Joy is the echo of God's life within us.
* * * * *
In the words of Ben Peterson, the tiny town of Comstock, Wisconsin, with a population of about 80, had "gone bananas." Two of the town's young men, John and Ben Peterson, ages 24 and 22, had competed in the Twentieth Olympiad in Munich, Germany, in 1972 and had come home with silver and gold medals respectively. They were Christians.
In Chicago I watched when General Douglas MacArthur was honored with a ticker-tape parade after coming home in 1951 from the wars in the Orient. In Washington D.C. I watched as President Eisenhower was welcomed back from an unhappy meeting in 1960 with Khrushchev and the Soviets in Paris. In San Diego I watched when some of our civilian hostages were welcomed home from Iran in 1981 with helicopters and a forest of yellow ribbons, after spending 444 days in a Tehran prison.
But never did I witness such a heartwarming surge of sheer joy and ebullience among the American people as when John and Ben Peterson came home to Comstock.1 I saw it as a foretaste of what every lover of Jesus Christ will receive when being ushered by faith through the jewel-studded portals of heaven.
John had won the Olympic Games silver medal by placing second in the 180.5 pound class freestyle wrestling competition, defeating Horst Stottmeister of East Germany. His brother Ben was awarded the Olympic gold medal for winning the 198-pound class freestyle wrestling competition, defeating Roussi Petrov of Bulgaria.
When the word was flashed across the Atlantic to rural Wisconsin that Barron County had two new Olympic medalists, the citizenry reacted with astonishment and delight, then quickly leaped into action. Neighbors and fellow church-members linked together a motorcade that took the grinning athletes through four wildly-cheering nearby towns (Clear Lake, Turtle Lake, Cumberland, and Comstock).
Having no proper meeting place in which to celebrate, the Comstock citizens cut and baled the hay in Farmer Stanley Jurgenson's alfalfa field, then stored it. In the middle of his field they put up a tent and erected a lighted platform with public address system. Everyone was invited to the celebration, and cars and buses were soon rolling in from nearby counties and from Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Four thousand people showed up at Jurgenson's field for an evening of cheers and joy. The Governor of Wisconsin, the Honorable Patrick J. Lucey, was there, a high school girl sang, the high school band played, and the school wrestling coach spoke. The regional director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes told the crowd, "Silver and gold medals will tarnish, but the Bible says that when we follow Jesus Christ we are given a prize that will never fade away."
It was almost an evangelistic service. The two returning medalists addressed the crowd, and each gave heartwarming acknowledgments to God, to Jesus Christ, to their parents and their church and friends. Their father, Paul Peterson, said, "I thank God for giving our boys to Esther and me, and for the privilege of pointing them to the Savior." Their pastor, Donald Toney, said, "How I thank God for people such as these!" Their mother, sister, and three other brothers were also present on the platform.
This joyful scene is recaptured for you because, as I said, it is a true parable of someone coming to Jesus Christ. Did Comstock go "bananas" over the Olympic success of two of the town's boys? Excuse the expression if I point out that according to the fifteenth chapter of Luke the angels also went "bananas" over a sinner repenting and coming to God. What's to keep us (who aren't angels) from doing the same thing today? Let the churchbells ring with the joy of salvation!
The apostle Paul once used the athletic competition of the ancient Olympic Games in Greece to describe the Christian life. "In a race everyone who competes goes into strict training," he wrote. "They all run, but only one gets the prize."2 As editor of Decision magazine I was invited to Comstock for the Peterson brothers' welcome, and I learned something about the kind of young Christian citizens the State of Wisconsin produces, and also about the prize that the Bible calls salvation.
John and Ben Peterson were far from being champions when they went to Munich. They went as unknown wrestling contenders. In speaking to the crowd at the celebration, Ben told of his lack of confidence before he came to faith in Christ. We Christians were all far from being champions before we confessed our faith in Christ. We were unknown contenders, and, as we now realize, losers. When the Petersons reached Munich no one knew them, but God knew them. John told the crowd in Jurgensen's field, "I did not go to Munich to win a medal. I went to tell other athletes about Jesus." God honored such confidence with victory, and the people of Wisconsin recognized it. They saw that more was involved in these two young men than a couple of medals for wrestling.
The Petersons faced tough competition in their event at the Olympic Games the toughest in the world. Today, when a person decides to seek God, the tough competition comes mostly from oneself. It's hard to face the truth that we are all sinners. It's hard to look at ourselves and admit that our mistakes and shortcomings are symptoms of something deeper: That we are living without God. Even when material successes come to us,
it is a mixed advantage, for we are always dissatisfied and want more. Life seems to offer an enticing but impossible dream.
I find many of my peers nearing the end of their days quietly despondent, wondering how they missed out. There was no platform ceremony for them. In their ruminations they try to see what they did wrong that resulted in failure to realize their hopes. Not often do they conclude that the problem was their own sin. When the Holy Spirit begins to work in our lives, the first thing we discover is our need to repent. We learn that nothing really works for the sinner. A person can win a hundred medals, or corner the gold market, or become king of the whole world, but God will see to it that his hopes fade into oblivion and his joy will turn ultimately to frustration and disappointment. That is sin's payoff in this world; or as people say, that's life.
There is no limit to the devastation sin can create. We hear of terrible things happening today, but in chapter 28 of the book of Deuteronomy God issues the warning of a possible curse so horrible that even in today's jaded environment it is shocking.
As sinners we find it extremely difficult to accept what Jesus offers, even when we find that nothing else works for us. That is why so often when we come to Him we come in tears despairing, wrestling with ourselves, and losing.
But then when we confess our sin and ask Jesus to help us turn from it, He touches us and says, "Be of good cheer." He says, "Your sins are forgiven and your faith has made you whole; welcome to the kingdom of God." Yes! Us! Could anyone believe it? To our amazement, Jesus invites us as it were to the podium, hands us a gold medal and says one word: "Joy!"
Stunned and tearful, we turn away, unable to accept or even grasp what has happened. We are too conscious of our unworthiness. It's hard for a sinner to accept the grace of God when he knows he doesn't deserve it. After all, we haven't done anything just repented. It seems to us that Jesus' medal should have been awarded to someone else.
Then, like the two Wisconsin wrestlers, we come home to find Christians greeting us, waving banners, tooting horns, welcoming us, and celebrating with shouts and laughter and a
parade. Then the congregation resounds with applause, and there are bands playing and singing and speeches and the preaching of the gospel. Angels lean over the balustrades of heaven and shout glory to God. Joy! Joy! That is the joy of salvation!
Is such festivity happening in your church? If not, why not make it happen? Pray! Call a meeting! Turn a baptism into a festival! That is how the joy of the Lord fits into the Christian life. Joy is not the goal; the kingdom is the goal. Joy is not the blessing; love is the blessing. But after the transformation of a human soul, the joy comes as an extra gift of heaven and a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
How do I know it's true? Because it is in God's Word. Jesus said, "These things have I spoken to you that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full."3 And I know for another reason because it happened to me.
1. Taken from my account in Decision Magazine, March, 1973. At the close of the century both John and Ben Peterson are married, parents of five and four children respectively, and are active in vocational Christian service John with Athletes in Action and Ben as assistant pastor of a Watertown, WI church.
2. See 1 Corinthians 9:24
3. John 15:11
Chapter 11 || Table of Contents