In a previous church, I would, on occasion, use the well-traveled worship greeting:
“Good morning saints!”
The congregation would respond, “Good morning.”
And then I would say with so much cleverness, “Good morning sinners.”
And with zest they would say, “Good morning.” But there was one man in the pews who had a little too much gusto. When I would say, “Good morning sinners,” he would jump up and scream like a rabid football fan on fourth and goal, “GOOD MORNING!”
I would retort, “What did you do last night, Skip?” He seemed to have a little too much pleasure in his ownership as a sinner.
Why is it we love to sin so much? Sin is when we miss the mark. We do what’s wrong in the eyes of God.
I want to explore the difference between pleasure and joy. It’s my belief we often mistake the two.
I recall the story of Saint Augustine in his book Confessions. He writes about one of the first times he remembers sinning as a youth. He writes,
Close to our vineyard there was a pear tree laden with fruit. This fruit was not enticing, either in appearance or in flavor. We nasty lads went there to shake down the fruit and carry it off at dead of night, after prolonging our games out of doors until that late hour according to our abominable custom. We took enormous quantities, not to feast on ourselves but perhaps to throw to the pigs; we did eat a few, but that was not our motive: we derived pleasure from the deed simply because it was forbidden.
Augustine reminds us that sin entices us with its pleasure. Augustine didn’t need pears. He enjoyed the adventure of his sin. I recall my own first moments of rebellion. Can you?
As a fourth grader, I’d hang out at my friend’s house after school. His family had an apple tree. They lived on a busy highway near a curve. The drivers would whizz around the corner. My friend and I thought we’d have a little target practice with the apples. We started chunking these apples thirty yards or so towards these cars. I was getting pretty good at it. You almost have to throw the apple before you see the car in order to time it right. I remember hitting the first car. I hit it right on the windshield. Bullseye. I high-fived my friend. Then we looked up! There were brake lights. This lady pulled into to the driveway. We hid behind the house. She found his mother. To make a long story short, there was no apple pie that night.
The point is that we didn’t throw those apples because we needed pitching practice for baseball. We did it because there was excitement and pleasure in it. We enjoyed it precisely because we weren’t supposed to do it. That’s the hard part about sin. It can seem exciting!
Pleasure can get us into trouble. Maybe it’s that person who cuts you off in traffic. You know shouldn’t respond with your special gesture (especially with a kid sitting in the back seat), but boy it would feel good and give some temporary satisfaction. Or maybe there’s a whopper of an argument at the office. You know you shouldn’t join in the fight and excitement. However, it’s kind of entertaining and so you lob a few insults into the mix yourself. Or maybe you have neglected your spiritual life because you found more pleasurable things to do than read a devotional in the morning. You numb your mind on news stations and social media postings. There’s hardly any time for connection with God.
Sin can feel good. But that’s the problem. No matter how much temporal pleasure one may feel, sin always brings destruction. Think about it. What if that apple I had thrown had caused a car to wreck? What if jumping into an argument causes a person to lose a friend? Sin may bring pleasure, but sin never brings joy.
Joy is a gift of God. Joy is the experience of the eternal happiness of God. To experience joy, we must turn away from sin and its enticing pleasures. This Sunday at church, we’ll look at John the Baptist. He’s in the Jordan River calling people to repent saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:7-8).
John is often associated with the Christmas story. When John’s mother Elizabeth is pregnant with him, he begins to jump in his mother’s womb when Mary visits Elizabeth while she is pregnant with Jesus. John is to be the one who will prepare the way for Jesus and his ministry. Yet, John seems a bit like the cousin Eddie of the Christmas story. He’s rough around the edges and tells it like it is. And maybe John is the one to keep us honest during this season that can creep into sentimentality. John is reminding that our lives are out of sorts. When we change our lives and turn towards Jesus, then we will know the joy of the Lord.
Joy and pleasure are not the same. Joy comes from God and from our turning away from the sins of the flesh and all its pleasures. Is there joy in your life right now? There’s good news. You can find it this Advent season. Joy is not to be found in the seeking of pleasure, but through repentance and the seeking of God in a manger.