Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
16 “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.” 17 Then some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying to us, ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” 18 They said, “What does he mean by this ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.” 19 Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’? 20 Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. 22 So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23 On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. (John 16:16-24, NRSV)
Are you happy? When you woke up this morning did you wake up with a smile on your face? And will you be happy tomorrow? What about this time next week? Or this time this year? Will you be happy then? How do you know? Are you happy?
As a pastor I sometimes have access into people’s lives and get to see things others may not see. Often times those are unhappy things. Regularly, people confide in me the pain and struggle they otherwise keep hidden beneath the surface. What strikes me is that many of these people – many of us – can so often hide it so well. On a Sunday morning we all look pretty happy. During this season of the year we’re supposed to look happy. Right? Merry Christmas! You look happy. You do! But are you?
Schroeder says to Charlie Brown one day, “I guess I won’t be seeing you until Monday, Charlie Brown, so have a happy weekend.” Well, Charlie Brown isn’t sure what to make of this. “Incidentally,” he asks, “what is happiness?” Happiness is a warm puppy, right? Isn’t that what Charlie Brown himself used to tell us?
I’ve heard happiness defined this way: getting all the right circumstances in all the right places. Things at home are great – your marriage is solid the kids are on track. Work is satisfying and fruitful. Physically, you’re pain free and healthy. The weather is perfect. You’re sleeping well, enjoying exercise, in the middle of a great book. Your team is on a win streak. Gas prices are down. Green lights all the way to work. How could you not be happy?
So let me ask you, how often in your life do you get all the right circumstances in all the right places? And when it happens, do you ever feel a bit like one of those jugglers trying to keep all the plates spinning in the air at the same time. All it takes is for one of those plates to fall and happiness is shattered. And that’s the problem with happiness. It’s very fragile.
A couple years ago there was an essay in the NY Times by Amy Bloom entitled “The Rap on Happiness.” Listen to a portion of what she wrote.
Happiness is like beauty: part of its glory lies in its transience. It is deep but often brief…To hold happiness is to hold the understanding that the world passes away from us, that the petals fall and the beloved dies. No amount of mockery, no amount of fashionable scowling will keep any of us from knowing and savoring the pleasure of the sun on our faces or save us from the adult understanding that it cannot last forever.
We know this about happiness and yet we pursue it anyway. As Americans, in fact, we have declared our independence to pursue happiness. It’s our right, our obligation, even though we know that when we come to possess happiness it will not be long before it slips away again.
Here’s something you may not know. The Bible doesn’t talk much about happiness, at least happiness as I just defined it. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of even one place in the scriptures where we are encouraged to try to make sure that all of our circumstances are all lined up in all the right places so that we go through the day, every day, with a smile on our face. You might hear that sort of talk lots of other places these days, just not in the Bible.
Instead of happiness, the Bible speaks about joy. A lot. The great theologian Karl Barth once commented, “It is astonishing how many references there are in the Old and New Testaments to joy.” Indeed! “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth!” (Psalm 100:1) “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) From cover to cover the Bible urges us to live joy-filled lives. We can’t always be happy. Nobody is. We are urged, however, to always be joyful which means, of course, that happiness and joy must not be the same thing.
One of the places the scriptures speak of joy is the passage we just read from John 16. The context here is the Last Supper. Jesus is gathered with his disciples the night before the crucifixion. It’s a historic moment. Jesus will not share another meal with his friends and so he takes this opportunity to prepare them, as best he can, for what is to come. In doing so he pulls no punches. He tells them that he is about to leave them. He makes clear that they are about to weep and mourn. Happy days are not to follow.
One of the many things I really appreciate about the Bible is that it never candy-coats life. Jesus himself regularly told his followers, even promised his followers, that life following him would not always be happy. If you ever got the idea that being a Christian meant living a constantly happy, pain-free, upbeat life, you did not get that idea from Jesus.
Well, this is not what the disciples wanted to hear. Remember, these are men who had left literally everything to follow Jesus. They bet their lives on this man being the Messiah, the one who would deliver them. And now he is telling them he is leaving and that weeping and mourning are in store. No wonder they’re desperate. And maybe you know what this is like. Maybe you have also at some point given your life to following Jesus but along the way since discovered that life as a Christian has not become as easy and happy and carefree as you once imagined it might. All this is made worse when we look around the world and so often see people who aren’t Christians living what appears to be very happy lives. What’s that about? Is it possible that all the circumstances of my life might actually line up better if I weren’t following Jesus?
If that’s where you find yourself today than Jesus’ words here are for you. “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy…You have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Listen to what Jesus is saying. Jesus wants to give his disciples a joy that is so durable nobody will ever be able to take it away from us. It is the desire of our Father in heaven that we would be people of enduring joy. And maybe you hear that and, in the spirit of Charlie Brown, you want to ask, “Incidentally, Lord, what is joy?”
I’m glad you asked. Let me say a few things this morning about Christian joy, a few things which especially distinguish joy from happiness.
