Beloved in Christ, “I don’t care if we are looking at the fruit of the Spirit,” many Christians would say, “This is not the time to talk about joy. Don’t you realize that we are in the middle of Lent? Lent is a gloomy time. Lent is a time to walk around with somber faces. Lent is the time to wring out every last drop of joy from our lives and embrace a level of grief and despair such as is known only to those who have just lost a loved one.”
Says who? Not our Lord. Lent may be a time to fast, but our Lord warned us last week in Matthew 6 about going around all sad and grieving. If you embrace a spiritual discipline, and it pinches you a little, don’t let the pain show, for it isn’t about the hurt but about your relationship with God. And if you are fasting, it is not supposed to be about grieving a decline in your relationship with food, but about rejoicing in greater fellowship with God. Spiritual disciplines may be serious business, but none of them are gloomy. They are laden with joy.
So too is the Christian life. There are Christians who believe that it is their divine calling to be killjoys, to make themselves and others as miserable as possible. But Paul knew different. He knew that the Galatians were laboring under the false impression that their men all had to be circumcised in order to be righteous before God. They thought that the truly spiritual thing to do was to undertake circumcision and other acts that left one howling in physical pain. But Paul argued in Galatians 5 that the Spirit produces joy. The Holy Spirit doesn’t push us to embrace a life of gloom and misery. Yes, we may have gloom and misery in our life, as we will talk about later, but the Holy Spirit is all about bringing joy—real, lasting joy—to Christians.
Now we are easily confused about joy, as we are about many so many aspects of the fruit of the Spirit. People get confused about where true joy is to be found, just as they get confused about what real love is or what real peace consists of. People confuse joy and happiness, for example. Happiness is a fleeting emotion, here one moment and gone the next, and is based on our circumstances. When things are going well for us, we cannot help being happy; when things are going badly, we are naturally sad. But joy is something deeper. It can be present even amid great sorrows. To use an earthly example, we may rejoice that a loved one is getting married and moving across the United States where a better job offer awaits for the couple. But we may grieve because we know that we won’t see him or her all that often, anymore. In the same way, we Christians experience the same sorrows as other people do, but it is the love of Jesus Christ for us that enables us to find joy amid life’s ups and downs.
Because joy is grounded more deeply than merely on the surface, we have to make sure that we don’t try to find joy in all the wrong places. In fact, you could say that this is one of the major tasks we undertake each Lent. The world says, “Eat, drink, and be merry,” as if that is where joy is to be found. But we recognize that there is joy to be found even amid fasting. The world says, “Raunchy sex is all that matters,” but we learn the joy to be found in chastity and marital faithfulness. The world says, “Greed is good,” but we learn the joy to be found in contentment. The world says, “Let me tell you a juicy rumor,” as if joy were to be found in gossiping and lying, but we learn that true joy comes from the truth, especially God’s truth. The world says, “Laziness is particularly delightful,” but we learn the joy to be found in fulfilling our vocations. Therefore, if we reject certain practices or avoid certain things the world is pushing, it isn’t because we are against joy, but rather for it. We want to find joy where it truly may be found. And that means we have to let the law of God clear away the clutter. We have to learn what it forbids so that we may not find great despair and misery instead of joy.
This point is made quite clear in the reading from Jeremiah. It is obvious that God wanted to build up His city and make it a delightful place for His people to live. But that clearly was not happening in Jeremiah’s day. Instead, houses were being torn down “to make a defense against the siege.” They needed bricks and anything else sturdy they could find in order to block the siege mounds that the Chaldeans were building. They were even stripping the royal palaces for material for the defense works. Jerusalem was soon going to be filled “with the dead bodies of men.” This would be no happenstance of history, but God Himself would “strike [them] down in [His] anger and [His] wrath.” God loved His people, but they had turned to all sorts of idols, and thus God had to clean out the city.
But as He explained to Jeremiah, He did all this because He wanted His people to have a greater joy. He promised that the city would be re-inhabited. God would heal His people. He would “restore [their] fortunes…and rebuild them.” He would “cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin” and “forgive all…[their] rebellion.” Life would return back to normal. Groom and bride would laugh. Songs of praise to God would echo in the city streets again.
It is in this light then that we gather as Christians during this Lenten season. We want to find true joy, and we find it in Jesus Christ alone. He certainly had to find the deep sources of joy, for there was much that happened to Him in His last few days that surely would not make anyone happy. And yet, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, He “endured the cross” “for the [sake of the] joy that was set before Him.” We are used to saying that Christ endured the cross because He was filled with great love toward us. That is true. But we usually don’t say that Christ endured the cross because He was filled with great joy. But that is equally true. Just as Christ’s love for us kept Him going during the difficult moments, so too His sense of joy saw Him through the dark moments.
What sort of joy did He have? He delighted in God His Father and He delighted in us. He was giddy with the thought of honoring His Father and of reconciling us to Him. It didn’t mean that He was free from pain. In fact, He suffered more agony and suffering than anyone in human history. But He “endured the cross, despising the shame,” thinking it unworthy to dwell upon when He knew all the good things that would happen as a result of His work.
That sort of joy isn’t just for Christ. We too go through our lives, enduring all sorts of unpleasant things and even scorning its shame, because we know what comes at the end. Just as Christ was seated at the right hand of God, so we too will be glorified in the end. That is why we are urged to “look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” and “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” And that is why joy is a fruit of the Spirit. If the Spirit is helping us genuinely to believe in Christ, then we will adopt His attitude. We will see that glory comes after the cross. And that glory, though sometimes dimmed by clouds in this life, shines through enough to bring us great joy.
Therefore, beloved in Christ, may you be full of joy, not despite the Lenten season but because of it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.