Joy, Awe, and Amazement

Joy, Awe, and Amazement

Stewardship Sunday 2021         November 14, 2021

Jeremiah 31:10-14, 1 Thes. 5:12-28, Luke 5:17-26

Joy, Awe, and Amazement

           “May you live in interesting times”. Actually there is no real evidence that this a Chinese curse.

          “Life is like a box of chocolate – you never know what you’re going to get”.

          “If life were predictable it would cease to be life, and be without flavor”. Eleanor Roosevelt

          “Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes,” Benjamin Franklin said. He concluded with a note about his own mortality to his friend: “My health continues much as it has been for some time, except that I grow thinner and weaker so that I cannot expect to hold out much longer.”

          “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

          Who have not, over the last almost 2 years, felt (or silently thought) that our times are interesting, unpredictable, uncertain, and we don’t like the chocolate we got? At times it may have even felt that we are rather unfortunate to live in such terrible, tragic, tumultuous, and interesting times. The Borgen Project, a not-for-profit organization, highlights the most urgent problems the world is facing: Poverty, war and conflict, political polarization, government accountability, education, food and water, credit access, discrimination, and physical fitness (or more specifically the lack thereof).  Obvious challenges like the pandemic, climate change and the accompanying famine and floods are not even included!

          And if you feel that the USA is in a precarious, perilous, and problematic time in our history, let me remind you that we are actually doing pretty good – when compared to the rest of the world and even more so when we compare our time with past generations. I know that this is scant comfort for it does nothing to alleviate your concerns and worries. But it does put things a bit in perspective.

          Jeni Stolow, professor at the College of Public Health points out that people are having a difficult time to focus. She calls it pandemic brain.

          David Rosmarin, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School observed rising levels of anger — and its expression in aggression and domestic abuse. He points out that fear, anger, joy, and sadness are our four primary emotions, and secondary emotions, like anxiety and depression occur as a reaction to our primary emotions. Anger, he says, is usually a secondary reaction. When a person feels sad or anxious, they don’t like that feeling, so they get angry.

          The anger we are seeing today, actually reveals the fact that people are sad and anxious.

          It is not for us to decide what happens in my time. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us!  What then do we do with the time that is given to us?

          Is it possible to replace anxiety, sadness, and the accompanying anger with joy, awe, and amazement or wonder?

          You see, the benefits of joy are extraordinary – not just for yourself, but for those around you, too. When you feel joyful, you experience changes in your body — colors seem brighter, your physical movements feel freer and easier, smiling happens naturally. Your brain changes too.

          There are benefits of experiences of awe. A study published in Psychological Science explains how experiences of awe immerse us in the present moment and change our perception of time, making us feel like we have more of it. As a result, it can increase our patience, lowers stress levels, make us more willing to help others, make us happier, and resulting in greater life satisfaction. Experiences of awe reduces our heart rate in response to a stressful situation, by activating the nervous system known for its calming and soothing effects.

          There are positive mental, physical, health and even spiritual benefits in emotions like joy, and experiences like awe and amazement. I love it when scientific research confirms what the Judeo-Christian tradition has known for a very long time.

          Where can we then find joy, feelings of awe, and experiences of amazement? What brings joy, awe, and amazement to people of faith? Let me share with you from the Bible a few examples of where and how people found joy, awe, and amazement:

          God called Jeremiah during four of the most turbulent and decisive decades in the history of the Jerusalem community. He was a man of complex human emotions, one who actually suffered with his people. He objected to God over his call to be a prophet. During these turbulent, interesting, and unpredictable times, God is about to do something for a suffering, joyless, perhaps angry, and hopeless people back then. Remember that their world was turned upside down. They lost everything that was important to them, their land, their place of worship, and their freedom. They even have lost hope. 

          But now the prophet is saying that God will intervene: God will bring them back from Babylon. God will restore them. The prophet’s rich language describes the dawn of a new day, a day of joy and gladness.  And this is God’s doing. You only have to compare the previous and following paragraphs to see the contrast. Lamenting and tears are turned into singing, mourning turns into rejoicing, weeping is now replaced by dancing, sorrow is turned into gladness.  God is about to change their fate. This is what God does! The One who did this in the past, still presents us with words of hope, newness, and joy.