To begin with, joy is not tied to circumstances. Again, happiness depends on lining up all the right circumstances in all the right places. Nothing wrong with being happy. It’s great to be happy. We just have to realize that it’s fickle. One day I’m happy, the next day I’m not. Joy, on the other hand, is not like this. Joy runs deeper than circumstances.
Imagine a violent storm on the ocean, the sort of storm we just saw blow through here this week. When a storm like that is moving across the ocean the surface of the water is tumultuous. And if you happen to be in a sailboat in the middle of the ocean when such a storm is passing through there will be no smooth sailing for you. Your boat might be capsized. At the very least you’ll be blown off course. Your ride across the top of the water is absolutely subject to the weather around you. If, however, you happen to be in a submarine beneath the waves of that same ocean, the weather up top cannot blow you off course. It might be a hurricane up there. It might be all blue skies and sunshine. Either way, you hold your course through the water as the storm passes by above.
James 1:2 famously says, “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy.” How can this be? If you’ve just endured some great trial or loss in life there is no way to be happy? It’s not natural or even healthy to be happy when life is hard. Even Jesus wept at the graveside of his friend. But joy is not happiness. Happiness floats on top of circumstances. Joy runs beneath. That’s because joy is rooted in the parts of life that are not subject to circumstances. Joy is rooted in the truth beneath the waves that there is a God in heaven who has come to us in the person of his Son, Jesus, who has died to forgive our sins, who has risen from the grave to conquer death, and who promises us that even though the world is broken and in decay for a time, he has come into the world, and is coming into the world even now, to set all things finally and forever right. It doesn’t’ matter what the weather is up top. This truth runs deep and if our faith is rooted in this truth then the waves will never be able to blow us off course.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “A person is fully human when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.” We all grieve, but it is joy, and not grief, which is the defining mark of the Christian. He went on, “Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labor by which all things live.”
This joy which is not tied to circumstances is rooted in hope. Since we know that the story ends well, we don’t despair along the way even when things appear bleak.
Many of us celebrated this fall when the San Francisco Giants won their third World Series championship in five years. As challenging as their playoff run was this year, however, it was nothing like it was in 2012. Some of you remember that year how the Giants had to win six elimination games just to make it to the World Series. If you were a Giants fan, watching those games was agonizing.
Imagine, however, if somehow you would have been able to see into the future and you knew before the playoffs even began that the Giants would eventually be crowned World Series champions that year. What would it have been like as a Giants fan to watch the playoffs with this knowledge of guaranteed ultimate victory in hand? The Giants are down two games to none against the favored Cincinnati Reds in the best of five National League Divisional Series and no team in history has come back to win on the road in that situation. Then the Giants are down three games to one against the favored Saint Louis Cardinals in the best of seven National League Championship Series and things look as bleak as ever again. All the while, however, as you sweat out each elimination game, you know that somehow, some way, your team is going to come out on top. How would that have change the way you watched those games?
Of course, most sports fans don’t want to know the final score before the game. Part of the fun of sports is the drama of not knowing. And we can endure the stress of not knowing in sports because, after all, it’s just a game with little, if any, lasting significance in our lives. For all the talk of the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory, your life is actually impacted very little by whether your favorite team wins or loses. But life is different than sports. And if the final score in life is up for grabs, if I’m not sure whether or not the waves battering down on me in life will ultimately sink my ship, it’s difficult to live with joy. It’s impossible to live with happiness.
In Christ we know how it ends. We know the final score. The child may not be born yet and the labor pains may be intense, but the child is on the way. And this is joy. And joy enables us to stand in the midst of seemingly hopeless circumstances, during times in life when happiness is nowhere to be found, and we stand nonetheless and we don’t crumble because we know that somehow, in some way, God will not fail us in the end. As Paul wrote in Romans 8, “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”
In Christ, a deep and abiding joy can be yours regardless of the circumstances. But here’s the thing – and this is the last thing I’ll say about joy. You can never get joy by trying to get joy. Instead, joy is always a byproduct. Joy never comes alone. Joy only comes through Christ. If you aim at joy you’ll miss it altogether. If you aim at Christ, however, then joy, along with quite a bit more, will be yours as well.
A chapter earlier in John, Jesus gives this truth to his disciples by painting a vivid picture in their minds. It’s the picture of a vine, its branches, and its fruit. “I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “and my Father is the vinegrower…Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”
I’ve got a neighbor who has an orange tree growing just beyond my back fence. This is the time of year that those oranges are beginning to look deliciously ripe. Now, I don’t really know my neighbor. We’ve met once, but there’s a tall fence and half a block’s walk that separate us so we’re virtually strangers. I don’t know her but I know her orange tree. I admire her orange tree. Especially this one particular branch, a branch that is now hanging over my property, a branch full of beautifully tempting orange fruit.
Now, legally, I’m not exactly sure what belongs to who. The tree, itself, does not belong to me. I know that much. But the branch? I don’t know? Technically it’s in my airspace, the branch and its juicy fruit. The problem is, I feel a bit awkward climbing my ladder above the fence line all the time and, in plain view of her patio window, picking the fruit. So instead I decided to cut the branch off and I moved it down out of her site line behind the fence. It’s beautiful. Now I can continue to harvest those sweet oranges each winter without upsetting my neighbor.
