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The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself

Weekly essays by Dan Clendenin

Essay posted 11 May 2009

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That Your Joy May Be Complete:
Ancient Poetry for Modern Pilgrims

For Sunday May 17, 2009

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           Acts 10:44–48
           Psalm 98
           1 John 5:1–6
           John 15:9–17

           People talk a lot today about globalization, but I'm always amazed when I read the Psalms how poetry that is 2,500 years old invites readers to embrace a view of the world that is not only global but even cosmic in scale. Psalm 98 for this week is a case in point:

Sing to the Lord a new song,
   for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
   have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made his salvation known
   and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
He has remembered his love
   and his faithfulness to the house of Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen
   the salvation of our God.

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
   burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
   with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets, and the blast of the ram's horn—
   shout for joy before the Lord, the King.

Let the sea resound, and all that is in it,
   the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
   let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
   for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
   and the peoples with equity. (NIV)

This verse originated from an anonymous and ancient poet of a geo-politically marginal people, and yet he calls every person in every time and place to offer thanksgiving, singing and grateful devotion to Yahweh. His verse spells the end of all nationalisms and narcissism. Instead, he pushes us beyond all ethnocentric boundaries to embrace every "other," and beyond every egocentric preoccupation to worship only God.

           At first this seems contradictory; isn't ancient (or modern!) Israel just as nationalistic as any other people? Yes, that's often been the case, not only for Israel but for every nation. Every nation believes and acts like it is exceptional before God and before every other nations. But embedded in God's original call to one particular person, Abraham alone and no other, was a divine promise of blessing for all the world (Genesis 12:3). So, properly understood and worshipped, the ancient God of the Hebrews has always been a global "egalitarian" as opposed to a parochial "exceptionalist."

           As the Bible so often does, Psalm 98 commends a counter-intuitive piece of advice: don't take the bait of fear and pessimism. However accurate our modern cultural diagnosis of doom and gloom might be, however low the sociological trends and opinion polls sink, do not yield to the spirit of despair. Instead, choose the most radical of all political options today—the subversive act of genuine joy.

           The sicknesses of our world easily provoke fear and insecurity, but the psalmist encourages us to resist those temptations. He invites each person, every nation, "all the ends of the earth," and the entire cosmos (the sea, the rivers and the mountains) to know the joy of being known and loved by Israel's God.

           Joy can be an ambiguous term. Many people link it with happiness, health, success, fame, wealth, pleasure, fun, or good fortune. In that sense of the word joy is derivative, it's attached to and dependent upon some external source. Joy of that sort can exude a sense of smugness, entitlement, narcissism, and even self-pity in the absence of desired objects. Such joy seldom lasts for long or is genuinely fulfilling, for it creates its own set of needs that are rarely satisfied. We all know privileged people who enjoy the most fortunate of personal circumstances but who are never content and always unhappy, and, conversely, people who possess little but nevertheless radiate equanimity and gladness. And which is sadder, that one could be so easily fulfilled by so very little—a new car, a bigger house, a better job; or that you readily miss so much—the blast of the ram's horn or the shout from the rooftop? "What an upside-down state of affairs," wrote the philosopher Boethius (480–525), "when a person who is divine by his gift of reason thinks his excellence depends on the possession of lifeless bric-a-brac!"

           Genuine joy is more elusive, more subtle and more nuanced than happiness, pleasure or good fortune. In his autobiography Surprised By Joy CS Lewis describes joy as "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. . . I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world." Whereas we can manipulate circumstances to our own advantage to obtain what we think will bring happiness, or expend great efforts in pleasure-seeking, joy is entirely gratuitous. You cannot earn it, buy it, or deserve it. It is a divine gift to receive rather than a selfish goal to pursue.

           The opposite of joy is not sadness or sorrow but anxiety. Jesus encouraged his followers, "do not worry about your life. . . Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?" Consider the joy of the birds in their morning songs, or the flowers in their spring time glory, he said. If the Lord of the universe clothes creation with such extravagance, then we can rejoice in his love regardless of our circumstances. In the Gospel for this week Jesus says that we rest in his love "so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete" (John 15:11).

           Similarly, the close cousin of joy is not happiness but confidence. Kierkegaard — the famously melancholy Dane — made this connection between joy and confidence. "If at every moment, both present and future, it were eternally certain that nothing has happened or can ever happen, not even the most fearful horror invented by the most morbid imagination and translated into fact, which can separate us from God's love — here would be reason for joy."

           Psalm 98's invitation to joy is based upon what God has done and will do. He has done marvelous things. He has remembered his love. He has extended salvation far beyond Israel to "the ends of the earth." And in the future, says the psalmist, God "will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity." Many people cringe when they hear God described as the "judge of the earth" (98:9). But for the the psalmist, and I can well imagine for the people in Darfur or the Congo or Iraq, the promise that the global God will right all wrongs is a cause for confidence and joy.

           In a world plagued with wars, starvation, HIV-AIDS, inequities of all sorts, and preventable suffering, with leaders who manipulate us with the politics of fear, perhaps nothing is more radical or counter-cultural than to live with joy and confidence. But living joyfully because of God's lavish love, said the mystic Juliana of Norwich (14th century), is the greatest honor that we can give Almighty God.

For further reflection:

* When have you been not merely happy but joyful, and why?
* What are some common substitutes for joy?
* How might we prepare ourselves to receive joy?
* Is it possible to be joyful even in times of difficulty and sadness?
* See C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy.