Cultivating the Fruit of Joy: An Act of Defiance in the Midst of a Broken World

By the Rev. Kristen Yates

Sermon originally preached at The Mission Cincinnati on 3/8/2020 as part of the “Beautiful Life: The Fruit of the Spirit for a Worried World”

An audio recording of this sermon is available here.

Good morning friends. It is good to be with you.  So, this morning, we continue our journey through Lent and our exploration of the Fruit of the Spirit.  This morning, we are going to explore joy.

Now if am going to be perfectly honest with you, I must admit that ever since William first asked me to preach on joy some weeks ago, I have felt a bit of trepidation.

Why me?  Who am I to preach on joy?  

You see, as an Enneagram 4, I am wired towards melancholy – I am prone to see the glass half empty, and my natural language is the language of lament, not the language of humor and laughter and cheer, which is why, by the way, I love the season of Lent!

So, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that when the Disney movie “Inside Out”, which creatively personifies emotions inside a little girl’s brain, came out a few years ago, it was the character Sadness who I loved.  She was literally the color blue and she moped about and could barely drag her body off the ground for half of the movie.  And I loved her!  Forget about the character Joy.  It was Sadness who won my heart in that movie.

And then there is the fact that in addition to my wiring, the last decade of my life has been hard in many ways as I have dealt with betrayal, displacement from many moves, grief over lost dreams, and loneliness as I have left my family and friends behind and have had to make friends over and over again.  Over these last years, I have found myself laughing far less than I used to, singing less often (which was always a source of joy), seldom tapping into the silliness that marked my childhood and young adulthood, and just longing for more.  

So, who am I to preach on joy?

Well, I’ll tell you. I am a child of God who is loved and cared for by my Creator, who created me to live a life of unspeakable joy. My wiring and my circumstances may make it more challenging at times to tap into the deep and overflowing river of joy that is available to me in the Holy Spirit, but that river is part of my inheritance.    So, I will spend my life seeking out that joy, speaking about it, and inviting others to be refreshed at the river with me. Friends, let us be refreshed this morning.  Let us pray ……….

So, as I was preparing for this sermon this morning, I realized that one of the difficulties we have as a people when we talk about joy is that people’s definitions and experiences of joy can be so widely different. So, what is joy?  And what awakens joy, or in the words of Marie Kondo, what sparks joy in our lives?

Is joy predominantly a feeling, and if so, howdoes that feeling manifest itself?  In happiness?  Delight? Contentment? Elation? Laughter?

Or is joy more of a choice that one makes in life to view life circumstances in a certain positive way? 

And howdoes joy come about? Does it emerge in relationship to our external circumstances or is it more internally generated?

Well, in answer to all these questions, I want to say “yes, …. but”

The challenge with talking about joy is that it is so robust; it can look and be experienced in so many different ways   Yes, joy can absolutely manifest itself as emotions and feelings or it may not.

Yes, joy can absolutely arise in relationship to our external circumstances – circumstances that are good and right and beautiful, as God would have them to be – or oppositely, joy could emerge as choice made despite our external circumstances.  

And guess what?  Sometimes, people who exhibit joy don’t even know they have it themselves, but others experience it deeply within them. 

So, what is going on here? What is joy? 

Well, the reality is, is that joy is more than feelings or choices or responses to circumstances. Joy can include these things but is so more than that.  Joy is a Fruit of the Spirit – it is a gift of God cultivated internally in our souls that transforms our hearts, our relationships, and our interactions with the world. 

In the words of Dallas Williard, “Joy is not the mere sensation of pleasure — it is a pervasive, constant, and unending sense of well-being that flows from vision, peace, righteousness, and hope.” 

Friends, joy is a condition of our hearts – a deep knowing in our souls that “all is well with the world” – that God loves us and has good plans for us and for our world no matter what our current circumstances are or what the state of the world might be. 

Joy is not fleeting, for the Holy Spirit sows it into our souls and then that seed takes root.   

The question however, is once it is planted, will we cultivate that seed, so that it will grow up, blossom, and bear much fruit, or will we allow that seed to be stunted in growth?

For the reality is friends that we do live in a broken world with great pain and great sorrow, and as we wrestle with this pain, as well as with our own doubts, deficiencies, and overall fragility, we can prevent that seed of joy from growing and blossoming in our souls.  We can indeed stunt its growth.  

So, God calls us to cultivate joy.

And when I say cultivate – I don’t mean that we are to muster up enough strength in our will power so we can buck up and be happy when we are not. We are not just to “put on a happy face”; any of us who have gone through depression or grief know that this is terrible advice. 

I also don’t mean that we are to ignore or stuff our pain.  In the movie “Inside Out”, which I referenced before, there is a moment when the character Joy draws a small circle of sadness and tells Sadness that she should stay inside there and not move.   Heaven forbid that the little girl, whose emotions they control, should feel any degree of sadness.  So, Joy said, “stay put.” But that was not right.

