't want sadder to be cooler or wiser or deeper or truer. I know the culture of sorrow is a lie. Yet I am always falling for it. Are you?
Then rejoice, because there are also persons in this episode who get joy right, and more chances for people like me to get it right too.
Heading for Jerusalem. Moses and Elijah get joy right. They aren't talking about their glorious days of old. In fact, they are the ones pointing Jesus forward to the next exodus. Jesus, of course, gets joy right. In the gathering darkness he begs for the Father's joy. He is the one whose face and clothes are changed in his praying, as the Father shows him the glory that outlasts his suffering. And don't forget the Father! It is his Kingdom and power and glory, and he is joyfully showering all of them on his beloved Son.
Center on this circle. They get it. The Father enjoys the Son as the Son enjoys the Father in the extravagant fellowship of the Spirit. An ever widening circle of joy flows from the Father to the Son and back, from the prophets to the Messiah and then to his apostles – from the mountaintop down the slope, over to Jerusalem, onto the cross, out of the grave, out to the ends of the earth, and forward to the eternal future.
The scene ends, because it must, and it never repeats. It is just a glimpse of what is to come. In the meantime everyone must endure another nightfall. You see, we who got joy wrong have another chance to get it right – but only if we do something difficult. [Jerusalem verses.] Jesus does it down below (Luke 9:31, 51). His disciples do it with him, and do it again after he rises (Luke 24:49, 52). Joyful Paul does it four times or more (Acts 9:26, 11:30, 12:25, 15:4, 21:17). They head for Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the place where God's purposes meet their greatest opposition – where darkness confronts the twilight and does all it can to overcome it. Yet it is also the place where the light shines in spite of the darkness and overthrows it forever. Jerusalem has to be our destination too. Transfiguration doesn't last – yet. But that one moment changes everything. In the Transfiguration the Father hurls a bright ray of hope right into the dark middle of the gospel of Jesus Christ … and also into the dark middles of our own lives.
Could you use a mountaintop view of eternity now and then? I sure could. Well, the Transfiguration is over, and you and I missed it. But its power is still available. Second Peter says we should pay attention to the Transfiguration as if it were a lamp shining before daybreak (2 Pet. 1:16-19). For Jesus and his companions it was a preview. For us on the other side of his resurrection it is a reminder. The Kingdom's twilight is just that: a glimmer rather than full sun. You can ignore it if you like, but you can see it if you search.
Would you like that transforming power? Then pray. That's what Jesus is doing when it arrives. Worship. Gather with other believers and exchange reminders. Minister. Share Christ's light with those who are struggling to see. All of these activities invite the Father to bleach our troubles, our hopes, our needs, our questions, and our sufferings dazzling white in his glory.
Then do what Second Peter says and pay attention to what happens. You can tell who is following along with a storyteller because they smile and gasp and laugh at the right time. They know what to do. Jesus on the mountain is paying attention. He is awake, aware, and unafraid. Many Christians today are like him. But many others lack joy. I can think of only one reason why: We haven't been paying attention. We are like the disciples on the mountain: asleep when the glory appears, clueless about what is happening, and afraid of where it will lead.
The disciples had another chance to behold his glory at the resurrection. Now that the Spirit has come, we have one every day. When we pay attention, the Father's transfiguration neutralizes our misery and every other challenger. Then we know what to do. We are treated as sorrowful, Paul tells the Corinthians, yet we always rejoice (2 Cor. 6:10).
Cultures of the Kingdom.Joy is a fundamental sign of faith (Daniel W. Hardy, "Joy," The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Oxford 2000, 354). Healthy families, healthy churches, and healthy lives have got to have cultures in which joy rather than sorrow reigns. I began with our culture of sorrow; let's end with cultures of the Kingdom.
A true culture of joy is reasonable. Christian joy is always grounded in the good news, so it is never irrational exuberance. Paul commands his churches to remember Jesus' resurrection and await his return. He tells the Philippians to contemplate all that is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious (Phil. 4:8). That is not hype or wishful thinking. It's intellectual integrity.
Lesslie Newbigin was asked once whether he was an optimist or a pessimist. "Neither," he said. "Christ is risen." That is exactly right. Optimism is blind faith that can't handle bad news. Pessimism is blind doubt that warps it into sad news. Paul doesn't hide his hardships or wallow in them. He rejoices even when his enemies preach Christ just to worsen his imprisonment (Phil. 1:18). That's not spin; it's confidence.
Second, joy is varied but not artificial. Paul commends joy in all circumstances, and he pulls it off. When Christians try to imitate him by putting on an act, it isn't pretty. True joy is by definition not fake joy. Paul didn't turn his letters into contemporary motivational speeches. He just received the Spirit's joy and passed it along naturally.
