“Surprised by Joy”

Jesus himself stood among [the disciples] and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.  He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.  Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”  And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.  While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”  They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.  Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.”

I mention Jim’s enthusiasm not because of the COVID vaccine itself — I know there are some people who are skeptical about it, and I respect people’s right to decline.  I mention it because of Jim’s spontaneous reaction to getting one.  His joy and enthusiasm!  And he reminded me of that old hymn that’s so fitting for our scripture reading today.

Just so you know, Jim had no significant side effects in the following days.  One side effect for me, however, was that I couldn’t get that tune out of my head this week.  I kept wondering what it would mean to any of us to have that joyful mantra playing in our hearts and minds more often.  “This is the day that the Lord has made!  Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”  What if we could live all our daily lives with that spontaneous joy emanating from us?

In today’s scripture passage, Luke’s description of the reaction Jesus’ disciples displayed when the risen Christ at last appeared before them is perfect – we read, they “disbelieved for joy.”  They were startled!  Terrified!  Utterly surprised!

When Jesus died on that cruel cross, the disciples had sealed away all their hopes in his lonely tomb. They were heartbroken and despairing. Then Jesus suddenly stood in their midst, and the fear and denial that overwhelmed their hearts and minds erupted into joy. Joy — unlooked for, and joy – unexpected, slowly spread out over the disciples’ hearts and consumed their whole beings.  The miracle of the Resurrection had happened.  The proof stood before them calmly eating a fish!

When was the last time you can recall being consumed with overwhelming, unexpected joy?  By its very nature, joy isn’t something we expect to encounter in our lives on a regular basis.  Especially this past year when we’ve been in hunker-down mode around the clock.   Besieged by reminders to be vigilant, to take precautions, make sure we don’t get near ANYBODY, we’ve been immeasurably stressed and our energy has been sapped.  At best, we try to schedule a little down time and insert some fun into our lives.  But joy?!  Joy?!  During a pandemic?

I think there’s a difference between joy and plain old happiness.  Our happiness over the past year has definitely been diminished, to say the least.  Amidst illness and death and fear and all of the other experiences of the pandemic, happiness hasn’t been in great supply for many people.  

But the possibility of joy always remains.

Happiness and joy are considered synonyms.  But these two concepts are different. Happiness is generated by an external source.  You win the lottery and you’re happy.  Your favorite team wins and you’re happy.  You master a new skill or task and you’re happy.  Happiness is a contingent emotion.  Happiness comes from an outward circumstance. 

 Joy, on the other hand – joy is more a demeanor and an outlook on life.  Joy is a way of living.  David Brooks, in his book The Second Mountain, writes that “We can help create happiness, but we are seized by joy.  We are pleased by happiness, but we are transformed by joy.”

The title of today’s sermon comes from the book Surprised by Joy by the author and theologian C.S. Lewis.  His book describes his personal journey to Christianity as moving away from pleasure-seeking and toward joy.  He encourages us to let go of our fears that pleasure is all there is, and to learn to trust God to give us those gifts of joy that come to us so unexpectedly, beyond our deserving.  Lewis writes that “Joy is never within our power, but pleasure often is.”  He says that the very definition of joy is that it’s unexpected and undeserved.

Joy surprises us.  Joy transforms us.  Like the disciples who encountered the risen Christ, “in their joy they were disbelieving.”  In their joy, they were transformed as witnesses to the Resurrection.  Their surprise, their disbelieving, was powerful.  As Jesus asked for food, and ate among them, they came to understand that his Resurrection was real.  In their joy in believing, they were transformed.

Where do you find joy?  Most of us hope to encounter joy at some special family function, attending a concert, or getting together with old friends.  Given the fact that those sorts of opportunities have been especially limited in the last year, at least we’ve had a chance to catch sight of a beautiful sunset or other miracles of nature that bring joy to our souls.  Given the unpredictability of this year, the opportunity for joy has been abundant.  How have you found it?

I hope that our church has been a source of joy for many, even despite the limitations we’ve faced.  I think that we’ve always been a joyful congregation, and I give thanks for the worship and ministries that have joyfully continued during this past year.  The Holy Week bags that were distributed before Easter were intended to be a joyful surprise.  The yarnblasting project that adorns our trees and meetinghouse is a wonderful display of joy, surprisingly revealed on Easter morning.

As we gradually emerge from our COVID tombs, there will be much happiness as we learn to live in what will be a “new normal.”  And while we share our happiness at increasing health and vaccinations, true joy is the greater gift.  Being open to surprising joy, taking delight in life, living life to the fullest, is what God intends for us.  

In her work entitled “Mindful,” the poet Mary Oliver writes:  

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less
kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle
In the haystack
of light.

I pray that we may all be killed with delight.  May we be transformed by joy.  May the miracle of the Resurrection be real to us.  And may that joy and new life continue to be reflected in all that we do as a family of faith.  

In the days ahead, as we see a light at the end of the tunnel, a bend in the difficult road we’ve traveled, as we express our happiness in vaccinations and the progress that’s been made – above all, may we be joyful!   Joyful in the knowledge that Christ’s peace remains with us, whatever the circumstances.  Joyful that we too are witnesses to the Resurrection.  Joyful that we are able to sing together – however far apart – that this is the day that the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it!  Amen.