Sunday 28th May 2017 – Producing fruit – Lost fruit
There is a thing that has often been lost by God’s people, by the Church. And it is the subject of this morning’s message. When we talk about the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, the message of the church, we usually mention awareness and confession of sin, turning to God for forgiveness which Jesus has bought for us by his death on the cross. We talk of “repentance”, or changing our behaviour as a result; we talk of God’s love. Then, in our coming before God we are sincere; we open our hearts to him, we seek his face. We talk about guilt, but then forgiveness and freedom from guilt. There is often an earnestness in our talk; we can be very serious; and when we look at the suffering, destruction and death in the world around us, we grieve and are sad.
What is often lost is the understanding and reality of joy.
What even is joy?!
It obviously isn’t just happiness; otherwise we wouldn’t need a separate word for it. I would have said – before I started preparing this message – that joy was a deep happiness, less able to be shaken by circumstances. And that’s about all the dictionary says. But rather than quote the Oxford English Dictionary (or Larousse) to you, I think the most useful thing to do is to look at how the Bible uses the word: what emotion are action is being displayed when the Bible talks about joy? Once we understand that, then we might be able to grasp what Galatians 5.22-23 means when it says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance [patience], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
There are actually lots of references to joy in the Bible. Some are adjectives and adverbs and other related words (joyful, joyfully, rejoicing etc), but even so, the word comes up way too many times for us to look at every instance. But let’s have a look at a few times when it’s used in different contexts and see if we can get an idea of what God means when he talks about joy.
One of the first times we find the word ‘joy’ is in Leviticus:
Moses and Aaron then went into the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell face down. (Lev 9.23-24)
What was happening here was, during the exodus from Egypt, that this was the first time that the newly constructed tabernacle was put into use. Moses had followed God’s plan for it to the letter; Levites had been consecrated as priests, sacrifices had been prepared and so on. And then, finally, the people experience for themselves the presence of the glory of God. There’s a tremendous happy release of emotion! It’s like “Yes!! God really is pleased with us!! He’s here!! Not just for Moses up on the mountain, but for all of us, too!!”
We can probably relate to that. You might not have experienced God’s presence in that way often, or perhaps just not yet, but I can tell you that sometimes God’s presence is very like that: a sort of “whoomph!” moment, that makes people shout out and laugh. And maybe fall face down, too. And that’s joy.
Here’s a very different one from 1 Chronicles. The background is that King Saul has turned away from God, pretty much, and has made David his enemy. David hasn’t wanted to fight Saul, because Saul is God’s anointed king, but Saul has got it into his head that David is his enemy and he wants to kill him. Such is Saul’s rebellion against God – and hatred against David whom God has chosen to replace Saul, that God gives David the word to raise an army and defeat those still loyal to Saul. The preceding verses list all those mighty and valiant warriors who have come from all over to join David in the coming fight.
All these were fighting men who volunteered to serve in the ranks. They came to Hebron fully determined to make David king over all Israel. All the rest of the Israelites were also of one mind to make David king. 39 The men spent three days there with David, eating and drinking, for their families had supplied provisions for them. 40 Also, their neighbours from as far away as Issachar, Zebulun and Naphtali came bringing food on donkeys, camels, mules and oxen. There were plentiful supplies of flour, fig cakes, raisin cakes, wine, olive oil, cattle and sheep, for there was joy in Israel. (1 Chron 12.38-40)
Sometimes, when God’s servants come together to carry out some service he’s asked of them – even if it’s going to be difficult and dangerous – as they sit and talk and plan, there can be this kind of celebration! “We’re God’s people! We’re all here together! He’s providing all we need to do this! Yesss!!!” And that’s joy.
Later on, much later, after God had allowed virtually the whole nation to have been taken captive into Babylon because of their idolatry and sin; and the temple that Solomon, David’s son, had built was destroyed, some of the people, under Nehemiah and Ezra, had been sent back into the land to rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. It wasn’t going to be as golden and gorgeous as the original, but it was going to a place to worship God again.
