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"Improper Joy"

Jesus is spending time with the disciples to prepare them for his Passion and the trials they will face. During this teaching (John 14-17), Jesus mentions “joy” five times. Is it appropriate to even mention “joy” when the primary source of that joy is about to leave them?

Jesus clearly knew about “joy” in ways that made a profound difference for him and his disciples, and we believe, for us.

            It is not hard to find inappropriate things in life.

            Last fall there was a high school football game between two Cleveland, Ohio, area schools. High school football games should be hard work. But also, fun. The game was played at the Beachwood High School field, and at halftime the officials were informed that the visiting team was using the word “Nazi” in some of their play-calling. Beachwood is a community where 89.5% of the population is Jewish, and yet the opposing coach thought it was okay to use that vile word. (His school allowed him to resign the next week, when most thought he should have been fired that night.)

            Inappropriate, off-handed comments at funerals, weddings, family gatherings and the like — we’ve all heard them. Truth be told, we’re all probably guilty of some of these in our own lives at one time or another.

            Most of the time these are inappropriate because they do not respect the reality of the situation in which they are spoken. Which brings us to Jesus’ words in our text today ...

            Jesus is clearly preparing his disciples for his death, and in that context, some of his words could be heard as inappropriate:


  • “Do not let your hearts be troubled ...”1

  • “I will not leave you orphaned.”2

  • “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”3

  • “Abide in me as I abide in you.”4

            After this extended discourse recorded by John in chapters 14-17, we are told that Jesus went out with his disciples to the garden in the Kidron Valley where he was arrested. From there you can follow, reading the accounts in the four gospels, all the events leading up to Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion.

            Yet, with everything that’s about to happen to him, Jesus still mentions joy.

            Joy may seem inappropriate considering what Jesus is telling his disciples: He is about to leave them.

            As far as his followers know, there is no coming back from death. He could talk all day, but the fact was that if Jesus continued his current course, there was little doubt he would be arrested, put on trial and crucified. That was the normal sequence of events for someone who went against the powers that be.

            And then Jesus was arrested.

            Was there an alternative to their assumptions? They might have remembered the things Jesus had done ... water to wine, healing the nobleman’s son, healing the man at the pool, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, healing a man born blind and raising Lazarus from the dead.

But that was then. Was there any reason for hope or joy in the hours before Jesus’ arrest?

            At that moment, the disciples were hard pressed to see it.

            Yet, Jesus had just talked about it. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

            In the next chapter of John, Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. ... Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.5

            The fact is that “joy” is a continuing theme throughout the Bible. The psalmist, when talking about the Israelites coming out of Egyptian slavery, wrote, “So he brought his people out with joy, his chosen ones with singing.”6 Isaiah spoke of “the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with rejoicing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.”7 Jesus’ birth was announced with “good news of great joy.”8 Jesus spoke of joy and rejoicing in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Blessed are you when people revile you ... Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”9 We see instances of Paul rejoicing in prison, and we read of the “joy of faith” and “rejoic[ing] in the Lord.”10 And, of course, Paul lists “joy” as one of the fruits of the Spirit.”11 This list could go on, but clearly, “joy” can happen even amid trouble because one trusts God.

            So, as Jesus is preparing his followers for the troubles about to fall on both him and them, it is not inappropriate that he reminds them of joy — joy as a source of strength in difficult situations.

            Along with Jesus’ reminder about joy, Jesus also reminded the disciples of his love for them. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” A few moments later Jesus told them, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”12 Jesus chose them. They were not where they were that day by mistake. Regardless of how they felt, they were where Jesus wanted them. They still had much to experience and much to learn, including the depth of Jesus’ love for them. And along with his love, at times they may have least expected it, they experienced joy. Jesus said to his disciples, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

            It follows then, that both Jesus’ love for the disciples and his joy is extended to Jesus’ followers today.

            While Jesus had been speaking to his disciples, questions must have been swirling around in their heads. One of those questions, “What are we supposed to do?” or “What do we do now (or next)?” was answered before they left the room.

            “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In and of itself this was a profound command. But less than a day later, it took on enormous implications as Jesus hung suspended on a cross. Jesus was not just talking about “going the extra mile” or being a good friend. What he commanded them to do, he was about to do. After Jesus’ crucifixion, did they look at each other and wonder if they had the “greater love” in them to lay down their life for their friends?

            Would their joy be made complete as they lived out their lives as obedient followers of Christ?

            One set of New Testament verses that surfaced more than once while preparing for this sermon was Romans 5:3-5. While it varies from one translation to another, at least two translations (ESV and the RSV) use “joy” terminology. The ESV reads, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.”

            It’s logical to assume that Paul’s statement in Romans about “rejoicing in sufferings” is looking at the events after some time has passed. Suffering can be overwhelming but, as we look back, we can often see the hand of God working in ways we could not see in the moment.

            In a blog titled “Joy in the Midst of Sorrow,”13 Linson Daniel wrote about being with various people who were going through grief and sorrow. He said, “Sorrow finds its way into our lives. We all face it at some point, often sooner than later. Sometimes it is personal. Sometimes it is communal. But it is always painful.”

            A few lines further in the blog, Linson wrote, “In the sorrow, there is a glimmer of something that is hard to explain. If I am not careful, I will miss it every time ... This feeling has a name. It is joy.”

            While not every Christian believer who has experienced sorrow and grief might speak of joy, it does sometimes come. After the initial pain and shock of whatever has happened, after things have quieted down, joy may have a place in our thoughts.

            Do you remember that joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit? Linson Daniel said, “Joy is the fruit of God’s work in our lives. It is connected to the person and character of God. Therefore, joy is present in our deepest sorrow and grief. It is the fragrance of Immanuel — God with us.”

            We all know, or will know, the uncertainty of health and happiness and life itself. We all know there will be times of sorrow and pain because we are all human.

            Linson further wrote, “I cannot resolve the tension created by my joy in the midst of my sorrow. But I can sit next to my mentor who is dying of cancer. I can look into the eyes of a mother who lost her son. I can embrace my friend in the midst of injustice. And I can grieve ... with hope ... Because there is a gigantic secret. There is an unexpected visitor. Indeed, it is joy in the midst of sorrow.”

            God gives us strength and help and comfort along that way. And sometimes, when we think we can’t go on, we just might see God at work in our lives and realize that God is with us.

            Speaking of joy at such times seems unreasonable, even unbelievable and certainly inappropriate. But sometimes God allows us to see the unexpected visitor, joy in the midst of sorrow.

1 John 14:1.

2 John 14:18.

3 John 14:27.

4 John 15:4.

5 John 16:20, 24, italics added.

6 Psalm 105:43.

7 Isaiah 51:11.

8 Luke 2:8-14.

9 Matthew 5:11, 12.

10 Philippians 1:25; 3:1.

11 Galatians 5:22.

12 John 15:16.

13 Linson Daniel, “Joy in the Midst of Sorrow,” Intervarsity, March 13, 2015,


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