When we first moved here to South Dakota, Tim and I were entranced with the beauty of the landscape. The wide rolling prairies, the amazing cloud formations, the many ponds and little lakes that popped out from around this curve in the road or from behind that hill, the never-ending horizon which makes you think you can see forever – all were a constant source of delight. We were amazed watching the sun go down, how you can scan from the east and darkness to the west where the final gleams of the sun lingered in the sky. I would look around while I was driving and feel my soul sigh with joy. I asked Tim shortly after we got here if he thought we’d ever take living surrounded by such beauty for granted.Three months later, and I am still in awe of the landscape. I admit, I don’t drive around goggle-eyed, gaping at the landscape. It’s more of a satisfied awareness that beauty surrounds me. I still feel peaceful driving past the rolling pastures on 83 and wait in anticipation for the glimpse of this pretty little pond tucked in away in the hills. I still thrill when I crest the big hill on 1804 and there’s the Missouri River. And I sigh in contentment when I reach the top of Born Hill and the land goes on forever and the sky even farther.
Last Wednesday, the emotion I felt viewing the landscape was neither peaceful nor joyful. It was fear. I watched with dismayed fascination as the plumes of smoke billowed from fires here and there. I lived for 6 years in Southern California and know very well how a small spark in a dry and thirsty land can ravage ravines and threaten homes. At one point, the smoke cloud curled ominously over Pollock, fingers stretched out as if to grab the town.As I watched the smoke billow and the sirens blare and the men going off to fight an unpredictable foe made more dangerous by the buffeting winds, I thought of the irony that this week I was scheduled to preach about joy.
How do I preach joy to you when you’re tallying up the fire losses?
For that matter, how do I preach joy to you when you are battling cancer, or other serious illness?How do I preach joy to you when you are mourning the loss of a loved one? Or the loss of a relationship, job, a dream?
It’s ridiculous to preach joy in the face of loss and uncertainty.
It’s ridiculous to preach joy when you are sitting in prison, possibly awaiting your execution. But that’s what Paul does. “Rejoice in the Lord always!” He’s insistent on joy – “again I say, rejoice!”Not only is Paul joyful, he is content right where he is. Our lectionary reading stops, but Paul says just a few verses later that he has learned to be content with whatever he has. Paul’s joy does not come from what does or doesn’t have. Paul’s joy does not come from where is he is. Paul’s joy does not come from who he is or what he’s done or how spiritually mature he is. Paul’s joy comes from being able to see God’s hand at work in his life, through the good and the bad.
Joy is what we do as Christians. It’s a way at looking at life and remembering who God is and how God “causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called in accordance with his purpose.”[i] Rejoice! Again I say rejoice!It’s a little like looking at the beauty in the landscape around us. There are times when it’s so easy to see God’s blessings that the joy pours out of us. There are times when we are so used to the landscape of good things that flow from our Father’s generous hand that most of the time we go along with joy in the background and then – surprise! – we’re hit again by the wonder of it all and joy bubbles up like a spring. I haven’t been here in winter yet, but I expect that there will be bleak winter days where I will think ahead to the coming beauty of spring. There are times like that, where we look past the bleak hills to the coming green and joy swells in anticipation.
But then there are those times – times when we lose our joy. Times we dwell in fear. Fear is the opposite of joy. Fear is when we let anxiousness reign, when we focus on circumstance, when we forget the divine hand that holds ours along the way.Where do we find joy at that moment?
Paul tells us: take everything to God, both those things that you are thankful for and those things that have your worried. Think on the good things in this world. When you do this, you are open to God’s peace in your life, you allow God’s peace to guard your heart and your mind, you live in the joy of the Lord.
The Psalmist also tells us where to find joy. Today’s psalm is so familiar to us all. It’s often read at funerals, or at times where we feel deep fear. But it’s not really a sad psalm – not a lament. It’s a psalm of joy. Maybe it’s so comforting when we are afraid because every line of the psalm is full of joy and peace and contentment:· God is the good shepherd, leading us to peaceful green meadows with tasty grass and cool still waters refreshing to drink from.
· God is the bounteous host, filling our cup over and over again with all manner of good things until we feel that it can hold no more.
· God is the protector, shielding us from the wilderness and all that would devour us.
· God pursues us always with goodness and mercy – the word is actually steadfast love – welcoming us as honored guests to the feast, inviting us to live in God’s household forever.
Rejoice – don’t worry. Take everything to God with thanksgiving and supplication. The peace of the Lord be with you always. Rejoice.
We read Psalm 23 earlier in worship. I’d like us to read it again, as a prayer. We’ll read one line at a time, with a pause between each line. Take a moment, think about where you have joy and where you have fear. Give thanks for the joy. Give the fear to God.The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake.Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.Surely your goodness and mercy (loving-kindness) shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.[ii]