H.L. Mencken was an American writer and commentator in the mid-1900’s, and he is famous, among other things, for his quip that “Puritanism (is) the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
That’s the picture that many people have of the English Puritan Christians, but as Theologian J.I. Packer says, those Puritans have gotten “a bad rap.” The Puritans were indeed known for their holiness, and for working hard, but they also knew how to have fun and celebrate. As Packer points out, they had dances after their weddings — and they even had dances after their ministers’ ordinations!
It should not surprise us that the Puritans were people of joy. Because if you study them, you will find that they were some of the godliest people who have ever lived on earth. And the people of God, the Bible tells us, are to be “People of Joy and Gladness.”
We find ourselves now in the second month of the COVID-19 crisis, and in any crisis, it’s easy to get anxious, or discouraged, or depressed. But as the people of God, we need to remember that God made us for joy and gladness, just as He tells Zacharias in Luke 1:14:
“You will have joy and gladness.”
Joy and gladness should characterize the people of God, not only in Zacharias’ time, but in our lives today as well.
I. God Created Us To Be People of Joy & Gladness
When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias here in Luke 1:14 (as he was faithfully going about his “routine” assignment, as we saw last week, the angel said to him: “You will have joy and gladness.” He was speaking specifically of the joy and gladness that he and his wife Elizabeth would have at the birth of their son, in their old age. They would rejoice, and be glad, that after all these years, God had heard their prayers, and had given them a child.
But joy and gladness were not just for Zacharias and Elizabeth. Joy and gladness are something that God has designed for ALL of His people to enjoy.
This is what He created us for the very beginning: to know Him, and to walk with Him every day in joy and gladness. Genesis tells us that Adam & Eve, at the dawn of creation, used to walk with God in the cool of the day in Paradise.
I got up last Monday morning, put my coffee on, and went outside to bring the paper in before I started my morning worship time. And I was just struck by what a beautiful morning it was: 62 degrees, a perfect spring morning; birds were singing, the yard was still mowed and trimmed from the weekend before, a cool breeze was blowing — and I just stepped out into it, and the old song came to me: “Morning has broken, like the first morning, blackbird has spoken, like the first bird. Praise for the singing, praise for the morning, praise for them springing, fresh from the Word!” I thought, this morning must be something like that very first morning that God made — and He made these mornings, He made these days, for us to walk with Him in gladness and joy — just as Adam & Eve used to walk with Him in the cool of the day.
And it is not just the beautiful morning that would have been so joyful for Adam & Eve: it was the Presence of God HIMSELF that made it so. God didn’t just create us to walk in a Paradise; He created us to walk with HIM in Paradise! The Bible tells us in Psalm 16:11, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” God designed us to experience joy as we walk in His presence.
John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace” back in the 1700’s, wrote to a fellow pastor friend and said: “But the presence of the Lord can bring a pleasanter spring than April, and even in the depth of winter.”
It was on one of these cool mornings this week that I walked out from beneath the shade into the sunshine, and the rays of the sun felt so good; it just warmed my body. The sun gives us life, and strength; when its rays hit our skin it causes our body to create Vitamin D that strengthens our bones. The sun makes us “feel good;” it’s why so many people enjoy being out in it. No wonder so many of the ancient peoples worshiped the sun! The sun is a source of life and health and well-being. And what we need to understand is that the sun is a living picture of God. Those ancient peoples who worshiped the sun weren’t that far off; God is like the sun. Psalm 84:11 says “For the LORD God is a SUN and shield.” God is like the sun; He made us to be warmed by Him, fed by Him, have life in Him; find joy in Him; in His presence. We were created to find everything we need, in the presence of God.
I think it is very interesting, if you look at :19 here in Luke 1, where Gabriel is talking to Zacharias, and he says: “I am Gabriel, who STANDS IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD …”. Isn’t it remarkable that of ALL the things that Gabriel could have said to describe himself, he said he “stands in the presence of God.”
— NOT that he was a mighty angel;
— NOT that he had knowledge of the future;
— NOT that he had a blessing for Zacharias
The one thing that characterized him, more than anything else, is that he “STANDS IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD.” THAT was the single most important thing about him; THAT was his great blessing! That he stood in the presence of God!
And that’s also the greatest blessing that is available for US too! It is what God made us for: that we might “in His presence” experience “fullness of joy,” and from His right hand, have “pleasures forever.” That is what God created us for; that is what He wants our lives to be characterized by: that we might be people who experience gladness and joy, in His presence!
II. Our Sin Separated Us From Joy & Gladness
So if we were designed to be “people of gladness and joy,” what happened? Because this world is certainly not a place where all is “gladness and joy” today, is it?
