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THE WAY OF THE CROSSThe Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 8: 35, 37-39 NIV)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NIV)

“What is the chief end of man?  To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  The Westminster Shorter Confession

Enjoy Him Forever (7)

What if I told you that God’s greatest desire for us and our most important obligation in the Christian life was the pursuit of joy?  Would you believe me?

Many wouldn’t.  For many good, dedicated Christians, the concept of sacrifice, dying to oneself, discipline and training, mortifying the flesh, all have a rather somber, serious tone about them that leaves little room for joy.

I understand them but I don’t agree.

Whenever I become too self-absorbed in the battle, or too focused on denial and sacrifice so that life becomes grey and dreary and the days long and burdensome, I have to remind myself that the chief end of all this discipline and training is JOY.

After all, an Olympian athlete doesn’t just train himself or herself for the sake of the training.  They have a goal to achieve, glory to experience, joy to lighten their days.  They want to participate in the Olympics, certainly, but they also want to win.  They want to be the best that they can be, certainly, but they also want to compete.  It’s only natural.

Yes, there is also joy in the fruit of the discipline.  A healthy lifestyle is it’s own reward.  Disciplining yourself and training your body gives you a sense of accomplishment and self-control that is very satisfying.  But there is still a desire for joy which comes from accomplishments recognized by others and valued and praised by those who matter most to us.  Nothing wrong with that.

The desire for glory and the joy that comes from a job well-done and recognized as such is as natural as breathing.  The question is not the process but the source of that joy.  For Christians, that joy is focused on God.  It is His words at the end of our journey that we desire.  “Well done, good and faithful servant…  come and share your master’s happiness” (Matthew 25:23 NIV).

This is such a deep and necessary subject for the Christian life that it is hard to know exactly how to explain it.  It’s like falling in love.  That should not be a dreary ordeal but a joyous experience – even if you are more like Gomer, the wife of Hosea, and need to learn how to love again after being a prostitute for so long.  Yes, there is work to do.  Yes, it will require discipline and training.  Yes, you will have to deny your baser instincts and desires.  But the reward is joy.  Wonderous joy.  Joy overflowing.

And there is a direct link between “glorifying God” and “enjoying Him forever.”  On the one hand, we take joy in what we value (or love) the most.  Our children.  Our marriage.  Our work.  Our accomplishments.  On the other hand, we have a natural desire to share our joy with others, calling their attention to the wonder of this thing or person that has given us such great joy.  Think of a father with his new-born son announcing the joy of a new child joining their family.  Both joy rooted in love (or value) and sharing that joy with others is part of what it means to glorify God.

C.S. Lewis puts it this way.

“But the most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or any thing — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least . . .” (Reflections on the Psalms).

Praise is everywhere and it is the spontaneous overflow of joy.  So much of our praise in church is forced and fake when there is no joy behind it.  So much of our discipleship is reluctant and half-hearted, when it should be full of joy.

C.S. Lewis continues on,

“I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise what ever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value” (Reflections on the Psalms).

Do you see it?  Right there is the rub.  If there is no joy in our praise, then do we truly value our relationship with God?  Do we value God, Himself, who is supremely valuable?  Not just because we have to, but because it is true.  Has our heart changed?  Have our desires been transformed like a young man who falls in love and cannot look at another woman ever again (not out of obligation but out of joy for the gift of love he now has)?  And if that joy is truly there, if we truly value (love) God, then we most certainly will share that joy with others.  Now we are beginning to taste and see what relational evangelism is all about.

Finally, C.S. Lewis gives us a final word of wisdom about joy.

“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.” (Reflections on the Psalms)

Wow.  “The delight is incomplete till it is expressed.”  It comes full circle.  Praise and Joy go together.  One as necessary as the other.  Joy expresses itself in praise and to praise God is to glorify Him.  Perhaps another way of saying this is that “we glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”  We need to replace the word “and” with the word “by” in order to be closer to the truth.

