The Greatest Surprise – August 30, 2009

Psalm 16:5-11, John 15:1-11

August 30, 2009

I’m really feeling good about this series of sermons on the “Fruits of the Spirit.” I think this is great stuff! Again, these are the characteristics, the outward signs, of a person who is “walking in the spirit,” as Paul told the Galatians. As we make our way through this series, I hope you’ve been giving some serious thought to your own “walk in the spirit.” That’s what we’re called to do. If we’re doing that, these are the signs we’ll have: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

The word for today is “Joy.” And whenever I think about joy, I think C. S. Lewis. Lewis had a lot to say about Joy. He even wrote a book on the subject called, “Surprised by Joy.” That’s actually a funny title, because the woman Lewis married was named Joy! And the biggest surprise in that relationship was that at first “Jack (as he was called) married Joy only in the “legal sense.” He married her because he wanted to extend to her his British citizenship. But then the surprise came when he realized one day that he truly loved her. Do yourself a favor and see the movie “Shadowlands.” That’s the story of their relationship, and it’s one of my favorite movies. And Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger are wonderful! (Hopkins played C. S. Lewis, by the way – just in case you’re wondering!)

One of the things C. S. Lewis believed about joy, was that the word “joy” contained an element of surprise. That belief came from his translation of the Greek word, which literally carries the meaning of “the good surprise.” To Lewis, joy meant more than just “happiness.” It was happiness in the unexpected. It was more than just a birthday party. It was a surprise party!

Have you ever had a “good surprise?” Maybe you’ve had a surprise party recently, or maybe one you can remember. How did it make you feel? Was it not greater than just a simple feeling of happiness? That’s what Lewis wanted us to understand about this particular fruit of the spirit. Joy is not just “happiness,” the pursuit of which is one of the God-given, “unalienable rights,” according to the Declaration of Independence. When God gives joy through his spirit, it is beyond our “pursuit,” and beyond our expectations. It is the greatest surprise!

I’ve chosen for my scripture lesson today this passage from Jesus’ “Farewell Address” in John 15. Now remember, there were some very difficult things going on here. This was right before the crucifixion. Jesus knew what was going to happen to him mere hours. And he knew what his disciples would go through in the days and years to come. Yet he said to them in verse 11, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11) I think that’s amazing! Even in that darkest of times, he was speaking to them of joy!

Just before this, he told them to “Abide in me” and to “Keep my commandments.” That was how they would know the joy Jesus wanted for them. He knew that life would become very difficult for them. But he knew (and he was trying to assure them) that their joy would not be conditional based on the ease or the difficulty of life! They could have joy despite the hardest circumstances. And of course Jesus was aware that it was also possible to have no joy when things are going great! And maybe you know what that means, too.

This is one of the hardest things for our world to understand. The world thinks joy is based on happiness, which is based on success, which is contingent on not having bad things happen to you! If any one of those things becomes missing, the whole thing can come unraveled! That’s why the world doesn’t really understand Job – despite the fact that they sometimes refer to him!

The sad thing is that too many Christians forget this part of the faith, too. This is to be a life of joy! But they see their faith as all discipline and learning and sacrifice. And there’s nothing wrong with those things. But Jesus didn’t say, “I have come that you may know the right things about God.” He said “I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly!” Notice, not “eternal life” but “life” itself!

That’s the other part of this. Too many Christians think Christianity is only about eternal life. They think it’s just about going to heaven. Worse than that, some think it’s just about avoiding hell! The more I understand God and his kingdom, the more I realize too many people are mired in the “reward or punishment” way of thinking. And sometimes Christians are at fault here. They approach people with the question, “If you die today, do you know where you’re going?” Well the faith is about so much more than that! It’s about abundance! It’s about joy! It’s about the greatest surprise!

Some do get it, though – sort of. Some at least realize that when we are given eternal life, it starts here and now. Yet, they’re still only thinking in terms of the “eternity” part. They know life is never-ending, but they’re not sure what kind of life that means. And we need to ask, if we have eternal life, what kind of eternity is it? C. S. Lewis once said that “for those who choose heaven, it’s been heaven all along, and for those who choose hell, it’s been hell all along.” And when he talked about “choosing heaven” he meant more than just “accepting eternity with God.” He was talking about joy. He was talking about the “good surprise.” That’s what we were made for. Not to “glorify God and worship him for ever.” But to “glorify and en-joy him forever.” Do you see the difference?

Think of it this way. If you’re a dog owner, you know that reward and punishment are two ways of training a dog. But if you really think about it, what’s the point of dog ownership? Is it just the training? Is it simply knowing you have an animal who does what you say? (Actually not many people accomplish that, anyway!) Anyway, I hope not! Once the training is accomplished, the purpose of dog ownership is enjoying that loyal, devoted friendship that earned a dog the moniker of “man’s best friend.” That’s what it’s about. It’s about having fun with the dog. It’s enjoying that relationship. Do you see what I’m getting at.

God wants that joy for us! He wants that relationship with us! That’s part of the abundance Jesus talked about. That’s part of the being “fully alive” that you’ve heard me quote many times from this pulpit. (That was St Irenaeus from the second century.) I heard another quote the other day that said this. “Too many people die long before their heart stops beating!” In other words, too many people have forgotten how to have joy and abundance. For them life has become routine, boring, and full of drudgery.

The writer of Ecclesiastes had great insight about this. He recognized that the routine of life can be comforting, since we are creatures of habit, but it can steal the very life from us! He called it “vanity and a chasing after the wind.” Isn’t that a wonderful metaphor? He wrote, “What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun? All his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23) His conclusion sounds a bit defeatist. But is it really? He says, “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24)

What about you? Do you find enjoyment in this life? One of the most enjoyable parts of my day is when I get off my bike in the morning. My back is aching and my legs are wobbly, but the feelings of elation over the beauty of this earth and the joy of seeing a day begin in that way are palpable! And I’m not suggesting that you all go out and get bicycles. But I am saying that whatever you do, do it with joy. Look for enjoyment in things and in people. Take time to recognize God’s hand in your activities during the day, and take time to thank God for that. Think about the joy it brings you, whatever it may be. Expand your thinking beyond the routine tasks of this life, or the details of whatever it is you’re doing, and you just might find God there!

Joy is the good surprise. Be ready for it. Be looking for it. Be like that person whose birthday is coming up, and they know their family is likely to surprise them, but they don’t know how or when. Maybe their family will just let the anticipation be the surprise – and there is no party! Wouldn’t that be a surprise? Look for the joy of this life in the same way in your walk in the spirit. Be ready for it! But be surprised nonetheless!


Eternal God, it is a joy to live our lives in your presence. Help us to know the joy that you promised in Jesus, our Lord. We thank you that you share all times of our lives, good and bad. Help us to be more aware of your spirit in our lives every day, leading us, comforting us, rejoicing with us. For we pray in our Savior’s name, Amen.