Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, August 23, at 11:00 a.m. in Two Ridges Presbyterian Church, Wintersville, Ohio and Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can also find a podcast of this sermon on The Cove Podbean page. If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.
Let me ask y’all; how many of you have seen the movie, Inside Out? Well I can tell you, we have, and I’m talking about Debbie, Maggie and I. We saw it on my birthday, and you know, I thought it was great. In fact, I believe it was the best of the Pixar movies. I mean, the animation was outstanding and the story, well, it really held my interest. Let’s just say, I’d give it four stars.
But if you haven’t seen it, let me tell you a little bit about it. You see, on the surface, it’s about an eleven year old girl who’s family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. But most of the story really takes place inside the heads of the characters, particular within the mind of the little prener, Riley. You see, according to the movie, we all have five primary emotions that’s sort of in control: joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger. And in the movie, each emotion is a character, and they’re constantly interacting with one another, and this interaction shapes not just our feelings but also our thoughts and actions.
Anyway, during the movie, Joy and Sadness get separated from the other three, sort of lost in Riley’s subconscious. And after that happens, she can only draw on Fear, Disgust, and Anger, and as a result, what she does and thinks, even the things she values and the way she interprets the past start to change. Of course, as you watch the movie, you really don’t know if Joy and Sadness will find their way back to the center or if Riley will end up a bitter, frustrated person. Now that’s the basic story, and like I said, I thought it was a great film.
And you know, this past week, after reading the passage we have from the Song of Solomon, I really thought about it, and I’ll tell you why. I believe the same sort of thing that happened Riley sometimes happens to us, but for us, it’s only joy that sort of gets lost. Let me explain. If you listen to some of the stuff people say and watch what they do, well, I think we see the other four emotions all the time, but not a lot of joy. And as a result, those unhappy emotions are constantly shaping who we are and how we appear to others. And like I said, I think this happens all the time, even among Christians. For example, I don’t know about y’all, I hear believers talking about fear all the time, you know, about how they’re afraid when consider the future of the church and the country and the world. But that’s not all, they also talk about being disgusted, you know, offended by some of the stuff they see happening all around them, sometimes even in their church. But even that’s not all, when you listen, man, they also feel angry: angry because, in their view, morals and ethics have somehow been stolen when they weren’t looking. And of course, when they’re not mad, they sound really sad. I mean, when you listen to them, they spend a lot of time remembering those wonderful days, you know the ones I’m talking about, when “all the women [were] strong, all the men [were] good-looking, and all the children [were] above average.” Now that’s what I hear all the time, often coming from good, Bible toting Christians. Therefore, I think I’m safe in saying that fear and disgust, anger and sadness aren’t alive and well in our society, even around the Body of Christ. And you know, whether we admit it or not, these emotions affect all of us, and I’ll tell you what, I think that means both you and me.
But joy, well sometimes we’re not as good at expressing our joy as we are the other stuff. Of course, I recognize it may actually be easier and more politically correct and socially acceptable to express religious fear and disgust and righteous anger and sadness, than in sharing Christian joy. Let’s face it, we live in a pretty negative society, one in which people just love to complain, and why shouldn’t believers join the fun. And to tell you the truth, I think this is a particular problem for older, more mature Christians, particularly those of us with a Presbyterian background. Expressing joy doesn’t always come easy, not for us. Good night, there’s a reason we’ve been called “God’s frozen people.” And often I think we probably show that that old joke reflects at least some truth, you know, that Presbyterians can do anything they want; they just can’t enjoy it. For good or for bad, traditionally, we’ve tended to be more reserved and our worship more restrained. You know, we do things “decently and in order,” and most of us are probably kind of skeptical of or, at the very least, uncomfortable with big displays of positive emotions. We’re not gushers. I mean, we’re Calvinists for crying out loud. And even though we can get away with telling people what we find scary and offensive and what makes us either mad or sad, when it comes to expressing a lot of joy, well, often we sort of act like “the frozen chosen.” And for that reason, I can really identify with Riley in that movie and frankly I don’t think I’m alone. As a matter of fact, for a lot of Christians, I believe when we’re displaying our emotions, well, there are times when joy sort of gets lost in the shuffle.
