by Rev. Matt Ashley, South District Missional Strategist & Superintendent
“’Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.” ~Luke 15:23b-24~
Two of my favorite hymns are about Joy. The words to ‘Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee’ (#89 in the UM Hymnal) were written in 1907 by Henry Van Dyke, a Presbyterian clergyperson and scholar. Rev. Van Dyke was reportedly inspired by the beauty of the Berkshire Mountains during a visit to Massachusetts. The world was a troubled place in 1907, with the events leading to World War I already in motion, but Rev. Van Dyke’s words remind us that God’s joy is a gift even in the midst of trouble.
Then of course there’s ‘Joy to the World,’ with words written by English poet and clergyperson Isaac Watts in 1719. Watts took one of the most joyful of all the Psalms, Psalm 98, and formed it into a Christmas celebration. After Covid interrupted our Christmas Eve worship celebrations last winter, I am looking forward to singing ‘Joy to the World!’ in December.
Even when there is pain and conflict in the world, there is Joy. No matter what difficult things we experience, there is always Joy. When we celebrate Holy Communion together, we anticipate Christ’s heavenly banquet; we celebrate the fulness of his Joy. Church is meant to be Joyful.
In the Gospel story of the Prodigal in Luke 15, a man’s son makes all sorts of selfish and self-destructive choices; his life ruined, he comes home to his father begging for mercy. The conventional wisdom – what the young man himself thinks will happen – is that he will be relegated to the lowest of the low, that his father will judge him, that he will be met with condemnation.
But instead, there is Joy! “’Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’
Church is meant to be joyful, a celebration of God’s goodness and grace and forgiveness and acceptance and love. When someone is dead inside and comes to church seeking New Life, that is something to celebrate!
Instead, we are all too often ready to fulfill the prodigal son’s expectations. We find ourselves judging and condemning and arguing and bickering and worrying and being resentful and sometimes just plain old being mean. We turn joyful songs into funeral dirges and then we wonder why people don’t want to come to church.
We have twenty-nine churches in the South District, all with sparks of vitality, all with wonderful people, and the love of Christ is ready to shine within us so that we are shining like stars in the world.
My greatest hope is that we will be twenty-nine joyful churches where we celebrate God’s goodness and grace and forgiveness and acceptance and love. My hope is that every worship service in our churches will be a celebration, a party, a foretaste of Christ’s heavenly banquet. My hope is that even when times are difficult and challenging, that we will allow nothing to separate us from the joy of Jesus Christ.
This is church; it’s meant to be joyful. It’s meant to be fun. When someone visits your church, do they experience Joy?
Thanks for listening –