Every time Paul prayed for the church in Philippi, he prayed with joy. Here’s a distinguishing characteristic of a Christian: We are the joyful ones. And gratitude plays a huge part in that. I am most joyful when I am most thankful. And I am most thankful and joyful when I live in the right relationship with Jesus and others. You have heard the acronym, kind of cheesy, but true: Joy is Jesus, Others, Yourself. We Christians have a counter-cultural view of joy, not because we are against pleasure and fulfillment. We simply have a different source. Tom Brady said after his third Super Bowl victory, “Is this all there is?” I don’t know what he said after his fifth. Our joy as Christians is in relationships: Jesus first, others second. But everybody has relationships, right? Is there another component to this that makes for the greatest joy? Glad you asked.
In Paul’s writing to the Philippian church about joy, he connected it to partnership in the Gospel. The greatest joy doesn’t come from just friends we have fun with and hang out with. Paul wasn’t filled with joy because of the cookouts he had enjoyed with the church at Philippi, though that was perhaps part of it. He was filled with joy because of the partnership in the Gospel he had with the church there. If you have no relationships with partners in the Gospel, then you don’t have the joy that Paul is talking about here. The greatest joy is found in walking together, side by side, in the fellowship of the Gospel, living and telling the good news that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, knowing Him and making Him known to others. Why are so many not finding that joy? Tony Merida writes about four obstacles that can keep people from enjoying deep and enjoyable relationships as followers of Christ:
“Sensationalists don’t find Christian community scintillating enough to participate in it. However the Christian life isn’t about shock and awe, but acts of service and love (because of Christ). Mystics make the Christian life into a series of quiet times. They desire to live the ‘me and Jesus’ kind of Christianity without the church. But Christianity is ‘we and Jesus,’ not ‘me and Jesus.’ Idealists struggle in Christian community because they have, in the words of Bonhoeffer, a ‘wish dream’ of what the church ought to be, and it never lives up to their expectations. Individualists fall prey to culture that only enjoys community online. We have a culture of ‘busy loneliness’: people do a lot of stuff, but they remain extremely lonesome.”
I was thinking about the way I feel when I am on a mission trip. When I am with a team in Colombia or Kenya or South Africa, or anywhere else I have gone with people for the sake of the Gospel, there’s a camaraderie and joyfulness that we sometimes don’t feel in the normal day-to-day here. But maybe it’s simply because we don’t look around at the ways we can serve with one another for the sake of the Gospel here. I realized that I have that same feeling of purpose and joy when I go with one or two brothers to the Piedmont Rescue Mission. Or with a group to serve at Operation Christmas Child. Or when we men get together to study the Bible at a men’s breakfast. And every Sunday when we gather as a church family to worship the Lord who redeemed us.Looking for joy? Start with gratitude. Follow that up by looking for ways to partner with other believers in the fellowship of the Gospel.
When I was 15, I saw the New Directions perform on a Sunday in Advance, N.C. There were 25 young people, not much older than me, singing about Jesus and giving testimonies about how he had changed their lives. The leader of this interracial group was a man with longer hair and bushy sideburns, a bullhorn voice, and a passion for preaching like I had never heard. His name was JL Williams. I was mesmerized, and thought to myself, “I would love to be a part of a group like that.” Who knew that 11 years later, JL would ask me and Cindy to lead the team? For three summers, we recruited, trained, and led young people to churches and prisons and inner cities throughout the East Coast, and into Haiti at summer’s end, sharing the Gospel through song and preaching. From that experience I was led to help start a church in 1987, with JL as one of the original leaders for Antioch.
