Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
A topic that musicians and music lovers sometimes debate is the question of can there be a perfect song? Part of the problem with even discussing the topic, is there is no agreement about what makes a song perfect. An Esquire magazine article from years ago tried to tackle this topic and it defined a perfect song as one that “can’t be improved upon.” That definition and what qualifies as a song that cannot be improved upon is wholly subjective but that did not stop German researchers at the Max Planck Institute from scientifically determining what the perfect song is. Using criteria based on listener enjoyment and surprise, they determined that the most perfect pop song ever created is “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by the Beatles. Invisible Touch Genesis, Hooked on a Feeling by Bj Thomas, I Want You Back by the Jackson 5, and There She Goes” by the La’s were the top runner ups. They Max Planck researchers might claim their results are backed up by science, but I still think it is largely subjective and based on the individual.
Not that long ago I ran across a video from 2012, that I had seen several times in the past, but it had been a while. This video reminded me of what I think might just be a perfect song. This video comes from the Spanish city of Sabadell and is focused on a typical European plaza. People are going about their day, kids are running around, friends at chatting in a café. A girl walks up and puts coins in a hat of a musician with a bass, who begins playing a familiar melody. Out of the crowd a woman with a cello comes and joins him, then two more violins. At this point a few people in the crowd begin to take notice that something is going on. More musicians slowly appear and what was just moments ago is now a full orchestra, with a conductor to guide them. As the song reaches a crescendo, members of the crowd coalesce behind the orchestra to form a choir, and the entire plaza is transformed if by magic. Every person is drawn into moment by the song, and because of the nature of this song everyone in that plaza experiences the same feeling at the same time. That feeling is joy, because this perfect song is Ludwig Von Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. You can easily find this video by searching for Ode to Joy flash mob, and it is well worth watching because it is absolutely beautiful.
I think Ode to Joy is a perfect song because it manages to do something incredible. What makes ode to joy such a perfect song is that without words it manages to define joy. It captures the feel of joy in musical form. This is what Beethoven sought to do. By the time he composed the song, he was completely deaf. Yet he could hear the music in his mind, and sought to define the feelings of joy through that music. Joy is an incredibly hard to define. The dictionary definition shows this, because joy is simply defined as a feeling of great pleasure and happiness. That does not it justice though does it? Joy is different that happiness, it feels less fleeting, more enduring. It feels deeper. We often struggle to define joy because joy is something that cannot be described it is something that has to be experienced. Which again, why I think Ode to Joy is such a perfect song because it captures that experience and allows us to feel it through the music.
One of the reasons why joy is hard to define is because there is not a single that source that brings us joy, and joy endures. This is why Ode to Joy has often found life as a protest song. It was the anthem Chilean protestors sang as they took down the Pinochet dictatorship. It was the music that Chinese students blasted in Tiananmen Square. When the Berlin wall fell it was the song that a group of musicians from both sides came together to play. When Japan was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami, it was the song the country rallied behind. Joy is like those birthday candles that are hard to extinguish. It takes a lot of darkness in life to truly put out the flames of joy, because joy is deep rooted in us. Joy is contentment that does not fade away.
Joy should be an essential part of our faith experience. This is why we light a candle to represent joy as part of advent. This is why in this morning’s scripture Paul wrote Rejoice always. This morning’s scripture is a reading for the middle of Advent to help us remember that what we experience in life, joy can persist.
While there is not complete consensus, many biblical scholars believe that 1 Thessalonians is the earliest of his epistles that we find in the New Testament. Paul founded the church in Thessalonica. However, Paul’s time was cut short there. Acts Chapter 17 records that those who opposed Paul, were able to get people so riled up about him that a riot broke out in the city. Paul had to head to another town, but the church persisted and Paul wrote this letter to celebrate the believers of this new church for their persevering faith and to help offer some additional instructions in Christian living. This morning’s scripture contains the last of those final instructions. Of these final instructions, perhaps the one that sticks out the most is “rejoice always.” Rejoicing is just expressing out reasons for joy.
Joy is universal to the human experience, and the reasons why people have joy can be varied, but as members of the family of God I think we have the greatest reason for joy. Paul mentions this reason for joy in verse 24 of this morning’s scripture: “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” On the night he gave himself up for us, Jesus himself talked about our reason for joy. In the gospel of John we find these words, “If you keep my commands you will remain in my live, just as I have kept my Father’s Commands and remain in his live. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” Later in that same section Jesus adds, “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is boring into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice and no one will take away your joy.”