— We have this COVID-19 virus that has engulfed our world; over 60,000 people have died of this virus just in the United States in the past couple of months; millions of people have lost their jobs — the most since the Great Depression; businesses have closed down and some will not survive; people’s retirement accounts have taken a big hit. Domestic violence is up. There’s a lot of people in our world today who are not experiencing “joy and gladness.”
— And honestly, COVID-19 is just “the tip of the iceberg” of the difficulties in this world. There are plenty of other problems without it. Some of us may be saying today, “Hey, this virus is the last of my problems” — because you’ve got financial struggles, broken relationships, sickness, and physical weakness. For a multitude of reasons, you would say you have NO “gladness and joy.” Your life is certainly not characterized by those blessings. What’s the problem? What has happened in our world to make that so?
The basic problem of our world, as we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, is our sin. God did create the Garden of Eden as a Paradise where we could walk in joy & gladness with Him every day. But the problem is, He also gave us a free will, and we chose to look for gladness & joy in something besides God.
See, the great sin of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden was not that they just “took a piece of fruit” — it was that they disobeyed God when they did that. Even more profoundly, it was that they were seeking to find their happiness and joy in something besides God. Do you remember what it says in Genesis 3 when Eve was tempted with the fruit? It says that she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise …” that as Satan said, “You will be like God …”. She wanted THIS more than she wanted to obey God. She thought THIS, instead of God, would bring her “real” joy and gladness. And she took that fruit and she ate it, and sin came into the world as a result, and Adam & Eve were cast out of the perfect Garden and the fellowship they had with God; and our world was cursed with disfunction, discord, disease, and death, and the joy and gladness that God originally designed for us to have with Him was lost. Our sin separated us from presence of God and the gladness and joy that comes from Him. THAT is what went wrong with our world.
And that is still the same basic problem we have today. Our root problem is that we are looking for satisfaction in things besides God, that will never really make us happy. We look for “joy and gladness” in food, in entertainment, in jobs and money and success, in material possessions, in other people. And these are good things IF enjoyed with God; but without Him, NONE of them can give us the “joy and gladness” that only comes from God. They are just idols, that can never take His place.
For example, John Newton said that when he first met his wife, he was so enamored with her that she basically became an “idol” to him. Don’t think that’s odd; that is the actually the problem with a lot of relationships today too; people make an idol out of the other person, and expect that person to do for them what only God can do. They want them to be their “soul mate” who will “complete” them and give them “joy and gladness.” That may all sound very romantic — but that also puts a lot of pressure on that other person to be something they can never be; you are setting them up for failure! Only GOD can give us ultimate joy and gladness, the Bible says. No mere person can do that for you. Don’t look for from another person — any person, or any other thing — what only GOD can be for you.
But this is what has happened in our world. We were designed to have joy & gladness in God, but we turned away from Him in our sin, and sought to try to find joy and gladness in other people and things, and it is not ultimately there. Our replacing of God with other things, has robbed us of the “joy and gladness” that only comes from the Presence of God, and brought the curse of sin and death into our world. That is the root of all the other problems we have in our world. But thankfully, God did not leave us there …
III. Jesus Restores Us to Joy & Gladness
“While we were yet sinners,” the Bible says, “Christ died for us.” Even though we sinned against God, and tried to replace Him with other things, amazingly He still loved us, and wanted us back. He sent Jesus to die on the cross, to pay for our sins, so that if we would repent of our rebellion against Him, and come back to Him, He could forgive us and receive us back again. So through Jesus, now the way is open for us to come BACK into God’s presence again, and experience the “joy and gladness” that He originally created for us to have with Him.
The first step for you, if you really want to experience the “joy and gladness” that God made you for, is to turn back to God. Admit that you have sinned against Him; admit that you have gone your own way; and tried to replace Him with other things. Ask His forgiveness; claim the death of Jesus on the cross as your forgiveness. And commit your life to Him as your Lord & your God. If you will do that, then you will begin to know the “joy and gladness” that God originally made you for. This will actually come into your life in a couple of ways:
— First of all, we can experience the joy and gladness of His presence every day right now, as we walk with Him.
Over 20 times in scripture, God tells us to rejoice and be glad, right now:
— Psalm 31:7 says: “I will REJOICE AND BE GLAD (there’s those two words again!) in Your lovingkindness.” He says because of the mercy and grace God has shown me, now we can have that “joy and gladness” in what He has done.
— Psalm 118:24 is a familiar verse to many of us: “This the day the Lord has made, let us (what?) REJOICE AND BE GLAD in it”! There’s those words again! God wants His people to walk in joy and gladness.
