(a sermon for April 26, 2020, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, based on Philippians 4:4-7)
In pondering our text for this morning, and in my continuing quest these days to unearth some inspirational music from what might be referred to as “the grooveyard of forgotten favorites,” here’s one song that’s been running through my head all week:
“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
Now, speaking pastorally, if there’s going to be one song on our lips after this morning’s service it probably ought to be “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” but I do have to confess that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” might just fill the bill at a time like this! Because I dare say what we all need a whole lot of right now is joy; and given that for most of us joy is intermingled with feelings of happiness, one of the best ways to bring that forth is to sing it out! Because to quote another forgotten favorite, “if you’re happy and you know it… then your face (and your voice!) will surely show it,” and so not only does that serve to inspire joy in those around you, it also becomes an affirmation of our faith and an act of praise. And isn’t that, after all, what Paul is getting at in our text for this morning: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
Of course, in all fairness, I suspect that when Paul speaks of rejoicing, he’s talking about something much deeper than to simply not worry and be happy! What Paul is talking about here in his epistle to the Philippians is about real and unrestrained rejoicing: the kind of joy that lifts us up from the place where we are; the kind of joy that sets the standard for everything else in life, the kind of joy that comes in having ones heart and mind wholly guarded in Christ Jesus. What we’re talking about here is the kind of joy that exists at the very core of our Christian faith and what ought to serve as the hallmark of our lives as followers and disciples of our Risen Savior. It is joy unabashed and it is joy unrelenting; and therein lies not only its power and its great importance for our lives… but also its challenge.
And I suspect you know why! I mean, especially right now: how do you speak of unrestrained joy in an age of pandemic? How do you tell someone to rejoice who has had to suffer through the effects of the Covid-19 Virus, or worse, who has lost someone to that disease? What are we supposed to say to all those people whose lives and livelihoods have been totally upended over these past few weeks, with no real resolution in sight? How do you think they’re going to respond to Paul’s exhortation to rejoice in the Lord always? Quite frankly, I suspect 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, an unrestrained and unrelenting joy doesn’t seem all that realistic or reassuring, does it? And yet, in this age as in every age that has come before, that’s exactly what you and I are being called to bring forth in faith!
So… what are we to 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), 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 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, 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!
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 would not presume to sing that one here today, but suffice to say that 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 we have that, friends; even when we can only perceive it as though it were the size of a mustard seed; well, that’s when we 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.
I know… six weeks and counting in this time of quarantine and it’s all too tempting to let ourselves become sad and angry and embittered over what life and this 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 so 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.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.