          This serves as a reminder that God is not a passive spectator in the drama of human life. God is involved in unlikely ways to restore joy to broken, anxious, hopeless and yes, even angry people. We, as a community of faith can rely on God to restore our joy! For God has always been trustworthy.

           Maybe the paralytic in the NT reading alsowished “his paralysis need not have happened in his time, but that was not for him to decide. All he had to decide was what to do with the time that was given him.

          And maybe his friends who brought him to Jesus also thought about what to do with the time that was given to them. They tried to bring their friend to Jesus, but the crowd prevented them. So, they went up the roof and let him down through the roof in front of Jesus. Jesus saw their faith and first offered the paralytic inward healing: “Friend your sins are forgiven”. At the time, in Jewish thinking, disease and sins were linked. People were sick because they sinned.

          Not everybody was please with Jesus’ words: “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”  They were of course correct in their theology but completely wrong in their understanding of Jesus and cold-hearted in their humanity.

          Then Jesus continued to heal him outwardly as well: “Stand up and take your bed and go to our home.” Immediately he got up, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home …”glorifying God.” Luke presents Jesus as the One who has God’s power to forgive sins and to heal the sick.

What follows is profound:“….amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God, and they were filled with awe…….”.  One commentator writes this: “ ….(it) goes beyond all familiar knowledge and thus points to the one who acts contrary to all expectations, (that is) God.

          It is not hard to imagine the paralytic’s life before he was healed: helpless and dependent on others. His future was bleak, opportunities few, and there was not much reason to be joyful. One can imagine him feeling anxious and sad, frustrated and angry. How can one have hope if the door of life is closed, and the windows of opportunities tightly sealed? This man was a prisoner of his malady. He was in a proverbial grave, without hope, without abundant life, joy, awe, or wonder. But then the Son of Man intervenes, and Jesus heals him in body and in spirit. This man, by God’s intervention in Christ, is restored to full, complete and abundant life. His response to God’s intervention? He glorified God. And amazement and awe spread to his neighbors.

          Let me just point again how the account of this healing started: a troubled, helpless, hopeless man, without vision or joy. It ends with him glorifying God and everyone else amazed and filled with awe! This is God’s doing!

          The letter of the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians is the oldest existing piece of Christian literature. It is the first proclamation of the Gospel in written form. In the letter we see that the Apostle was concerned about the congregation in Thessalonica for they were being persecuted. When his coworker Timothy returned from visiting them, he had a very good report about the spiritual health of the congregation.  Now the Apostle was filled with joy and gratitude. So much so that the Apostle in 3:8 says: “For now we live!”

          In the rest of his letter, the Apostle Paul emphasizes that the believer’s life is one of faith, love and hope. Salvation for him is life with Christ.

          And then he ends his letter with a few important closing comments: “Be at peace among yourself …. admonish… encourage….help….be patient…do not repay evil with evil…seek to do good….rejoice always…. pray without ceasing…give thanks….hold fast to what is good….abstain from evil.”

          Rejoice always! This may be the first time the Apostle Paul says rejoice always but not the last. Time and again he encourages the recipients of his various letters to rejoice in Christ in spite of their circumstances. He himself in spite of difficult times, is able rejoice. And this joy enables him and the recipients of his letters to not only cope with difficult times, they flourish. 

           Joy, awe, and amazement. What, you may ask, do these concepts have to do with Stewardship Sunday? Well here is the answer. We are here as a faithful, hopeful, and giving community. We live in a world that has always been challenging, constantly unpredictable and persistently changing.  Circumstances are rarely perfect, and all of us are continually confronted with physical, emotional, and spiritual trials.

          However, we have, with spiritual eyes seen evidence of God’s intervention in the world, in our communities and in our lives. We have witnessed how God is able to turn things around, transforming lamenting people into dancing people, changing mourning people into singing people and sinful people into forgiven people.

          God’s loving, compassionate, and holy engagement in this world leaves us in awe, in amazement, and with a deep joy. A joy that is not diminished by pandemics, poverty, divisions or any other challenge. It is a joy rooted in Christ. Joy, awe of God, and amazement of what God does ,enable us to use the time that is given to us well: we are called to use our time for the glory and honor of God, serving the world and our neighbor as best as we can, and sharing all God’s blessing with others. Therefore, we give ourselves and what we have for we have received from God much more than we ever deserve.

Praise be to God. Amen.