"No joy" is a military term meaning I have not sighted my target or located what I was looking for. The Fourth Sunday in Lent was historically called Rejoicing Sunday based like 5 other Sundays in Lent on the first word in the Latin Introit, rejoice. In 1978 this Sunday changed from using the historic Introit and lost the Latin name. I think, however, "No joy" is a fitting name for this Sunday. The word "believe" shows up five times in the Gospel; the Epistle is the classic statement of salvation through faith, and the Old Testament lesson is a picture of believing on Christ crucified and living. And whenever we're talking about faith or believing there is "no joy" for many Christians.
There's no joy for those who make faith a cause of their salvation. You can get this impression because we often say we're saved by faith in Jesus. But if you listened carefully to the Epistle you see that is not what Scripture says. Twice that text says "by grace you have been saved." A Lutheran can easily slip into thinking that he is saved by the believing going on in his heart because of sloppy theology. There are others who make faith the cause of their salvation by wrong theology. It starts with the error that Christ didn't save the whole world. Christ wasn't given for the world. In terms of the Old Testament reading the Lord didn't put the serpent on the pole for everyone who was bitten.
A carless reading of the Gospel bolsters the claim that your faith is a cause of salvation. Four out of five times the words everyone' and "whoever" are used they're attached to "believes." "See, it says whoever and everyone who believes. Christ isn't hanging on the cross for everyone bitten by the serpent of sin, death, and devil but for everyone who believes." All the emphasis, all the certainty, and all your salvation is on the word believes."
Back up a minute. Let me show you what you're really saying when you say "salvation is by faith" and mean "because of faith." You're saying that forgiveness, atonement, and justification are merely potentials. Jesus made it possible for you to be forgiven. Your sins may be atoned for. You can be justified. Lay your head on your pillow with that on your mind. "I possibly have forgiveness." "My sins may be atoned for" "I can be justifiedif I believe." The certainty of being saved is found in the believing going on in your heart. Believing completes your salvation. It's the last link in the chain that pulls you out of the fiery pit of hell, out of a guilty conscience, out of shame for sin. But "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link."
Let's examine the links. First link: "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son." Second link: The Son gave Himself up to a lifetime of law keeping and an eternity of punishment on the cross to pay for your sins. Third link: the Holy Spirit by Word and Sacrament tells you, promises you, assures you this salvation is yours. Fourth link: All you have to do is believe it. God the Father gives the Son; God the Son sacrifices Himself; and God the Holy Spirit delivers what the Son did; and then there is you, sinful, fallen you. You are the weakest link. Think that Almighty God leaves what He did to save you in the hands of a frail, sinful, fallen person like yourself?
Let's back up again. I said "the Holy Spirit delivers what the Son did." If you believe your faith causes you to be saved, then the Holy Spirit can't be delivering completed salvation to you in the Waters of Baptism, in the Words of Absolution, or in the Wine and Bread of Communion. Salvation, forgiveness, life are potentially in these for you, but only if and as much as you believe. Luther scorns such an error in the Large Catechism. The Reformed live in this error because to them there is no Body or Blood in Communion at all unless their faith brings it there.
This error, that faith causes salvation, not only results in "no joy" but it profoundly influences how churches worship and what people look for in it. If your salvation, your joy depends on you believing, worship is designed to illicit, bring forth faith. It will try to convince you to believe. Any joy to be found will be connected to how much you believe. You will hear a lot about faith because after all it's a cause of your eternal salvation so you will know you are to believe; you will know the more you believe the better off you are. And if you believe you will know you are to be wild with joy and ecstatic in praise of God.
Now you're trapped in a circle. The degree of proof that you believe is connected to how much joy you feel in your heart. How much proof you have that you are saved is welded to how much joy you have in your heart. And what if when you look into your life, your heart, your soul, your conscience can't help but report back, "No joy?" That's the pilot flying over the vast expanse of the ocean looking for survivors where wreckage was reported. Over the static of the radio, you hear him report, "I'm over the location now." Then comes the crisp, heartbreaking words, "No Joy."
