Sunday, December 16, 2012

Are You in a State of Well-Being?

Third  Sunday in Advent
December 16, 2012
The Church Year began in the only way it can, if it is going to do what it is meant to do. And so it began by pointing us to the cross. Jesus is carried into town on a donkey only so that He can die. The Church Year moved us further into itself by very plainly showing us what kind of people we are. We are people of hope. When we see Jesus going into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday we see God’s grace. Because of His grace we have hope. Today the Church Year shows us that we are people of joy. Last week we saw how hope for Christians is a very different thing from simply wishing and hoping things to be true. It’s not that we need to have hope, we do have hope. It’s not that we hope for God’s grace, it’s that He is a gracious God and saves us. Therefore we have hope.

Do we also have joy? We are a people of hope. Are we also a people of joy? In the Introit we were exhorted, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” Do we do that? Do you have joy?—period, end of statement? Do you have joy no matter your feelings, whatever your circumstances, whatever you do or no matter what happens to you? Or, even as you can see holding on to hope, do you see yourself as one who knows you are saved by grace, have the hope of eternal life… but the joy? The joy just isn’t there? Do you see yourself as the recipient of the exhortation to rejoice always, because you don’t?

Even as hope in the world is far different from hope the Scriptures call us to, so it is with joy. True joy is not like joy that the world thinks of. To the world joy is conditional. If things are going well, you have happiness, well-being, joy. Even if you’re in a time of trial but you can see light at the end of the tunnel, you have some reason for being glad because you know your circumstances will change. To be sure, there certainly is a blessing in good circumstances. God has blessed us with abundant blessings and provides for us and gives us things in which we can take pleasure and in which we can be happy. So it’s not that the Bible is telling us we shouldn’t be happy.

But it is telling us that we have true joy. No matter our circumstances we have true joy. No matter what we’re going through we can rejoice in the Lord. The practical question then would be, “How is this so?” How is it possible to be people of joy, to have joy no matter our circumstances? If it’s not tied to my feelings, or my circumstances, what is it tied to?

The answer to that we see from today’s Scripture readings. As is always the case in the Church Year we are shown that we must not get so caught up in our circumstances that we lose sight of Christ. The reason the Church Year does this is because the Bible itself does this. Your circumstances are never so great that the truths of Scripture are diminished by them. You are never in so much need, or suffering from so many trials, that the central message of the Word of God takes a back seat.

The word joy in the Scriptures has an aspect to it of being in a state of well-being. Whereas we often associate it with good feelings and good circumstances the Bible takes it much deeper than that. The well-being we have from God, and the joy we have in God, is a fact of being a child of God; not something that we have only when our circumstances give evidence things are going well or when our feelings match what we consider rejoicing. We struggle with this, though, don’t we, because it seems to go against reality. Or at least reality as it seems to us. And that’s why we must go back to the Scriptures rather than looking at our circumstances or checking how we’re feeling.

As we head toward the end of Advent consider what we are met with when we see the great John the Baptist holed up in a prison. One of the benefits of a free society is that we have a system in which people who commit crimes are punished accordingly, including being locked up for punishment as well as for protection for the rest of us. But here’s John, his only crime that of faithfully carrying out his call from his Lord to prepare the way for his Lord and to proclaim the Gospel of his Lord. What does he get for that? Prison. He gets punishment at the hands of men who deserve more than he does to be in that prison cell. Furthermore, how can he continue his calling of proclaiming the Gospel when he’s limited to his cell?

How do you think John the Baptist’s state of well-being was at that point? I hope I never end up in prison, but if I do I don’t imagine I will feel like my well-being matches what it is when I have a life free to enjoy it freely. Whatever trials and difficulties you are experiencing, do they compare with what John the Baptist experienced? I’m guessing you’re like me and you’d just as soon not have to experience what he did. For another example, on this day in this nation it would be hard to imagine feeling worse than those who lost their children and loved ones in the horrific shooting in Connecticut. But even so, this is not the point. God the Holy Spirit didn’t put that little part in there about John the Baptist being in prison so that we could compare our troubles with his and then come to the conclusion that we may have it bad, but at least we don’t have it that bad. Comparing yourself with others is a road that will only lead you to finding others who are either better or worse off than you are.

