Philippians 4:4-9

The Reverend Tasha Blackburn

October 30, 2016


I have shared this story before but I just have to share it again. The year was 2003 and I was heading to work at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. On the radio they were talking about a ranking of the happiest countries in the world. I walked into a room full of volunteers who were folding clothes for a clothing drive and I shared what I had learned. I told the group this, “Did you know that the happiest country in the world right now is…Nigeria?” A woman in the group snorted, threw down the shirt she was folding and said, “Really?! What do they have to be happy about?”

She was offended that another country, even what she might have considered a “lesser” country, could be happier than we are. And, ironically enough, she showed herself to be pretty unhappy in the process. But she is not alone. We Americans believe in happiness. It is one of our greatest goals in life: to be happy. We even have this goal codified in our Constitution. We believe in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Being happy is more important to Americans, according to one recent poll, than money is, or good health, or even getting to heaven. With all this effort, though, we don’t seem to be very good at it.

Just this summer a happiness study came out. This one was done by TIME magazine. According to the results, less than 1/3 of us are happy. And it doesn’t seem to be a problem we can blame on the economy because higher income folks reported less happiness than middle and lower-middle income folks did.

Maybe this lack of happiness is not because we don’t have anything to be happy about. We have plenty of things, right at our fingertips. Maybe this lack of happiness is because we have pursued happiness when what we really needed was joy.

Joy and happiness may be considered synonyms to most people but they are not. Joy is very different from happiness. For joy cannot be pursued. If we pursue joy we will never grasp it. Joy is a result of something outside of us. As C.S. Lewis once described it, joy is a byproduct whose “very existence presupposes that you desire not it but something other and outer.” In other words, joy is the result of being open to something beyond your self. Joy comes from the outside.

And joy, unlike happiness, is not stomped out when difficulty arrives. Joy can sit, side by side, with sadness and suffering and it can even thrive there. The clearest example of this in scripture is the Letter to the Philippians. Paul writes this letter while he is in prison. He writes it to a house church that is suffering from enemies on the outside and quarrels on the inside. Yet this letter is often called the “Epistle of Joy” and that is because Paul writes more about joy in this letter from prison than he does in any other letter. His suffering cannot diminish its power and the congregation’s suffering does not keep them from the call to joy.

The enemy of happiness is sadness. Its enemy is also suffering because in suffering and sadness happiness quickly fades. But these are not the enemy of joy for joy is more powerful than both. Joy has an enemy though. It is something more powerful than sadness and more powerful than suffering. Joy’s enemy is fear. Think back to that C.S. Lewis quote and the definition of joy as the result of being open to something that is beyond your self. Fear, by its very nature, turns us inward. When we fear something, we immediately turn from the world and turn into ourselves. We have one of the most obvious stories of this in the first human story in the Bible.

Adam and Eve are living in Eden. It is a garden paradise and they are blessed to live in abundance and, even more importantly, they live side by side with God. They are that close. Which is the real sadness of the snake and the apple and the nakedness. It is that, when God goes seeking Adam and Eve, they can no longer live side by side with God. They hide from him. When God asks them why they hid, they say, “Because we were afraid.” Before this the two of them looked outside themselves, interacting with the garden and its abundance. Now they have turned inward and can only think of themselves. What we call “The Fall”, was a fall into fear. And fear separates us from God. It separates us from one another. It binds us up and keeps us from turning outward. Which keeps us from joy because joy will only be experienced when we look outside ourselves.

This happens, of course, all the time and it plays out in each of our lives in its own way. I recently read about a woman who has one young child. She loves her daughter so much. But the depth of her love scares her. She wrote in a recent blog: “I will not have any more children. My daughter has shown me how afraid I am.” Whether she should have more children or not is beside the point: she is allowing fear to keep her from joy.

There is a reason the scriptures repeat over and over again: Do not be afraid. It is because fear is stronger than sadness and suffering combined. But, as powerful as it is, we are called to be NOT afraid. We are called to lives without fear. We are told, as Paul writes here in Philippians, to “not be anxious about anything”. This is so important, so integral to our faith and to our discipleship because fear kills the fruit of joy.

We believe that God is busy reconciling this world and we are to be the first signs of that reconciliation. It hard to remember this sometimes but it is what we believe: that God is busy, still and today, working to reconcile the world and we have been called to be the first signs of his work. There is no room for fear if that is our calling. If God has done nothing in your life, has not shown you grace and mercy and love, then by all means let fear reign. But if he has—if you have known his love, have been healed because of his grace—then cast fear from your life.

Because joy’s silent partner in all of this—a silent but potent partner—is hope. And, while fear is stronger than sadness and suffering; hope is stronger than fear and hope gives space for joy.

If you are joyful now, it is a gift from the Holy Spirit at work in your life and it is your calling to share it. If you do not have joy, then have hope—not in yourself but in Christ—and nurture that hope so you can cast out fear. Then there will be room for the Holy Spirit to bring you joy.

This does not ensure that you will always be happy. But you can, with the Spirit’s help, always have something to be joyful about. Even if your finances fail or your health backfires or your families falter, you can be joyful—as Paul writes—“in the Lord.” Everything else can be flagging but we can have joy in Christ.

Because it is not so much that we have something to be happy about [“What do they have to be happy about?” she asked.] It turns out that is not the right question. The question is: What do we have our hope in? And we have hope in the greatest promise ever given: that God sent his only son—not to condemn the world—but to save it. And that God is continuing to save this world even now. With hope like that, have no fear. Instead, make room for joy. Amen.