This Sunday in the tradition of the church is referred to as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice,” and the name is tied to the passage from Philippians 4:4 which reads, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice …” Like its counterpart in Lent, Laetare Sunday, it is a break from the discipline of the season and a nod to the inclusivity of the message of Christ. The focus is less on outward activities of sharing hope, seeking peace, and loving others, and more on inward joy.
Unfortunately, “joy” is a term that has become so overused that it has lost some of the distinct meaning that differentiates it from other words such as happiness or contentment. From a theological standpoint, when we talk about joy, we are talking about something that is not temporal.
Unlike a generic happy situation, joy points to something much deeper. As Donald McKim puts it in his dictionary, it is “a sense of extreme happiness and well-being related in Scripture to knowing God and God’s actions of love (Neh 12:43; Isa 29:19), specifically in Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:13; 1 Pet. 1:8).” (McKim 2014)
Personally, I like the way that Henri Nouwen talks about joy. Here is one of my favorite quotes of his:
Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us. Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing¾sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death¾can take that love away.
So there is a choice that we make for ourselves, and it is not always an easy choice, because for so many of us, joy is elusive. So often the things of this world come in the way of our joy because we continue to put a temporal happiness before a deeper joy.
It reminds me of the community I grew up in and the story of a friend of mine. I grew up comfortably middle-class. My dad was fairly cheap, but honestly, we never went without anything. My friend’s family, though, was wealthy. They lived in a house three times the size of mine. Where I had to wear Toughskins, he always had the nicest jeans and shoes, and all kinds of clothes. He was the first to have the newest gaming system, and always put on a front that he was happy. The problem was that his happiness was a façade!
He was miserable. While he enjoyed the luxuries of his life, there was something deeper that he was missing. He was missing the deeper connection and a real sense of joy. I remember one time at a church retreat, he just let it all out. Luckily, we had a great youth pastor who used that occasion to teach a very important lesson, that “things may make us happy, but only God can bring us joy!”
We all changed that day. For me, it was something that would give me strength through all of the turmoil that would come into my life over the next few years with my medical issues. Through the most difficult of times, I recognized that my joy was different than my comfort and that the happiness that came to me through my faith could sustain me much more than any single thing in life.
This week, take some time to seek the joy in your life. Do you put your happiness in the things of this world, or do you put it in the hands of God?
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen