When Barack Obama was inaugurated as President of the United States our television screens were full of pictures of the ecstasy of the people. There was abundant rejoicing, joy and gladness. It is incredible that so much is expected of one man. The evident pleasure and excitement among the massed crowds of two million people in Washington was remarkable. Here was a nation, indeed the whole world, sensing a desperate need. They needed to believe there was a future worth living for. Perhaps for many of them, it was the first time they had ever felt that their way of life was in serious danger. A sense of urgency was in the air: could Obama lead them out of the wilderness? What kind of “change” is ahead?
People around the world, in every country, were aware of this event and its potential significance to them. The world is now “one” in rejoicing or grieving over big events. I recall the death and funeral of Princess Diana. I happened to be in Nepal at the time, it was early in the use of satellite TV, and for hour after hour the offerings of grief at her funeral were portrayed. The funeral was a very different occasion, the opposite of joy, but demonstrating how human joy is so transient. It has ever been so. Today, more than ever, we live for the moment. And now moments that can be shared by billions, situations in which there is an extreme change of fortune, attract enormous public interest.
The raising up of Joseph
Turning to the Scriptures, we think of the enormous change of fortune in the life of Joseph, his dramatic exaltation from the degradation of an Egyptian prison. Garbed in new clothes, and filled with God-given assurance, he was able to capture the confidence of Pharaoh, who appointed him to a position of the highest responsibility. Imagine the scene. Men shouted before him, “Make way, bow the knee”, as he traveled throughout Egypt in the best style. This was the greatest nation of that age, more than comparable to the role the USA has played in our age.
There commenced a period of prosperity beyond measure; harvests were wonderful. There was an abundance of food, the like of which had never been witnessed before. The Egyptians could not keep count of all that the storehouses held; they needed to build more. Imagine if there had been no Joseph, no message from God! What would have happened to Egypt and in the surrounding nations? For a time there would have been a glut of food; it would have been squandered; no one would have thought to build extra storehouses. The Nile always flooded to make the land fertile, and they were sure life would continue as it always had within their experience!
We can make a comparison with the relative glut of money and possessions in the world. This has brought relative prosperity to more and more countries in recent years. The rich in particular have rejoiced that they can greatly increase their wealth and boast as to who has the most billions! Have any been wise enough to see that this, like the grain harvest in Egypt, was too remarkable to last, being based largely on illusory foundations — because a sort of insanity has taken command of the reasoning of greedy men, and their “success” blinded the minds of others?
Egypt set the highest standards of glorifying their leaders in death, as much as in their lives. What work went into those remarkable pyramids? We still marvel at how they were able to build them. What work went into carving the statues of the Pharaohs; yet was it so different from the world today? America has carved faces of past presidents on Mount Rushmore and has an ever-burning flame at the Kennedy Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, where a silent reverence is maintained.
Nearly every city has its statues of the greats of the past. Every town in India has statues of Gandhi. The burial places, such as the island on which Princess Diana is buried, are testimonies to human joys and sorrows; they have become places for pilgrimage. They cause us to meditate on the deep spiritual darkness that covers the earth. Humans are blinder than ever to the true reality of God; they are unable to look inward to see their lack of genuine God-fearing spirituality.
Different kinds of “joy”
As we reflect on the transient joys witnessed at Obama’s inauguration, we meditate upon the differences from the “joy” that is mentioned so often in the Scriptures. Think of the parables of Jesus which conclude with the words, “Enter thou into the joy of our Lord.” Is the “joy” referred to in the Scriptures only a joy to be looked for in the future? Did Jesus know “joy” in his mortal life?
The Greek word chara is also translated gladness, joyfulness and rejoicing. Bible dictionaries describe this word as indicating more a state of mind, a quality in our attitudes, than a transient emotion. There are many inspiring words penned by the prophets, words that we sing or hear sung; we know them so well:
“The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy and gladness. And sorrow and sighing shall flee away…” (Isa 51:11).
There are times of joy recorded in the Bible, but the situations that come more readily to mind are the times of sadness, such as when Jesus wept, when all around him were weeping as they came to the tomb of Lazarus. One occasion when the disciples knew joy, Luke tells us, was when they returned to Jerusalem, having witnessed the ascension of their Master to heaven. Then they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:52). When Peter stood up to preach on the day of Pentecost, his message was one of future joy. He quoted the Psalms of David and their reference to Christ, that God’s Holy One would not “see corruption”. “You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of joy in your presence” (Acts 2:27,28). Peter sensed the joy that was then in heaven.
The writer to the Hebrews picks up this thought in words very familiar to us, when he tells us to:
“Run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb 12:2).