What your Lord does is exactly what He did for John. Whether you find yourself in prison or in a fight for your life against cancer or can’t stand the pain you endure, whether it’s physical or emotional, what your Lord is telling you is something that actually might make you feel worse. The reason that is is because of our penchant for viewing things circumstantially and conditional. I have joy because everything’s going great! Or, how can I have joy when things are falling apart! This is the worst thing you can do, but we do it all the time, don’t we?

Jesus teaches us straight out that we are in a state of well-being. There are no conditions. There are no circumstances under which this is not true for you. It’s, Rejoice!, because you have cause for joy. You are a people of joy. Note that Jesus never says anything about feelings. He doesn’t even say anything about circumstances. In fact, that’s the whole key to this, He doesn’t point us to anything within us. Rather, He points us to Himself.

How could John rightly believe that he was in a state of well-being when he was locked up in a cell? As they soon after led him to the chopping block where they severed his head from himself, how could he think that God had him in His care? Because, as Jesus responded to John’s question, He, Jesus, was the One. What was it that John had been doing all that time before they threw his pink little body into prison? Pointing to the One. Proclaiming the Christ. Preparing the way for the Messiah, the Savior. That’s what John had been doing. That’s what it was all about. It never was about John. It never was about his feelings, or his circumstances, or the conditions he would have liked to place on his standard of living or his general assessment of his well-being.

No, it was, and was always, about Christ his Lord. It was always about the fact that John, in prison and out, in good times and bad, in moments of happiness and moments of sadness and despondency, was in fact in a state of well-being. In other words, he had true joy. It all stemmed from God’s grace, and gave him hope, and he was a person of joy. One who could rejoice in all circumstances.

That’s the true beauty of joy and rejoicing. You can do it even when you don’t feel like it. You have joy even when it seems there’s no cause for it. Since it’s not based on your feelings or your circumstances, you can know that you have true joy because it’s something that is entirely from and of your Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s really quite amazing how Jesus preaches a sermon. When you consider that preaching the Gospel is always preaching Christ and the salvation that is in Him alone it’s fascinating to see how Jesus Himself does it. What does He first do? He says very simply in response to John’s question, which is, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”, “Well, John, what am I doing? The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” In other words, Yes. Yes, I’m the one. So there you see how Jesus preaches the Gospel, in the same way every Christian preacher must do it, by preaching Christ.

But then it gets interesting. He then goes on to talk to the people about John. One moment He was proclaiming Himself, and so far so good. But then He goes into a thing about John the Baptist. Wasn’t John the one who was supposed to be proclaiming Christ? And now Jesus is pointing the people to John? But Jesus is the true genius preacher, never preaching anyone but Himself. Whereas every preacher falls short at times, Jesus is the one who always focuses us exactly where our sights need to be set and always proclaims exactly what we need to hear. And what is that? Him. Jesus. The Savior, God in the flesh; the one who came to go to the cross.

So is Jesus really pointing people to John here? No. He’s pointing people to Himself. When He brings up the stuff about John it’s in order to show us who God is and how He works. Namely, God promised the Savior. God promised He would send His messenger before Him. When He is pointing to John, then, as this very messenger He’s not pointing us to John at all. He’s pointing us to Himself. In Him, and only in Him, is true joy. In Him, and in Him alone, is our reason for rejoicing.

Think about what you are doing when you look at your circumstances and do not see cause for joy or when you place conditions on your ability to rejoice. You are looking at things other than the one thing you ought to be looking at, and that is Christ. That is what He Himself does for you—He gives you Himself, He gives you true joy, He makes you a person who is a person of joy.

It never was about John at all. And it is never about you either. It is, and is always, about Christ. Because if it’s about you, well, then, yes, there’s not always cause for joy because you will always find reason for lack of joy. But if it is always about Christ there is reason for joy and rejoicing.

He is the one whose conditions and circumstances turned dramatically to the point where prison would have been a summer home compared to His suffering on the cross. All the sin and guilt of every person was laid upon Him. All the wrath of God against sinners was brought upon Him. The eternal punishment every person deserves was dealt Him. All our suffering and sadness is met in the suffering of Christ on the cross.

This is the heart of the Gospel, for it is the heart of Christ. It is simply an unfathomable fact that He considered going to the cross a joy. He rejoiced in His Heavenly Father’s will to go this path. And that, dear friends, is why we have true joy. Amen.


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