I tucked joy tightly under my seat…but it flew away. I took my print out of The Jazz of Preaching, Chapter 8 with me on the “El Toro” roller coaster at Six Flags Great Adventure. With a top speed of 70 miles per hour and a 176-foot drop at 76 degrees, I wanted to immerse myself in joy. Yet the experience, like Chapter 8, somehow flew out from under me. The ride was over and the chapter was lost before I knew what happened.
Why isn’t joy as sticky as tension? I seem to “…hold and honor tension” (Jones 94) much more readily than joy. Joy is meant to be enjoyed but it seems to resist being caught. I’m surprised the word “enjoy” is even able to remain intact. “Joy” must constantly run from “en.” When it comes to joy, it seems the best we can do is kiss it as it flies (Blake xxxvi).
This same principle seems to apply to the Gospel. Jesus Christ, the ultimate source of joy, states, “Do not hold me” (John 20:17). The one who shows me the path of life and in whose presence lies the fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11) resists arrest. Perhaps one can only let Him grab hold of us; to permit oneself to relax in God’s loving embrace (Jones 91). In so doing, a whole new world of possibilities unfolds.
When we allow ourselves to be caught up in God’s joy, we find that the Gospels are a message of joy overall and over all. In light of the fact that Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John was turning water into wine, it is possible to understand Jesus beginning His ministry with a toast! “Jesus took delight in the natural world as the creation of God. He was not an ascetic in the usual sense of the word; he was reputed to enjoy both food and drink, and was known for banqueting with outcasts…Eating with them would have shattered the social world which pronounced them unacceptable (Borg 134). Jesus’ “La Chiem!” excludes exclusion by undercutting divisions between profane and sacred, impure and pure, denigrating and righteous. He takes all these artificial, life-stunting categories and resurrects them.
Indeed, “the great theme of our faith – resurrection…incites laughing aloud because God and good are never dead and done” (Jones 89). Speaking of laughter, another result from allowing ourselves to be caught up in God’s joy is Christ’s sense of humor. It is not always easy for us contemporaries to discern in light of the culturally specific references directed toward people in first century. This is where exegesis can help joy soar. According to Rev. James Martin, “the idea that someone with a plank of wood in his own eye would critique someone with a speck of dust in his was probably laugh-out-loud funny” (WSJ.com). The elements of exaggeration that Jesus employed in His parables also evince His humor. The parable of the talents, for example, is not merely a serious story about properly using one’s abilities. Martin states that “a ‘talent’ represented 15 years of wages. And to one servant the rich man gives five—the equivalent of 75 years of wages–a ridiculous amount, which would have made listeners smile” (WSJ.com). Additionally, Jesus’ new name for Peter, Cephas, may not merely be his designation as the foundation of the church. Reviewing the Gospels with an ear for the sounds of joy suggests that, through this nickname, Jesus makes fun of his rock-like (perhaps even dense) personality.
Jesus’ retort to Nathaniel’s jab is a more conspicuous display of His sense of humor – and may even show that He can take a good joke. Upon learning that Jesus came from Nazareth, Nathaniel states: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Jesus does not begrudge Nathaniel’s diss but sanctions it by replying: “Here is an Israelite without guile” (John 1:47). Another overt display of Jesus’ humor can be discerned in Jesus’ brief address to debtors in His community: “If someone sues you for your cloak, let him take your shirt as well” (Matt. 5:40). According to Richard Horsley’s Jesus and Empire this statement means the debtor would be standing stark naked, embarrassing his or her creditor in front of the whole village “(Jesus has a sense of humor!)” (119).
This exercise in allowing oneself to be caught up in God’s joy caused me to revisit my first impressions of the Gospel passage I first preached on concerning Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers in Luke 17: 11–19. Christ starts off this gospel passage with a practical joke. When the lepers approach, Christ does not invite them to sit down and have falafel, but sends them away to the priests. These are the ones who are going to be complicit in His execution in a few weeks. I’m sure that’s just what the priests want to see – a leper colony headed straight for them! Of course, Christ knows they would be healed by the time they arrive, but the priests don’t! They’ll be scared out of their wits! Hey, you can’t blame Christ for wanting to have a little fun before He dies. Theologian Meister Eckhart said, “My Lord told me a joke and seeing him laugh has done more for me than any scripture I will ever read” (99).
