Date: May 28, 1931?
Rejoice in the Lord alway; and again I say, Rejoice. – Philippians 4:4
A FEW weeks ago a new religious sect was organized in Hungary. Its chief tenet was this, that salvation could be gained by laughter. But when a group of those who professed this creed of boisterous happiness put their doctrine into practise, they laughed so uproariously that they were committed to court as public nuisances.
Their conception of Christianity as an ecstatic religion of unbridled hilarity is, of course, a defiant contradiction of Biblical truth, and it is symptomatic of that fitful, jerking, convulsive degradation of worship, too frequent in our own country, that has brought reproach upon the fair name of the Church. Yet it is not as harmful and destructive as the wide-spread delusion, promoted by atheists and milder opponents of Christianity, which pictures the religion of Jesus Christ as a joy-killing, pleasure-stifling creed, built up on dark and dismal denials, with no room for happiness and laughter. Indeed, within the Church there have also been those who have insisted that the ideal Christian life is the life that isolates itself from happiness and that the perfect pattern of holiness is to be found in severing all possible connection with the world and in retreating to the severe solitude of a hermit’s hut or within the high walls of a cloister. And so we read of terrible caricatures of Christianity, of misguided fanatics who lash their backs until they stream with blood, who have solemnly pledged themselves to perpetual silence, who deny themselves the bare necessities of life, eking out an existence hardly better than a living death, and who do all this in the name of that religion of love and happiness that Jesus gave to the world!
Now, this deplorable misrepresentation of the true character of Christianity has its peculiarly disastrous effects in the lives of young people for whom the quest of happiness is a natural and necessary part of their existence. As a result, too many young men and young women today regard the Church merely as a negative, crepe-hanging institution, which continually demands, “Thou shalt not do this, and thou shalt not do that,” a creed that everlastingly opposes every desire and impulse in which the throbbing, surging life of youth may express itself.
WHY THE CHRISTIAN REJOICES.
But tonight the Word of God calls out to us in the message of happiness, “Rejoice in the Lord alway,” and as though it would emphasize to all heavy-hearted and lowspirited men that here at last is the end of their search for happiness, the apostle repeats, “And again I say, Rejoice.” On the basis of these words I hope to show you tonight that a Christian can be the happiest of all human beings and that in particular the springtime of youth, which separates carefree childhood from the furrowed struggles of adult responsibilities, these years of overflowing energy and vitality, must he the happy years in every normal Christian life.
How can it be otherwise? When people today acknowledge Jesus Christ as their own loving, merciful allsufficient Savior, they have the real basis for all true happiness, “the joy of salvation,” in their hearts. We can understand why a deluded Hindu, living on in unrelieved torture, can drive all happiness out of his life by lying on a bed of spikes or by imbedding into his quivering flesh great hooks by which he is swung high into the air. He wants to have the inner assurance that he can acquire merit to balance the sins that abound in his life. But his is a religion of unrelieved doom and unmitigated terror. We can comprehend, too, why people in our remarkable age who do not know God and do not know the Bible can be the unhappiest of all creatures, even with all the beauties of nature surrounding them and with all the attractions of modern life at their disposal. Their Christless, godless, hopeless creed destroys every bit of that inner happiness without which there can be no permanent joy in life. But we cannot explain why there can be a perpetual gloom and protracted pessimism in the life of a Christian. For here, in the Father’s invitation of divine grace, which tells us that, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” is the power that first touches at the root of all unhappiness because it touches at sin, the responsible cause for sorrow in all of its many forms, and then offers the only power in all the world that is strong enough to remove sin, the saving, cleansing, redemptive power of Christ’s blood.
