Rejoice Always! - A Sermon for Advent 3C (Philippians 4)
Back in my teen years we sang a song based on Philippians 4:4. It goes like this: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. (2x) Rejoice! Rejoice! Again I say Rejoice (2x)” Then continue repeating with clapping and hand motions for as long as you like. It was a simple song and probably didn’t fully incorporate Paul’s message to the Philippians, but it was memorable and very singable!
The season of Advent takes us from hope to peace and now to joy. But, what it does it mean to rejoice in the Lord always? And how does this message fit with the season of Advent that invites to hear John crying in the wilderness, calling the people to repent and be baptized and “produce fruit” that “shows you have changed your hearts and lives.” John’ ministry was designed to prepare the people to hear the message of Jesus and receive him as Lord and Christ (Lk. 3:7-18 CEB). So, it’s with John’s reminder that Jesus comes baptizing with Spirit and fire, that we hear Paul’s invitation to rejoice in the Lord always. Yes, again I say, rejoice!
For some among us this might not be the most joyous of seasons. There are any number of reasons why this is true. But, even if we aren’t feeling the joy of the season, we hear sounds of celebration all around us. We drive though our neighborhoods and see the lights, but nothing stirs. Maybe we’ve even decorated our homes, but we still don’t feel the spirit of the season. Not even the carols bring us joy. If this is true, how should we hear Paul’s message?
When we hear Paul invite us to rejoice in the Lord always, it’s good to remember that Paul is in prison. He’s not sitting around the tree listening to carols while drinking egg nog and eating gingerbread cookies. That’s not typical prison fare, but it appears that he is experiencing joy nonetheless.
In our reading last Sunday from Philippians 1, we heard Paul speak of the love and affection he had for the Philippian church, whose friendship, gave him strength and hope, even as he sat in prison. Now, we come to Paul’s closing exhortations. Chapter four begins with the words: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” The exhortations that follow define the joy that Paul feels as he thinks of the Philippian congregation, for whom he gives thanks every time he thinks of them (Phil. 1:3).
When Paul writes about joy in the Lord, he’s not writing as a “pie-in-the-sky optimist.” He knows the challenges of the day. He’s in prison, after all. We see him dealing with disagreements within the community he loves, including between two women with whom he had labored in the work of the Gospel. So when it comes to joy, it is, as Karl Barth puts it: “‘joy’ in Philippians is a defiant ‘Nevertheless!’” [Epistle to the Philippians, p. 120]. In spite of the way things might look out there, be joyful, because, as Martin Luther suggested, “Joy is the natural fruit of faith.”
So what does rejoicing in the Lord look like? According to Paul, it starts with gentleness. Or, better yet, generosity, leniency, and welcome. Joy comes, as we open ourselves to others, like the Philippians did for Paul. While our human inclination is to pull inward when times get tough or we feel threatened—building walls, for instance, to protect ourselves—Paul wants us to think differently. Why? Because the Lord is near. While it’s possible that Paul is thinking here of the end of time, he could also mean that Jesus is standing close by. Yes, Paul might be saying that Jesus is there in that jail cell, encouraging him to stand strong in the faith, which leads to this joy that Paul is speaking of. So, let us be open, welcoming, generous, and gentle, because Christ is with us. That is, after all, part of the Advent message, which is revealed in the chorus we’ve been singing each Sunday of Advent: “Emmanuel.” Yes, “his name is called Emmanuel, God with us, revealed in us, his name is called Emmanuel”
Not only is the joy of the Lord expressed though gentleness, it’s also expressed through letting go of worry and anxiety. This might be even more difficult to implement than the call to live gentle and generous lives. Nevertheless, Paul tells us: “Do not worry about anything.” Don’t be anxious; instead, pray. Yes, pray, making your supplications and requests known to God with thanksgiving. Remember, when you pray, God knows our needs and our hearts, before we utter the words. So, take comfort and strength in the knowledge that God is faithful to God’s promises, which produces joy and gratitude.
Joy, as Luther reminded us, is the natural fruit of faith. Faith is by definition a matter of trust. I can’t say that I’m good at this. I try to be calm, cool, and collected, but I must admit I do get anxious on occasion. I’m not alone. Our worries and anxieties are real. They can be rooted in difficult realities. It might be a health concern or a job issue. It might be a looming retirement or a possible move. These are our personal concerns. Then we might add concerns about people who have who lost everything in a hurricane or a fire, or are sitting at the border, seeking asylum and a new start in life, after fleeing the violence of their homeland. So, when Paul talks about joy and prayer, he’s not offering us a message of “Don’t worry, be happy.” Instead, he’s inviting us to entrust our lives to the hands of God, who, to quote Luther again, is a “mighty fortress,” and a “bulwark in times of trouble.”
The final word from Paul speaks of the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.” While the word peace didn’t appear in last Sunday’s reading for Peace Sunday, it does appear here on Joy Sunday. When Paul wrote about the peace of God, he had the Pax Romana to compare it with. He knew all about the kind of peace that the Roman Empire promised. He could see it in the roads the Roman legions built, which he himself traveled. These roads were built, much like our interstate system, to move armies quickly across the empire. They were well built and they were relatively safe because the army patrolled them, which made commerce profitable and travel fairly commonplace. Since the Roman navy ruled the Mediterranean, ships didn’t need to fear pirates. Storms yes, but pirates not very often. If you went along with the system, things would go well for you. But, if you bucked the system, like both Jesus and Paul did, you could find yourself in trouble. So, when Paul spoke of peace, he had something different in mind from the Pax Romana. He found his peace, like his joy, in God, who guards hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. This peace, which Paul embraces, “surpasses all understanding.”
The next paragraph in the letter provides a final admonition that leads to joy and peace in the Lord:
Finally, 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. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:8-9)
In this, there is joy. Indeed, there is joy to be found in the Lord, because, as Paul writes in conclusion to the letter: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13). This doesn’t mean life is easy, but we can find joy in the Lord, because we do not walk this path alone. Instead, we walk in the company of the saints of God, like the saints in Philippi whose friendship strengthened Paul and gave him joy in the Lord while in prison.
So, as we gather here this morning, on the Third Sunday of Advent, with Christmas drawing near, we can sing with joy: “When God is a child, there’s joy in our song. The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong, and none shall be afraid.” [Brian Wren, Chalice Hymnal, 132].
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
December 16, 2018