Ridiculous, right? You can’t continue to get oranges off the branch of an orange tree unless that branch remains connected to the tree itself. Jesus’ point is so simple here it’s a wonder so many of us miss it so much of the time. As others before me have put it, you can’t have the Father’s stuff unless you first have the Father. And if you try to get the Father’s stuff, including joy, apart from the Father, then in the end you will get neither.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “The reason why it can never succeed is this. God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other.” It’s no good trying to get God to give us joy apart from him giving us himself. Apart from Christ there is no joy because apart from Christ there is no steady course beneath the waves that remains impervious to the weather. But with Christ, joy is given, and given freely. As Jesus himself put it, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you as well.”
Before I finish let me make this personal. This Christmas season you may be happy and you may not be happy. Of course, everybody will look happy at the Christmas party. Don’t believe it. Again, nothing wrong with happiness. I thank God for days and seasons when all my circumstances seem to be in all the right places. But all days and all seasons are not like that. So whether or not you know happiness this season, here’s my question. Do you know joy? Is there a joy that runs deep beneath the surface of the waves of your life, a joy not jostled about by the circumstances of your life, a joy rooted in the fact that you know what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will do in the end? If you do not have this joy then the problem is likely that you are seeking joy, or even just it’s cheap substitute happiness, instead of simply seeking Christ.
You see, there are two ways to come to God. You can come to God acknowledging that he created you and saved you and loves you and, therefore, you owe him your total allegiance and gratitude and obedience. When you come to God this way you come knowing that since God has already given you everything God now owes you nothing. It’s you, now, who owes God everything. That’s one way to come to God.
The other way to come to God is to come saying, “Now that I have come to you, now that I have given my life to you, you owe me. You owe me blessing. You owe me happiness. You owe me comfort. You owe me a good position in this life.” That’s the other way to come to God.
You want to know how to tell which way it is that you’ve come to God? It’s simple. What happens in the bad seasons of life? What happens when you’re not happy? If your goal was to get what God can give you, well then the storms of life will quickly make you bitter and resentful. You might even walk away from God. If, however, your goal was simply to get God, then nothing changes even when life is at its hardest. All along you’ve said that if blessings come, wonderful! All the better. But even when they don’t come there is still a deeper joy I have in simply walking with the One, being known and loved by the One, who has saved me and loves me and will never leave me. Even through the storms I will continue to follow Christ.
The story that we remember and celebrate this season of the year is the same story we remember and celebrate every season of the year. The God of the universe entered into creation as a helpless infant born to a scared teenage mother in a stable. That baby grew to become a man who gave us the fullest picture by far of what God is like because he actually was God. Eventually he died on a cross to heal and forgive the world of sin. Three days later he rose from the grave to open the way to life for any and all who would have faith. He lives even now within and among us by the power of his Holy Spirit. He is coming back one day to finish what he started by making the world, and us as a part of it, completely new again.
What a crazy story! Right? On the surface, it’s preposterous. For many people it’s simply too much to believe. And sometimes, honestly, for me it seems too much to believe, especially when the world, and I as a part of it, seem so far from being made new again. And yet I do believe it. Like many of you, I have staked my life on it. My sole hope in life and death is Jesus Christ, my Lord and my Savior.
Have you ever come across something in life that turned out so much better than you ever imagined it might? You’d hoped for the best but in the end reality far exceeded even that for which you had hoped. When that happens, all you can do is laugh. The joy that wells up from within is so great that it can’t be contained in just a smile. Only laughter will do.
Brothers and sisters, there is a day coming when there will be such irrepressible laughter in heaven among those who stayed the course long enough to see their joy in all its fullness. Even now, we hear echoes of that laughter. For Jesus himself has promised us, “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Re-read the passage from John 16:16-24. What part of what Jesus says stands out to you?
Are you happy? What makes you happy?
Jesus promises his disciples that no one will be able to take their joy from them? How is this possible?
In your opinion, what’s the difference between happiness and joy? Which one is harder to get?
The Bible of says things like this: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) Is it possible to always have joy? Is this realistic?
Have you ever experienced joy in the midst of sadness or suffering? What was that like?
Jesus promises us to make our joy complete? Do you believe him? What is it that would make your joy complete?
Jeff said that you can’t get joy by trying to get joy. Joy is always byproduct. You have to seek Christ alone and once you have Christ, you have joy. Joy cannot be found apart from Jesus. Do you believe this?
 Amy Bloom, “The Rap on Happiness”, The New York Times, published January 29, 2010.
 Cited from “The Joy-Driven Life”, Christianity Today, December, 2009.
 John 11:35
 Cited in “The Joy-Driven Life”
 Romans 8:31-32.
 John 15:1,4.
 Tim Keller, in particular, likes to put it this way.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Glasgow: Collins, 1942).
 Matthew 6:33
 I’m indebted to Tim Keller for this insight of the two ways to come to God. Listen to his sermon “The Search for Happiness” at https://sermons2.redeemer.com/sermons/search-happiness