A Season for Growing: Joy and Celebration

by Rev. L. John Gable

A Season for Growing: Joy and Celebration
by Rev. L. John Gable
August 27, 2017

Does the name Bobby McFerrin mean anything to you?  If that name doesn’t ring a bell, “Don’t worry….Be happy.”  Bobby McFerrin wrote that song, more accurately, he literally invented it in the studio one day in 1988.  An already accomplished, but little known, jazz vocalist he sang all the parts on the recording and scored a #1 hit.  He went on to be a 10 time Grammy Award winner and that year “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was named Song of the Year and Record of the Year.

My guess is you know the song, but did you know he wrote it after a serious reflection on Scripture, specifically the Sermon on the Mount, even more specifically the Beatitudes?  “Blessed are, happy are, joy filled are… the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn” and so on.  He borrowed the phrase “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” from an Indian mystic, but the song came from his heart, and not only did it bring a smile and the happy dance to a whole generation, it also changed Bobby McFerrin.  After he hit the big time he turned his back on the bright lights of stardom and committed himself only to singing where and when he thought he could make a difference.  And he is doing that still.  He is still making music and making people “happy” when he does so.

This summer we have been looking at various time-honored, time-tested disciplines which people of faith have used through the ages to help them grow in their faith: guides to encourage prayer and the importance of a healthy devotional life (remember, “meditating” on the Word is like a “cow chewing its cud”).  We have spoken of the importance of fellowship and accountability, of the practice of hospitality to the stranger, and faithful witness to all people in all circumstances, all useful practices to help us grow deep and strong in our faith.

Yet, whenever we talk about spiritual disciplines, these or countless others, there always seems to be a hint of angst or struggle or “discipline” associated with them, such that they don’t sound like much fun.  Admittedly, it is through daily discipline that we gain new skills and insights: countless scales produce great musicians, daily training produces world class athletes, intense study and research produces great thinkers and so on, but still there is a certain aspect to the spiritual disciplines that sounds more like the Puritans who were “convinced that someone somewhere out there was having fun” and they were committed to putting a stop to it.  That is so unfortunate because our faith, and the Scriptures we hold to be true, are full of joy, unbridled, unmitigated joy, and as the Talmud teaches, I believe, “One day we will be called to account for every permissible thing we might have enjoyed but didn’t.”

The famed preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick once wrote, “There is enough tragedy in the New Testament to make it the saddest book in the world, but instead it is full of joy.”  Our faith is a proclamation of great joy.  It is not a mixed message of joy and terror, of salvation and damnation…In Jesus Christ it is one gigantic “YES!”

The joy spoken of in Scripture is not a naïve, stick your fingers in your ears and your head in the sand, kind of joy that denies the very real worries and challenges which threaten us, our communities, our nation and our planet.  No, it is the kind of joy that looks beyond and above those immediate concerns in confident hope in the promises of God.  Billy Graham was once asked, “Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?”  Dr. Graham answered, “I am very optimistic!  You see, I have read the last page of the Bible!”  Kind of sounds like, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” doesn’t it?

Friends, this is the testimony of the entirety of Scripture.  Look up “joy” in a Bible concordance some time and you will be surprised how often it is used.  In our Psalm this morning David writes of the grief and sorrow he is feeling, but then turns his attention away from his present circumstances to God’s promises as he writes, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning…O Lord, You have turned my mourning in to dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise You and not be silent!”

Jesus came not only to teach us and save us, but to give us joy, the same kind of joy He experiences in fellowship with His Father.  Listen to what He says in John 15, “I have said these things to you so that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete!”  Surely Jesus took great joy in doing the work and will of His Father, preaching, teaching, healing.  Who wouldn’t delight in opening the eyes of the blind and unstopping the ears of the deaf, or walking on water?  As I read the Gospel stories I can easily picture a smile on Jesus’ face, even open laughter, as He watches the lame man stand up and walk or the forgiven woman begin a new life.  When He told the sequence of three parables in Luke 15, the one about the lost sheep, then the lost coin, then the lost son, every one of them ended with a celebration!  “Just so I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance!”  “Of course, we have to have a party, this child of mine was lost and now is found; I thought he was dead, and now he is alive!  Come, celebrate with me!”  Remember Jesus was criticized by the religious elite, not for being too somber, but for being too joyful, for not taking things seriously enough, for being too happy!

