Regarding Joy… and also Ren n' Stimpy: A Sermon

The following is a transcript of a sermon delivered to the local Church of Christ over the summer of 2014.

When I was pondering the topic of Today’s sermon, I texted Lee and asked him what he thought I should do. His response was, ‘why don’t you preach about ‘the joy of salvation?’

Now this presents a bit of a problem for me. Generally, preaching about joy and God’s love someone else’s job, not mine.

The reason I’ve never been that adept at preaching about love and joy and sunshine is because I am a product of my environment.  See, in the South, talking about joy isn’t the preacher’s job; it’s the choir’s job. We southern folk kinda do this ‘good cop’, ‘bad cop’ thing that’s designed to keep you spiritually off-kilter. The service opens with rousing songs about ‘glory land’ and ‘the blessed shores of Canaan’ and the ‘chariot that’s coming for to carry me home’. And just when you feel all hyped up about heaven … the choir sits down. And when they do, up comes this black-clad ghoul of man and he drones on and on about hell, and damnation. And just when you’re so scared that you’re about ready to wet the pew, up comes the choir again. I got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in …

You dig?

And I’m assured that this how it’s supposed to work, since this is the ‘authorized New Testament pattern of worship’ that the Lord’s Restoration Church rediscovered in the 1950’s.

But that’s why I’ve never been good at preaching about joy; because I was always the preacher, and never a part of the choir. But be that as it may, Lee presented me with a bit of challenge, so here we go: ‘The Joy of Salvation’. But before we dive into the topic, let’s have a word of prayer…

What does it mean to have the ‘joy of salvation’?

For starters, that statement is so archaic that it’s pretty well lost any meaning. A dear friend of mine who leads a church in North Carolina says that language is like a pair of underwear. When it’s new, it’s stretchy and it’s comfortable and it fits well. But when it gets old, it sags and it’s uncomfortable and it just doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. The English language is like that, particularly in a religious context.

For instance, how many of us use the following words outside of a religious context: ‘Faith’, ‘repent’, ‘baptize’, or ‘communion’? We don’t, and consequently a lot of us are kind of fuzzy as to what those words actually mean. If we were to replace those words with ‘trust’, ‘reform’, ‘immerse’, and ‘memorial’, things would probably make a lot more sense to a lot more people.

The phrase ‘the joy of salvation’ has been bandied about so much that few of us stop to think about what it means. So let’s break this down: What is salvation?

The Greek word for ‘salvation’ is soteria, a word that means ‘rescue’ or ‘safety’. It’s related to the word soter, which means a deliverer or ‘savior’. I bring that up because ‘savior’ is another one of those pesky ‘underwear’ words that no one really understands anymore.

To receive salvation is to be rescued. But rescued from what? In order to understand that, we actually to leave this awkward ‘joy’ topic for a moment and revisit a topic with which I’m much more familiar: Hell.

I’ve done lengthier sermons on this before, but I’m gonna put it in a nutshell today: Turn with me, if you would, to Mark chapter 9, starting in verse 42:

“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched —44 where

         ‘ Their worm does not die

         And the fire is not quenched.’

45     And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched —46 where

         ‘ Their worm does not die

         And the fire is not quenched.’

47     And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire —48 where

         ‘ Their worm does not die

         And the fire is not quenched.’

“For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.

Notice that Jesus uses the phrase about worms and fire three times. What he’s referring to is the ancient-world habit of throwing all of their garbage outside of the city walls and burning it. This cosmic landfill that Jesus calls Hell is so awful that the fire never goes out because it’s never finished burning up all the garbage. And the worms don’t die because they have an endless food supply of sin and awfulness.

Damnation is the opposite of salvation. We have all sinned, and we know this instinctively. We cannot stand before Almighty God stained with that sin; we know this instinctively as well. And we can’t offer ourselves as atonement for our sins because we’d be a flawed sacrifice because we’ve sinned. Without a third-party soter, or deliverer, we’re only fit for the great cosmic landfill.

With said deliverer, we receive soteria, or ‘rescue’. Let’s look at it another way: Turn with me to Colossians 2, starting in verse 8:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

That phrase ‘record of debt’ is interesting. In Greek it’s cheriographon to dogma, literally the ‘writing of law’. Some translations say ‘written charge’, or ‘handwriting of ordinances’. After a fairly exhaustive study, the best translation I can think of for ‘record of debt’ is ‘arrest warrant’. In the Greco-Roman world, if somebody brought you a cheriographon to dogma, you’re in trouble and somebody wants to talk to you … more’n likely a magistrate.

What Paul meant by saying that Jesus cancels the ‘written charge’ is this:  in Christian Baptism you get a free pass, spiritually speaking. No one’s coming after you anymore.