We know, of course, that people claim to find happiness serenely by disregarding “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world,” in money, in human associations, in the acquiring of distinction and honor. But when they are confronted with the real issues of life and death, this shallow happiness vanishes, dissipated into nothingness. Why is it that people who apparently seem to enjoy life to its fullest often end in the terror of despair? Why is it that, whenever a sudden catastrophe overwhelms people, when a crowded public building is destroyed by fire, when a ship founders on the high seas, or when a tornado cuts its devastating swath through a community, people who have enjoyed the most complacent, self-satisfying, and undisturbed life cringe in abject fear and horror before the thought of the final reckoning? Why is it that men who during their lifetime boasted that earth held no terrors for them have breathed their last as the most wretched and unhappy of all men? Why all this if not because the fundamental rule of life which has been expressed on every page of human history is this, that without the peace of conscience, without the assurance of forgiven sins, there can be no real and lasting happiness?
See how Jesus emphasized this connection of happiness and forgiven sin. They brought to Him a young man sick with the palsy; and in performing the miracle of healing, Jesus said, “Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee.” And the rule of human experience demonstrates that, as there can be no real and permanent happiness when the claims of a violated conscience are unanswered, so, when Jesus pronounces His benediction of peace and forgiveness upon a sin-sick soul, then, and then alone, you, every one of you, can be sure of a satisfying, soulchanging happiness.
With the joy of this radiant faith, Christianity offers the joy of happy freedom. Contrary to every other religion, it offers release from sins free, by the purest grace, without penances or pilgrimages, without the sacrifices of animals, without the payment of money, without the imposing of physical hardships or the suffering of bodily torture. Contrary to other religious systems, it prescribes no particular mode of dress; it has no diet rules to tell people what they must eat or what they must drink; it enacts no laws that demand the unmarried state of its followers as a particularly holy and God-pleasing condition. Contrary to a thousand different infringements on the liberties of the individual which tell people what they should do and what they must not do with their time and their money; contrary to the spirit of the blue-laws of which we read and hear so much when teachers in the outward Christian Church insist upon the Old Testament spirit and legislation, the glory of Christ’s Gospel is expressed in the Savior’s promise, “The truth shall make you free,”—free from the terror of sin, hell, and death; free from the stifling letter of man-made laws, which kill off the deeper spiritual truths; free to lead and regulate a life in definite harmony with Christ’s highest ideals, the only permanently happy life of which men have ever known.
That is why the greatest Christians have been the happiest Christians. They tell us that Jesus did not laugh; and I do not know whether He did, for the Scriptures contain no reference to His laughter. What with the sins of all humanity of all lands and ages weighing down so heavily upon His soul, it would be surprising indeed if the thought of that agony left Him a moment for laughter. No wonder that long before He went the way of the cross, anticipating the grueling agony of Gethsemane and the crushing cruelty of Calvary, He shuddered at this ordeal and cried out, “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how shall I be straitened until it be accomplished!” Yet we do read that the soul of Jesus rejoiced; and we cannot picture our Savior, in those intimate moments when He took the little children into His arms, without a smile on His divine countenance that reflected the laughter of those little ones; we cannot see Him at Cana’s festive marriage board sitting apart in stiff aloofness from the spirit of that happy occasion; we cannot picture Him at Bethany with Lazarus and his sisters without being thoroughly happy in the quiet hours of that friendly circle.
That happiness of soul has radiated itself into the lives of His followers. Think of Martin Luther, with all the crushing cares of his titanic task, singing happily in the midst of his family circle, while his embittered foes vainly sought to destroy him. Think of Charles Spurgeon, the great London preacher, walking through an English meadow, kneeling down in the grass to thank God for the gift of laughter and happiness. Think of all the great heroes of faith of whom posterity has preserved a detailed record, and you will find them enjoying the happiness of friendship, enriched by the pleasures of music and literature, happy, exuberantly happy, in the hours of recreation amid the beauties of nature or surrounded by congenial associates. And as their Christian faith led them to that abundant and happy life promised by the Savior, so, as our heavenly Father would lift up our hearts from care and sorrow, His messenger calls out to every one of us tonight, “Rejoice; . . . and again I say, Rejoice.”
