Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb. 12: 1-3)
So you’re probably wondering, What does “the joy set before Jesus” have to do with the somber, sacrificial, reflective, penitential season of Lent? Traditionally, Lent is a way of identifying with the last journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, to where we read, in Lk. 9: 51, that “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem,” and to all the terrible things that awaited him there.
So, the tone and nature of this penitential season is logically serious, strenuous, somber and sacrificial. But Hebrews 12 tells us that Christ did not take on the suffering, shame and sacrifice just for the sake of suffering, shame and sacrifice themselves. That would be sick. There are no points to be gained by God just by enduring suffering, shame and sacrifice for their own sake. Bank robbers and drug runners may suffer plenty in their line of work, but that doesn’t earn them any time off from prison.
What counts to God is whatever it is we desire most, and delight in most, despite whatever it is we must endure and sacrifice for it. One desire and delight which Jesus anticipated and sought, was his coming reunion and return to his Heavenly Father. Yes, that would require his passage from this life through a shameful, painful death. But for such a joy, he could endure the cross and despise the shame. Compared to such a joy, no earthly cost in suffering, shame and sacrifice was too great.
Related to that was also the joy that Jesus anticipated in his coming Resurrection. That would mean the vindication of his life, his teachings and his ministry in spite of all the blaming, shaming and violence from society that he suffered for them. This resurrection victory would also show forth the honor and glory of his heavenly Father. So the coming Resurrection honor and vindication, to his Father and himself, was another joy “set before Jesus.”
That’s why I recommend thinking of the Lenten season not just as a journey to the cross, but as a journey to the empty tomb. Hence our Lenten theme this year: The Road to Resurrection, with Hebrews 12: 1-3 as our passage for meditation and memorization. For if Jesus had only come to die on the cross for our sins, neither his life nor his resurrection would be all that important, or even necessary. Yes, he did come to die for our sins, but as part of the bigger picture of his coming to triumph over all the evils that estrange and alienate us from God, each other, from Creation, and from our true selves.
A third joy that I believe Jesus anticipated, which drew him forward in delight, was the saving, healing, transforming effect that his faithfulness through death would have on Creation, beginning with us, for we are the firstfruits of a new Creation. The recreation of humanity through his life, death and resurrection, was central to “the joy set before Jesus.” That includes the timeless and eternal communion that this new humanity will have in intimate, spiritual union with him. In other words, you and I can count ourselves as a big part of “the joy set before him.”
“The joy set before him,” for which Jesus endured the cross and discounted the shame, is then us, each and every one of us. You and me and everyone else we might see in this sanctuary and on the road and in the grocery store and at school, is a creation in whom the Creator delights, as says Psalm 104: 31: “May the Lord rejoice in all his works.”
Jesus came as the supreme expression of God’s desire for us, and God’s delight in us. That even is how I would define joy: when we experience the delight of God’s delight in us, like when babies learn to smile and to laugh in response to the delighted smiles and laughter of their parents delighting in them.
But we live in angry, angsty, anxious times. There’s a whole lot of shaking and quaking going on today in the very foundations of society, family, even of democracy and the rule of law. We can escape momentarily from all this anger, angst and anxiety into any one of a million options for entertainment and amusement. They have their place, to a point. But compared to the joy set before Jesus, those are cheap and tawdry counterfeits.
The resurrection victory of Christ in his now empty tomb guarantees that endless and unmediated joy is our destiny, even our identity. Yet I’m afraid that we Christians are known more for being angry, fearful and hostile at the world, and at the changes in the world that run counter to our values, and which erode the church’s previously privileged position in the Western World. And Christians like those just make me so mad all the time! I can’t stop thinking about how miserable they make me!!(just kidding)
To be fair, it’s the angry, hostile, reactionary Christians who make the evening news. But this critique applies equally wherever we fall on the political and theological spectrum. Today’s culture warriors of the left and the right, liberal or conservative, progressive or traditionalist, tend to come across as angry, angsty and anxious at each other and at a world that seems to be spinning out of the control of either group, and which is making neither of them happy.
