“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
I’ll be honest; all week as I’ve been pondering on that particular verse of scripture and preparing the sermon for this week, there’s been this one song running through my head that I can’t get rid of! I don’t know if it’s divine inspiration or just another shining example of how my mind is a compendium of worthless information (!), but here it is:
“Here’s a little song I wrote, You might want to sing it note for note Don’t worry – be happy! For when you worry your face will frown, And that will bring everybody down, So don’t worry – be happy! (Don’t worry, be happy now)” — “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin
If there’s one song on your lips as you leave here this morning, I pray it’ll be “Just a Closer Walk” and not what I just sung (!); still, if you’re thinking about joy, doesn’t a song like that seem to fit? Maybe because most of us tend to equate joy with happiness; I mean, if you’re happy (“and you know it”– there’s another song!) you’re clapping your hands, stomping your feet and shouting out loud; feeling good so your face (and your voice) will surely show it. Singing “Sweet Caroline” during the seventh inning stretch at Fenway; if that’s not joy, what is?
Of course, with all due respect to Red Sox Nation, I suspect that when Paul speaks of rejoicing, he’s talking about something deeper! So if you want to talk real and unrestrained joy, then what about things like graduations, getting married, children being born, service men and women reuniting with their families, or for that matter, crossing the finish line after having run a long and arduous race; all these unique and incredibly powerful moments that inevitably set the standard for everything else in life! Maybe that’s what Paul means when he says to rejoice in the Lord always, as though a life in Christ is all about the times of great and glorious celebration; honestly, that’s what a lot of Christian music, both old and new, would have you believe, and yes, I’ll admit it, we pastors do tend to talk that way a lot!
But then you remember those for whom life is not an endless series of victories and celebrations, and that’s where the analogy breaks down. How do you speak of unrestrained joy to those who spend their days caught up in the turbulent tide of life’s unpredictable circumstances? The one who’s lost a job and now has to seriously wonder how he’s going to make ends meet; the one who is forced to endure in the face of chronic pain or a debilitating illness; the one who is mired in an abusive relationship: how do you think they respond to Paul’s exhortation to rejoice in the Lord always? Quite frankly, they’d be apt to think it shallow at best and condescending at worst – your life is falling apart? “Again, I say rejoice!”
In that context, unrelenting joy doesn’t seem all that realistic, does it? Yet that’s what’s at the core of our scripture reading today; and moreover, as we understand our faith, it’s precisely this kind of joy that is a hallmark of the Christian life! And it’s always been the case: from the very beginnings of the church some 2,000 years ago, followers of Jesus have always been known by at least two distinctive qualities: first, by love, shared amongst themselves and extended to others; and second, by joy, something real and palpable that could not help but be seen by all those around, and which very often belied their own difficult circumstances and persecution. This is how early Christians were viewed by a skeptical world, and it’s still what that world is seeking when they look at us today!
So what do we do about this? How do we reconcile this call to be “unabashedly joyful” with all the real-world difficulties and struggles that we face? Can we really “rejoice always,” or not? Was Paul simply naïve and blind to what was really going on, or when he tells the Philippians and us to “rejoice,” does he have something else on his mind?
Perhaps part of the answer lies with Paul himself. After all, here was a man whose entire ministry in Christ was marked by worldly persecution and ridicule; who was himself driven out of several towns and cities (often under the cover of darkness) for what he had to say, and through the course of his life was also shipwrecked, imprisoned, beaten, and exposed to death, danger, hunger, thirst, fatigue and cold, all for the sake of the Gospel! At the time of this letter to the church at Philippi, it’s late in his life; Paul’s in prison again, this time under guard of the Imperial capital of Rome, and expecting at any moment that judgment will be rendered and he’ll be executed. And as if that weren’t bad enough, it turns out that the Philippian church is full of problems: they are few in number; they’re filled with fear and doubt about the future, persecuted by everyone in the city; and what’s more, there’s in-fighting going on at just about every level of the church.
It was enough to make any of us throw our hands in the air and give up trying. And yet, here’s Paul – who, remember, is getting old and feeble and now at a point where a bit of discouragement would be understandable – nonetheless saying, boldly and without hesitation, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say it: Rejoice!” In fact, Paul says this over and over again – sixteen times in only four chapters of this epistle (!) – and he can do it because this isn’t rejoicing merely for the sake of feeling happy, but because of the one in whom he rejoices. Rejoice in the Lord, Paul says. Rejoice in the Lord always!
