The Lasting Joy of Palm Sunday

“The joy of the Lord is my strength” (Nehemiah 8:10) Can everyone say this beautiful Scripture verse from the Prophet Nehemiah all together? “The joy of the Lord is my strength.”

What is this “joy of the Lord” and how can we carry such joy throughout our lives? Joy is not simply a feeling of happiness and pleasure that we discover on our own but it is a sacred gift we receive from a vibrant, healthy faith, through a living relationship with the Source of all Joy, Jesus Christ Himself. Divine Joy is not simply a fleeting sentimental feeling that comes and goes depending on our exterior circumstances but it is a deep inner security in God – knowing that He is always with us and we are never alone even in the midst of whatever darkness the world may bring. It is knowing that God is ultimately in control even when life seems like such a mystery and things happen around us we don’t understand and where we may not feel His loving and comforting presence. It is knowing that God is victorious and despite any passion and crucifixion that may await us, the resurrection will come. As we sa in one of our morning prayers, “Through the cross joy has come into the world.”

Divine Joy is the assurance and contentment realizing that God is with us and if we stay with Him regardless of our circumstances or the circumstances that surround us, that inner joy of happiness in our soul and delight in our heart will never go away.

Today on Palm Sunday when we relive Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem and we can sense the joy that the crowds expressed. Hosanna to God in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. “Hosanna” is an expression of praise, adoration and joy that the crowds consciously used to welcome Jesus into the holy city.

They may have heard about this Prophet from Nazareth who was a miracle-worker, and his most recent unbelievable miracle was raising a man back to life who had been in a tomb for four days. Some of them surely heard his teachings and realized this was a man who preached with divine authority in a way quite different from the religious leaders of his day, fulfilling his teachings with His life of love. The messianic dreams of a leader coming to guide Israel back to freedom and political greatest, even ushering in the messianic era of peace, justice, prosperity and goodness was surely a part of this crowd’s dreams, which seemed like blasphemy to the pharisees and chief priests. Yet when they told Jesus to silence the crowd from using such dangerous, politically-charged phrases, Christ simply responded, “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babes comes perfect praise… I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones themselves would immediately cry out.”

The crowds not only expressed but deeply felt a sense of deep joy at the coming of Christ. They believed He would change their reality and fill them with happiness in this present life and into the Messianic Age.

Yet, what happened? How did the joy and hope of Palm Sunday quickly turn into the darkness and confusion of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, which led the people to such despair and anger. Did the joy and hope of the crowds dissipate so quickly because their joy was superficial or maybe because they didn’t understand what true divine joy is?

Maybe this is why we read Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians in conjunction with the Gospel reading of Palm Sunday. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice,” the Apostle Paul advises the Christians in Philippi. This small letter in the New Testament is often called Paul’s Letter of Joy because he uses the term joy or rejoice 18 times in four chapters! What makes this letter all the more shocking, though, is that the Apostle wrote this letter when he himself languished in prison, uncertain about his future. He wrote to Christians who faced dangerous persecution in the first century. Yet despite these uncertain realities, Saint Paul expressds deep rooted joy in God and revealed how he found peaceful contentment despite whatever difficulties he faced in life. The divine joy he discovered was not a fleeting feeling depending on outer circumstances but a foundational gift of God directing his entire life.

How did Paul feel the joy of the Lord even though his future was uncertain and he faced possible martyrdom, and how could he encourage the Christians in Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord” even though they faced persecution? Well, he discovered that the secret of a life in Christ means we should remember that “the Lord is near. Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God; and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” Gratitude and prayer, together with an assurance that God is near replaces all anxiety and worry regardless of whatever circumstances we face.

He goes on to confess, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content. I know what it is to have little and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content. For I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Possessing divine joy does not mean our joy will not be tested. The inner joy that comes with the knowledge and experience of God surely does not mean that we will not face challenges and difficulties, dark and confusing days ahead where we may not feel the presence of God. We can just look at this Passion Week we begin to relive starting today on Palm Sunday. The crowds express thrilling joy and hope, yet this joy will be tested in the following days when we enter into the passion of our Lord. For too many people, they get lost in the darkness of betrayal, rejection, denial, abandonment and what appears to be the victory of darkness and evil. We even heard the cry, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” as an anguished prayer. Yet in the mist of such utter darkness and the mystery of suffering and death itself, joy prevails. “Through the Cross, joy comes into the world.”

For those who faithfully stay with the Lord, divine joy can never be extinguished by any darkness but it is always brilliantly preserved. The Risen Christ Jesus affirms that nothing can ever take away the Joy of the Lord that is within us; this joy will always prevail over whatever darkness we face in the world precisely  because He promises that “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age,” precisely because Saint Paul reminds us that, “The Lord is near. Do not worry but pray with thanksgiving and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds... be content in all circumstances for I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

One of the greatest accusations against Christians was made by the influential French philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche, when he stated that Christians had no joy; that Christianity is a joyless religion. He seemed to accuse Christians of believing in God but not enjoying life. Alexander Schmemann responded “Christianity without Joy is incomprehensible… It is only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world.”

Thus, as we celebrate Palm Sunday today and Christ’s triumphant entry of joy into Jerusalem, and as we prepare to journey in Holy Week through the darkness and evil of the Passion of Christ, let us learn an important lesson for life. Divine joy will never depend on whatever circumstances we face in life. Divine joy is something we carry deep within, that no exterior trial can ever eliminate. Divine joy comes from the living and dynamic relationship we have with the Risen Lord. Never let any darkness, challenge or sorrow make us forget the joy of the Risen Christ. “The joy of the Lord is my strength!”

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