Joy is for those whose faith is the mode not a cause of salvation. These see that God had Moses attach the saving serpent to the pole before anyone of the bitten people believed. Those who see faith as the mode of salvation, the way forgiveness is received not caused, hear Paul say "God made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions." And to be clear what this means, Paul says right after, "It is by grace you have been saved." Before faith is mentioned, salvation is there by grace. Isn't that what John 3:16 says, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son?" Doesn't say believers? Doesn't say some? But God loved the world.
Unless you want to be flying the rest of your life over the vast expanse of sin, death, and the devil always reporting "no joy" because you never see your salvation, because of niggling doubts, because of not being certain enough, because of wondering if you believe enough, repent of making something going on in your heart faith a cause of salvation.
There is no doubt that Jesus makes the Old Testament serpent a type of Him on the cross when He says, "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life." Was "salvation" a done deal in that serpent? Was all the physical health, all the antidote for that poison in the bronze snake or not? If you say, "No faith had to be added," then you are making faith the cause of being healed, and if that's the case what did they need the snake for? Just believe they are healed and ""Voila!" They are!
If you're clinging to your faith doing something rather than receiving everything you're putting the emphasis on the wrong words of the text. You are hearing, "everyone who believes," "whoever believes." Do you do that with other verbs "Everyone who suffers," "Whoever eats"? No, the emphasis is on the everyone and whoever in the Gospel and on the anyone in the Old Testament reading. "Anyone who is bitten can look and live." Every single sinner is to believe all of his or her sins were carried away on Jesus. Whoever, no matter their race, gender, income level, seriousness of sins, or guiltiness of conscience, is to believe God put away His wrath against them when Jesus died on the cross.
If God didn't put away all His wrath against the sins of the world, how could Jesus declare, "It is finished?" Paul says while we were still ungodly enemies not believers in Christ, Christ died for us. If Jesus didn't remove all of God's wrath on the cross, He wouldn't have raised Jesus from the dead on Easter. And if that resurrection wasn't the Father declaring that He was reconciled to the world then Paul was wrong in 2 Corinthians 5 when He declared, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself," and Christ was wrong for sending Baptism into all nations and establishing the ministry to preach forgiveness of sins to all nations.
The Means of Grace, Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are sure and world and wide because Jesus paid for the world's sins, because the Father showed He accepted that payment by raising Jesus from the dead, and because the Holy Spirit sent the Church into the whole world to announce this. Faith receives all this. Faith receives the new life in Baptism; faith receives the forgiveness in Absolution; and faith receives the forgiveness, life and salvation that are in the Body and Blood of Christ in Communion.
Those who believe faith is the mode of salvation worship different than those who believe it is a cause. Their Divine Service is designed to put Jesus before you. His keeping of all the laws that mankind breaks is read into your ears. His being beaten, whipped, ridiculed, and crucified to pay the full debt of the world's sins is portrayed before your eyes. The satisfied, smiling, appeased face of the Father towards the entire world of sinners is shown you on Easter morning. And all this forgiveness, all this justification, all this atonement, and grace is in the Means of grace for the entire world, for everyone, for anyone, for whoever.
Joy flows from knowing that your sins were paid for and forgiven 2000 years ago. Baptism, Absolution, and Communion can only bring you this today because of that reality. When a pilot is on a search mission, he can't report what isn't first there. His belief can't make something present that's not there to begin with. His believing can't turn "no joy" into joy.
Flying over the seas of your life report what God tells you is there. Christ crucified for the sins of the world is there in that font. Christ risen to declare the sins of the world forgiven is in this pulpit; and Christ's Body and Blood is present to nourish sinners at that altar. Your faith doesn't cause any of this to be true; in fact your faith is caused by these. Faith caused by God through the means by which His grace touches your life gives joy. "Tally ho!" reports the pilot as he spots living, forgiven, saved sinners bobbing in the seas of sin, death, and damnation. And a wave of joy sweeps across a people where there was no joy. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Lent (20150315); John 3: 14-21