Yes, there is much to be concerned about. Yet both sides of the culture wars and theological divides are more alike than different, because both seem to believe that it is our duty, and within our power, to grab society’s levers of power and bend the arc of history in the direction of our preferred program. And that we could do so if only those people wouldn’t fight us, if only those people would get out of our way. Or maybe we’re just not trying hard enough!!!! and therefore, we’re not miserable enough.
About a hundred years ago, the British author, G.K. Chesterton, was asked to contribute an essay for a series running in a London newspaper on the theme, “What Is Wrong With The World?” Other contributors to the newspaper series wrote lengthy essays about what’s wrong with the economy, what’s wrong with the monarchy, what’s wrong with the government, what’s wrong with the culture, with the church, the social services, with education, and more, and how to fix them. They all agreed that other people, those people, were responsible for all that is wrong with the world. And I’m sure that much of what they said was quite true and valuable. But something tells me not to read essays like those just before bedtime, not if I want to have a peaceful night’s rest.
Chesterton, a devout Roman Catholic, wrote the shortest essay in response to the question, “What’s Wrong With the World.” I can the repeat the totality of his essay word for word here and now (ready?): “I am.” As in: So you want to know what’s wrong with the world? You may start with me.
Lest that sound like masochistic self-loathing, G.K. Chesterton was known as a man of great humor, humility and joy. His two word essay was a prime example of his childlike wit. He also engaged in public debates with well-known atheists, Marxists, philosophers and others with axes to grind against his Christian faith. But he always did so graciously, respectfully, and with humor, but never with cruel, cutting or caustic humor, however much his opponents tried to provoke him with the same. The target of his own gentle witticism and humor was most often himself. While Chesterton’s logic could devastate his opponents’ positions, he never failed to delight in them as persons. After the debates, he would take his opponent out to dinner at his own expense. Most of them came to count Chesterton as their personal friends. That had something to do with one of Chesterton’s favorite maxims: “Angels can fly, because they take themselves so lightly.” He knew that the doorway to joy is found not in our highest dudgeons, but in our lowest humility.
So if ever we get angry, angsty and anxious about saving the world now, and are sure that we know just how to do it, and are so sure that we could do it if only those people would wise up and get out of our way, let me say, Rejoice! Because we are all wrong. At least, we’re all nearly as wrong as we are right. Truth counts of course; there’s no excuse for “alternative facts.” But God’s truth is infinitely bigger than any one of us, so none of us has a monopoly on the whole truth. Nor are we responsible to save the world and build the kingdom of God. We can’t even save ourselves. We’re only called to look to Jesus and follow him as he recreates the world.
That’s what the author of Hebrews was telling his audience, and us. As one Jewish Christian writing to other Jewish Christians, he was concerned about the long-term effects of the growing prejudice, persecution, discrimination and rejection of those Jews who believed in Jesus by other Jews in their families, communities and synagogues. So that I don’t sound anti-Semitic, let me remind us that the persecution of Gentile believers by other Gentiles at the time was worse, and getting even more terrible.
Now it’s one thing to face a sudden eruption of outright, violent hostility, like those Christians who were thrown to the lions in the Roman Coliseum. It’s another thing to face a constant, steady, unending drip-drip-drip of disdain, contempt, suspicion, cold shoulders, averted eyes and backs turned against you wherever you go, while your values and theirs drift ever further apart. That’s what the audience of Hebrews 12 was facing. Then it’s easy to stew in resentment and grow ever more edgy, reactive, hostile and paranoid. Or, just as likely, to accept and to internalize the way that mainstream society looks at you, and to try hard to keep the peace with the wider society, whatever the cost, by constantly cutting off bits and pieces of the faith that others find objectionable. But they’re never satisfied with those sacrifices. And then your faith, and your joy, slowly die the death of a thousand little compromises, until one day, you or your children wake up and wonder, “What’s the point?”
You could try to forestall that decline into depression and irrelevance by taking today’s fashionable posture of outrage and hostility toward others, haranguing people for their injustice and unbelief. But that is just another way to let the world be our puppet master and pull our strings.
The writer of Hebrews does not say, “Look at how bad the world has become!” Nor does he say, “Look at how bad those people are!” Rather, he says, “Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross and scorned its shame.” For his faithfulness to his true and lasting joy, Jesus is now seated at the right hand of the throne of his heavenly Father. Look to Jesus, who followed his joy, whatever the cost, and by looking to him, find there our own joy as well.
