Hespeler, 7 January, 2018 © Scott McAndless
John 16:20-22, Philippians 4:4-9, Psalm 40:1-9, 15-17
id you know the oldest dog whose age was ever reliably recorded was an Australian Cattle Dog named “Bluey.” Bluey lived to the almost unthinkable age, for a dog of 29 years and five months. But here is the really surprising part. You might think that the reason why Bluey lived so long was because she was pampered and well cared-for, that she got nothing but the best of foods and medical treatment. But that is not true. She was, by all accounts a well-loved and fairly treated dog, but she hardly had an easy life. She spent 20 straight years of her long life working at an extremely difficult and physically demanding job, herding cattle.
      Bluey was an exceptional animal, of course, but in some ways, it is not that surprising that a hard-working dog should be the longest living. I believe that if you made an extensive search through the statistics concerning dogs, you would find that it was consistently the hardest working dogs who have the longest lifespans and, what’s more, that such dogs were generally happier and better adjusted than the average. This includes several canine professions, at least when those professions keep them in regular contact with other animals or human beings (because dogs are extremely social animals). Obviously, this would exclude dogs that perform very dangerous jobs such as those who work in war zones.
      Why should this be? Well, one thing that we should always remember is that dogs are not natural animals. They are the descendants of wolves but, in every case, they have been selected and designed by human breeders through a long process over many generations to perform very particular tasks. Some were designed to hunt various animals in various situations, others to herd sheep or cattle or even birds, some to retrieve, some as guard dogs. They were designed, in other words, to achieve a certain purpose. And, generally speaking, when they are able to fulfill that purpose, they are content, well-adjusted and tend to be healthier. But if a dog is put into a position of doing some work it wasn’t designed to do or is deprived from meaningful work, it is less likely to be so.
      Now I realize that it is not quite as simple as what I am saying here, that human breeding is far from perfect and that some breeds of dogs have flaws in their genetics that cause certain problems that plague that breed. I also know that, overall, dogs are such social animals that the best indication of a dog’s wellbeing is that it is loved. But I would still stand by my main point, that dogs do extremely well when they get to do the kind of work that they were bred for.
      And I would invite you to remember this truth about dogs when you consider our first reading from A Catechism for Today this morning. The Catechism is a teaching tool that is set up in the format of questions and answers. Now this format has sometimes led to a profound misunderstanding of how Christians are supposed to live out their faith. It seems to imply that there are only certain questions that are allowed to be asked and that the supplied answers are the only acceptable answers. But that is not correct. You should rather understand that these are questions that the church has discovered through long practice to be particularly meaningful. The answers are answers that the church has found to be helpful, but they are hardly final and complete answers. They are rather answers that can form a starting point to further discussion.
      The very first question in the Catechism is, “What is God’s purpose for our lives?” It is a very good place to start. It is the question that just about everyone struggles with in some form. “Why am I here?” “What is the meaning of life?” and that basic existential angst – that basic “Why?” that sometimes cries out within us and that we can’t quite put into words are all forms of the same question.
      But the way the catechism asks the question is significant because we usually ask the question relative to our own selves – “Why am I here?” “What is my purpose?” But the catechism assumes that there is something better to base that sense of purpose on than yourself. It assumes that the God who created you has a better sense of what your purpose might be than you do. It is an assumption, to tell the truth, that is at odds with everything that people usually bring to that whole discussion about purpose in life and it means that the answer to the question will also be at odds with many of the answers that this world usually comes up with.
      The short and simple answer is this: “We have been made for joy.” It is an answer that is probably a surprise to many people who have long assumed that they know what the Christian faith is about. I’m not sure that there are that many people (maybe not even too many Christians) for whom the first word they think of when they think of Christians is joy. In fact, we kind of have a bit of a reputation, in some circles, for being dour, serious, even kind of negative and judgemental. Some people seem to derive a sense of being right out of their faith, maybe even a sense of being better than others, but how many get into Christianity because they expect to find joy?