Now you may be thinking that you don’t have that kind of love for God that creates joy which expresses itself in praise shared with others.  I get it.  I feel the same way.  But here are a few things to remember.

First, remember that faith, hope and love are given to us by the Holy Spirit in the moment of our regeneration.  They are a gift from God.

Second, remember also that we are responsible to use those gifts, and exercise them, in our daily walk with God as we live out His purposes for our lives.  No surprise there.

Third, our faith, hope and love grow not as we focus on them but as we focus on God.  That is the way love works.  Love focuses on the other, not on itself.

And that is the point of our passage today.  Paul tells us the final truth in Romans 8 that we need to learn to use in the midst of our sufferings and trials in the battle of Romans 7.  And this final truth is key to all of the others.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Romans 8:35 NIV).

Yes, life can be hard at times but joy comes in the morning.  In that sense, joy is rooted in hope.  It looks forward in anticipation of what is to come.  Our glorification.  The redemption of our bodies.  The time when God, Himself, will “wipe every tear from our eyes” (Revelations 21:4 NIV).

But joy is also rooted in faith which affects the here and now.  There is a joy that we receive that comes in spite of our circumstances because it is focused on God and eternity not on ourselves and our situation.  That takes faith.

That is why we say that peace and joy are the first things Christians experience from the gift of faith, hope and love they receive at their regeneration.  A peace that passes all understanding and a joy that knows no bounds.  This is the inheritance of our relationship with God.

But what about joy rooted in love?  Here we need to look at the example of Jesus.

After all, we are supposed to become like Christ and Hebrews 12:2 encourages us to “Fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Just a minute, you might say.  I don’t remember that part of the story.  I seem to recall that Jesus was in great anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was a difficult moment for him and he was sweating great drops of blood and his prayers were a fervent desire not to go to the cross and endure the wrath of God.  All of that is true.  After all, Jesus loved his Father so completely that his great temptation was to make his fellowship with God more important than his loving obedience of his Father.  That loving obedience was a statement of trust.  “Not my will but yours be done.”

So where is the joy?

Oh, did you expect to see Jesus smiling and laughing with his disciples while he anguished in the Garden or suffered the injustice and mockery of the Jews and Romans?  Did you expect him to be joking with the Roman guards who were nailing him to the cross?  Of course not.  We didn’t say anything here about happiness.  We are talking about joy.  And joy is rooted in love.  Joy often comes with tears and battle and pain.  Just ask any woman, about to give birth, about the joy set before her, enduring childbirth, scorning its shame (legs open, vulnerable to the world, crying out in pain, often with an unresponsive husband more interested in videotaping the event than supporting his wife).  You get the idea.

But here is the secret.

Yes, there was a deep, abiding joy that Jesus had that was not tied to circumstances but, in faith, hope and love, was rooted in his relationship with God.  But even that isn’t the real secret.  The passage doesn’t actually talk about Jesus’ joy but rather the “joy set before him” (vs. 2).  What does that mean?

Is the author of the book of Hebrews talking about the results that Jesus would accomplish by dying on the cross?  Is he referring to you and me and all those who would be saved because he was willing “to endure the cross, scorning its shame.”  Maybe.  But I don’t think so.  I believe that it is deeper than that and directly connected to his experience in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Many people think that Jesus was willing to die on the cross because he loved you and me – and that is true, but only indirectly.  Jesus died on the cross because he loved his Father and chose to obey Him and trust Him even when his soul shrank back from the idea of experiencing His wrath upon sin, becoming sin itself, and bearing the sin of the world upon his own head.  Jesus died on the cross because he loved his Father and wanted nothing more than to please Him.

So what are you saying, exactly? You ask.

What I am saying is that the secret that Jesus knew, that gave him joy, which allowed him to “endure the cross, scorning its shame,” was not his own joy but rather “the joy of the Lord.”

Nehemiah 8:10 says, “the joy of the LORD is our strength.”