Lemme tell you a story. When I was around eighteen or nineteen, I got into a lot of trouble. Nothing terrible, mind you, certainly nothing worthy of any weird registry or anything like that … just the usual string of silly mistakes that a lot of young men fall into.

Eventually, my buddies and I attracted the notice of the Camden County Sheriff’s Department in North Carolina. The only thing that saved my bacon was that I lived in Virginia; it’s very difficult to investigate someone when they live in the next state over … but several of my Carolinian friends did end up getting busted.

For years, every time I went to North Carolina I was looking over my shoulder. Is today the day I find out that they actually do have a warrant out for me? Is today the day that they get me? That’s not a good feeling!

But in America, virtually all offenses except for murder and certain types of abuse have a statute of limitations on them. In other words, if oh-so-many years go by after a crime and the police have yet to find sufficient evidence to file a charge, they have to drop it. They can’t make you look over your shoulder forever.

By the time I hit my mid-twenties, the statute of limitations had expired on everything I’d been involved in. Let me tell you, I have never felt freer in my life! I felt like this huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I’d messed up, for sure, and I deserved at least some sort of consequences, but it wasn’t gonna happen. I was off the hook: the legal system had given me soteria: Salvation.

So that’s what salvation means, in the Biblical sense. We earned ourselves a place in the great cosmic dumpster fire, and we had an outstanding arrest warrant. But Christ canceled the warrant with His death, and receiving his salvation by faith in baptism keeps any more arrest warrants from being filed. 

But I said that today’s topic was ‘the joy of salvation’, yes? The ‘salvation’ part of that phrase is fairly elementary, but for a ‘doom n’ gloom’ guy like me the ‘joy’ part is harder to figure out.

Let’s look at some passages of scripture where the word ‘joy’ is actually used. I always place a great deal on context, so I will tell you up front: These passages of scripture are completely unconnected. We’re just looking for uses of the word ‘joy’.

1 Chronicles 15:16: David also commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brothers as the singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy.

That passage is from the Old Testament, originally rendered in Hebrew.  I can’t make heads or tails of Hebrew and I’m too dumb to try. So what I did is I went to the Greek version of the Old Testament, the version that was actually quoted by Christ and His Apostles. The Greek rendering of the word ‘joy’ there is euphrosune. The word has a distinctly emotional connotation, and it actually is the root of the English word ‘euphoria’.

Let me see if I can give you an illustration of what euphrosune actually means. Y’all remember a cartoon from the nineties called Ren and Stimpy? If you’re my age you watched it when you were little. If you’re an old crisper like Lee, your kids watched it. Anyway, Ren was a Chihuahua, and Stimpy was cat. And whenever something would excite Stimpy, he’d dance this goofy little jig and he’d sing ‘happy happy/ joy joy/ happy happy/ joy joy …’ That’s euphrosune: A euphoric mental state that leads to outbursts of goofiness.

That’s one definition for the word ‘joy’. Joy can be a hyper-excited state of mind, a state of mind that is not so much logical as it is instinctual. Think of King David stripping down to his skivvies and dancing like a loon in 2 Samuel 6. That’s euphrosune joy.      

Now let’s look at 1 Chronicles 16: 27: Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his place. The word joy there is the Greek kaukhema.  That word can be either positive or negative, depending on the context.  It can mean to ‘boast’, or it can mean to ‘glory’. Let’s look at another use of the same word to get a better idea of what it means. Let’s go to Romans 2:17: But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God…

The word for ‘boast’ there is kauchaomai, the same word used in 1 Chronicles 16;27, albeit in a slightly different tense.

Basically, to take ‘joy’ in something could mean to give credit to that something. Whether you are boasting or glorying, you are giving the credit to someone else.        

So to have joy could mean to be euphoric, or it could mean to simply pass along the credit for something. Now let’s look at Romans 12:12: Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

The word ‘rejoice’ there is chairo, which means to be cheerfully happy. Not euphoric, mind you. You’re not dancing around going happy happy/ joy joy. You’re just … content.

These passages I’ve chosen were chosen at random, but there is one letter in the New Testament that is known as the ‘joy epistle’. It’s Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, and it’s a letter that was so powerful that it was plagiarized almost in its entirety by Polycarp decades later, and re-circulated from there.

The context of Philippians is … well, Paul was in the slammer, chained to a wall. This context is given to us in Philippians 1:3-13: I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy,5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

12               I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

Now you notice in some of the examples I’ve given you regarding the word ‘joy’, I just gave you the definition of the Greek word. But here’s the thing about scripture. God will never leave you hanging an entire point of doctrine based on a single word. For instance, the word ‘baptize’ means ‘immerse’. Inarguable point. But for those who question this, scripture tells us that Phillip took the Ethiopian into the water. That John baptized in the Jordan because there was much water there. Sometimes if you wanna know what a word means in scripture, you don’t just look up the word in the concordance. You read a story, and it’s less likely that you’re gonna make a doctrinal mistake that way.

