June 26, 2016

Isaiah 9:1-7
Galatians 5:16-25
1 Peter 1:3-9
Luke 15:1-10

“The Fruit of the Spirit is JOY”

In Paul’s letter to the Galatian Church, he tells one of the first communities of Christians not to gratify the desires of the flesh, but to “live by the Spirit” and “be guided by the Spirit.”

I think what he’s talking about is how we make decisions. I think he’s talking about little decisions and big decisions… decisions about what to do on a particular day, and decisions about what to do with our wholes lives… decisions about relationships and decisions about behaviours.

Paul explains that we can either let our flesh guide our decisions, or we can let the Spirit guide our decisions. We can go for whatever will produce immediate pleasure, or we can let God guide us to what is right and good.

Paul says that “the works of the flesh are obvious.” These are the negative things that will show up in our lives if our decisions are directed by our flesh: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” And he warns them, as he has done before, that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Sunday after Sunday, we acknowledge that some of the things on that list, and perhaps other negative attitudes and behaviours, continue to be a part of each of our lives and the life of our community. We are grateful that although we have not merited a place in the Kingdom of God, God is kind and merciful to forgive us and equip us to live in more positive ways.

Indeed, God gives us the Holy Spirit as a gift. And the Spirit is right here, in our hearts, ready to guide both our daily and our life-changing decisions so that our lives will produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And today we are celebrating the fact that one of the fruit of the Spirit is JOY. When we decide not to be led by our fleshly desires, but to be led by the Spirit of God, our lives will begin to produce JOY.

Would you say that you are a joyful person? Do you tend to see the good in most situations and circumstances? Do you notice what is wonderful, and focus on it, and point it out to others? I suppose the opposite would be to be mostly grouchy, ungrateful, negative, or angry because of all the challenges in your life and the bad things happening in the world.

Now, some people might assume that joyfulness and grumpiness are just personality traits. Some people are just naturally joyous and others can’t help but be grumpy because of some genetic susceptibility. But you know, that just sounds like an excuse for bad behaviour.

And some people might assume that joyfulness and grumpiness are dependent on how things are going for a particular person. If things have worked out well for you… you have a nice house, a lovely family, a good, fulfilling occupation, and plenty of time and money to enjoy leisure pursuits as well, how can you help but be joyful? But if you’re poor or alone, needing to work two jobs for little pay or recognition… if you’re constantly sick or tired, or persecuted for whatever reason, how could you be joyful in those circumstances?

Well, the fact is that many people do remain joyful in seemingly terrible circumstances, and others are mostly angry and irritable even though it seems that they have everything in life that a person should need.

I have so often heard the witness of people coming home from mission trips to troubled places in the world. They have gone from our wealthy Canadian context to assist an impoverished or struggling community with some practical project. But while they were there, they had the opportunity to get to know the people, to worship with them, and share in their daily life. The “missionary” comes back home and says, “They had so little, but they were so full of joy!”

Of course, we should not conclude that since the people are happy, we shouldn’t worry about making sure that they have enough food, education, or freedom from oppression. But perhaps we can be challenged to re-evaluate the source of the joy that we seek… because we’re not going to get it by trying to gratify the desires of the flesh, as Paul says. Joy will be ours only when we remember the goodness of God and allow the Spirit to guide our lives.

When I think of a joyful time of year, I think of Christmas. The joy we feel at that time of year is often expressed in parties and get-togethers, feasts and fancy drinks, joyful songs and sparkling decorations. And if you asked the average yuletide caroller, they would tell you that Christmas is all about family. What a joy it is to be together, to exchange gifts, to share food and have fun, and maybe even go to the Christmas Eve service and sing “Joy to the world!”

But “Joy to the world” is not about food and family. And “Joy to the world” is not reserved for those who are able to roast a turkey, and put up a tree, and take lots of pictures of the kids with all their new stuff.

“Joy to the world” is about the Lord coming to us. It is about God loving us so much that even though we were mostly being led by the desires of the flesh, and we were ignoring God’s commandments of love and doing what felt good at the time… Despite all of that, God came to us. “A child was born for us. A son was given to us.”

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

In Jesus, God showed us what love looks like, called us to follow in his way of love, gave us the gift of the Spirit to help us along the way, and assured us that even though we will not be able to love perfectly like Jesus, we will – by God’s grace – be following him into life everlasting and the Kingdom of God.

If we truly believe the good news that we read in the scriptures and hear proclaimed by the church, then we have plenty to rejoice about at Christmas and throughout the year. And the JOY is not dependent on the circumstances of our lives or our particular personality traits. The JOY is the fruit of the Holy Spirit that has been poured into our hearts by God.

When the Apostle Peter wrote to a number of Christian Churches that were struggling outside of Jerusalem, he encouraged them with a message of hope. He acknowledged that their present circumstances were not ideal.

They had to suffer various trials, and they did not have the benefit of meeting Jesus themselves, travelling with him and learning from him as Peter and the other apostles had done.

But, Peter reminds them of the good news of the gospel: “By God’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

Peter goes on to marvel at the JOY expressed by these Christians who have no earthly reason to have such joy. He writes: “Although you have not seen Christ, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

In the context of great trouble and severe persecution, the assurance of God’s love for them in Christ, and the promise of salvation filled the early Christians with joy. In contrast, most of our lives are probably quite comfortable and happy, such that we may not fully appreciate the great gift of our salvation in Jesus Christ.

So I will end with a turn towards the message of our Gospel reading from Luke 15 this morning. To the grumbling scribes and Pharisees, and to us (who may not be demonstrating much joy in our lives), Jesus gives a clear command: “Rejoice with me!”

Jesus is like a good shepherd, who having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness and goes after the one until he finds it. And he says to us, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

Jesus is like a woman, who having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully until she finds it. And she says to us, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”

There is great rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. The angels of God are singing for joy over one person who turns away from the desires of the flesh and asks the Holy Spirit to guide their decisions.

That JOY is a celebration of your life and your turning again today towards God. That JOY is a celebration of my life and my turning again today towards God. And we are called by Jesus to join in the joyous celebration for each and every life – for each and every lost person that Jesus goes out searching for and finds.

Thanks be to God for the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and for the fruit of the Spirit that is JOY.