Joy Is A Five Letter Word
The Gospels tell us that many times Jesus went apart for private times, times when He walked the Palestinian valleys alone.
Some people have suggested that He did this in order to be able to shed tears without anyone being aware of His weeping. Now, there is no doubt that our Lord bore within Himself deep sadnesses. But, in my reading of the Scriptures, I find Him weeping quite openly. He did not hesitate to cry at the tomb of His good friend, Lazarus. He did not hesitate to shed tears over the city that He specially loved, Jerusalem. So it is difficult for me to imagine that those times of separation were principally for the expression of sadness.
There are other people who declare that He went apart in order to release His anger. But once again as I read the Bible I find that our Lord never hesitated to express His feelings of anger. He told the Pharisees exactly what He thought of them in no uncertain terms—and His words crackled with fiery anger. He didn’t hesitate to make a whip of leather cords—and in what must have been one of the supremely chaotic scenes in all of Scripture, He angrily drove the moneychangers out of the Temple. So I don’t believe that Jesus thought it necessary to go apart in order to blow off steam to release any pent-up anger.
There are yet others who say that Jesus went apart to pray. Certainly at times, that was true. Yet I would remind you that when His prayer experience was most intense—there in the Garden of Gethsemane when He prayed and the agony of it caused Him to sweat great drops of blood—in that moment of deepest prayer, He did not want to be alone. He begged three of His disciples to stay awake with Him. So I don’t think that Jesus always went apart in order to pray.
I want to go out on a long enough limb to suggest to you that Jesus sometimes went apart in order to laugh. That’s right, to laugh. I think He sometimes went off to laugh because He knew that we might tend to misunderstand His magnificent mirth.
Please hear what I am saying. I am not suggesting here that Jesus was flippant, laughing off life’s tragedies and sadnesses. Not at all. For you see, a person who had a genuine sense of joy in life also has a genuine sensitivity to sadness. I am convinced that Jesus was the brightest, sincerest, happiest soul who ever lived—and yet precisely because there was such joy in His experience, He could feel more deeply the hurt of those about Him. Isn’t it true that when you want to lift your spirit, you don’t turn to someone like Bob Hope who entertains for only a moment. Rather you turn to the person who has known sadness and come through it with radiance. That’s the kind of person who attracts us.
So it was with Jesus. Yes, Jesus wept. Yes, He knew heartache, and even heartbreak. But there was about His life always a deep-down sense of joy. And I would go on to suggest to you that it was Jesus’ joy that attracted His disciples to Him. We see that most clearly, I think, in the Upper Room. There, with one friend, Judas, having already betrayed Him, and with the reality of His own death staring Him in the face, there, Jesus said to His disciples: “These things have I spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” That’s what drew those men to Him and that’s what we find so attractive about Him, too—the pure, limitless, unbounded joy that pervaded His every living moment—the joy of Jesus Christ the Lord.
We can illustrate this from a variety of perspectives.
Look for example, at His speech. How does He describe Himself? He calls Himself a bridegroom. My friends, men are surely happier when they are about to be married. When the bride begins her walk down the aisle, there is always a look of sheer joy on the bridegroom’s face. And Jesus says: “That’s what I am like—a bridegroom!”
Jesus was a cartoonist with words. It’s tragic that we have become so familiar with His words that their humor often runs right by us. That fact so disturbed Elton Trueblood that he wrote a whole book called The Humor Of Christ—a book which begins like this: “The widespread failure to recognize and to appreciate the humor of Christ is one of the most amazing aspects of the era which is named for Him.” Trueblood is right on target. For instance, it’s absolutely hilarious when He talks about the Pharisees meticulously wiping out the cup to make sure there’s not a speck of dust left in it, and then they strain the water over and over to make sure they don’t swallow a gnat. Then the punchline. Jesus says that they swallow a camel! Do you get the picture? First, that protruding mouth with great moving lips and gurgling sounds coming from the throat. Then that long hairy neck. Then all of that vast expanse of flesh. One jump. Then the second hump. Four spindly legs. Eight knees—every camel has eight knees. Finally those huge padded feet. Why, His audience must have dissolved in laughter at the very thought of it. He was indeed a cartoonist with words.
Or what about the children? They flocked to Him. They played with Him and He with them. They sat in His lap and pulled on His nose. They were not at all afraid of Him. In fact, they were so drawn to Him that on one occasion, the disciples tried to chase them away. And surely you would agree that children are not attracted to a stern, hard-boiled, joyless personality.