HOW THE CHRISTIAN REJOICES.
But we must not overlook the essential fact that the apostle says, “Rejoice in the Lord.” There are, of course, many young people today who actually believe that they can find the thrill of happiness along forbidden paths, in the fringe of hazy, shady sins that begin just beyond the limits of morality. In the present-day sophistication of sin a good time often involves a fracture of the moral code, and pleasure is just another word for indulgence in “lusts of the flesh, lusts of the eye, and the pride of life.” Young people frequently think that a full, happy life must embrace the plucking of forbidden fruit, the overriding of conventions, the casting aside of what they like to call oldfashioned morals. And so we see blind, misguided young men and young women, unmindful of the pleas and the warnings of their parents, rush on in the mad pursuit of the kind of pleasure that pulls down the Scriptural ideals of purity, honesty, and truth and paves the road to ruin.
For sin, no matter how carefully it may be disguised, no matter how attractively it may be decorated, is always ugly, brutal, and degrading; and inevitably it proves itself to be a relentless and tyrannical taskmaster that “can destroy both body and soul in hell.” Think of the characters that have been ruined and the virtues that have been violated in this mad chasing after the frivolity of sin; think of the terrible consequences this poisoned pleasure strews in its path; wrecked bodies, stunted mental growth, loathsome diseases, the utter bankruptcy of self-respect,—these and a hundred other curses that leave a stain too indelible to be removed by long and frantic regret, a lurking shadow too black to be dispelled during an entire life. And if tonight there should be within the reach of my voice any young man who thinks he can defy God’s order of purity and decency and find happiness in secret sin and secret relations, or if there is any young woman who, unbeknown to her parents, is planning on some step that will take her away from the path of purity and truth that she has been taught to follow in her Church and in her home, let me plead with them tonight to stop in their sinful course, to learn a fundamental rule of all human experience, that sin never makes any one happy, that it always drags its victims down to disgrace and despair, and that the only true happiness comes when you get right with God and follow the appeal of the apostle, “Rejoice IN THE LORD,” that is, rejoice in the Lord Jesus as your Savior, your Friend of friends, your never-failing Companion, your never-ending Source of strength, purity, and power.
WHEN THE CHRISTIAN REJOICES.
Rejoicing stimulated with that divine impulse will shine through the darkest clouds of sorrow and adversity and tribulation. It is easy enough to be happy when things come our way, when we have plenty of money, when we enjoy good health, and when the flow of life runs on in a smooth and even course. But here is a power that leads us to “rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS” and enables us to find happiness in sorrow and rejoicing even in affliction. That glorious faith animated the first Church when the hunted and despised apostles could rejoice “that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name”; when St. Peter could write to the scattered and persecuted believers, “Ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory”; when the humble and antagonized Christians in Rome could join St. Paul in declaring, “We glory in tribulation.”
That victorious faith holds out the same promise for us today. Are you depressed by the thought of the weaknesses and impurities that abound in your life? Come to Christ, ask Him for a clean heart and a right spirit, and He will give you the joy that comes with a twice-born, Christ-centered life. Are you distressed by worry and anxiety? Are you concerned about conditions in your home, your resources, your work, your health, your personal problems? Here is the promise, penned by inspiration for you, “Cast all your care upon Him, for He careth for you.” Here is His sacred pledge, “God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory by Jesus Christ.” Here is Christ, just before the ordeal of Gethsemane, asking His Father for His disciples and for you that His joy might be fulfilled in you. That joy of Christ, that rejoicing “in the Lord alway,” which God offers to you tonight is earth’s highest happiness, and the faith in Christ makes this life, as disappointing and as disillusioning as sometimes it may be to many of you, so eminently worth living and so blessedly worth dying.
Then up, my heart, rejoice and sing,
A cheerful trust maintain;
For God, the Source of everything,
Thy Savior will remain.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.