Part of the reason why contemporary preaching lacks joy so often is due to ministers’ inability to permit themselves to be joyful people. A great example is offered in Professor Jones’ illustration of Reverend Robert Walker in The Jazz of Preaching. Walker could not skate without his own sense of self-importance remaining tightly intact. If only he could have permitted himself to be happy – instead of petrifying his joy. “Did he have a sense of his own holy and unique personhood apart from the black suit and apart from his role as a minister? Was he capable of celebrating life not just as a member of the clergy, but also as a child and a child of God?” (Jones 90). Walker was once a child and as a child probably experienced uninhibited joy as all children do. They are not apologetic about joy, nor do they try to hold onto it. They let it do its thing and, while it’s doing it, enjoy every second. That’s part of the reason why Jesus points to them as paradigmatic of God’s kingdom. Preaching would be infused with joy to the extent that the preacher, like children, relax in God’s loving embrace. Then, “…our ministries are less likely to deteriorate into endless pursuits of God’s acceptance and worth. We are no longer in search of what we already have…[This] unleashes a powerful stream of love and grace, the vital source of meaningful and joyful preaching and ministry” (Jones 91). Without such joy, the line between minister and monster can become blurred.
Liturgy may seem devoid of joy at times because it fixates on Thursday night rather than Sunday morning. It rarely accounts for, or draws attention to, Christ’s joy – let alone His sense of humor – in its prayers, rituals or music. Without being reimagined in light of the resurrection, worship can become stale and/or oppressive. This is not to suggest that liturgy should downplay Christ’s excruciating death. At the very least, however, it would begin to acknowledge and promote His life just as much. Jesus said He came so we might have life, and have it to the fullest (John 10:10).
Before he passed, my Grandpa left me with these words: “Nick, enjoy your life.” I find joy in those rare moments I can escape from my superego; when I am less punitive and more palliative; when I allow myself to love myself. And others. The times when I do manage to enjoy joy are what make life worth living. It is those times when I live, as Professor Jones said, from self-acceptance rather than for self-acceptance. It can be helpful to live from a place of joy rather than for it (especially since it always seems to be flying away). In light of God’s omnipresence, love is everywhere all the time. I find joy in this love that pervades me both inside and out.
“If we would be joyful preachers, we would first be people of joy” (Jones 89). As Professor Jones suggests, I think the key to have more joy in preaching is to permit ourselves to be happy in all aspects of our life as much as we can. It’s easy to preach in the spirit if one is actively living in the spirit. Professor Jones stated that joyful preaching is the fallout of joyful living. Otherwise we risk burning out, instead of from within. It’s that image we see on an airplane. If the plane loses oxygen, we must first affix our masks before rushing to help others put on theirs. Otherwise, all risk suffocating. I have a great deal of difficulty internalizing this because of my propensity to equate self-care with selfishness. Yet they are rarely synonymous, if at all. Indeed, as the adage goes, we are only good to others when we are best to ourselves.
Being compassionate with oneself supplies the requisite sustenance we need to sustain such compassion in our relationships with others. Without a wellspring of joy from which to draw, preaching can become stale at best and downright hate-filled at worst. That is why I pray that all preachers may live into the following Bible quote: “God will rejoice over you with gladness; God will renew you in God’s love. God will exalt over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (Zephaniah 3:17).
Blake, William. The Lyrical Poems of William Blake. Clarendon Press, 1905.
Coogan, Michael David, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Carol A. Newsom. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version. Oxford University Press US, 2007. Print.
Eckhart, Meister. “My Lord Told Me a Joke.” Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West. Translated by Daniel Ladinsky. First ed. Penguin (Non-Classics), 2002.
Horsley, Richard. Jesus and Empire. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2003. Print.
Jones, Kirk Byron. The Jazz of Preaching: How to Preach with Great Freedom and Joy. Abingdon Press, 2004.
Martin, James. (2011 Oct. 23). “Jesus of Nazareth, Stand-Up Comic?” Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/10/23/jesus-of-nazareth-stand-up-com…