A life of joy
So was the mortal life of Jesus all an anticipation of future joy? Is there no hint at all that Jesus experienced joy in his mortal life? There is just one significant passage. Jesus says to his disciples:
“As the father loved me, I also have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.”
Then he concludes with these telling words:
“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:9-11).
We must capture the full meaning here of “my joy remaining in you.” The joy of Jesus is not some transient emotion; it is the spirit that abides; it is the reality of a relationship with that which is divine; it is the phenomenon of true inner peace that arises from that relationship. Only with that experience can the joy of a disciple be full, or complete. It is the joy Jesus experienced.
Surely it is a joy which compares with the joy of the angels when a sinner repents and turns to take on the name of Christ! Meditate on the nature of that joy, the spirit which we imagine to exist in heaven. Compare it with the kinds of joy we have in this life. Human joys are a hollow echo when compared to the completeness of the joy of which Jesus speaks.
We must beware of thinking that the happy, relaxed, pleasurable times in our lives have any real comparison with the completeness of true spiritual joy. Spiritual joy is an unfathomable wonder of inner peace, coupled with a far-reaching vision of what our Master experienced, and from which he derived his joy.
King David knew times of great joy, such as when he was dancing before the LORD when the ark was at last brought into Jerusalem. He could write in his Psalms:
“Let all those rejoice who put their trust in you; let them ever shout for joy, because you defend them; let those also who love your name be joyful in you. For you, O LORD, will bless the righteous; with favour you will surround him as with a shield” (Psa 5:11,12).
The necessity of shadows
But as we reflect upon the life of David, we recall the many times his commitment to the LORD led him through paths of danger, and a “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psa 23:4). This was, in its own way, a necessary corollary to feelings of joy. It reminds us of the challenging words at the start of the Epistle of James, where he tell us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials.”
Walking through the shadows of the valley of death serves to highlight the wonder and privilege of the times we are walking in the light of the Son. When an artist paints a picture, it looks wrong if there are no shadows. The shadow in the valley brings the light on the hilltops into glorious and dominating focus.
The Psalms have many valuable lessons to teach us on true joy, and also to remind us of the times of famine when we need to go to the storehouses for grain. How tragic if we have failed to harvest enough grain to make the bread which comes down from heaven! We need this to restore our inner joy, strength and vision. With the harvest fields of the world’s materialism looking rather barren, we may well have to go to our own storehouses more often. Indeed, this experience will be good for us — spiritually.
David’s words are, in many places, a store of “grain”. For example, he writes:
“Be merciful to me O God, for man would swallow me up…whenever I am afraid I will trust in you. In God (I will praise his Word), in God I have put my trust; I will not fear: what can flesh do to me?” (Psa 56:1,3,4).
Then he answers his question, “What can flesh do to me?” by adding:
“When I cry out to you, then my enemies will turn back; this I know, because God is for me” (v 9).
After confessing his sins in that remarkable Psalm 51, and seeking to be washed thoroughly from his iniquity and cleansed from his sin, David’s plea is: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (v 12). This is a joy that is most precious to us, far greater than any other sort of joy, and one many of us may well rest upon in the coming “lean years”, when there is little or no harvest of material things, and we need to go to the storehouses we have made, with full assurance of faith. We will need to share the stored grain with each other. We must not let the values and the joys and sorrows of the world distract us.
Funerals of sorrow, and a funeral of joy
Finally, reflect on the outpourings of grief at the time of the death of John F. Kennedy or Princess Diana, and the apparent contrast when our Lord died. Those who rejoiced at our Lord’s death were his enemies, while the fearful women among his followers watched at a distance. His main followers, such as Peter, hid in fear and distress because they had let him down. Two brave men successfully sought possession of his body and placed it in a tomb to save it from being cast into the fires of Gehenna — this was probably the fate of the two thieves, as with those of common criminals. There was no grand funeral for our Master — the very opposite! But is that true?
No, it is not true. It has been, and still is, week by week, the most tremendous “funeral” of any man who has ever lived! We gather together around these emblems and marvel at his voluntary sacrifice and awesome death. Think of the countless millions over the last 2,000 years who have joined together in keeping his memory every week: a memory to be kept until he comes to eat and drink anew with his faithful, loyal and true followers. As we partake yet again of the memorials of his sacrifice, let us treasure that inner joy, that the world can in no way appreciate. How great is our joy, brethren and sisters, how wonderful and privileged our anticipation of future joy.
And we treasure the words of a familiar hymn in our hearts:
Joy cometh! With the rising sun;
Joy — holy, blessed, perfect, pure,
Joy — ever flowing, ever sure!
To wake the song that now is dumb!
All righteous tongues shall find employ
In songs of everlasting joy.”