He instilled that same attitude and posture toward life, that same kind of joyful trust in the promises of God, in His disciples.  When Jesus sent the 70 disciples off to do ministry in His name, healing the sick, casting out demons and announcing the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, He gathered them all together when they returned because He wanted to hear their stories, and I’m sure He listened with great delight.  The Apostle Paul writes of his great joy, even as he is chained to a prison wall in a Roman cell.  So he writes to the Thessalonians, “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before the Lord Jesus at His coming?  Is it not you?  Yes, you are our glory and our joy!” (2:19-20)  And James writes, “Count it all joy!” (1:2)

Joy is the gift which God gives to all believers, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”(Romans 15:13).  It is the mark of His followers, “For the Kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).  And it is the second of the fruits of the Spirit, “love, JOY, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Franz Joseph Haydn was once criticized because his music was “too cheerful”.  He replied, “When I think of God my heart is so full that notes dance and leap as it were from my pen.  And since God has given me a cheerful heart it will be easily forgiven me when I serve Him with a cheerful spirit.”  For the same reason, one of the requirements Mother Theresa insisted on in the Sisters of Charity is that they be people who smile.  Serving God is not drudgery, even though the work itself may be difficult or painful or costly, it is pure joy, because we are doing what God has gifted and called us to do; it is part and parcel to being His followers. For this same reason we are told God loves a “cheerful”, the Greek word is “hilaritos”, a hilarious giver!  Why?  Because when we live and serve in this way it means we get it.  It means we get what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Jesus says, “I come that you may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10).  Not partially, not timidly, not in scarcity, but abundantly.  Jesus came to give us life, abundant life, life filled with love and hope and peace and joy!  Admittedly, there are many joy killers out there, but never forget this: we are Easter people!  We know how this story is going to end and it is all good.  Jesus says, “Take courage, I have overcome the world!” (Jn 16:33)  So don’t let anything which frightens you or worries you or concerns you now, ever take away the joy of the resurrection!

One of the great confessions of our faith asks this question, a question each of us must ask and answer for ourselves and we are given a lifetime in which to answer it.  What is your chief end and purpose in life?  Why am I here?  What am intended to do and how am I intended to do it?  And then what happens?  The creed answers in this way.  “Our chief end is to glorify God and ENJOY Him forever.”  We were created to glorify God and ENJOY Him, now and for eternity.  Friends, that is very Good News, so live that way, or as Bobby McFerrin would put it, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!”

Mr. McFerrin continues to make music.  Most often when he is doing a solo concert it is simply him and a microphone.  He just stands up and makes music, joyful music.  He also hosts conferences for musicians and I have a good friend who attended one of them a couple of years ago.  One of things he likes to do, even when he is in concert, is to pull people out of the audience, bring them up on stage and then spontaneously sing a short phrase.  He repeats it and then motions for them to sing it too.  As they do, he sings another part over the top of it and he motions for another group to sing that, and as they do, he then improvises a third melodic chant over all of that.  Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

I’d like to show you a clip of him doing something like that at the conference my friend attended.  McFerrin starts by singing an improvisation based on Psalm 25:15: “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for He will pluck my feet out of the snare.”  Then they take it from there.

I invite you to listen to this joyful music, and I defy you not to smile.  You might even find yourself wanting to stand up and sing along, if so feel free.  This song arises out of a heart that is full with the JOY of the Lord, a heart that knows what it means to “glorify God and enJOY Him forever.”