Now we need to understand: this is NOT an excuse for us to say “OK, if I’m supposed to be a person of ‘joy and gladness,’ then I’m just gonna go out and do whatever I think will make me happy.” NO! We just saw, that going after things God commanded us not to do will NOT make us happy; it will only separate us from God. The only Biblical way to really “rejoice and be glad” is IN THE LORD: in who He is, and what He has done for us.
— We can start every day by getting up and saying like Psalm 118:24, “This the day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.” Read a Psalm like Psalm 118, sing some songs to God and rejoice in Him; give thanks to Him for the good things you have. As you do that in His presence, you will experience joy and gladness in the Lord.
George Muller, who had a ministry to orphans in England in the 1800’s, found that this was THE KEY to life and ministry. He wrote:
“While I was staying at Nailsworth, it pleased the Lord to teach me a truth … the benefit of which I have not lost, though now . . . more than forty years have since passed away. The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not, how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. For I might seek to set the truth before the unconverted, I might seek to benefit believers, I might seek to relieve the distressed, I might in other ways seek to behave myself as it becomes a child of God in this world; and yet, not being happy in the Lord, and not being nourished and strengthened in my inner man day by day, all this might not be attended to in a right spirit.”
We need to make that OUR highest priority today, too: realize that THE most important thing you have to do every day, is to “make your soul happy in God.” Find “joy and gladness” with Him first thing every morning.
— But it’s not JUST a morning time with God. We should continue to walk with Him all day like He designed us to, and “rejoice and be glad” in HIM and everything that He does for us.
I love Drew Culpepper, one of our deacons here at First Baptist; we’ll be out on the golf course, with him and Jack and some of us, and as we’re walking on the way to the next hole, all of the sudden he’ll just exclaim, “Isn’t this a beautiful day God has given us!” He just rejoices in the Lord. THAT is the kind of “gladness and joy” we should have: that recognizes that GOD is the source of all the good that we have.
AND EVEN WHEN THINGS ARE NOT “pleasant” for us in our circumstances; when we aren’t on the golf course, or when we aren’t doing something we enjoy, we can still have a joy in the Lord.
— David said in Psalm 4:7 “You have put gladness in my heart, more than when their grain and new wine abound.” He said the joy God gives us is greater than just our circumstances.
— That’s why Paul & Silas could sing and rejoice in God even when they were locked up in prison in Philippi, because they could worship God and be in His presence, no matter what.
— Habakkuk said in the last verses of his book: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail, and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold, and there be no cattle in the stalls — YET I will exult in the Lord; I will REJOICE in the God of my salvation.” He says, even though all these bad things happen, I have a joy that supersedes it all; because no matter what, I can have “joy and gladness” in the presence of God!
And the same thing is true for God’s people in this coronavirus crisis right now; even if we’re locked up in quarantine; even though we miss going to worship; even when the stock market has gone down; even when we lose our own health; even if we are on our death bed — YET (like Habakkuk) we can be “people of joy and gladness” who rejoice “in the Lord” because we are always in His presence; we can always sing and rejoice in Him, and no one can ever take that away from us.
— Then finally, we will experience the “joy and gladness” of God’s presence forever in eternity.
God’s people will be people of “joy and gladness” not only here on earth, but also FOREVER. For all eternity, we will experience the “joy and gladness” that God designed for us to have in His presence from the very beginning. Our sins that blocked our way from knowing Him will all be gone; we will be in His presence, forgiven and made right with Him by Jesus, and we will worship Him and sing to Him and experience perfect “joy and gladness” in His presence forever.
We literally cannot imagine how glorious, how exciting, how happy, and how pleasant it will be to live forever in the presence of God, and the pleasures we will experience from His right hand, as Psalm 16 says. John Newton once wrote to a young lady, who had been troubled by some of the difficult things that God’s people had to endure here on earth, and this is what he said to her:
“But we are sure that He is RICH enough, and that eternity is LONG enough, to make them abundant amends for whatever His infinite wisdom may see meet to call them to …”.
I love that! Newton was saying, listen young lady, don’t you worry about it; God is RICH enough, and eternity is LONG enough, for Him to give us such “abundant” joy and gladness in His presence, that we won’t even remember the insignificant troubles we had here on earth! That’s what’s waiting for us: “joy and gladness” in His presence, forever.
Gabriel told Zacharias: “You will have joy and gladness.” And God tells all of His people the same thing in His word: “You will have joy and gladness.” It’s what He made us for. We get a little “foretaste” of it here in our worship and daily walk; and then one day we will FEAST on it, forever in His presence. For all eternity, we will be “The People of Joy and Gladness.”