Something else. By His divine nature, He had to be filled with joy and humor. Elton Trueblood notes forty different places in Scripture where God is described as laughing or expressing humor. Now God created everything that lives and breathes. But of all those things that live and breathe, only one is able to laugh. We, humans, can laugh—and we are made in the image of God. So Jesus, to be true to His divine nature, had to be filled with joy. That’s what drew those disciples to Him—it was His magnetic joy.
Understand, please, that the joy of which I speak runs far deeper than laughter. Do you remember Freddie Prinze, the comedian, who took his own life in a fit of despair a few years ago? The Associated Press account recorded the event this way: “When the final crisis came, a nurse at the intensive care unit pounded on his chest and cried: ‘Hang on, the world needs all the laughter it can get.’ ” Well, I wouldn’t argue that point. Yes, the world needs all the laughter it can get, but laughter is not enough. Laughter was not enough to keep Freddie Prinze alive. No, what we need is that sense of a great deep-down joy—a joy that thrives even in times of difficulty—the joy that comes when Jesus Christ dwells at the center of our lives.
We seem to have forgotten that in the church today. We have forgotten that just because Jesus was a “man of sorrows” that doesn’t mean that He was a sorrowful man. We have forgotten His promise that if His joy is in us then our joy will be full. Nietzshe, the atheist, had a valid criticism of the church when he said, “I would believe in the Christian if they looked and acted a little more like people who have been saved.”
Perhaps then, it would be good for us to remember the two basic sources of Jesus’ joy.
First, He found great joy in simple things.
He talked a lot about things like mustard seeds and buds and trees and foxes. He looked out over great cities with awe and surprise. He found timeless truths in the most everyday occurrences. He was constantly fascinated by every inch of life which He encountered.
When was the last time you paused to drink in the warmth of the sunshine or watch the squirrels play in the trees or gaze at a violet dressed in the deepest colors of the night? When did you last walk along the edge of the sea watching the waves roll in and wondering where they had been…or stop to admire the marvelous precision of a good watch or a fine piece of machinery… or take the time to sit down and talk for a while to someone you truly love…or reach out to hold the hand of your mother, your father, your husband, or your wife? My friends, life is a miracle. And it is sheer joy to see it the way Jesus saw it—to take utter delight in life’s simple things.
Secondly, Jesus received His greatest joy from bringing joy to the lives of others.
I think that the life of Walt Disney illustrates the point. I do not presume to know much about his life—and unlike some of you, I never had the privilege of meeting him. But I do know enough about him to know that he apparently took endless delight in watching other people experience joy. He made children forget the burden of their wheelchair. He made grown-ups forget the burden of their skin color. He helped people learn how to laugh again, and in so doing, to be able to cope with life’s tragedies. He taught families the sheer joy of just being together. I suppose he had weaknesses and shortcomings. All people do. But the fact of the matter is that wherever you go in our world today, people recognize his name—and recognize it with pleasure. And I think that’s true because he found his joy in bringing joy to others.
Now what was true of Walt Disney was infinitely more true of Jesus. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to turn Jesus into some kind of divine jester or celestial comedian. Not at all. I preach about His incarnation—how He took upon Himself our human flesh with all of its sufferings and hardships. I preach about his crucifixion—how He climbed up Calvary and died an awful death upon the cross. I preach about His resurrection—how He conquered death and evil for Himself and for all who follow after Him. I preach about these things because we ought to talk about these things and we ought never to stop talking about these things. But don’t you think that every once in a while we ought to stop to think about the sheer joy Jesus found in living?
Let me try to drive this point home.
Do you remember James Russell Lowell’s magnificent poem, “The Vision of Sir Launfal”? As a young knight, Sir Launfal sets out in search of the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. Resplendent in armor, he leaves his castle. But, as he leaves, he encounters a Leprous beggar at the gate crying out for help. Launfal scornfully dismisses the beggar and moves on in his quest. He spends his life searching for the Grail, but he never finds it. So, at the end of his days—tired, old, weak, and lonely—he returns to his castle. The servants there do not recognize him after so long a time, and they refuse to admit him. He turns away from the door a broken man. But there, once again, he sees the same leprous beggar, now more loathsome than before. All Sir Launfal has left is just a crust of bread. But he breaks it in half and shares it with the leper. Then he takes the leper to a nearby stream where they drink from a common cup. And at the moment they drink from the cup, the leper disappears, and in his place stands the Lord Himself. You see, in all his searching, Sir Launfal learned what it means to bring joy to someone else—so that in the moment when he reached out to bring joy to another, he discovered that the other was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ.
So I draw all this together and I am led to say that we need just to learn to take delight in the simple things of life—and we need, second, to learn to find joy in bringing joy to the lives of those about us. For then we shall discover that joy is a five-letter word. It’s spelled