November 16

Surprised by Joy

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear Sermon only


Plato, 500 years before Christ, described the world as a great cave, in which dim reflections of an external light sent figures and shadows dancing upon the dank cavernous walls of life.

You do not have to be Greek or a philosopher or a Greek philosopher to appreciate his thought. We have our own spelunking experiences, our own caves. I think we come to church, Sunday, sometimes just hoping that somehow, someone will light a birch bark torch for us, to put a little more warmth and brightness into our cave.

Do you remember the end of Tom Sawyer, when Huck and Tom disappear into such a cave? A neighbor is assaulted, a friend falls ill, a job falls through, a limb gives way, a child falls ill or very ill or worse still, a theological certainty cracks and crumbles, a relationship rolls downhill faster than a barrel over Niagara, and we sit among the stalactites and stalagmites, listening to water drip below or behind, shivering in the near dark.

Some years ago I attended a meeting, in which people I knew well and loved deeply, for some reason became–not themselves, ghosts really of their real persons. They were reticent, somber, afraid, defensive, and touchy. I cannot say why. As a newcomer to that circle, I wondered, though, whether there were memories, long-toothed but not forgotten, that returned with the rejoining of that meeting. Memories of past things—hurts, angers, betrayals—that still hung like mold and mildew on the wet walls of that cave. It felt like we had all gone down into the earth, into a cave.

My childhood friend’s father ran a slaughter house. Though we didn’t usually go when the cutting was done, you could feel and sense the past brutality there—it hung in the air, it flew through the spirit like a bat through a cave.

Life can become one long stint of hard time in a cave, in the calaboose.


St. Paul is writing to the Philippians, and so to us, from a cave. He is to be heard today, from the heart of the Roman prison, where he evidently awaits execution. The Bible records loving, wise and faithful responses to pain, hurt and failure, to exile, and to execution. Its remarkable trait is honesty about pain. Paul writes from inside a cave, Jonah in the belly of the provincial whale.

How stunning his word.

Paul, in Philippians, writes largely about joy.


All of the New Testament, but particularly the letters of Paul and especially the Gospel of John, bear witness to the earliest church’s experience of Spirit. “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”, wrote Paul. And the Epistle of John, in a clear warning to those living in times like ours says, “test the spirits, to see whether they are of God.” It is not enough to be full of spirit. Rather, the question is, which spirit? Which spirit?

Here again, the Scripture guides us. As we know people by their deeds, their fruits, so we are to recognize the footprints of the Spirit in the fruit she bestows, ripe in this spiritual season. The Spirit gives…joy (Gal 5:22).

My friend Don Harp preaches in a big Atlanta church, Peachtree UMC. When he moved to Atlanta he liked to walk in his new neighborhood. One day he came upon dark skinned girl and red haired boy selling lemonade. He spent 25 cents on a cup. Being a pastor, and being pastoral, he struck up some conversation. Finally, the girl asked if he was finished. He said he was. Then she asked for his cup. “If you don’t mind, we would like the cup back. It’s the only one we have and we expect to have another customer in a little while”.

For those who will stop and drink, there is a river of joy in every day.


The good news of Jesus Christ, toward which we are summoned today, is throughout a glorious expression of joy. We trust the Bible as it records this open secret. Joy is truly native to God alone, and in God’s word this joy enters our life. “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little, we will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master!”

Wise men from the east at last find a star and a child and they rejoice with great joy.

Common shepherds hear tidings of great joy, meant for all people, and are shaken to their boots.

Some seed falls on good ground and…you and you and you…receive the word with great joy.

A servant is faithful over a little, and is set over much, and enters…the joy of the master.

There is more joy in heaven over one who repents than over 99 who lack nothing.

Even the evening of his death, Jesus sings with joy his affection for his disciples.

And early women go to the tomb, and finding it empty are turned upside down and leave with fear and great, great joy.