      What’s more, if you asked most people where they would go to find joy, you might get a variety of answers – to an amusement park, to a favourite restaurant, maybe to a club – but I somehow suspect that “to church” would not be a top answer among many. So why would Christians see joy as something essential to our purpose as human beings?
      Well, part of the answer is that the kind of joy we are talking about here is not the kind of joy you usually find in an amusement park, a restaurant or a club. Oh, there is no denying that it can be quite enjoyable to go to such places or to just do whatever gives you pleasure. And there isn’t anything wrong with that. (We all need to just have fun from time to time.) But the joy that is found in such things is not really what we are talking about here.
      This is a joy that is related to your purpose – specifically what your Maker designed you to be and do. It is similar to what I was talking about with working dogs. Of course there are many things that dogs seem to enjoy – cookies and treats, a good bone, curling up in front of the fireplace – but there is also deep satisfaction that a dog seems to find in doing the kind of work that it was bred to do. If that is true when you talk about the imperfect science of human breeding of dogs, how much more would it be true when we talk about a Creator who knew exactly what he was doing when he designed you to carry out certain purposes in your life?
      And what are those purposes? The catechism elaborates them like this: “We have been made for joy: joy in knowing, loving and serving God, joy in knowing, loving and serving one another, joy in the wonder of all God’s works.” The purpose is defined in terms of knowing, loving and serving and in terms of taking wonder. That is what we are here for and the promise is that we will find abiding joy as we do these things.
      The biggest question that arises when we are told that we have been made for joy is why is it that so many people do not experience that joy. What is it that gets in the way of us fulfilling that purpose? One of the biggest problems is that it is easy to get sidetracked from these basic purposes that we have been given.
      When people do that – when they forget that they were supposed to find their joy in knowing, loving, serving and taking wonder – that drive to find a sense of purpose doesn’t disappear. It instead gets diverted into other things like the pursuit of wealth or possessions, the pursuit of power or the pursuit of particular experiences. The reason why people pursue such things in our world today so ruthlessly is because they are standing in for the drive towards a true sense of purpose that God has built into us. The reason that these things do not entirely satisfy on their own and the joy that they produce proves fleeting is because they are not the ultimate purposes that we were designed to pursue.
      Knowing that you were made for joy and that you can find that joy in the pursuit of knowing, loving and serving God and others and in finding wonder in creation is a transformative thing to know. Over time it can indeed help you to learn to find your joy in fulfilling your true purpose. But there are things that you can do to help that process along. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul instructs us by saying, Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” He is saying that joy isn’t just something that happens but that it is something that you can choose to do. It is up to you to decide in what you will take your joy and the first thing you can choose to do is to delight in the Lord.
      We do that, Paul goes on to explain by training our thoughts in certain directions. “Finally, beloved,” he says, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” It is so easy to fill your thoughts with unworthy things and, when you do, you forget what your true purpose is.
      When you think about whatever is true, you are remembering the truth that you are created by God and that your God knows better than you what your purpose is.
      When you think on what is honourable you remember the nobility of service to others and that, even when it is difficult, it fills a big hole inside you with the sense that you matter.
      When you think of what is just, you remind yourself that there are some causes worth standing up for – worth putting yourself on the line for and it is a blessing to be able to stand up for what you know is right.
      When you think on what is pleasing, you take pleasure in whatever might come your way, knowing that it is a gift from your maker.
      When you think of what is commendable, you learn to see yourself as your Maker sees you for he knows your worth and your motivations and is happy to celebrate these things in you.
      When you think of what is excellent and what is worthy of praise, your heart will eventually be drawn to the God who created you, who made the world in such beauty and filled it with such wonder.
      You were made for joy. That is indeed the first thing you ought to know about yourself. I pray that you find that joy and that you find it in ways that endure and satisfy over the long term. I promise you that such joy will come as you grow in knowledge, love and service and in wonder.


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