This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 31.10-31, Psalm 1, James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a, Mark 9.30-37). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, pronouns in Proverbs, misapplied texts, theological thinking, healthy happiness, the realm of wisdom, the possibility of peace, secret applications, the depths of dopamine, and the connection between humility and humiliation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Understanding Mind
1 Thessalonians 5.16-18
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
My son has a penchant for exaggeration.
(He probably gets it from his Father)
We decided to get him a Lego Star Wars Advent calendar in which, every day, he gets to open a new (tiny) lego set that he gets to build after consuming his breakfast. The first week of December resulted in a miniature Razorcrest (from The Mandalorian), Poe Dameron wearing a BB-8 holiday sweater, and many more.
And this morning, after scarfing down his pancakes, he ripped through the package and put together a red Sith Trooper in 7.5 seconds and triumphantly declared, “This is the best Advent ever!” while grinning from ear to ear.
When was the last time you felt truly joyful?
It’s a worthy question for Christian reflection, particularly in a time such as ours – a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the familiar no longer a possible reality.
“Rejoice always!” So Paul implores the church in Thessalonica. Notably, Paul’s call to joy is not a suggestion not merely an opportunity for contemplation, it is a command.
But how can we rejoice (always) when it feels like there’s nothing to rejoice about?
Joy, as we often speak about it, is a feeling. Like my son with his legos, it is a moment of bliss or happiness that leads to some sort of physical reaction like him smiling so much his mouth started to hurt.
But joy, properly understood, is also an expression, a kind of communication. However, it is not simply telling others that you are happy – it is a telling that is also an invitation to share in the telling.
Joy, to put it another way, is meant to be infectious.
At her best, the church is a people who invite each other to rejoice together. It’s why the covenants of marriage and baptism and not for the people getting married or baptized alone – they are a promise made by the community for the community.
We, that is the church, rejoice always, we pray constantly, and we give thanks in all circumstances. Interestingly, for Paul, joy comes first. Unless we are filled with joy we cannot pray and unless we pray we cannot give thanks.
Now, there’s (of course) a potential for a horrendous reading of this command in which Christians, “stay on the sunny side” despite all evidence of the contrary through their lives – like the meme of the dog drinking coffee in a house on fire saying “this is fine.” Rejoicing always, in that way (which is to say: improperly), can be used as the means by which we reject responsibility for others and even for ourselves.
Remember, however, Jesus did not ignore the truth and the brokenness of life – he wept for Lazarus, he turned the tables in the temple, and he was even afraid in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Christians are a people commanded to rejoice not in spite of the world, but simply because we know how the story ends. We can rejoice because we have found what was lost, ourselves.
Our joy is in the cross – a sign to us and to all that God chose to suffer for the sake of the world.
The strange new world of the Bible reveals God’s strange and confounding love for us in spite of us – we open up the pages to discover that God had joy in being one with us and that God took on all the consequences of being one of us; God incarnated love in the person of Jesus Christ for a people not good at loving in the first.
Our joy is inherently Adventen because it holds two seemingly-opposed things together at once – like the already but not yet, the once and future king, the cross and the empty tomb.
Joy, Christian joy, is the joy of knowing what awaits us even in death. And that joy gives us the strength to pray without ceasing and the courage to give thanks for a gift we simply do not deserve.
We have a joy to express and to share because God is coming again, bursting onto the scene like our favorite uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other with no other hope in the world other than to party (read: rejoice) forever and ever.
This is the Good News.
O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
Last night, after we finished dinner, my wife and I got out the Robin costume for our 18 month old Elijah. The Halloween decorations had been up for weeks, we were stocked with candy for the neighborhood kids, and the time had come to begin trick-or-treating. And, wonderfully enough, this was to be Elijah’s first ever outing on Halloween and the excitement was palpable in the air.
However, once we made it outside we realized that no one else was combing the neighborhood. And, not wanting to be that family, we patiently waited in our front yard until we saw at least one other costumed child before we guided Elijah up to our neighbor’s front door. He only made it to ten houses last night but he ran down every sidewalk with the kind of excitement that leaves parents smiling and giddy with joy.
When we returned to our house, we set up chairs in the front yard and waited to pass out candy to kids from the neighborhood. And for the first fifteen minutes Elijah was fine with sitting on my lap, but at some point he remembered that people had strangely handed him pieces of candy and he wanted it. Lindsey and I quickly agreed that it would be fine for him to have one piece of candy (he’s maybe tasted chocolate all of three times in his life) and when he crunched down on his Kit-Kat bar his eyes lit up like fireworks. For the next fifteen minutes all he said was “mmmmmm” and “more.”
In some strange way, the kind of excitement and joy that my kid experienced last night is the same kind of excitement and joy that we are privileged to experience in the church. The fleeting sugar rush that entered Elijah’s blood stream eventually disappeared, but the table that we feast at as a community of faith has an everlasting significance. The hope and wonder Elijah had while walking up to other homes is the same hope and wonder we discover when we actually do the good and hard work of loving our neighbors as ourselves.
The challenge of a holiday like Halloween is that there is so much build-up and when its over, its over. But with God we discover something that is truly good; we find a refuge offered without cost.
We can find happiness in this life through experiences of glee and moments of wonder, we can decorate our homes for all of the pertinent holidays, but true happiness comes when we discover that the Lord is good, and that one holy day with God is more powerful than any holiday.
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.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
The church service went as well as could be expected. The small gymnasium was perfect for the contemporary service setting and most of the chairs were occupied. Like a lot of contemporary services, it began with a succession of three or four songs all focused on praising the glory of God; some of the lyrics included phrases such as: “Your love never fails,” “He’s been so good, so so good to me, Jesus,” and “you are amazing God!” Immediately following the collection of praise songs, there was a time of welcome, a brief reading from scripture, and then a focused sermon with images and themes being displayed on two screens hung from the ceiling.
I don’t remember much about the sermon except for the refrain: “God loves you no matter what!” The preacher’s perfectly executed contemporary outfit (Black Tee-Shirt with Blue Jeans) was matched with a consistently dynamic smile throughout the message. I wanted some of whatever he was having.
After another dose of positive and uplifting music to close out the service, we were all dismissed to re-enter the world. I stood in the back watching the people neatly file out of the gymnasium, observing sporadic examples of fellowship between people. In the corner I noticed an older woman, clearly frustrated with something, and trying to vent her frustrations to those around her. When it became clear that no one was listening to her, I walked over to ask if something was wrong. “I can’t stand services like this!” she nearly shouted, “Its just too happy!” And with that she threw her complimentary coffee in the trash, and left the building.
Have you ever felt that way in worship? Have you noticed the abundance of smiling faces in worship, discovered the overwhelmingly uplifting nature of some hymns, all brought together with a happy and positive sermon delivered with three primary points? Have you ever felt suffocated by the amount of joy that some worship services attempt to produce?
Christian discipleship is not a blindly happy-go-lucky journey. There should be more time and focus in worship devoted to the suffering that is present in each of our lives (however small or large). The psalmist writes, “Out of the depth I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” Sometimes, the most appropriate form of worship is clenching your fists and shouting out those same words.
So, do not be conformed to the ways of so many churches that appear to say that happiness is a requirement for discipleship. If you are deep in one of the valleys of life right now, I encourage you to cry out to God. If you are on one of the mountaintops of life right now, open your eyes to the needs of those around you, and make God’s presence known through your actions.