1 John 1.1-4
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Graveside services makes me nervous.
If we have a funeral at the church, most things can be taken care of and are under control. We can set the temperature, clear the parking lot, and witness to the ways that God moved through the person who we are celebrating.
But when you’re at the grave, things are often out of your control. You might be driving in the sunshine to the cemetery but the minute you arrive clouds appear and rain begins to fall. You might have your bible opened to a particular passage and the wind will begin to howl and when you look down you’ve gone from John to Nehemiah. And personally, I’m usually pretty nervous about getting lost so I always make sure to arrive exceptionally early.
A young pastor was once asked to do a graveside service for an older man from the community who had no friends and no family. The pastor was unable to speak with anyone about the man’s life, but he wrote a funeral sermon nonetheless, and when the appointed day arrived he got in his car and headed out for the country cemetery out in the middle of nowhere.
He drove and drove, and though he did not want to admit it to himself he was lost. He tried searching for the address on his GPS device, and he even stopped at a gas station to ask for local directions and he eventually arrived an hour late.
As he drove across the open landscape the hearse was nowhere in sight, the backhoe was next to the open hole, and he was a group of men under the shade of a nearby tree. The young pastor parked his car and walked to the open grave and discovered the the lid was already in place and dirt had already been sprinkled across the top.
Feeling incredibly guilty for being late the young man began preaching a sermon like he had never done before. He put every ounce of his faith into his words to proclaim all that God had done in the world from creation to resurrection.
When he returned to his car, sweating from his passionately delivered sermon, he overheard one of the men under the tree saying to the others, “I’ve been putting in septic tanks for years and I ain’t never seen anything like that.”
When you laugh in church does it feel joyful? Does anything about worship make you experience joy?
When I read through the beginning of 1 John this week I felt particularly convicted by the final verse: We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. I started wondering about how we experience joy in our faith, and if we experience it at all.
So I decided to pick up my phone and start calling people to ask them about church, worship, and joy. I started by calling friends of mine who no longer attend church and I was not surprised to discover that most of them explained that they stopped attending because church stopped bringing them joy. Many of them said that they often left church feeling bad about themselves and they had a harder and harder time going back each week. At some point church was joyful, but now the joy was gone.
Next I picked up our church directory and started making other phone calls asking everyone the same question: What is the most joyful part of worship for you? From the moment you arrive on Sunday morning till you go home, when do you feel joy? Here are some of the responses I received:
“I feel joy when I see people that I know and love. It’s the fellowship, I guess, but at the same time I can be joyful during the music, whether its the choir or when we are all singing a hymn together.”
“There is nothing more joyful than receiving communion and praying at the altar afterwards. Whatever I have going on in my life is remarkably replaced with a feeling of joy when I feast at God’s table and pray at God’s altar.”
“Having a community makes me feel joyful, when someone takes the time to come find me and seek me out to check on me. That’s when I experience joy in church.”
“When I see children in line for communion I am struck by the joyfulness of God’s grace. I remember that Jesus called the children to himself, and when they are invited to the table it makes me so happy.”
“I absolutely love hugging all the people who come to church, if I can make them happy I am filled with nothing but joy.”
“The height of joy for me happens when I get to serve communion. I love to receive it, but when I get to hold the cup I am actually sharing Jesus with another person and we become connected.”
“Taylor, you know that I can’t sing worth a bean, but when we sing hymns together I feel joyful, I find myself smiling simply because I am singing my faith.”
Now, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when, after polling a number of people from our community, no one said that they experienced joy during the sermon! But then again, the point of a sermon is not to just make us feel joyful but it is to proclaim God’s Word and sometimes we need to leave feeling convicted, but that’s for another sermon.
If John was writing to a community for the purpose of making their joy complete, then we should be doing church and discipleship in such a way that our joy may be complete with one another. The church can be many things for many people but if there is no joy in our faithfulness then it will become harder and harder to give ourselves to Jesus.
