The Fourth Sunday of Advent
St. John 1:19-28; Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Philippians 4:4-7
23 December 2018
Seminarian Simeon Cornwell, Vicar
+ In the Name of Jesus +
“Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS. Again, I will say rejoice!”
Some of you may have inwardly snickered upon hearing this command from Saint Paul. Always? He can’t be serious. No one can be joyful all the time, can they?
After all, look at our preacher of repentance, John the Baptist. In our Gospel reading from last Sunday, he finds himself in prison for telling Herod that it was displeasing to God that he took his brother’s wife.
And Paul, the one who urged the Philippians here to rejoice, what did his life consist of? Imprisonments, countless beatings, ridicule and constant rejection, sleepless nights, most likely some form of depression.
The people he labored so strenuously to teach the truth of God’s Word much of the time disappointed him. Just think of the problems in the church at Corinth: sexual immorality, abuses of the Lord’s Supper, and even Christians taking one another to court.
His own authority as an Apostle was constantly challenged throughout his lifetime and, we might add, is still called into question today. The list could easily go on.
So how can Paul, who experienced such great suffering, seriously command the Philippians and us to rejoice always? Is this command given to us out of jest? Is Paul purposefully setting a bar so high that no one can reach it?
To our modern ears, it may seem so. But let’s step back for a moment. What exactly is joy?
Commonly, we equate joy with happiness. So then, according to the world’s thinking, one is happy or joyful when suffering is non-existent.
Only when you’re in good health. When you’re living comfortably, not pinching pennies, having to live from one check to the next. In short, only when you have what you want when you want it. And how often does that happen, if ever?
However, this is not how the Scriptures define joy. In fact, often in God’s Word, joy is described in a stark contrast to this view.
What the world describes is happiness. It’s a feeling that comes and goes on a whim. It’s based off of your current circumstances.
So if things are going well, you might be happy. Although, given our greedy nature, this is often not even a valid prerequisite. There’s always something better. We always want more.
However, there is no doubt in the world’s thinking that when things are not going well, happiness is non-existent. It’s far off. A fairytale at best.
Have you ever really desired something, perhaps the latest iPhone, and thought, “Once I have this all will be well with my life,” only to receive it and see that moment of happiness fly away in a matter of weeks or even days?
This is an example of happiness. It is based off of a specific circumstance at a specific time. You may be happy once you acquire that item, but it soon passes away. Whether it’s because that item breaks or fails in some way, or you simply get tired of it. Or, in this case, a “better” model comes out.
Joy, on the other hand, is quite different. One who is joyful can experience happiness. But as opposed to happiness, one can even experience pain and suffering, perhaps even sadness or depression, yet remain joyful.
This is because joy considers the greater perspective in spite of whatever circumstances present themselves. Unlike happiness, which fades based off of one’s specific circumstances at a given time, joy runs much deeper.
In spite of the normal ebb and flow of life, joy can remain constant.
You may be starting to see then, how Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians is not so outlandish after all. How even someone like St. Paul, who suffered greatly, could rejoice always. And command others to do so.
But you may still question what the key is to rejoicing always. This answer is found at the end of our Epistle reading in the short preposition, “in Christ Jesus.”
How can we be joyful always? Simply put, when we are in Christ Jesus. In Him we can rejoice always.
This is because despite death all around us, despite illness, despite the loss of loved ones, not much money or whatever your cares and concerns may be, we know the end of His story and therefore ours.
We know that to all of the suffering of this life, God has given a purpose. That all of this suffering and pain is used by a gracious and loving God who sent His only Son to bear our sins in His body. Seen in the fact that through the suffering and death of the innocent Son of God, He brought about the salvation of all men.
And after that suffering and death He rose again, giving us courage to take heart, for although we experience trouble in this life, He has overcome it. And because He has overcome it and by virtue of our Baptism we are united to Him, so will we.
St. Paul actually goes on after our Epistle reading to explain this secret to joy in probably one of the most misinterpreted Bible verses of our day: “…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low and how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret to facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:11-13)
The Christian life is not promised to be easy. It isn’t as we have heard by some preachers, “Your best life now”. In fact, you can be sure that any teacher who says this has not been sent by God.
Rather, the Christian life is often full of sorrow and great suffering. Of hunger and rejection. Of ridicule and mocking. But despite these, we can be joyful in knowing that we have been made one with the body of Christ. And that we are preserved in His body through the frequent reception of that same body and blood.
And in this reality we can fix our eyes on Him. For although Christ died, He also rose. Though He was ridiculed and mocked, though He suffered greatly, He is now exalted at the Father’s right hand, where He continually pleads for us.
So rejoice always? Yes! It’s possible. And it is given in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds unto life everlasting.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.