How does one preach on joy? My mind raced to a few different options. You could do a thematic study on the fruits of the Spirit and spend a week focusing on joy. But I think a more appropriate way to preach on joy will occur naturally when joy is the heart of the text. But what type of passages might fit this description?
Surely there are passages filled with the reality of all of our inheritance in Christ. Or a vision of our eternal state and heavenly fulfillment. Surely there are those that reference circumstances that are favorable or where blessings abound.
But the passage where joy is most clearly flowing from its streams does not fit such a description.
It is found in a prison. With a man in chains and waiting for a soldier to inform him of his verdict of capital punishment.
We only get 18 verses into Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi before his joy leaks through.
18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.
Paul uses both the present and future verbs for joy here—that he has joy and will continue to have joy.
There are three observations from this passage that may inform our preaching on joy.
First, Paul expresses joy in Christ being preached. Joy is the underlying tone whenever the gospel message is shared due to its power to transform the lives of those who listen. When we preach Christ through the power of the Spirit, dry bones begin to resurrect. I received a note from a former student just this past week who pointed to a sermon that I personally thought was a dud. Yet she said it was in that message that God did something to her heart. She cried out from her despair and surrendered. Many of us have stories like this, where God’s Word goes so much further beyond what we can imagine. We often overlook the divine power of preaching and all that happens in the unseen when the gospel is declared. Paul, knowing the power of the gospel preached, rejoices every time God’s Word goes forth.
Second joy comes from an internal security rather than external circumstances. In light of the work of Christ, things are no longer what they seem. God works subversively so much so that now even prison sentences can be a cause to rejoice. Even crucifixions can lead to resurrections. This is not just what God did. This is what God does. Therefore, joy can be found and had in the darkest texts and in the darkest situations. The comfort that can come regardless of one’s external situation is a cause for joy. And that joy should be shared in our preaching.
Third, joy should characterize the preaching of the gospel. For the people of God, our story always ends in hope. It always ends in security and purpose. Too many of us can recall growing up and hearing boring preaching—painful hours of sitting in church while the pastor lifelessly read through his or her notes with a monotone dictation that convinced us that even they did not believe what they were saying. It must not be so. Even more than preaching on joy, we must regularly preach with joy. For at the heart of the gospel there is good news, glad tidings, a profound announcement that has reshaped human history. If there is no excitement and wonder in us, we may be missing the message. If it does not move us, it surely will not move our people.
Preaching on joy may be concerned more with preaching with joy as we declare the Good News week in and week out. That God has not given up on us. That there truly is more to life. And that we have been given such glorious riches in Christ to declare to the world. In this, we rejoice.
John MacTaggart is the Student Pastor at Austin Ridge Bible Church in Austin, Texas, and a Ph.D. student in Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.