Well, thankfully, by the end of the movie, Joy came to realize just how important Sadness was, and that indeed the two emotions of sadness and joy go together.  In fact, it is interesting because you will notice that the character Joy actually has blue hair, just like Sadness does, an indication that in this world, joy and sadness do actually go hand in hand.

Friends, a mark of our own maturity in the spiritual life is the ability to hold these two together, both joy and sorrow.  Therefore, our quest in life is not to try to pursue happiness while avoiding pain at all costs, for as we know, to follow Jesus does mean to count the cost.  

But on the other hand, it is not our goal either in life to fall into endless despair, cynicism, and unhappiness as we encounter the brokenness of this world.  Rather, we are make room for our sorrow, and then, we are to cultivate joy, the latter which according to Bono, is an act of defiance – an act of defiance in the face of all those powers and principalities that would like to destroy our joy. 

So how do we engage in this act of defiance?

Well, I believe that our readings for today help us understand how to cultivate joy.  In particular, they show us three ways:  

  1. We are to live in God’s presence and embrace his purposes,
  2. We are to notice God’s providential care and give him praise, and 
  3. We are to trust in God’s promises.

Let’s begin with “Living in God’s Presence and Embracing His Purposes.”

If you recall the Psalm we read today, David, the writer of the Psalm, was undergoing some difficult circumstances.  In fact, his enemies were trying to kill him, a fact that is made even more clear in Psalm 17 and Psalm 22. 

Yet, despite his circumstances, David was able to write: “Because he is at my right hand I will not be shaken.  Therefore, my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices.  Then shifting to 2ndperson and addressing God directly, David said “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.”

So regardless of all the crazy things happening around him, David was amazingly able in that moment to cultivate joy.  How, you might ask?  

Well, because He rested in God’s presence.  He knew God was with him, and that alonewas enough to awaken joy.

For you see, God in his very being is joy and is the source of all joy.  The theologian Karl Barth talked about God as being One who is radiant with joy, as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit continually delight in each other, and as this delight overflows outwardly and into the hearts of all who abide in Him. 

So, you see, when we rest in God’s presence, just as David did, God’s river of joy overflows into us, planting a seed of joy in our hearts which then takes root, blossom, and bears fruit.

Unfortunately, however, for too many of us, we have grown up with a picture of a God who is angry, stern, or sorrowful and so when we come before God, we often fail to tap into this river joy that is available to us.  

But what if we understood, friends, that God is actually Joy, and that when God expresses sorrow or anger, that is not who he is at his core, but that is his loving response to the brokenness of the world which is messing with his people, and keeping them from experiencing the fullness of his love and joy?

What if we understood that Jesus, the man of sorrows, was actually Joy Incarnate?  

For good reason, we Christians often focus on the many sorrows Jesus experienced as he was rejected, abandoned, and crucified so that he could bear the sins of the world on his shoulders, but what about everything else that was said about Jesus?  

One pastor who I respect has called Jesus a walking party, who is portrayed in the Gospels as a man who continually drew children and others to himself and who was almost always on his way to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.  Indeed, some of the people who opposed Jesus in his time called him a glutton.  Jesus knew how to celebrate.  Why?  Because he was joy in his very being and he desired to share this joy with others.  What if we came to Jesus knowing this truth?

In the Gospel of John, Jesus said to his disciples, “Abide in my love.  . . .  These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”  (John 15:9-11)

Friends, Jesus desires us to have this joy.   While Jesus knew that his disciples would experience sorrow, he nevertheless fully expected that his disciples would havehisjoy by abiding in his presence and by doing his work, and indeed we see this happening again and again throughout time, starting with Jesus’ first disciples.  Think of the time when the seventy-two returned from their mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God and exorcising demons.  How did they return?  According to Luke, they returned with joy.  (Luke 10:17)

For not only were the disciples abiding in Jesus’ presence, but they were now also embracing God’s will and purposes for their lives by doing ministry in the world.  When disciples do this work, they experienced God’s joy.  

Listen to what Evelyn Underhill has to say about this.  “This is the secret of joy.  We shall no longer strive for our own way but commit ourselves, easily and simply, to God’s way, acquiesce in His will, and in so doing find our peace.”

So, friends, let us rest in God’s presence through worship, solitude, prayer, engagement with Scripture, and in other ways.  And let us embrace his purposes by sharing the Gospel in word and deed.  For when we do, joy will arise in our souls.

But let us do even more than that.  Let us also praise God for his provisions.    

Returning to today’s Psalm, we see that David had another way of cultivating God’s joy in his life. Not only did he rest in God’s presence, but he saw God’s provisions and praised God for them.

David said, “Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure.  The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely, I have a delightful inheritance.  I will praise the Lord, who counsels me.”  Then David went on to affirm that God would not abandon him to the grave but would keep his body secure.

So, in this moment, even with all the crazy things happening in his life, David saw God’s providential care for him and he thanked him for it.   

Such a simple act, but such a powerful one.  

Friends, if we want to cultivate joy in our lives, we have to begin noticing all the ways that God is providing for us. As David acknowledged in his Psalm, apart from God, we have no good thing.  

