Sunday, January 25, 2004

The Friendship Vision,
Faith on Fire:
Endless Joy
Acts 8:1b-8

(shared with the people of Friendship Church, January 25, 2004)

Many of you have probably heard of Joni Eareckson Tada. As a young, athletic woman, she became paralyzed after a swimming accident. One might have expected her to have been utterly dispirited by the tragedy that befell her, angry at God and her lifetime sentence to a wheelchair. Yet, Tada became a follower of Jesus Christ, successfully tackling music, painting, writing, and public speaking.

Once, Tada says, she was in a women’s rest room during a break at a Christian women’s conference. A woman, putting on her lipstick, turned to Tada and said:

“Oh, Joni, you always look so together, so happy in your wheelchair. I wish that I had your joy!” Several women around her nodded [Tada writes]. “How do you do it?” [the woman who’d applied her lipstick wondered] [Tada replied,] “I don’t do it...In fact, may I tell you how I woke up this morning?”

“This is an average day...After my husband, Ken, leaves for work at 6:00 A.M., I’m home alone until I hear the front door open at 7:00 A.M. That’s when a friend arrives to get me up.

“While I listen to her make coffee, I pray, ‘Oh, Lord, my friend will soon give me a bath, get me dressed, sit me up in my chair, brush my hair and teeth, and send me out the door. I don’t have the strength to face this routine one more time. I have no resources. I don’t have a smile to take into the day. But You do. May I have Yours. God, I need You desperately.”

“So, what happens when your friend comes through the bedroom door?” one [the women] asked.

“I turn my head toward her and give her a smile sent straight from heaven. It’s not mine. It’s God’s. And so,” I said, gesturing to my...legs, “whatever joy you see today was hard won this morning.”

After recounting that incident, Tada concludes, "I have learned that the weaker we are, the more we need to lean on God; and the more we lean on God, the stronger we discover Him to be."

Most of the people of the world are in a chase after something they call happiness. The Declaration of Independence, one of the foundational documents of our nationhood in America says that all human beings have a right to pursue happiness. That’s all well and good. But it’s been my observation that when we attain happiness, it’s sort of like “fool’s gold.” The plumbing goes out in the dream house. The car you acquire by hook and crook proves to have a disappointing blue book value at trade-in time. The person you've sought to conquer sexually with no thought of their personhood, loses his or her allure.

"Happiness" is fleeting; it doesn’t last. It’s like a drug: the more we make happiness our object, the more it takes from us and the more of it we need to feel good, sometimes for just a few seconds.

But joy, that thing that Tada told those women about in the restroom, is real gold, the genuine article. It’s not a smile that fades away. It’s not a thrill over something we’ve conquered and made our own, only to become bored with it or immune to its attractions.

Joy comes to those desperate enough to admit their emptiness. Joy is that infusion of power for living, of hope in a future that never ends, of a belief that even in the midst of heartaches, setbacks, and challenges, living is still worthwhile. And joy comes not to those pursuing the stuff that we and this world think will make us happy. It comes to those who cry out to God with honesty and openness and say, “Lord, you’ve given me this life to live and frankly, today, I don’t think that I can make it. I need You, Lord. Through Jesus, fill me with the life-giving power of Your Holy Spirit. Help me find my purpose once more today and fill me with the joy that comes to those who are living their lives in sync with You!”

The fact of the matter is that Joni Eareckson Tada is a kind of metaphor for each and every one of us. All of us can be and often are paralyzed by one thing or another in life. Grief can paralyze us. The experience of failure can do it. So can personal insecurities. The guilt we carry for past sins can paralyze us, as can painful experiences from childhood. All of these things, the result of our alienation from God—what the Bible calls sin—act as joy robbers. And when we fail to let Jesus Christ come into the very center of our beings, we mine tons of the fool’s gold of happiness, without knowing joy. Joy comes in surrender to the God we know through Jesus Christ.

This is something I keep having to learn. I find myself continuously falling prey to the lie that if only I work to capture the happiness the world offers, I'll be okay. I have to keep being reminded that if I'll only embrace living life God's way, He'll give me deep, down-in-my-soul contentment and joy that lasts forever!

Our Bible lesson for this morning comes at an interesting time in the history of the early church, not long after Jesus Christ’s death, resurrection, and return to heaven. A man named Stephen has just been murdered because of His faithful witness that everlasting life and forgiveness come to those who surrender to Christ. After that, the Church experiences persecution that causes Jesus’ followers to be scattered hither and yon. We see that while the enemies of God meant to crush the Jesus Movement out of existence, they really caused it to grow as Jesus’ followers—like seeds blown around by the wind—planted the Church in new places.

A Jesus’ follower named Philip even carried the Good News that all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus as God and Savior will live with Him forever to Samaria. Samaria, you’ll remember, was a place that the people of Judea, Jesus’ native country and the spawning ground for the Church, usually hated. But here was Philip sharing God’s love with the enemies of His people. It would be sort of like you and me going to an Al-Qaeda terrorist training camp and telling bin-Laden and his crew, “God loves you and so do I.” And the result, in Philip’s case, was interesting. In one city, Samaritans by the droves came to faith in Christ. The upshot? Our Bible lesson tells us:
So there was great joy in that city.

The vision for Friendship Church has always been that this would be a congregation so on fire for Jesus Christ, that like the early church, even when the terrible things that happen in this life come to us, we will still have joy.

That can only come to people who remain aware of their own insufficiency and, of the incredible super-sufficiency of the God we know through Jesus, and turn to God for help and power.

This past week brought one of the saddest passages in the life of our church. The loss of Isaac Hauke was above all, a tragedy for his parents and extended family, of course. But it hit everyone of us. Ann and I got the news as we drove back from Florida, where we had taken our daughter for her internship. The entire way back after that, I thought and prayed about what awaited us on our return. Personally, I already felt spent and a little emotionally drained from leaving our daughter in a town so far from us. Isaac’s death made me sad and frankly, angry. “God,” I said, “I’m empty. I don’t know what to say or do. Fill me with Your Spirit. Give me the words and the silences, the gestures and the sensitivity that comes from You. Fill my emptiness with Your joy.”

When I got back, the people of Friendship Church—as you always do—came through in remarkable ways. You did a thousand-and-one things, big and small, to help make Friday's events come off as they needed to come off. You also sent me e-mails and made phone calls to talk about the events of this sad time. And you took time to say, “We’re praying for you, Mark. We’re praying that God will help you do what needs doing.” I loved that because you weren’t giving me a rah-rah pep talk about how you were counting on me. Instead, you were telling me, “Mark, we’re counting on God.”

And that is how joy enters our lives. Joy comes to us in good times and, as was true of the early church in our Bible lesson for today, in sad times. Unlike happiness, joy can exist even in the midst of sadness because joy, the gift of certainty that God’s love is bigger than anything and everything that may hurt us in this life, is real gold. It’s resilient and indestructible faith that no matter what, God is still in charge...God still loves His people...God still has lots of life up His sleeve.

May we always be helpless enough to admit our need of God and may we always be a church filled with joy!

[The incident involving Joni Eareckson Tada at the women's conference comes from Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion, edited by David P. Barrett. (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2002)]