While phoning people this week I also asked them a second question: Where have you seen God’s majesty?: Here are some of the responses I received:
“The natural beauty in the world. Like, if I’m walking through the woods and I start to see the trees swaying together, it feels like God’s majesty.”
“In creation. Walking outside and looking up at the stars or the clouds. When I run my fingers through a cold stream or drag them across rough bark.”
“When I hold a child in my arms and look into the depth of their eyes I catch a glimpse of God’s majesty.”
“In the sunrise every morning. When I see greenery and new life during the spring. I see God’s majesty through the beauty of the earth.”
Most of the responses were completely beautiful and inspiring. But not a single person said they saw or felt God’s majesty in church.
At first I was frightened by this realization. If people are not experiencing God’s majesty in a place like this then we are in trouble. But the more I thought about it, it began to make sense…
Most of the time that I discover God’s majesty it is in the world outside of this building at 11am on Sunday mornings. However, it is precisely at a time and place such as this that I learned to speak the language of faith, to look at the world through a faithful perspective, and use my hands and feet to experience God’s majesty. Church, at its best, is the place where we learn a new language to speak truthfully about God’s majesty in the world. If and when we experience joy in our discipleship we begin to remember that God is the one from whom all blessings flow perfecting the saints below.
The whole point of 1 John is to proclaim the message of the reality of God revealed in Christ. As a church we proclaim all that God has done so that we can recognize God’s signature and handiwork in the world around us. Faithful worship equips us to feel God’s majesty during our lives.
Whatever messages and proclamations we make on Sunday mornings are meant to be felt and experienced on a personal level if it is to bear fruit in the world. If what we do here does not take hold in the days in between services than we are no better than words on a piece of paper. It is our personal experience of God’s majesty that seals the truth of what we hold dear and claim as truth.
I experience God’s majesty whenever I work with youth, and particularly during mission trips. The first days are usually filled with painfully shy teenagers who are wrestling with their own identities and what it means to be in relationships with others. They work and work and by the end of the week they are scattered throughout the larger community with all of their new brothers and sisters in faith. I see how far they move from the first forced conversations to the natural dialogue that flows from their souls.
Yet, I can only claim that as God’s majesty because scripture and worship have taught me to see it that way. I read stories about the Israelites leaving Egypt and growing into a new nation together. I hear about the disciples embarking in a new community after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And then I realize I am seeing the same thing happening again, and that God is the one who makes all of this possible.
I feel the greatest amount of joy during worship when we celebrate communion with each other. For years I dreamt about what it would mean to be a pastor, from the hospital visits, to the funerals, to the weddings, and to worship. But the thing that I was most excited about was breaking bread at the table together. When I see people lining up with their hands outstretched I am overfilled with joy because I see faithful people living out their faith. From those who are young in their faith to those who have journeyed to the table many times before, I feel the greatest sense of joy when we feast together.
Yet, I can only claim that as joyful because scripture and worship have taught me to see it that way. I read about the disciples gathering in the upper room with Jesus the night before he was betrayed. I hear about the new community of faith gathering together to break bread after Jesus was resurrected to continually remember all he was willing to do. And then I realize that I am seeing the same thing happen again, and that God is the one who makes all of this possible.
Joy is supposed to motivate our lives as Christians. Christ sought out people in Galilee who were lost and alone and brought them a sense of newness and joy. It is with thankful and joyful hearts that we may enter into the world to be Christ for others.
Joy is that tingling sensation we feel when we begin to grasp our part in God’s cosmic plan. Whether in the midst of a hymn or a hug we live into the Lord’s divine reality and we witness his kingdom on earth.
Joy is that beautiful moment when our cheeks begin to hurt because we have been smiling so much. As we gather for worship we can reach out to strangers and friends to demonstrate how wonderful they are to us and to God.
We spend time together as a community every week to worship so that our joy may be complete.
Joy is worth working for because if we’re not feeling joy in our discipleship, then what’s the point? Amen.