"Joy. . . Your Mood, or Disposition?"
27 June 1999
Text: Acts 2:41-47
There is much in our text that speaks to our purpose. I suppose that many of us would be well content if what is described there could be honestly said of our church, or fellowship. "The people devoted themselves to the teaching, the fellowship, breaking of the bread and prayer." They kept the purpose of the psalmist, Psalm 16:8: "I have set the Lord before me always." That is the key to the joy-filled Christian life—devotion. And when you are in the midst of a people so totally given to God, so devoted, awesome things happen regularly. The faith quotient is high and "wonders and miraculous signs" will be accomplished in that fellowship: lives will be turned around, salvations, repentance from dead works, healings and deliverances! Let me say boldly to you that wonders are not limited to the first century, that miraculous signs still appear wherever God is, and God is wherever His people are devoted to Him. Psalm 22:3-4 "You are holy, Enthroned in the praises of Israel. Our fathers trusted in You; They trusted and You delivered them."
The activeness of God filled everyone with awe. People were together enthusiastically, fervently. They were joy-filled and devoted, entirely given to the work of glorifying God. It was their preoccupation. The concerns of this world were peripheral, not central. Disciplining the flesh had come to displace catering to the flesh. Their sense of the eternal pressed in on the temporal—now you give glory, now you love, or serve, or pray. Procrastination, deferral and delay are among the choice weapons of Satan in his distraction of the saints. We read that they were "selling their possessions and goods, and gave to anyone as he had need." We get sidetracked, I think, by the holding everything in common bit—imagining it to be some form of proto-socialism. But what is described here is not socialism, in fact, it is ordinary economic activity, but it is focused on provision for the needs of others and not on the accumulation of wealth per se. Those who are rich in the things of God are not attracted by the deceptiveness of wealth, they keep financial matters useful, not obsessing over such things.
The text implies that they met daily for worship in a public place. They also broke bread in their homes and ate together with "glad and sincere hearts." They were joy-filled because they were worshipful. . . full of worshipping acts. They were always praising God. And, oh, happy consequence, as they attended to God’s business, they found favor in the eyes of the common folk, the-ordinary-meet-in-Shop and Save every-day-people we rub shoulders with each time we traffic in public. Devotion is an every day thing; it’s an all the time attitude, a disposition of soul. Love is like that. Love of God and love of the brothers and sisters means that we are always on each others’ hearts and often on each others’ minds! And that kind of love, while far from being gushy and romantically erotic, is still the most powerful drawing card in the world. So it is no wonder that in response to their devotion, God was adding to their number, day by day, "those who were being saved!"
All these things were happening. Joy was the result of devotion and the companion to devotion. Joy. . .contentment. . . delight. . .gladness. . . and celebration. These religious affections are what undergirds Christian worship. Well, actually, they actually undergird all true worship. The plan, as given to Moses, was to have a calendar of celebration, a yearly rotation of appointed feasts and sacred assemblies to insure that the people of God knew how to function as a worshipping people. I certainly hope that we are put off by the fact that these appointed feasts and sacred assemblies orbited around two poles: the agrarian cycle and the redemptive history of the Hebrews. These poles were places were, it would appear, God elected to meet His chosen people. How far from this are the modalities of today: our therapeutic modality with its self-help, psychological framework and terminology; or our liberationist/equality modality, driven by the cultural forces relevant to early 21st century. What we need to hear is that something transcends the limitations of culture and history and that something is God’s desire that we enjoy the goodness of our God! Yes, we want to confess our sin, and, yes, we want to get right with God and each other but we want to do so as the most pleasurable, fulfilling and delightful thing that we are called to do! Enjoy, that is, bask in and revel in the goodness of this providing, guiding, redeeming and enlivening God of ours—who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow regardless of the cultural setting and trappings of our day. Progress is a divine gift to humanity, God delights in drawing new things out of the old. He both forms and reforms! Progress is a part of God’s creative unfoldment and even in the Old Testament language strained to capture some of that protean energy—He was the living rock of our salvation that went before His people Israel!
When we study what God commanded in Leviticus we find that God took this matter of celebration too seriously to leave it to chance. Out of seven ordained events (feasts and solemn assemblies), two, the Passover and The Day of Atonement, were serious and the rest were festive. This is not to suggest that Passover, celebrating the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, is utterly without joy. But we, observing Passover through the overlay of the Last Supper, tend toward the more serious aspects of the Seder celebration. We tend to recall the betrayal and crucifixion rather than focusing on the joy of His resurrection and our deliverance from bondage to sin to which these more somber things have brought us.
The list in Leviticus begins with the seventh day of rest, Sabbath keeping upon which occasion we are to celebrate the week of work we have been given as an indication of the goodness of the Lord. This practice is coupled with Sabbath years every seven years. Every seventh years a field was to lie fallow for God had declared a rest for the land. And, then, there was the Year of Jubilee celebrated in the fiftieth year (after seven times seven years) when debts were canceled, slaves were to be liberated and land that had been alienated was to be returned to its original family owners. Those same fields were to be valued with relation to the number of crops they could be expected to yield before the time of jubilee. This provided help and hope for the poor, and tended to stabilize agrarian society which, without this provision, might gravitate into a circumstance in which the rich became richer and the poor became landless. Another limitation on the buying and selling of land resulted from the impossibility of a member of the family conveying absolute title to another party. So, Sabbath keeping had to do with our weeks, our years and our generations—bringing rest, restoration and joy through the calendar of celebration.