Paul's writing is anything but monotonous, because a life of joy is naturally rich in its variety. We enjoy ordinary things in an astonishing range of ways. Think of a ticker-tape parade, a wedding reception, a honeymoon suite, a good day at work, a birthday party, a peaceful evening at home, and a dignified inaugural. Why not enjoy the extraordinary things of the Twilight Zone in an even more astonishing range of ways? That is what the Bible in its incredible variety trains us to do, if we obey it.
Third, joy is obvious but not forced. This is a joyful church. However, with our northern European heritage, we tend to keep our joy rather understated. Yet we find all kinds of other places to be over-the-top with exuberance: games, concerts, school plays, graduations and awards ceremonies, and even just around the table. None of that is forced. Perhaps we should let our light shine even more obviously. After all, David does. Heaven does on Christmas night. Paul does. The prodigal son's father is embarrassingly joyful. Jesus' robe turns just bright white, but dazzling white. Over-the-top white. That is the joy of the Twilight Zone. When the Father lavishes joy so expressively on his Son, why shouldn't we?
Two weeks ago Scott Lisea's student Leslie told her story of coming to faith. The key word in her testimony was joy. The joy of the Lord is magnetic. It attracts and it repels. Some people come away from joyful Christians thinking, "Those people are just too happy. Something is wrong with them." Some come away thinking, "I don't know what it is they have, but I want it."
Fourth, joy is encouraged and disciplined. The ultimate letter of joy in the New Testament is Paul's letter to the Philippians. He sounds like a broken record. In 2:18, "rejoice." In 3:1, "rejoice." In 4:4, "rejoice; again I say, rejoice." This got me wondering: Why does he say it again? The Philippians are doing as well as any of his churches. Do you run around telling happy people to cheer up or healthy people to get well soon?
He keeps telling them to rejoice because he needs to say it, and they need to hear it. It's that simple. Joy is a gift, and gifts are for giving. Sorrow is tempting. If joy just happened automatically, Paul would not have written this way. We need reminders, and we need to be reminders.
This takes effort. Kim and I vacationed this summer in Pasadena and returned to our Pentecostal church in Los Angeles. That church is extraordinarily joyful. God seems to have given it a special mission to spread his joy. Its worshippers cheer. They laugh. They shout and wave. They cry. They rock and roll. They whisper Jesus' name in prayer. Last Easter the worship leader led everyone in group high-fives. Several Easters earlier a few choristers improvised the electric slide during the final song. Crazy. Exuberant. Joyful. They aren't like this by nature. They are joyful because they train hard.
Montecito Covenant trains hard too. As I have thought through this message I have noticed how many ways we rejoice. Diana convenes us with words of joy, often from the Psalms. Joy has characterized just about every one of Doug's sermons in one way or another. The refreshment tables, Noah's, summer dinners, and Operation Christmas Child are a just a few of many well disciplined displays of joy. Thank you!
It startled me to realize I had overlooked so many of these reminders when I am professionally trained to notice them. Yet I had been missing them. I am embarrassed to confess that I need you all to be more obvious with your reminders. You may even need to be as obvious as Pentecostals. Call me to attention! I am the distracted one in the back Paul had in mind when he wrote "again I say, rejoice." (Phil. 4:4). I need you to say it again loudly and slowly.
I don't think I am the only one. If I can miss it after twenty years of faith, what about kids like Leslie who know nothing but a world of sorrow and are unfamiliar with Church customs? Young Life doesn't get results by being subtle.
This sums it all up: Joy is and has to be central to our identity as people who trust Jesus Christ. It cannot be an option, an add-on, or a half-measure. Scott used the story of the paralytic lowered by his friends through a ceiling (Mark 2:1-12) to get us "on the roof" as a church. Well, on the roof is over the top. Jesus took his friends up the holy mountain to pray. On a mountain is over the top. Paul reminds the Philippians that the Father has highly exalted the Son (Phil. 2:5-11). A throne in heaven is totally over the top. I think these folks are telling us something.
The people I can think of who really know what to do in the Twilight Zone are over-the-top with joy: St. Augustine, who made joy cool for over a thousand years. St. Francis. Karl Barth, who said that "The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all" (Church Dogmatics II/1, 656). C.S. Lewis. Hans Urs von Balthasar, who said simply that "the Christian message is joy" (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics VII: Theology: The New Covenant, 532). The black Church. Persecuted Christians in China, whose sufferings remind me of Unfortunate Events but whose lives remind me of the Philippians. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I could go on and on. That cloud on the mountain is a cloud of witnesses.
Do you have a special reason to be sad? I bet you have formidable reasons to be sad. Don't ignore those troubles. But don't look at your situation as a potential installment in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Take it up to the mountaintop. Pay attention to that light at the horizon. The kingdom and the power and the glory all belong to the everlasting Father. They are in the best possible hands, and always will be. Join the cloud of witnesses. Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice-rejoice-rejoice!