Peter Berger puts it this way: Faith is faith in the validity of joy. (QOF, 18)

Christ Jesus

Furthermore, in this passage, St Paul reminds us that the Lord is at hand. Nearby. At hand but not in hand. Absent, yet close. It is the risen Lord whom we worship, in this and every age.

You are people of faith, those for whom the pattern of struggle and rest, pain and glory known in Christ Jesus forms the basis of life. You are people of faith, attentive to the Spirit who bestows such ripe fruit upon us. And we are in a season of spiritual harvest.

Where I run much of the summer there are apple trees. Most years, in summer, I have only been able to enjoy their sight. This summer, though, the fragrance of ripening fruit has been covering the dirt path along the lake for some weeks. The fruit is ripe, and surprisingly early. The fruit is ripe, and surprisingly ample.

The Spirit bears this fruit, of joy, into our common life, like a baby born into an expectant family. Yours is the family of Christ.

Which is, to put it less gently, to be reminded that we are people of faith. For example, if we are Christians, we are Christians, not Jesusites. That is, we are Christians, not Jesusites. We worship Christ, the risen Lord, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. We are not enslaved, but freed. We are not Jesusites. We do not live in Palestine, nor do we feel we must. We do not wear robes and sandals (except at bedtime), nor do we feel inclined to do so. We do not travel by donkey or chariot. We do not, most of us, speak Aramaic. We do not read Hebrew. We do not think that David wrote all of the Psalms, or that the world is flat, or that the Rock of Gibraltar is the end of civilization. And some of us are not celibate. We are not Jesusites.

The millennial question is not “What would Jesus do?” Rather, the question is “What does the Lord want me to do?” Where do I taste the fruit of the spirit? And blessed as we are with a mission to fulfill, it is the sun of vision, not the moon of mission, which awakens us to real life. God is giving us a vision of joy! Joy in worship, joy at judgment, even joy amid persecution.

Surprised by Joy

1. Worship

Sunday can bring joy. Yes, there is routine and there is atte

Required. Someone asked my son a couple of years ago about worship and he said: “Church is church.” Well, yes. Surprisingly, though, joy can overtake us here. In fact, this is an hour meant for joy. In prayer, or worship, or devotion of any real kind we enter the presence of what is given us and leave behind the cloying grasp of what we make. Joy finds us here—freedom in fellowship, through all our silliness and sanctimoniousness.

Do you remember David’s dance? King David had won battles, slain foes, built a kingdom, defeated both Goliath and Saul (fightings without and fears within), yet, perhaps due to his many achievements, he could reckon with their limitation. In his older age he searched for joy. Way up north, in the hill country, he found an old ark, a box, mysterious and potent. Last month, we heard about the ark and its landlord, Obededom the Gittite. The ark still brings joy! In thy presence there is fullness of joy! And when David found the ark—the Presence of the Holy—he danced! He made merry! He worshipped with song and lyre and harp and tambourine and castanet and cymbal, clad only in an ephod, which lies somewhere between a napkin and a handkerchief. Since God is present, joy is in the air. Worship is the one time in the week when we don’t have to celebrate ourselves.

Remember the tides of the sea that swell up along coast, the coast so near and dear to us. Think of the twinkling stars that stand mute, seemingly motionless, light years away. Picture the great brown fields of the northern reaches of Vermont. Another hand has given us our home and guided our history. Another heart speaks to yours in worship. We can say with Jeremiah, “O Lord, your word was unto me a joy!”

Our sermon title is borrowed from C.S.Lewis. Think of the very end of the film Shadowlands. A slow walk, with cane and dog. A meadow, an English meadow, an English meadow in the warming spring. A memory, searing painful yet ultimately joyful, of love, unexpected love, love which seizes us, love whose way to surprise by joy.

2. Judgment

The invasion of worship by joy is nowhere near as surprising as the next invasive step in joy’s march. For after worship, joy inhabits judgment. Down under the happy word of joy, caused by God, is the awareness that sometime we will need to give an account for our living. People of faith have never questioned this. Scripture and Life, two sides of one truth, conspire to remind us. We have exactly one life to live, one string of days, one complex of history and hope, just one chance. Sometime, someday we will give an account of how we have lived.