Finally, the foundations are completed:
When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel. 11 With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord: ‘He is good; his love towards Israel endures for ever.’ And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. 13 No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3.10-13)
For some, they could only think of the lost glory of the past. Others had a similar emotion to that of the people when the Tabernacle was consecrated. Both of these emotions were real – and maybe not so far away from each other. Grief and joy.
Shortly afterwards, Nehemiah got Ezra and the other priests to read the scriptures to the people – something that hadn’t been done for a long, long time.
They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read. 9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10 Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ 11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.’ 12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (Neh 8.8-12)
Here’s the link between grief and joy. The people were grief-stricken because they understood and realised how far they had fallen from the relationship they should have been enjoying with God. But at the same time, God (through Nehemiah and Ezra) was telling them that they could celebrate with the best food and drink available because they were at last coming back to him. There would be time later to put what they were learning into practice, but right now: “Celebrate!!!” And that was joy.
Joy in heaven
Joy gets quite a few mentions in the book of Job – a book usually more associated with suffering. When God finally speaks to Job and tells him that, although his sufferings are not because of any sin, he still doesn’t have any real idea as to what God’s plans and thoughts are:
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation… while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38.4 & 7)
If exuberant joy is something that men & women can express, it’s also something that God says happens in heaven. Here we have the angels, jumping up and down and shouting for joy as they see God creating the earth – even the stars get in on the act with some praise & worship songs. (Remember how we saw, the other Sunday, that creation is groaning as it waits for God’s plan of salvation for mankind to be complete? Here, the first parts of creation are singing as they see God’s particular favourite bit of creation coming into being). And that’s joy.
And in Luke 15 Jesus says,
‘I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’ (Luke 15.10)
So, the angels went a bit wild when they saw God creating the earth – which, let’s face it, was a pretty amazing bit of work. But they also have this same joy – this shouting, singing, dancing, deep kind of over-the-top happiness – whenever someone becomes a Christian! In fact, they did it when you became a Christian! Did anyone else shout out their joy?! Did your church or youth group leaders? Your parents? Your spouse? We should be filled with joy when that happens. It’s more than a load of warriors getting together for a battle; it’s more than the Tabernacle being inaugurated; or the temple foundation being laid; or even the scriptures being read and explained after hundreds of years. It’s someone being plucked out off the road to hell and brought gloriously into the Kingdom of God, of Jesus the King!
Jesus and Joy
When the 70 disciples, whom Jesus had sent out to preach and do miracles in the villages, returned, themselves full of joy at the response that had seen, Jesus “full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.” (Luke 10.21)
The French translation says that Jesus was “transported with joy”! Can you imagine the deep laughter from his heart that accompanied that prayer?! Are your prayers ever like that?
What I’d love to do is go through the rest of the New Testament and read out all the verses that speak of joy, because I think we might now see them in a new way. I won’t do that, but it is an eye-opener: (here are a few, though)
– The disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 13.52)
– The Philippian jailer: was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God – he and his whole household (Acts 16.34)
– May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Rom 15.13)
– How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? (1 Thess 3.9)
And so we come back to the signature text of this series of messages: (Gal 5.22-23)
The fruit of the Spirit is… joy!
Remember, we’re talking about growing to be like Jesus, to have a character that resembles that of God the Son. His character, we’ve just seen, is one that knows exuberant, enthusiastic, bubbling-over in shouting and laughing joy! Now, if your personality and mine do not particularly reflect that, then we and the Holy Spirit have got some work to do!
Homework for this week: get onto an online bible (or get out a concordance) and look up the word ‘joy’. Go through the verses looking at them as we have this morning and say to the Holy Spirit: “I want to be like that! Please work on me to grow this joy in my heart so that it burst out and shines Jesus into this sad, dark world.”
Let’s finish with the final, glorious verse of Jude’s Epistle:
To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and for evermore! Amen. (Jude v 24-25)