But you know, when it happens, I think that’s a genuine shame, because not only does it affect us and others, it’s also really unnecessary. I mean, just think about what we read from the Song of Solomon. I’m telling you, that whole passage is about joy, the joy that a woman has found in her beloved, in his voice, in his appearance, in his love. For her, “the winter is past [and] the rain is over and gone.” And in their place, there are flowers blooming and birds singing. Fruit fills that trees and fragrance fills the air. You see, for her, there’s no room for fear and disgust, and she has no time for anger and sadness; because when she hears her beloved say, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away,” joy is what she feels.
And I’ll tell you, that can be true for us too. You see, without pretending that bad things don’t exist and without denying that sometimes we’re going to feel something else, right here and right now, we can decide that we’re also going to experience and we’re going to express genuine Christian joy. In other words, we can decide that it’s not going to get squeezed out by what we might see and it’s not going to be replaced by any other emotion. Instead, we’re are going to feel and we’re going to express joy.
And I’ll tell you, doing it isn’t going to be hard at all, because, trust me, we have the best possible reason, the best possible reason to feel joy, and right now I’m talking about God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You see, we can feel joy when we understand that we were loved before the foundation of the earth and will be loved long after the roll is called up yonder. And we can feel joy when we trust that on the cross we died to sin and when that tomb was found to be empty we got a glimpse into our future. And we can feel joy when we believe that every second of every minute of every hour we’re surrounded by the presence of God and that presence is filling us and actually giving us the ability to understand and to trust and to believe. Brothers and sisters, right here is the reason we can feel joy.
But we don’t just have a reason, we also have a real opportunity, and I’m talking about a real opportunity to express that joy out loud, in front of God and everybody. And the place we can do it is right here. You see, when we worship, when we sing songs and hymns, when we listen and pray, we can express our joy both to God and to one another.And you know, whether or not our worship really becomes joy-filled, well, that’s going to have more to do with things like attitude and atmosphere than structure and style. I mean, if we carry a negative attitude into our worship and if we make up our minds that we’re not going to be happy before we settle into our pew and if we decide that we’re not going to smile and we’re not going to relax and we’re not going to feel excited because worship is suppose to be serious business, then it really doesn’t matter what kind of songs we’re singing or what style of worship we’re following. I’ll tell you, both “A Mighty Fortress” and “Awesome God” convey the exact same feeling when folks are singing with a scowl on their faces. But if we carry into worship an attitude that’s positive and affirming and inviting and if we make up our minds that wherever two are more are gathered Jesus Christ is present; therefore, we’re going to experience his love and mercy and grace as we join with our brothers and sisters to offer him praise and glory and if we decide that we are not going to let fear and disgust, anger and sadness distract us from the movement of the Holy Spirit in this place, if this is what we do, I’m going to tell you, we’re going to feel and we’re going to express joy whether our hands are raised or our heads are bowed, whether we’re singing to an organ or a guitar, whether we’re looking down at a bulletin or looking up at a screen. And we’re going to know when this kind of thing is happening because, if it is, we’re going to see doing something going on in worship that’s impossible for “the frozen chosen;” man, we’re going see people smiling, smiling in worship, smiling as they praise God, because worship gives them and us the opportunity to express our joy. And so we have a reason and we have an opportunity.
And I’ll tell you something else, we also have pretty good motivation for doing it. Now I know I’ve said this many times before, but I think it’s so important that it probably isn’t a bad idea to get a reminder every week, and here it is. Right there, at the end of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples exactly what they were called to do. He said, “As you go, make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and by teaching them to observe everything that I commanded you.” Now that’s what Jesus said; therefore, like it or not, that’s our job. Now you tell me, as we go about our living in a world where people are hungry for some source of peace and reason to hope, which do you think will be more effective: on one hand, telling them all the reasons we’re afraid or all the things that make us sick and showing them that some of the values that they acquired from someone else man, they make us mad and sad, or on the other hand, expressing to them the joy that comes from knowing that our destiny is in the hands of God and that nothing in all creation can separate us from that love? Which outreach do you think is going to be more effective? Now tell me that’s not motivation.
As you remember, we started by talking about Inside Out; you know about Riley and how for her Joy and Sadness got lost and it affected everything she thought and did. Well, I’m not going to tell you what happened in the end. If you want to know, see the movie. But as it relates to us, let’s make sure that our joy doesn’t become lost and separated from our faith. Instead, let’s claim the reason and the opportunity and the motivation we’ve been given, and let’s decide to feel God’s joy on the inside and to express out.