In the first month, Abib 14, the Jews were commanded to hold the Passover and from the 15-21 the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This was to remind them of God’s deliverances in history. There was to be no work, other than meal preparation, for seven days (Abib15-21) as families, organized by household, spent time together affirming their religious and spiritual roots. In the midst of this festival time, came the First Fruits, an offering of the first sheaves of barley, to celebrate the bounty of God’s provision in the fertility of the land.
The Festival of Weeks (what we call Pentecost) was a harvest festival related to first fruits of wheat. It occurred between May and June and the people celebrated the blessing of the harvest. Trumpets, later Rosh Hashanah, on Tishri 1and 2 signaled the New Year and closure on the agricultural cycle! It was called to present Israel before the Lord God. And on Tishri 10 (September-October) falls the Day of Atonement upon which date the people seek to cleanse themselves of sin and when it was applicable to purify the Temple. On Tishri 15-21, came the week long celebration known as Tabernacles. Families gathered in booths around Jerusalem for the joyful purpose of making sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. All of these events have New Testament references except Trumpets.
Joy, according to Galatians 5.16-26 which covers our life by the Spirit is a fruit of the Spirit. It is something spontaneously produced in us by the Spirit as a by-product of Christ’s controlling influence. You can see in etched in the smile lines of the dear, old saints with their prayer weathered faces! John 15:4-5 declares that if we remain in Him He will abide in us and we shall bear fruit out of that vital union! What does it mean to remain? It means the same things as expressed in Psalm 16—to set the Lord before us always. It means to love, know, remember and to imitate Him. In a very significant way it is forgetfulness that robs us of our joy—when we forget who He is we also forget who we are! And when we remember Him, we remain in the space described by Philippians 4 where we rejoice in the Lord always, where we are gentle and secure because of that sustaining presence and joy! Surely we pray, but it’s with thankful assurance that we matter, that we are heard. It’s no wonder that we are joyful. But it’s not merely a matter of mood.
No, joy is the settled disposition of those who’s inner attitude is independent of circumstances. This is what enabled Joseph to say, as I paraphrase parts of Genesis 45 and 50, to the very brothers who sought to destroy him as a youth, "Don’t be dismayed! You meant it for evil, but God intended it for good. He sent me ahead that preserve your lives, and the lives of your little ones. Go tell my father, how good God has been to me. . .to us!" It is a disposition of joy that makes us the "more than conquerors" of Romans 8:28-39—rising above tribulation, trouble, persecution, famine, danger, nakedness and war! The love of Christ insures that we may rise joyfully above the defining limits of our upbringing. That joy enables us to keep perspective, refusing to take unimportant and temporal things too seriously and so lose our perspective, balance or wisdom. Rather we re-define ourselves in terms of our redemption, or conversion confident that God is always fulfilling His purposes in and through us beyond the limits of all our petty ways—our strife, both inner and outer, our spiritual struggle and warfare.
There is liberation is hearing our Lord say:
Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy,
and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasure in
heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break
in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other,
or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God
` and mammon, or money. (Matthew 6:19 and 24)
Contentment grows out of having one Master and serving God rather than money, career, profession, power or fame. So much hinges on what we commit ourselves to? What are you committed to? Is it safety, a pain-free existence, secure isolation? What is it that occupies your thought life, your energy, your time? Are your values truly eternal, or merely temporal? Are you finding joy in your not so trivial pursuits? Are you looking to lottery tickets, or to the Lord? Are your possessions too self-consuming and important? Are you obsessed with your looks, age or reputation? There is no joy in these things!
If only God would restore to each of us today the sure knowledge of what it is we truly want and need. We are often discontent because we don’t have what we think we want, but more often we are discontent because we either want the wrong things (i.e. temporal, not eternal) or we want them in the wrong way (too strongly and so impatiently). May God lead us to desire no more than He wisely wants us to have. We can be content if we ask for His perspective on life. . .on possessions, and on relationships. We can be content if we asked more, "What am I supposed to do?" and asked less, "What am I supposed to have?" The secret of the contented and God-pleasing life is perspective, priorities and the proper use of our personal power.
Today I draw to a close with some cautions, a short list of some hindrances to joy. The first is idolatry (putting anything in front of God, serving that something and not the Lord). The second is disloyalty. We can be, and sometimes are disloyal to God as a form of disobedience. Bitterness hinders joy. So does coveting—coveting is an inordinate desire for something we don’t have, something that often belongs to someone else. Materialism can also rob us of our joy. It is ironic that something commonly viewed as the source of happiness and a sense of well-being not only fails to satisfy but increases our sense of emptiness. And finally, our wants can deprive us of our joy. We’ve all witnessed children in a store infected with I-want-itis; it is obnoxious and wearing. The child is so preoccupied with what he/she wants that there is no enjoyment of what that child has.
So, how do we overcome these hindrances? By devotion to the Lord, by allowing ourselves to be totally given to the Lord. We can choose to be devoted to the teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer in such a way that our faith will be compounded, and our lives transformed. When that happens we will live out of our inner motivations, and will be unruffled by our circumstances! Our joy will instruct us in the value of worship. We will love God more truly and each other more fully as we enjoy the goodness of our God!