As some of you have done this fall, I lost a dear friend recently. It reminds you–does it not?–to prize your time, while you have it.

Paul’s letter points to the day of Christ toward which we run, and not in vain. You can approach any and all accounting with joy. All that is good will have its just reward. Nothing is ever as good now as it will be later, and nothing is ever as bad now as it seems. Or as Barbara Brown Taylor said one summer, “The bad news is that we do not get what we deserve. And the good news is that we do not get what we deserve. God is more than just. God is gracious.” We can approach the border, every border, with a joyful anticipation.

Let us be honest that we are all equally in the dark as we approach ultimate borders.

For some years I traveled across the northern border of our nation almost every week day. I never lost completely a sense of anticipation and even dread at the border. One very cold morning, near 5am, down in the dark beyond Huntingdon Quebec, I stopped in the snow alongside a lost trucker. I lowered the window to catch his question “Ou est le frontiere?”. When I had finally translated the simple sentence, “where is the border”, I leaned back and haltingly replied in French, but before I could say anymore he caught my accent, or maybe it was my abysmal grammar. Sensing a common soul, and jumping for joy he said, “You speak English!” There is a surprising joyful anticipation, in faith, as we approach the border. At the border, the same language we have used for a lifetime is in use, the language of grace. We cross the same border with every confession of sin and every acceptance of pardon. We cross the same border with every awareness of idolatry and every word of forgiveness. We have crossed over before in the daylight, so that when night falls, we need not fear. We know what the Psalmist meant, we can hear it on the lips of Martin Luther King Sr at his son’s burial, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

3. Persecution

More surprising still, even than joy’s eruption in worship and

Judgment, is the presence of joy in the hearts of people persecuted. Joy abounds in the fellowship of worship, in the prospect of accounting and as promise for the persecuted. Mt 5:11 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad.”

This seems at first a hard word for us, partly because we do not think we know much about persecution, and partly because we doubt it as an occasion of joy. We sense masochism and recoil.

Yet, I think some of you have known more persecution than you think. Some have learned the hard way that real virtue is not always rewarded on this earth. Some have paid dearly for speaking and living a less than popular truth. Some have seen the cost of accepting a calling in life: a life with purpose is not necessarily one free of pain. Some have been exposed to the difficulty of having to choose between home and work, between friendship and honesty, between the short term and the long haul. Look back. I bet you are heartened most by the running you did with unfairly added leg weights. In the long run, there is sweet, sweet joy in choosing the narrow gate and the straight path. The altar of this church and its cross are signs of promise that when persecution comes it will also carry a kind of joy. You can read about it in Philippians, or in CS Lewis’ book, Surprised by Joy, or, probably, if you will invest the time and energy, simply by getting to know well the person sitting next to you in the pew. Every heart has secret sorrows. Yet every heart is made for joy.

It is hard to lose. We know what Lincoln meant by his phrase, ‘too hurt to laugh and too old to cry’. I loved what Governor Tim Pawlenty said this week. He said he came back from the campaign trail, trying to help others of his party. He looked in the mirror and said to his wife, ‘Look at me. I’m looking old. I’m looking tired. My hair is receding. I’m going bald. I’ve put on ten pounds. My belly is leaning over my belt. Is there anything you can say to cheer me up?’ ‘Well’, she said, ‘there is nothing wrong with your eyesight!’

For those who will stop and look, there is a vista of joy in every day.


One day, in the fullness of time, Joy will reign.

One day, in the fullness of time, says the Old Testament, the joy of the Lord will be our strength.

One day, in the fullness of time, says the New Testament, they that sow in tears shall reap in joy.

One day—and why not begin here and why not start now?—we will count it all joy when various trials beset us.

I tell you truly—and base your struggles upon it—“weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning!”

Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say rejoice!

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Leave a Reply