So let’s take a good, hard look at Paul’s story, shall we? We’ll be starting in Philippians 1:18: Yes, and I will rejoice,19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith,26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

27               Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I had and now hear that I still have.

            So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12               Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

14               Do all things without grumbling or questioning,15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

Let me give you a reality check here. Paul was IN JAIL!!! The only letters we have of Paul’s are the ones that the Holy Spirit allowed to transcend time and decay, the ones that were divinely capable of changing lives. But who are we kidding?! Paul was really good friends with Priscilla and Aquila. And I’ll bet you my next paycheck that at least once they got a letter like this: ‘Dear Priscilla and Aquila. Yep, they caught me again. I was preaching at the temple, and the centurion beat me half to death with the butt of his sword. Yeah, it kinda hurt. Anyway, I only lost two teeth this time. They got me chained up now. I was asleep when they threw my bread under the door, so the rats ate it all. My cellmate’s crazy. I thought he had a demon so I tried to cast it out, but it looks like he’s just crazy after all. Anyway, miss you guys. Best Regards, Paul.’

Philippians was written not from the point of euphrosune joy. Paul was not dancing around his cell. Honestly, I doubt that it was even written from a perspective of chairo joy; I’m not sure how cheerful you can be when you’re fighting with the rats for your dinner. Paul was not euphoric, and I seriously doubt that he was cheerful.

And Philippians gives us a whole new spin on the words ‘joy’ and ‘rejoice’.  One of my favorite books ever, one that I’ve read a dozen times over, is Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass. The book just has this madcap genius to it that never gets old. I remember this one passage in which Alice is having a conversation with a gnat, of all things, and the gnat asks her this: ‘what sort of insects do you rejoice in?’ To which Alice replies, ‘I don’t rejoice in insects at all, because I’m rather afraid of them …’

And in this exchange Lewis Carroll gives us a similar definition for ‘rejoicing’ that Paul does. To rejoice in something is to move toward it, and to cling to it no matter what. Alice didn’t rejoice in insects because she ran away from them, but Paul rejoiced in his salvation because he ran toward it. Paul actually admits to having suicidal thoughts in Philippians, but Christ is the one thing he held onto, no matter what.

And I think that’s the last and most important definition of ‘joy’: What you find joy in is the thing that you turn to when everything else has failed you. You don’t have to be euphoric. You don’t have to be cheerful. Jeremiah was ‘the weeping prophet’. Jesus was ‘the man of sorrows’. Your eternal salvation is not determined by your mood, and thank God for that!

If anyone would know that, it’s me. I’ve been suicidal. I’ve had alcohol issues. I’ve cheated death on several occasions. I’ve been divorced, and psychologically unstable at a number of times in my life. I’m not euphoric. I ain’t always cheerful, either. But at the end of the day, God has still graced me with the ability to look toward Him for comfort. I look at my past and I see ruin. I look at America’s future and I see martial law, economic collapse, and death. (I’m not trying to spark a political debate here, mind you. I’m just saying that’s how I see it.) It takes all of my will to look past the bleak future I see in this life, so that I can embrace the afterlife beyond … but I can nevertheless do it. And that ability is one of the very definitions of ‘joy’.

Some things in Christianity are inarguable, and changeless. You wanna be a Christian? You have to believe that Jesus Christ is the manifestation of God in the Flesh. You have to be willing to move past the sins of your past. You have to be immersed in water to wash away your sinful state, and you have to do your best to live as a Christian. Those rules are changeless, ageless, and not subject to debate. You either accept them or you live outside of Christ. It’s that simple.

But not everything’s that way. Some things in our faith are subject to interpretation, to individual understanding and practice. When we use the phrase ‘the joy of salvation’, the word ‘salvation’ is an inarguable point. We were sentenced to hell, and Christ saved us from it. Pretty simple.

The word ‘joy’ is not so concrete. Some of us will be euphoric. Some of us will be content. Some of us will keep our pointing finger straight up, making sure that Jesus gets the credit for everything that we do.

And some of us will be like me, hanging onto hope by our fingernails, trusting in Heaven when our entire future on this world looks like a living hell. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you define the word joy, because scripture itself defines it fifty ways from Sunday.

Define the ‘joy’ however you will, and then live for it! Take joy in your salvation, however you understand the phrase.

That’ll be it from me, unless anyone has an accusation of heresy. (Someone? Anyone?  Gonna get me one of those someday …)

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