Rejoice in the Lord!
Philippians 4:4 - Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
It’s true that there are some people who always seem to have a happy smile on their face and can always see the good side of even a bad situation. They are what we call the “half glass full” kind of people as opposed to those people who always only see the half empty glass. But to be joyful all the time is a tough call for most of us. In fact, if we meet a person who is always happy, we might become a bit suspicious about why they are continuously so joyful.
Are they trying to mask a deeper hurt? Have they lost touch with reality? Are they taking something, maybe a pill that induces happiness? Perhaps they’ve slipped a gear, a forerunner to something serious.
It's far more human and typical to be tense, anxious, uneasy, even edgy to a degree most of the time. But to be “happy all the time”? Isn’t real happiness is reserved for those rare times and places?
John the Baptist doesn’t help us this morning in this ‘feeling happy’ business with his finger-pointing sermon saying “You snakes. Who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send? … The axe is ready to cut down the tree at its roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7,9). He is talking to those who call themselves God’s people and telling them that godly actions should fill every day of their lives.
He says, “Share what you have – food and clothes – with those who have less. Be compassionate even when there is no obligation to be caring. Be content with what you have. Show kindness and generosity when its least expected.
John the Baptist calls his listeners to repent, and as we hear his words, we realise he is also talking to us. We too have failed to be godly people – people loving others as God has loved us. He calls us to turn our lives around from focusing on ourselves and being more like Christ. He says that the axe is ready to cut down and burn the trees that don’t bear good fruit. He is talking judgement here. There’s nothing to be happy about in the Baptist’s words to us today, or is there?
There is more to John’s message. The Baptist mentions water and fire – the cleansing action of water and fire. With the Messiah, John says, comes a new way. He brings cleansing and newness that will do away with all that grieves us today – Satan, sin and death and all the havoc these bring into our lives. The power of this unholy trio is broken; they no longer break us and destroy us; they no longer fill us with fear and dread; they no longer kill us and separate us from the eternal love of God.
The Messiah John proclaimed brings renewal and freedom. Luke described what John spoke about as Good News, and as far as I know, good news is joyful news. John is very passionate in proclaiming that something exceedingly joyful is about to break into human history and the world will never be the same again.
The apostle follows up this theme of joy by calling the people of Philippi to “Rejoice in the Lord always”. To make his point even stronger he continues, “I will say it again: Rejoice!”
This is quite an exhortation. “Rejoice … always!” Is it possible to always be joyful? Can we continually rejoice without turning on a fake joy, a joy that says with smile “I’m not holding it together but I’m pretending I am”?
Let’s be clear that Paul isn’t talking about happiness here. Happiness is something we pursue. We set up our Christmas celebration (giving gifts, cooking, eating, decorating) so that it can be a happy occasion. Happiness is very much a human emotion. If our Christmas celebration ends up in a family argument that happiness instantly dissolves. Happiness relies on things going well.
Joy is a different thing altogether as it is described in the Bible. It comes from outside of us. It doesn’t rely on what is happening in our lives. It’s constant and reliable regardless of the circumstances.
This will help us understand joy a bit better.
“I have everything I need!” