Sermon: Let Us Be a Joyful People.

 “But let the righteous be glad, and rejoice before God; * let them also be merry and joyful.” [Psalm 68:3]

In our prayer group, I was asked about the dilemma that good Christians face sooner or later in their earthly sojourn. Sometime in our lives a non-believer will ask, “If God exists, why does He allow bad things to happen to good people?” 

Now, the advantage of being a priest is that I have not been asked that question yet.  I have come close, but never this exact question, and I believe, this is, in part, out of fear.  If the person is not in real pain, if the person asking the question is doing it out of some intellectual exercise, then he usually doesn’t want a good answer.  The person who asks this kind of question wants us to be unable to answer.  They want us to fail.  They want us to be stumped because it confirms THEIR belief system – and that is what they usually, truly are after.

But the truth is there IS a very good answer.  It may not be the one that will help someone in real pain.  Such a person is often spiritually weak, so the explanation seems too academic and unsatisfying.  They do not have the spiritual armor that will allow them to sustain such onslaught.  Rather, what they need at that moment is comfort, not explanations.

But nonetheless, there is a legitimate answer that helps us who believe.  If and when we are in a period of trial or pain, it may be able to sustain us and our faith.  And this answer is found in our lessons for today:

BELOVED, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.

The truth is that God loves those who believe in Him and worship Him.  God wants to give us the very best.  He never intended us to die or have disease.  He never intended us to be subject to tsunami, earthquake, hurricane, or tornado.  But, like any one of us, God also wants us to freely choose to love Him. 

As any one of us who are fairly long in the tooth can testify, having someone forced to love us is totally unsatisfying.  Only someone who has chosen to love us and be with us can make us feel truly loved and wanted.  It is similar for God.  He could have made us machines, unable to choose, and forced to love Him, but that would have been totally unfulfilling.  Therefore, God gave us free will.  In fact, it is so important for God that all choose to love Him freely that even His angels have free will to choose or reject Him.  And, as we are well aware, some of God’s angels have chosen to reject Him.

When God created mankind, He purposely chose to give us free will.  Our parents, however, used their free will unwisely, choosing to disobey God.  The result as we are more than painfully aware was the Fall.  With this original sin, reality cracked.  It became damaged.  As the Eastern Orthodox would say, when we fell, the world fell too.  As a result, pain, disease, and death entered in – and something worse happened.

God had given us dominion over the world.  When we chose the devil over God, we abdicated our rule of the world to the devil.  And as a result, even Christ acknowledged that the devil, not man, is now Prince of this world.  The result is horrific.

Not only is the natural world out of kilter, with earthquakes and natural disasters, not only did disease and death enter the world, but also now we have a malevolent force released into the world that hates all that is good, just, and kind.  Thus we can have tsunamis and Nazis; we can have cancer and the Khmer Rouge; and we can have crypts and gulags. 

But for all of this, there is great hope for mankind.  God has told us that the devil is bound to fail.  All his plans and machinations will only serve to usher in the absolute victory of God.  And our celebration last Thursday is part of the devil’s defeat.

The devil thought he had won when Christ was put to death, but in fact, he was defeated.  Christ’s resurrection was the ultimate victory over the grave, death, and the devil.  And it ushered in an era of temporary and limited rule for the devil and his minion.  Once Christ comes again, the devil will be fully vanquished, and he knows this.

And this is the crux of our lesson for today.  Although the devil has power in this world, he has no power over us UNLESS we give it to him.  And this is what Saint Peter meant when he writes:

BELOVED, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.

God does not promise us a perfect life, but if we believe in Him, if we give ourselves to Him as our King and choose Jesus as our personal savior, we WILL be given the strength to persevere. 

In the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” we sing, “And tho’ this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us; We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us,”  and “For lo! His doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.”

Saint Peter put it another way:

Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God on this behalf. For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.

There are times when Christians suffer because of pain, disease, or death.  These are natural results of a fallen world and do not speak necessarily of a malevolent force.  But sometimes we suffer for our faith. 

An ocean liner was sinking and the captain yelled, “Does anybody know how to pray?”
A minister on board answered, “I do.”
“Good,” said the captain. “You start praying. The rest of us will put on the life vests. We are one vest short.”

Those who ended up in concentration camps or gulags or have been killed in other countries just because they are Christians all suffer because the devil wants to defeat God.  But I believe God uses such situations.  There have been those who were in concentration camps and gulags, and may have even died there, but had the great honor to minister to others, to preach the Gospel, and to be vehicles for God’s great love even in such terrible places.

So here is the oddity of being a Christian; here is the paradox.  Even though we may suffer or die for our faith, we are full of joy and praise for God.  It is NOT because we have a perfect life; it is not because every wish or desire has been fulfilled.  No, it is because we love and ARE loved by God. We know we are saved. We know we will have eternal life and eternal joy.  And we know that God will be victorious.  This is what gives us joy, even in great suffering.

That is the whole crux of the matter.  It is not that our lives are empirically better – it is because our lives are full of joy and purpose.  It is because we know the joy of being loved by God and loving Him back with our whole heart, soul and mind. We know that all which Jesus promises WILL come true.  And we know the joy of being in Him and He in us:

“I pray for them, I pray not for the world: but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine. And all mine are thine, and thine are mine: and I am glorified in them.”

So let us be joyful in the Lord.  Let us rejoice because we know we are His.  We know we are saved!  And let us take to heart what is contained in our great selection from the Psalter for today:

“But let the righteous be glad, and rejoice before God; * let them also be merry and joyful.”

Amen..

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