I was mesmerized again on Dec. 31, which would have been JL’s 75th birthday, when more than 1,000 people gathered at Lamb’s Chapel to celebrate his life and remember the impact he had on so many. JL died on Dec. 28, and three days later there were men from India, Nepal, Zimbabwe (via video) and Haiti who had somehow made it to Burlington so they could share their love for this man, and their gratitude for his ministry. They were among the hundreds of pastors whom he discipled in other countries. It was said at least three times in the two-hour service: “JL was a connector.” Everywhere he went, and he went everywhere, JL connected leaders to one another, and mission needs to mission givers. He took countless businessmen and women on “Kingdom adventures” to Africa and Asia. He raised millions of dollars to feed orphans, fund schools, dig wells, and build churches. He believed that ministry to the soul was most important, but that a man could listen better with a full belly, so JL did all he could to minister “to the whole man with the whole Gospel.”
It started in the late ’60s when his brother Ed invited JL to come to Burlington and run some programs at the local YMCA. In 1968, JL formed what became known as the New Directions, and hundreds of young people from Burlington and eventually from other states and countries, learned to follow the Lord by following JL around the country. I asked JL once if he would disciple me. He smiled and said, “Come and go with me; discipleship is not a program, it’s a way of life.” In 1998, JL asked me to lead a ministry team to Haiti, and promised that if I did, he would take me with him to Africa. The next summer, I invited Scott Hahn, a new graduate of Elon, to go on that African adventure with JL that took us to Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Since then I have made more than a dozen trips to Africa, taking my wife and each of my children at least once, and many others as well. JL’s legacy includes hundreds of Americans who pray and give and go into all the world because of his influence.
JL was famous for saying, “We always need to be ready to preach, pray, or die.” He did the first two countless thousands of times and loved Jesus with a passion, so when it came time to do the third, he was ready.
If JL were here today, he would want to ask, “How about you? Are you ready?”
It was a typical Sunday morning at Antioch Church, many years ago. We were singing hymns and praise songs to the Lord Jesus. Many people had their eyes closed, but not my son Jesse. He was four years old at the time and taking it all in, watching people sing, looking at the musicians, gazing at the ceiling. Suddenly he tugged on his mom’s dress and whispered in her ear when she leaned down, “Mom, God and his friends and the angels are here!”
“Where are they?” Cindy replied.
“They’re in this room, but you can’t see them,” Jesse assured her, his blue eyes as serious as they have ever been.
You know what? I believe Jesse was right. I was reminded of the story in Scripture about Elisha the prophet, when he was being hunted by a king. You see, the Syrians were at war with Israel, and every time they would make a move against the Israelites, Elisha would tell the king of Israel what the Syrians were going to do before they did it. This ticked off the Syrian king, so he sent an army to go get the prophet Elisha.
The Syrian army surrounded the city of Dothan where Elisha and his servant, Gehazi, were staying, and the next morning there they were, horses, chariots, and lots of Syrian soldiers. Gehazi was scared to death and cried out, “Master! What shall we do?” I imagine that Elisha was still sipping his first cup of coffee and eating a sweet roll as he read the Dothan Daily, and didn’t even bother to glance at the enemy. He said to Gehazi, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
Huh? That’s what Gehazi’s face must have said. He had no idea what the prophet was talking about, so Elisha put his paper down and began to pray. He asked the Lord to open his servant’s eyes so he could see, and I believe it was about then that Gehazi started shouting and pointing and maybe even dabbing, nearly spilling Elisha’s coffee in the process. The servant looked at the hills around Dothan, rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn’t dreaming, and then looked again. It was still there, and what an awesome spectacle it was. The mountain was lit up with the glory of God as horses and chariots of fire surrounded the Syrian army. The Syrians did not see the army of angels, of course, and they began to move into the city, confident that this little prophet of God had finally met his match. Let’s just say that the prophet of God got the last laugh.
You will have to go to 2 Kings 6:18-23 to read the rest of the story, but it is amazing. It shows off God’s sense of humor, God’s compassion, and God’s power.
This story also confirms, I believe, what Jesse sensed in his spirit as a little boy. God is real, more real than anything that we can touch and hear and see. We are not alone in the universe, because the one who made us is here. He is not aloof or distant, but very much involved in his creation. He is more real than the life I live, and praise God, he is more real than the death I will pass through one day. Until that day, when I meet him face to face, I want to live with the wonder and the expectant hope that only child-like faith can produce.