It turns out that there are two basic types of joy: external joy, what we were talking about earlier, the kind that comes and goes with whatever is happening in our lives, and which is wonderful, but is finite and can be easily be displaced or destroyed at a moment of conflict or struggle; and internal joy, the kind of joy that comes from within. When Paul talks about joy, he means the internal joy that the Lord himself places within us. The great theologian Karl Barth said it well when he wrote that the joy of which Paul speaks is “a defiant ‘nonetheless,’” which draws strength from the gospel story and “from laying one’s deepest concerns before God with thanksgiving.” This is a deep joy that takes root even in darkness; joy that has its source in God’s great presence and God’s hope for whatever the future may hold.
To put it even more simply, it’s not so much rejoicing because of all the things that have happened to us in life; in fact, very often we rejoice in spite of all that has happened to us, and that’s because we look first to Jesus Christ and what he has done for us, and in us, and to us. Our joy is to be “in the Lord,” and because of this, you and I can rejoice in all circumstances, even those that are difficult and painful and involve suffering; not because of what it is we’re going through, mind you, but because of the grace of the Lord; the hope, strength, love and understanding we’re given to see it through, no matter what!
And lest we doubt this, rest assured there is great biblical precedence here; the call to rejoice is actually one Christian truth that has its roots firmly planted in our Old Testament, Jewish heritage. A few years ago, Lisa and I were invited with some others to the home of a Jewish rabbi, to share in a Shabbat meal, that is, a Sabbath meal; that night we did everything kosher, the food and the liturgy, and it was wonderful. Having studied some Hebrew in seminary, it was nice to hear the biblical prayers spoken in their original language; all the traditions that go along with eating in a Jewish household are rich and meaningful, and the music – yes, we all had to sing in Hebrew, folks (!) – was fun and very, very joyful! And how do I know this? Because most of the songs we learned to sing that night had a chorus that the Rabbi promised that even we Gentiles could sing: “Di, di, duh, duh, di, di!” I could do that!
Actually, one of the songs we sang that night I’ve never forgotten; it’s called “Dayenu,” and it’s a song for Passover. I won’t try to sing this one here today, but the lyrics are a long enumeration of all of God’s blessings to his chosen people, but with a twist: with every verse, we sang about what would have been had God not given one of those blessings. “Had he brought us out of Egypt, and not fed us in the desert, but brought us out of Egypt, well, then, Dayenu,” which in Hebrew means, “for that alone we would have been grateful.” It’s a fun song to sing, and what it reminds us is that no matter the challenges we face in the present moment, we still have this relationship with a God who is present and powerful and moving in and through our lives in ways that we can’t even begin to measure or fully understand.
When you have that; even when we can only perceive it as though it were the size of a mustard seed; well, then we can learn to “not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let [our] requests be known to God,” truly knowing that peace which passes our human understanding… and rejoice.
And the thing is, I’ll bet that if I were to ask right now, almost every one of us here could tell the story of someone we’ve known who was so unabashedly joyful, we came away knowing that it had to be because of faith. I’m remembering one man who was a member of another church I served; a young husband and father of two kids, who very suddenly and tragically was facing a terminal diagnosis of leukemia; and yet, when I spoke with him shortly before he passed away, all he could talk about was how great a life he’d had, about what his kids might accomplish as they grew and… how lucky he’d been that he’d had the opportunity, just a few weeks before, to have had the chance to go fishing with them! “How can I be anything but happy about that?” he said. Friends, I went to this man as his pastor, hoping that I could impart some spiritual comfort; I left bolstered in my own faith and filled up with real joy.
It’s all too tempting in this present age to let ourselves become sad and angry and embittered over what the world has done to us. But it is faith in the wisdom, care and perfect mercy of God that strengthens us to transcend these difficulties of life that we might know life’s real joy, which comes to us in Christ. I’ve quoted a lot of songs today, but maybe the one we really ought to take to heart is the one about that “joy, joy, joy, joy, down in our hearts to stay.” Because when others see such unabashed joy in us, they – and our world – cannot help but be the better for it.
As Paul has proclaimed: “beloved, 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… and the God of peace will be with you.”
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!