Mark 9:2-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Transfiguration

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

Sermon for November 1, 2015

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Text: Mark 9:2-8

                                    Surprised by Joy

You were made for joy. For those of you tuning in just now, today we participate in the eighth episode of season one, the story line of faith that we have followed since Labor Day. As we prepare for action, our backstory from the Bible makes a flash forward leap from the Old Testament stories of faith, to this New Testament vision of perfect joy. In Jesus’ time, perfect joy looked like this. Three disciples went out for a day hike with a teacher named Jesus up Mt. Agamenticus, and when they reached the top, everything changed. 

We hear the story of what happened there as if it were a dream-filled vision. What could ever be more awe-inspiring, moving or joy-filled for these followers of a teacher named Jesus than to encounter a vision of their beloved, ancient prophets Elijah and Moses. As if that weren’t enough, we observe a bit of weather roll in, the sky dark and brooding, as Jesus’ clothes by contrast become dazzling white, illumined from within.

Their inclination was to capture the joy, like fireflies in a mayonnaise jar on a hot summer’s night. “Let’s build three little shrines, tents, dwelling places for the holy, and stay right here,” they cried out, undone. And then the fog dropped down on them, and the story says they were terrified, and overcome by it. And they heard a voice through the clouds, “This is the Beloved, listen…”

God has their attention. Peter, James and John went up the hill for an ordinary day hike with their teacher and friend. That made them incredibly happy. While they were away, they were surprised by joy.

These disciples were surprised by joy. Whenever we experience joy, we are too. The late theologian C.S. Lewis describes his conversion from atheism to faith in just such a way as this. When he was a child, he was driven to Whipsnade Zoo in London, much as we might drive a grandchild to the York Wild Kingdom up the road. He wrote of that day:

“I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.”

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

Joy is gift in just such a way as this. It rises in us like well water from a spring not of our own making. It comes to us unbidden, innocent, as full of wonder and possibility as an expectant child on their birthday morning. We can engage in practices that help us show up for the party, but the gift comes to us unmerited by the source of life that called us into being.

If we too were made for joy, then what is this joy that seems so elusive for so many of us?

First: Joy is substantively different than happiness. We have a right to the pursuit of happiness as Americans. To pursue happiness is to do things that we think will make us happy.

A dictionary definition of happiness is “a state of well-being, a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” The definition of the word “rejoice,” from which our word “joy” comes, is “to feel great delight, to welcome or to be glad.” Depending on the translation, the Bible uses the words “happy” and “happiness” about 30 times in relationship to living in pleasant circumstances, while “joy” and “rejoice” as gift from God appear over 300 times.

The word "happy" comes from the Hebrew root word ashar and means "to set right or be blessed."Happinessisthoughtofasthegoodlife, freedom from suffering, flourishing, well-being, prosperity, and pleasure.

The book of Philippians is a great study in the difference between joy and happiness. Written by the Apostle Paul while imprisoned in Rome, this book uses the words “joy,” “rejoice,” and “joyful” 16 times and teaches us how to have true contentment despite our circumstances. In chains and aware that his life was coming to an end, Paul talks about his faith and trust in Christ and how it had changed his whole perspective on suffering.

The word “joy” comes from the Greek root word chara and means "to be exceedingly glad." James 1:2 says, “Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials.” How could we ever consider going through difficulties and trials a reason to feel joy? James 1:3-4 gives us a clue when it says, “Knowing that the testing of our faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The deep, abiding joy comes as we persevere through trials, with God’s help, and our faith matures and is strengthened.

Happiness tends to be fleeting and depends upon material factors like circumstances or other people. Joy, on the other hand, is true contentment that comes from internal factors like our trust in God, the Holy. True joy is everlasting and not dependent upon circumstances.

Second: We can’t make joy happen, but we can destroy it. When happiness depends on us alone, (what we choose, how we act,) then happiness becomes fickle and elusive. We have a tendency to take any good and mess it up.

The satirical publication The Onion ran the following fictitious story titled "Man On Cusp Of Having Fun Suddenly Remembers Every Single One Of His Responsibilities." The humorous story read:

“Marshall Platt, 34, came tantalizingly close to kicking back and having a good time while attending a friend's barbeque last night before remembering each and every one of his professional and personal obligations, backyard sources confirmed. While he chatted with friends over a relaxed outdoor meal, Platt was reportedly seconds away from letting go and enjoying himself when he was suddenly crushed by the full weight of work emails that still needed to be dealt with … an upcoming wedding for which he had yet to buy airfare because of an unresolved issue with his Southwest Rapid Rewards account, and phone calls that needed to be returned.

