Scripture: Luke 24:45-53
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Startled. Terrified. Frightened. Doubtful. Panicked. Disturbed. Grieving. That is what we are told about the condition of the disciples as this story begins. That is the shape they are in. It’s not a very good place to be, is it? It’s hard to be grieving and heartbroken and afraid and all that goes along with that. These disciples are distraught. Yet in the story, just a short time later, they are filled with joy and praising God. How did that happen?
In the story we are told of Jesus appearing to the group of disciples and showing them his hands and feet, and then eating. He is trying to show that he is not a ghost. That he is real. He then tells them about the fulfillment of the scriptures. Again, he is showing them that this is real like the other things that God has done in the past. Like the promises God has made and fulfilled in the past. It is happening again. And it is real. They are not imagining something or hallucinating. Those references to the hands and feet, eating, and scripture are ways of validating the reality of the disciples.
In the story, Jesus is extending the intentions of God to the present moment and beyond. Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations beginning from Jerusalem. There is more to come and it will start right there, with them. And God will provide the energy and inspiration. All they have to do is wait for it and be obedient. Again, this fits in with their conception of reality as a continuation of what God has done and, they now see, has been doing. They will be part of the unfolding of a new chapter in the fulfilling of the promises of God.
Then in the story, Jesus is taken up into heaven. While this sounds like sci-fi to us, there were several Hebrew Bible figures who were taken up into heaven like Elijah. This concept of being taken up was also part of Greco-Roman literature. The ascent of heroes and immortals was a well-known device. In one example, the nobles exhort the people to revere Romulus, “since he had been caught up into heaven, and was to be a benevolent god for them instead of a good king.” [Plutarch, quoted in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 417] So, in Luke’s story, Jesus was taken up. People had associations with this. This would not have seemed unbelievable. It would have put Jesus in league with other important figures. So being taken up again verified his importance and the reality of the experience.
As the gospel concludes, the disciples are in the Temple in Jerusalem. That is where the gospel began, with Zechariah, Anna, and Simeon, validating the identity of Jesus. And now the disciples are in the Temple again without Jesus. He has left them. Again. He died. Came back. And left again. A cruel joke? Are the disciples distraught and scared? No. We are told that the disciples were filled with great joy. Yes, joy. They were at the Temple night and day filled with joy and praising God. They were continually in the Temple blessing God.
It’s interesting. They still don’t have Jesus. He has been crucified. They have still left home and family. They still may be pursued by Temple authorities or Roman authorities as friends of Jesus. The way the story is told, the outward circumstances of the disciples has not greatly improved. And yet they are overcome with great joy.
Here we see the nature of joy. Jesus promised the disciples joy. And here, they have it. But joy is not based on outward circumstances. Joy is not dependent on being in a comfortable, safe situation. Joy is not defined as the absence of sorrow or pain or heartbreak. Joy can be present, can thrive, can overwhelm, even in difficult circumstances, even through grief and loss.
In the story of the ascension, we see that joy is rooted in deeply held trust in the on-going goodness, steadfast love, and purposes of God. The disciples see a story with intention. They see the arc of redemption. They see that all things are working together in the plan of God. And so they are filled with joy. Their deep conviction is in the larger prevailing dreams of God. Joy is confidence that those dreams will come to fruition and that all of Creation is part of that.
In today’s world, in the church, we may not ascribe to such a traditional view of God. Many no longer think of God as a spirit, some thing some where, making personal interventions in human history. While we may have different conceptions of God, the basics about joy hold fast. Joy is a deep seated trust in the unfolding of Creation and history in a way that is good. Joy encompasses the ability be struck by wonder whatever the circumstances. Joy invites us to be amazed and awed whatever our outward condition. Joy includes a fundamentally hopeful orientation toward the future whatever it may hold. While some may not feel comfortable with the terminology, “God has a plan,” and I am among you, joy invites us to be taken in with wonder and amazement and delighted by the inexplicable, the holy, the sacred, every day; continually to use the word from Luke.
To choose joy as the orientation for our lives does not mean that we will be happy all of the time. It does not mean that we will be materially prosperous. It does not mean that disaster will not befall us or our loved ones. It does not spare us grief. Joy gives us a grounding in something that is greater than ourselves, that is beyond us, yet within us, something that is good and hopeful. It involves a capacity for seeing the love, the connection, the blessing, wherever it may be and then rejoicing, feeling and expressing joy.
This is part of what we do in church each week. We try to tune ourselves in to the greater reality of love and forgiveness and blessing so that we see this in our lives and the world. Here we cultivate the trust that life is fundamentally good, a miracle, really. Here we remind ourselves to be struck by awe and wonder, wherever it may appear. And it will appear. Here we claim and validate our reality in goodness and love. We choose joy!
Sometimes I think that the greed in our culture obstructs the orientation toward joy. We see ads and commercials that tell us life is good when you have a certain cold beer in your hand on a hot day. And that driving a certain kind of car will make it all fine. And that to be beautiful is to be bejeweled. But joy depends on none of those things. It is not dependent on material possessions or wealth. That makes joy countercultural, subversive. It is not something you can buy. But it has great value.
You can be poor and hungry and still have feelings of blessedness and joy. You can be sick and tired and still experience joy. You can be buffeted by grief and still know joy. You can be unemployed and homeless and still find joy in life. And no one can take it away from you. Joy is about spiritual conviction and can’t be controlled by economic conditions or other circumstances. To choose joy is to choose liberation.
An orientation of joy leads to a life of deep contentment and fulfillment. That is what Jesus wants for his disciples, for his followers, for us, and for all people. Joy. Delight in the marvels of life, nature, relationships. Engagement with others in the work of healing and justice and reconciliation. This is the way of joy. And it is open to us all. It is our birthright. And it exceeds explanation or comprehension.
Bill Clarke shares this story from the L’Arche community which includes developmentally disabled adults:
“Claude has the most illogical mind that I have ever encountered so this may be the first and last time that he is ever quoted in a book. He may ask such questions as ‘What time is orange?’ or ‘How was tomorrow?’ But still he does have a wisdom all his own. . . Well, one day Claude was at the beach with Jean-Pierre and several others of the community. The ocean was at low tide so there was an immense stretch of flat, sandy beach. They began making designs in the sand. Claude drew a big circle with a couple of marks inside that could have been facial features. ‘What’s that?’ asked Jean-Pierre. With a big smile Claude replied: ‘It’s Madame Sun.’ ‘That’s good’ Jean-Pierre said, ‘Now let’s see you draw joy.’ Claude took a look around him at the wide beach that stretched out in both directions as far as the eye could see, then turned to Jean-Pierre and said with a huge smile in all seriousness: ‘There’s not enough room!’” Amen!
[Bill Clarke, Enough Room for Joy: Jean Vanier’s L’Arch, A Message for Our Time, quoted in Resources for Preaching and Worship Year C: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers, compiled by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 158]
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.