When God is Joyful

August 20, 2023


Rev. Dr. Michael Brooks explores what brings God joy in this sermon based on Galatians 5:22 and Luke 15:1–10. From these two parables, it would appear that God derives joy when something of great value has been lost, and then found again. We are each greatly valued by God and God experiences joy when we turn back to Him. “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance”


A Sermon on Galatians 5: 22 and Luke 15: 1-10
Sunday, August 20, 2023
Lake Joseph Community Church
Rev. Dr Michael Brooks

I grew up on a farm in Southwestern Ontario. One of the many summer ventures that my mother would undertake was the rum pot. Have you ever made one? Mom would begin in June with local strawberries, and each time a new fruit was ready it would be added to the preserve mixture in the crock pot stored in the farmhouse cellar. Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches, pears, apples and, if we could get them, apricots. With each addition there was a stirring and a topping up of sugar and rum. Come December, we enjoyed this magnificent fruit stew spilling over ice cream and sponge cake. Have I made you hungry yet? I wasn’t even of age at that point, but I was permitted to partake. How could they stop us kids from indulging in such a wonder?!

This is possible, of course, because fruit doesn’t ripen at the same time. The basket starts empty. And then as fruit is ready, the rum pot is added to, and with each addition, the mixture becomes more flavourful, more fulsome. Or, if you’re not into rum, then the fruit salad all comes together. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Well, this is how I understand the so-called fruits of the Spirit. The Spirit of God is really the basket which holds all the virtues Paul names: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things. If we live by the Spirit, we are guided by the Spirit. And the Spirit is manifest in – or made known in – these virtues. Fruit is the culmination of the growing season. Virtues are the culmination of life in the Spirit. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
All of us strive to live by these nine virtues. All of us, of course, fall short. But the full basket of fruit is the ultimate goal of the Christian life. So, how are you doing these days with your salad or your rum pot? Is it feeling on the full side? Or perhaps somewhat empty? Or maybe it’s just in need of a stirring – a refreshing – in order for flavours to mature.

All nine fruits of the Spirit are part of the salad, or the rum pot. But today, I thought we would look at just one in more detail. Elsewhere, Paul speaks of love as the greatest gift. But joy is the second fruit he mentions. And of the nine, it might be that joy is the most complex. There might be more misunderstanding about what joy is than any of the other fruits. The word is used often and casually, but it’s deep and surprising. C. S. Lewis knew it when he penned his classic autobiography Surprised by Joy which I’m sure some of you have read. So, let’s delve into joy today, with an ear to when God is joyful.

Many people seem to equate happiness and joy. But there is a difference. As American Presbyterian minister and poet Frederick Buechner wrote, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to – a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.” So, according to Buechner, there are two things here: Joy as unpredictable. And authentic joy as coming from God – bequeathed by God.

Now if the nine fruits of the Spirit are characteristics of living in the Spirit – if they are hallmarks by which we strive to live a life of faith – then how do we live with a sense of joy? Or what if we flip this around? What brings God joy? If joy is bequeathed by God, then when is God joyful? And are we then invited to be joyful in similar ways? And is this different than secular happiness?
These are the questions before us as we consider the virtue of joy. Now it’s summertime, so let’s think for a moment about Christmas! Why not. I’ve already mentioned the rum pot! Because more than any other time of the year, at Christmas, Christians experience the tension between secular “joy” or perhaps happiness, and sacred “joy.” The secular is the joy of the mall: Children sitting on Santa’s knee sharing their hopes for all kinds of material things. Secular joy is the joy of the market: food and feasting and indulgence. Now when people are experiencing this joy, they use the word “enjoyment.” “To enjoy” is secular joy in action. But the term for sacred joy in action is different: “To rejoice.” People don’t tend to say, “Wow, I’m rejoicing in my chocolate ice cream cone.” Rather, it would be, “I’m enjoying my chocolate ice cream cone.” But “to rejoice” is to name sacred joy in action. Secular: “To enjoy.” Sacred: “To rejoice.” This is how I understand the difference.