So if we need something to fast from this Lenten season, let it be from gorging on the anxious, angry, angsty “us versus them” daily nonstop diet of outrage over the powerful or over the protesters, over the left or the right, especially if it’s only feeding an addiction to resentment and an appetite for self-justification by comparing ourselves favorably against others. It’s important to stay informed; but it’s another thing to stay in constant turmoil, compulsively feeding over and over a need for nonstop agitation and outrage.
Of course we must never come to apathy nor acceptance of evil. It’s not like there is nothing to feel grief and outrage about. Thank God if we still have moral and spiritual sensitivity, and have not grown numb to good and evil. But constant agitation, outrage and animosity will not sustain our mission and our ministry.
“The joy of the Lord is our strength.”
Just before his arrest and death, Jesus told his disciples, “In this world you shall have tribulations. But be of good cheer,” he added, “because I have a sure-fire plan by which you should be able to overcome the world and end all tribulations by next Tuesday.”
Woops. That was the New Reversed Standard Version of the text. Actually, he said, “Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” In a culture that would enslave us to fear and to the paralysis of despair, whether of the left or the right, maybe the most powerful and subversive act of resistance we can undertake is to rejoice, or to at least to be open to joy, the joy set before Jesus, and the joy set before us. Feeding and feeling a constant state of agitation and outrage may make us feel that we are alive, the same way that drugs, and violent horror flicks allegedly do. At least for a moment. But joy is the energy of life, even when we are simply open to it.
And if we fast from anything else, like chocolate, meat or sweets, or TV, or comic books, or whatever, let’s not think that the sacrifice or the suffering alone are earning anything from God. Think, rather, in terms of making space, making space in our lives for the joy that God would give. Or think in terms of the joy of giving to others the value of whatever it is we surrender, and the joy it gives to others. For example, if you’re fasting from that double mocha latte you normally get every day on the way to work, savor and enjoy the value that could gather for MCC’s refugee work, or the local food bank, so that the people they serve can also know some joy. By putting a stop to some of our “jollies” we make more room for true joy.
The importance of joy was not lost on the residents of a refugee camp in Guatemala. They had originally fled the civil war in El Salvador, in the 1980’s to settle in Honduras. But the Honduran government pushed them out of that country, and they had to start over again in Guatemala. The Mennonite Central Committee placed a worker from North America among them, to help them organize their lives and community, and meet their needs.
But when she asked them what she could best do for them, one of the things they asked of her was that she join their Fiesta Committee. A Fiesta Committee? What’s that? she asked. That’s a committee that plans fiestas. You know, parties, celebrations, with food, music, dances, games, skits and friendly competitions.
A fiesta committee? When they have just suffered another major displacement, and things in their new camp are still so desperate and shaky, just getting off the ground? Shouldn’t we focus first on organizing a clinic, a school, a food shelf, a legal clinic, a sanitation system and a counseling center, what with all the trauma that people have experienced?
Yes, they said, we must have all those things. And we shall. And we appreciate how strenuously, seriously and how capably you are working for us to do such things. But if you cannot also rejoice and celebrate with us, then you will never really get to know us, nor touch our deepest needs.
Those endangered, struggling refugees were not all that different from the people to whom the writer of Hebrews wrote and said, “Look to Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross and scorned its shame,” and “consider him who endured such opposition from evil doers so that you do not lose heart.” For whatever happens, we will still have God and each other. If that MCC worker’s experience is like that of many of us who have lived and worked among people who have little except God and each other, I suspect that their joy was contagious, and that they gave her more joy than she gave them. We never know when life or death will reduce us to those two eternal and unshakable joys: God and each other. We only know that life and death will do so. And then we’ll find, that they are all we need!
I invite us then to look into the mirror every morning of Lent and say to the person you see, “I am” or “You are the joy set before Jesus, for which he endured the cross, scorned the shame and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God,” where the Bible says that I too shall be seated with him.” How about fasting from our shyness and try saying it to someone else, too?
You never know, that could start a contagious epidemic of joy, even in times like these.