His Joy in Us
John 15:11, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, May 6, 2018
How do you get joy in your life? People who are stressed out in their mainland lives come to Block Island seeking joy. They want the geographical cure to what ails them; they want to commune with nature; they want quality time with family. Sometimes, I suppose, they find joy, but I suspect that most of them discover that finding beauty and fun out there won’t bring joy if you don’t have joy on the inside.
Seeking joy is different from the pursuit of happiness. You might be able to manufacture happiness with good food, good drink, and good people. Money can make you happy for a while, and so can winning in sports or politics. But joy is an inward and permanent state of well-being that doesn’t depend on circumstances. An old deacon of mine used to repeat this proverb to me: “Happiness comes from happenings, but joy comes from above.”
S. D. Gordon, a YMCA leader and writer of a century ago, put it nicely: “Joy is distinctly a Christian word and a Christian thing. It is the reverse of happiness. Happiness is the result of what happens of an agreeable sort. Joy has its springs deep down inside. And that spring never runs dry, no matter what happens. Only Jesus gives that joy. He had joy, singing its music within, even under the shadow of the cross.”
Do you think of Jesus as a joyful person or a man of sorrow? I think we miss his joy in our mental picture of Jesus. I want to focus this morning on just one verse from Jesus’ long farewell discourse to his disciple, John 15:11—“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Jesus wants to put his joy in us so that our joy can be filled up.
There are plenty of places in the Bible where joy is commanded, which used to strike me as odd. How can you order someone to be joyful? Can you expect people to turn on an emotion at will? Here are just a few imperatives from Paul’s letters: Romans 12:12, “Be joyful in hope.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16, “Be joyful always.” Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I repeat: Rejoice!” There is a sense in which Paul means to suggest that choosing joy in the midst of difficult circumstances is a moral choice, and I think he’s reflecting not only the commands in the Psalms but also the way Stoics emphasized being in control of your attitude. If you read enough Paul, you’ll see that he believes that the joy he commands is produced by God’s Spirit, not just by trying hard to feel joy.
But Jesus’ words have a different feel to them. He is not commanding us to rejoice. He is not telling us to have a better attitude. He says that he wants his joy—the joy that he has within his own life—to take root in us and transform us from the inside. He wants us to have joy in us that is not partial or part-time; he wants us to have joy that is full to overflowing.
In John’s gospel, Jesus is not talking about joy as a moral duty but as a mystical experience. Chapter 15 is the chapter that begins with the image of the vine and the branches, and the metaphor of staying connected to Jesus, staying “in” him as he stays “in” us. That’s what the King James word “abide” means—to stay with him, to remain in him. The idea is that Jesus’ eternal life invades us—what C. S. Lewis called “a good infection”—and his love takes up residence inside us, and his joy comes to live inside us permanently. You can’t understand this if you think Jesus is using this as a metaphor for a moral choice to have a sunny attitude. He’s talking about a mystical union with himself that happens on the basis of believing and trusting and opening yourself up to him. That awareness that the love that you have is Jesus’ love, and the joy that you have is Jesus’ joy, changes your whole sense of what is possible and your sense of what is merely your own doing.
Jesus is saying all this on the night that he was betrayed, after he washed the disciples’ feet as their servant-teacher. He knows he is going to die soon. He is saying his long goodbye. He acknowledges that the disciples’ hearts are troubled—and they don’t understand where he is going. In chapter 16, Jesus says that in a little while they will see him no more, and they will grieve and mourn. But, he says, your grief will turn to joy. It’s like a woman who feels great pain in labor while the baby is being born, he says, but when she holds that baby she forgets the anguish because of her joy that the child is born. It’s like that with you, Jesus says. This is your time of grieving, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.
We live in that post-resurrection reality and in the post-Pentecost reality when the Spirit has been given who mediates Christ’s presence in our lives. We are in that time when rejoicing is appropriate, and we can claim the promise that no one can take away our joy.
Why do you think Jesus has joy in the face of the cross? Wouldn’t you imagine that he would be grim and apprehensive and discouraged? But apparently not. He refers to his joy as something he wants to share. Why would Jesus be joyful? First of all, we believe that Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, and God is joyful. The one who created the world—and us—delights in his creation. God knows that God’s plan is on track. God knows how things will turn out for his glory and our happiness. I like the way philosophy professor Dallas Willard put it in The Divine Conspiracy : “God is the most joyful being in the universe…God is supremely happy.” So Jesus reflects the joy that is in God.
But second, Jesus has been talking about his relationship with his heavenly Father. “I am in the Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” “The Father loves me.” “Everything that belongs to the Father is mine.” “I came from the Father and am going back to the Father.” Jesus has the joy of a Son who is well-loved. He abides in God the Father just as he wants us to abide in him. That love relationship is the foundation of his joy.
I think a third source of Jesus’ joy in John 15 is that he is nearing the goal of his life. It’s a little like Jake’s joy in nearing graduation. The goal of Jesus’ life was always the salvation of the world, whatever it took. He knows now that being rejected and crucified is part of the plan, but that it will bring eternal life to all who believe in him when he is raised to life. There’s a wonderful verse in Hebrews 12(2) that says we should keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as our model “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Jesus went into this last stage of his life with his eyes on the prize. Out in front of him was the joy that he would experience as he brought the human race into a right relationship with God. He knew he would rejoice when he “brought many sons to glory.”
The joy that we ourselves experience is grounded in the knowledge that God loves us, and we can rest in his love. It is that secure knowledge—not the tentative hope—that we are in a love relationship with God that will last forever which is the source of joy and peace in our lives. At the end of Romans, Paul says “May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing.” That’s the way it works with us. As we believe, not just believing intellectually but trusting in God, trusting in his love, God fills us with joy and peace.
Do I “feel” joy at every moment? Of course not. I get anxious and angry and sad. But that thing I’m not feeling is really happiness, not joy. Joy is that permanent state of contentment in God that is at the center of my identity as God’s child, and it never really wavers, even if I feel other things. Paul said about his ministry that he was “sorrowful yet rejoicing” and that he had learned “in all circumstances to be content.” If I can take a deep breath and calm my agitated mind, I discover that God has not changed and my calling to salvation has not been revoked, and it is well with my soul. The joy is still there, even if a storm passed across it.
Have you ever heard of William Cowper (pronounced Cooper but spelled cow-purr)? He’s said to be the greatest English poet between Pope and Wordsworth, but he struggled mightily with depression and suicide attempts. His mother died when he was six and his father sent him to a boarding school where he was bullied mercilessly, which might explain his natural lack of joy. It happened that in his 40’s he moved to Olney, a rural area where the pastor was John Newton, whom we know as the writer of Amazing Grace. Newton befriended the poet and took him with him making pastoral visits; then he had the idea that they could work on a book of hymns together, and it would help keep Cowper out of depression. Cowper spent time in an asylum—that’s where he was converted—and his illness would roar back every ten years. But along the way he also found joy in Christ. He wrote one hymn text with a title taken from that verse I quoted from Romans: “Joy and Peace in Believing” [Olney Hymns, 1779]. This one’s actually in our hymnal to a modern tune, but I want to read it to you in closing.
Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing on His wings;
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.
In holy contemplation
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
And find it ever new;
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
E’en let the unknown to-morrow
Bring with it what it may!
It can bring with it nothing,
But He will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing,
Will clothe His people too;
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed;
And He who feeds the ravens
Will give His children bread.
Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit shall bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there:
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice;
For, while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.