But what really matters is how we read of it in the scriptures. Because that helps point to when God is joyful. And the two little parables we read this morning in Luke provide a clue. Parables are really riddles, so clues are helpful, especially when we’re talking about the unpredictability of joy. Jesus expresses what joy means for God. And God is joyful when a lost one is found. I don’t know about you, but that’s not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about joy. Even so, that is God’s first reaction to being found: “Rejoice!” Because remember, Christian joy is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.

So might this help us with our own joy – to know that God is most joyful when people return to their identity – a return to whom they have been created to be. The question for us, then, is: “Who is lost?” As the famous hymn goes, “We once were lost, but now are found, were blind, but now we see.” Is that you today? Maybe you’re rejoicing because you feel you have found your way home from some far-off wandering. Maybe you feel like part of the 99 who are safe in the Shepherd’s fold.
Or, maybe you feel more lost today. Maybe you feel in need of a Shepherd who drops everything and runs for you. Maybe you’re the umbrella in the lost and found box, waiting to be claimed. Or we may see one of our children or grandchildren, lost and seeking to be found, unsure of a career, a relationship, or struggling with mental health or addictions. Or we may see an aging parent or grandparent who for our entire lives has been the one who was “found,” but now, in old age, seems lost and absent. Are you feeling lost or found today?

Wherever these people or situations are – in our homes, in our places of work, in our schools or sitting around us in the pews today, God is present, calling the one who is lost to come home, and saying to the rest of us, “Rejoice, because what was once lost is now found.” This seems to be when God is most joyful. And this seems to be quite a different kind of joy than the exuberance of a belly laugh, or the dry wit of a joke, or the seemingly endless possibilities of winning a lottery. There’s nothing in the faith story that says any of those things bring joy. Oh, they may provide “enjoyment” of secular life for a time. But, as Jesus says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15: 7)

And so, like all good things in life, joy doesn’t come easy. As Buechner says, it’s notoriously unpredictable. And if the joy comes only after repentance of loss, then it seems authentic Christian joy probably has to know pain and sorrow first.

Many years ago, a woman in our church shared her experience after the Easter service with me. This woman had lost her mother just a few weeks prior to Easter Sunday. And there she was, sitting in the Easter service surrounded by smiling faces, bright-coloured flowers and glorious music. She had really wanted to come. She had never missed Easter before. But once she sat down in the back corner, she told me she felt like going home. There was no place for her lament. “Perhaps I should have come on Good Friday,” she wondered, “When at least people pretend not to be overly joyful.” But then, during one of those rousing Easter hymns, she happened to look over to the other side of the church. And standing there, holding a hymnbook, was a man she knew had lost his young daughter earlier that year. And the woman thought to herself, “If he can sing those Easter hymns at this time, well, so can I.” The joy of the risen Christ gave her space to express her lament – and then to move into some sense of rejoicing – authentic joy – that never completely forgets the pain. Yes, there was weeping on Easter morning, that most glorious day of joy. Mary was there, shedding tears of joy.

It reminds me of what the famous mathematician Blaise Pascal did. Of course, Pascal was known for math, but what many people don’t know is that he was as much a writer and theologian as a mathematician. People of all walks of life have and continue to experience profound joy in God. In every generation, math and science and faith and spirit have never been at odds with one another. They are interwoven in the gift we all call “life,” and the inevitability of death. Well Pascal died in 1662. And do you know what they found sewn into his clothes after his death? Pascal – one of the most brilliant mathematicians of all time – had sewn into his clothes a memorial. And it said: “joy, joy, joy, tears of joy!” That’s God’s grace recognized – that someone on their death bed would recognize that authentic, everlasting joy often rests just behind the tears.
So come and experience the joy of the Spirit – the joy that is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it. Rejoice in the sweet flavours of this summer. Maybe, by Christmas, you’ll be pouring it all over ice cream and sponge cake. And God will be joyful that you have found authentic, Christian joy.

Let us pray:
O joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain that morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that liftest up my head, I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead, and from the ground there blossoms red life that shall endless be.