“Platt, who reportedly sunk into a distracted haze after coming to the razor's edge of experiencing genuine joy, fully intended to go through the motions of talking with friends and appearing to have a good time, all while he mentally shopped for a birthday present for his mother … and made a silent note to call his bank about a mysterious recurring $19 monthly fee that he had recently discovered on his credit card statement.

"Everything's fine," said the tense, mentally absent man whose girlfriend asked him what was wrong after his near-giddy buzz vanished and he remembered that he hadn't called his aunt yet to check up on her after her surgery. "I'm having fun."

We all can identify with this tendency to get in the way of our own joy. As compassionate people, we sometimes even feel guilty if we’re having too much fun. After all, somewhere in the world at any given moment, somebody is suffering: from famine, war or flood, from polluted water, or food insecurity, or the anxieties of illness or aging.

Happiness then depends on circumstances. Yesterday working over in the office next door, my computer crashed. I pushed the little button, nothing. I plugged it into the charger, dead. I waited, nope. Having recently purchased a new phone, nothing was yet set up. Suddenly I was without contact, email, calendar, files, Sunday sermon. Anxiety started to rise. You know what I’m talking about. I called the guy at UpSurf down the block, and he wasn’t hopeful. He stopped by with that empathetic face people give you when the situation appears bleak. He pursed his lips, and then he took my computer and walked away with it… I suffered something that can only be described as separation anxiety, like a child waiting at the screen door for their mother to return.

An hour later he did, proudly poking the magic button that made everything light up again. We’re not well acquainted, but I gave him a bear hug and did a little victory dance right there in broad daylight. We were both happy.

When we’ve accomplished our goals, we’re happy. When we’ve finished our bucket list, we’re happy, when we’re in love we’re happy. But if our to-do list gets to long, or our bucket list remains untouched or the one we love leaves, or our health deteriorates, then we’re unhappy.

Fortunately, joy is not like that. “God’s joy is not based on circumstances. It’s not based on what we have, or don’t have. Joy is not based on how we feel, or what is happening in our lives, or what has happened to us in the past. Joy is not about us, though it is for us. Rather, pure joy is based on an unchanging God, who loves with an unconditional love.” (Author:
Rhonda Sawtelle)

Third: Joy is not the antitheses of suffering. In fact, sometimes, it is in our greatest suffering that we experience the greatest joy. Theologian Walter Wangerin Jr. wrote, “The difference between shallow happiness and a deep, sustaining joy is sorrow. Happiness lives where sorrow is not. When sorrow arrives, happiness dies. It can't stand pain.”

“Joy, on the other hand, rises from sorrow and therefore can withstand all grief. Joy, by the grace of God, is the transfiguration of suffering into endurance, and of endurance into character, and of character into hope--and the hope that has become our joy does not (as happiness must for those who depend up on it) disappoint us.”

(Walter Wangerin Jr., Reliving the Passion: Meditations on the Suffering, Death, and the Resurrection of Jesus as Recorded in Mark.)

When a woman is in childbirth, the suffering may be great, but at the end of the day, this occasion of tremendous pain most often concludes with the unmerited gift of unsurpassed joy through the birth of a child.

When we think back over the course of our life, some of the worst things that have happened to us, or that we have brought upon ourselves, have become the very circumstances that developed our strength, shaped our character or in some way visible only from the other side, made for good for us or for others.

Yet not all suffering is redemptive, nor is hope always evident at the moment. Only as we look back upon the darkest moments can we see signs of unyielding hope that did not let us die in our suffering though we imagined then that it would be so. Faith is the capacity to imagine joy, and to trust that we will be brought to it again.

You were made for joy by God who loved you into being at the beginning of time, engages you throughout the whole of your brief, sweet life, and transitions with you to glory. Faith is living with radical trust in the Holy One who makes it possible on any ordinary happy morning and through every extraordinary season of sorrow, to be surprised by joy.

"Go your way. Eat the fat and drink the sweet wine ... the joy of the Lord is your strength." Nehemiah 8:10