Unfortunately, however, since the very beginning of time, starting with Adam and Eve, we have been under the misguided notion that God is holding back from us, stingily keeping things from us, therefore, we think we must seek out these good things on our own. Yet, this is lie.  The very opposite is true.

Yes, it may be true because of the brokenness of our world that our lives might not quite look like what we want them to be.  Yes, because of the brokenness of this world, there may be things lacking in our lives, but if we take the time to notice, we will begin to see the thousands of ways, big and little, that God is using to bless us. God is a good giver and is in the business of abundance.

So, it is important for us to take time in our lives to notice all that is good, beautiful and true in the world, to notice all those things that leads to abundance and flourishing in our lives and in the lives of others.  

And it is important to notice all the things that awaken joy in us, whether that is the beauty of nature, art, or music, the joy of creating something new or doing our work really well, or the delights of loving and serving others, or whatever it may be. It is important that we notice them and praise God for them. 

A very essential truth for us to embrace this morning is that God created us for a life of joy – that is what we were made for – so it is not surprising that all these things that I mentioned plus many more can awaken true joy in us.  Yes, as I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, true joy can be awakened by external circumstances, circumstances that are in line with God’s will and are the way the world was meant to be.   It is not a problem if we find happiness and joy in these things (as if somehow delight in these things is unspiritual).  The problem arises when we pursue these things for themselves – when they become idols, rather than good gifts from the Eternal Giver, gifts that are intended to connect us into the very heart and life of God.  

So, friends, let us pay attention to these good gifts that bring us joy and give God thanks and praise. Some practices that can help us embrace these good gifts include slowing downso that we can take notice of the present rather than rushing off to what is next; Sabbath,where we can take a whole day to delight in God and His good creation; examen, where we make room to think through our days and remember the ways God has blessed us; andretreat, where we get away from the bustle of life to rest, reflect, delight, and give thanks.

And that bring us to our final way to cultivate joy:  to trust in God’s promises.

Once again, returning to our Psalm for today, 

In the midst of chaos, David said, 

“For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, nor will You let Your Holy One see decay.  You have made known to me the path of life.  You will fill me with joy in Your presence with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

In this statement, David recognized that God’s providential care extended beyond this life. Ultimately, even if he died, he trusted in God for eternal life – eternal life filled with joy and God’s presence.  Therefore, David could cultivate joy even when his external circumstances were not joy-inducing, even if they caused pain and anguish.  For he had great hope.

And friends, we can do the same.  We can trust in God’s promises as relayed to us through prophets like Isaiah.  We can trust in God’s promises as demonstrated powerfully in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  One day, believers will also be resurrected and will be fully caught up in the in the love and joy of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.   In the New Heavens and New Earth, there will be no tears or pain.  There will instead be an abundance of wholeness, flourishing, and joy.  God created us for such a life as this.

With this truth in mind, we can cultivate joy in the here and the now.  

As Henri Nouwen has said, “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war or even death – can take that love away.”   “Joy is based on the spiritual knowledge that, while the world in which we live is shrouded in darkness, God has overcome the world.” 

Friends, Jesus has truly overcome the world.  A new day has dawned, and one day, all will be as God had originally intended it.  Our pain is temporary, but joy is forever. Thus, we can trust that God is in control of our lives and that ultimately everything is going to be okay.   As Julian of Norwich once said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”    

With this reality in mind, we can therefore choose to cultivate joy in our lives now as an act of defiance in the face of our broken world and as a sign of what is to come.  

Now how should be going about doing this?

Friends, there are many ways we can express our trust in God’s promises and cultivate joy, but one that is particularly helpful is simply engaging in weekly worship and Eucharist, where we come together to remember each week that Jesus has overcome the world through his miraculous Resurrection and that we are be invited to his Table of abundance, love, and joy.  

We can also celebrate the various feast days that are designated in our church calendar, which are meant to gather us together so that we may delight in God and each other. Moreover, we can throw random parties throughout the year, so that we might have fun with friends and families and continually remind ourselves that joy is our destiny.  Joy has the last word.

Friends, in the season of Lent, we place a particular focus on the sacrifices that Jesus has made for the world and for the sacrifices that Jesus is asking us to make as we follow him, and that is good and right.  There is a cost to following Jesus, no doubt, but as we come to a close this morning, I want to remind you of why Jesus did what he did.   

The Author of Hebrews wrote, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)

Did you hear that? For the joy set before him.  That is why Jesus died on the cross, for the joy that would come when He was raised from the dead, his people were also raised from the dead, and his people were then invited to dwell forever into the radiant joy of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  

So, friends, as we live out our lives, let us cultivate joy.  No matter who we are, how we are wired or what are circumstances are, we are loved by God and have been created for immense joy – that is our inheritance, so let’s tap into that deep river of joy available to us in the Holy Spirit and allow the Fruit of joy to grow.  

And now in the words of Paul, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with the hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

[Images in this text come from Walt Disney’s “Inside Out”]