There is great spiritual truth and power in that one small truth.  Jesus was strengthened in his most difficult hour NOT by his own joy but “for the joy set before him,” the realization that his choice, his actions, his obedience would bring great joy to his Father.  That is what matters.

Love is focused on the other.  Jesus obeyed his Father’s will and knew, deep in his heart, that his actions would bring great joy to the One he loved above all others.  That expectation of bringing joy to his Father is what strengthened him in his most difficult hour.  And that is the secret for us as well.

But who of us has that kind of love for God?

None but Jesus.  No doubt.  But it isn’t a question of quantity but rather quality.  Love is love.  Love isn’t love only when you have enough of it.  It is love because it is focused on the other.  The smallest act of obedience is an act of love.

If love is sincere, it is enough.  Yes, it can grow.  The circle of love can grow.  But love is either sincere or it isn’t and if it is sincere, it is enough to please God, just as the feeble attempts of a child are immensely pleasing to his father.  After all, it only takes the faith the size of a mustard seed to move mountains.  The same is true for love.

It may be challenged.  It may sometimes be overshadowed and choked out by the cares of this world.  No doubt.  Yes, we need to focus on faith, hope and love and exercise them and help them to grow in power in our lives, just like in marriage.  Love may be real but it may not be exercised in a particular circumstance because of competing desires or fears and concerns.  Yes, our love must grow but if it is sincere, it is enough to please God.

Still, there is a way for us to properly exercise our faith, hope and love.  Especially love.  In order to help it grow.  A simple of act of obedience is often enough to open the floodgates of love so that it grows and flourishes within us.  Of course.  But there is something that comes even before that simple act of obedience, that supports it, that empowers it.  And that is the love of God for us as demonstrated by Christ on the cross.

Paul tells us in Romans 8: 37-39 that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Twice Paul talks about love in this passage.  But in neither case is he talking about our love for God.  He talks about Christ’s love for us and he talks about “the love of God.”

And this is the secret to growing our love for God.  The more that we focus on the love of God for us in Christ Jesus our Lord, the more our love for God will grow to dominate our lives, our actions, our decisions.

It was because Jesus loved his Father and absolutely knew that the Father loved him, that he was able to focus his attention on the “joy of the Lord” which gave him strength.

Focusing our minds on the seven truths of Romans 8

  • that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, (Romans 8:1)
  • that we have been given resurrection power to deal with sin and temptation, (Romans 8:11)
  • that we have evidence for the life of the Holy Spirit within us, (Romans 8:15,16)
  • that although we may suffer for the gospel, we will be glorified with Christ, revealing the glory of the character of Christ in us, (Romans 8:17,18)
  • that even when we suffer and “groan” under the curse of this life, we have prayer support, (Romans 8:26,27,34)
  • that everything matters to God and He turns it all into our eternal, spiritual good, (Romans 8:28) and, finally,
  • that there is absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love of God – nothing in all of creation, not our own sin and weakness, not any suffering or persecution, nobody and nothing.  Period.  (Romans 8:38,39)

All of these things are the love of God for us in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Focus on them.  Preach these truths into your own heart and mind.  Live by these truths and you will have discovered the power of bringing joy to the heart of the Father.

I wrote a little poem that I use to help me focus my ambitions on this one thing.  Pleasing God.  I’m not very good at it, but I can certainly focus on it and grow in it a little bit every day.  Enjoy.

The joy of the Lord is my strength.
Getting rid of all my small ambitions
to make this one thing the hallmark of my life.
To please God.
Whether I get what I pray for or not,
whether my circumstances change or not,
whether I am healed or not.
To consider every sacrifice a small price to pay
to obtain the pearl of great price.
His pleasure. 

The Desert Warrior

Lord, you know that my heart’s desire is to please you.  I’m not very good at it yet but you are helping me get there.  Help me to tear down every idol of desire and every tower of fear in my life that keeps me from this one ambition.  Pleasing you is the goal of my life and that brings you great joy.  Thank you.  In Jesus’ name I pray.  Amen.