Jesus promises his disciples a joy that is complete and a joy that cannot be taken away. Friends, since you are here today it means you have experienced this joy. You have experienced the complete acceptance that is amazing grace. You have experienced the forgiveness of sins and the assurance that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love of God. You have experienced the peace of knowing that you are accepted as you are and the empowerment of knowing God cares too much about you to leave you as you are. Because of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious power of his death and resurrection, we have an eternal life that does not end but will go on and on forever and ever in a world without end. We have such a great reason for joy. A joy that is complete, a joy that nothing can take away from us. A joy that is anchored in the very foundation of our souls and is down in hearts, down in our hearts to stay.
And yet, life can be hard. The grind of it all can wear us down. The sorrow of it can mute the joy. The pain and the hurt we experience can consume our focus. We can be so very tired. This is especially true right now. Andy Williams may have sung that this is the most wonderful time of the year and the hap-happiest season of all, but that is not true for everyone. For many, this can be the most difficult time of the year. This is a time when all of those factors that weigh heavy on us can feel a little heavier. Nevertheless, joy persists. All that we endure cannot extinguish the joy we find in Christ, because nothing can take that joy from us. It is like an ember buried under the ash. It may be covered, but it is not cool and it only takes a little fuel to rekindle the flame. As Psalm 30:5 states, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. “
In this morning scripture, Paul very quickly gives three tips on how we can keep that flame of joy kindled down in our hearts. First he wrote “Pray continually”. Prayer is conversation, it is connection with God. Prayer is not limited only to set times or set formulas at any time we can talk to God, and doing so continually is a way to spark joy. Poet Joseph Scriven realized this. In 1855 he wrote a poem that he initially entitled Pray without Ceasing. In the second verse Scriven wrote these words, “Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer. Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.” Through prayer, we are reminded that Jesus knows us, that Jesus is greater than our troubles, and that Jesus is our unending reason for joy.
The second tip that Paul gives in this morning’s scripture is to give thanks in all circumstances. An attitude of gratitude is a constant reminder of all the reason for joy we have in life. This is a lesson that John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, learned early in life and which stuck with him. At the age of 21 and a student at Oxford University he met a porter who was desperately poor. He had only one coat and lived in such impoverished conditions that he did not even have a bed. With sarcasm and a touch of immature arrogance, Wesley thoughtlessly joked and asked the man “And what else do you think God for?” Not expecting an actual answer, Wesley was surprised when the man replied with joy and said, “I thank Him that he has given me my life and being, a heart to love him, and above all a constant desire to serve him!” John Wesley recorded in his journal he was deeply moved and humbled that day. It was a reminder to him that we can always find a reason for joy when we give thanks to God for that which God has blessed with.
The final tip we find here is that Paul wrote “do not quench the Spirit.” God is at work in this world. There are so many stories out there of lives being changed, of people turning to Jesus, of faithful disciples taking bold steps to make a real difference. There is a lot of good news. There are some people who when they hear the good news of others, when they hear about something that seems positive, when someone else shares their reason for joy, then their first reaction is to rain on that parade. They will make negative comments, point out down sides, or try to downplay the celebration. Perhaps you have met people like this, perhaps on your worse days you have been one of these peoples. But let’s not. The Holy Spirit moving and empowering people to share God’s love, so let’s not quench the spirit with negativity. There is already enough darkness in this world, so let’s not try to snuff out the light with a negative outlook. When we focus on the negative then we cannot focus on the positive. When we quench the Spirit, then we are unable to rejoice in what the Spirit is doing. Let us choose joy.
In this morning’s scripture Paul encourages the church of Thessalonica to rejoice always, and he gives them some solid tips on how they can more easily focus on joy. May we also take those tips to heart, and may rejoice always, may we focus on joy. I am a firm believer that this world can never have too much joy in it. As we have established these next couple weeks especially can be hard weeks for some people, and we will likely encounter some of those people struggling. They may be going through experiences in their life that makes it hard to be remember the great reasons they have for a complete joy. As followers of Jesus may we help remind them that nevertheless, joy persists. Remember, joy is hard to define, it is best experienced. So may the joy that is down in our hearts be evident. May the love of God that fuels our joy be visible in us. My we be able to fan the flame of joy in others. Because we know Jesus may be filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy that others can experience through us. May the way we live be an ode to joy.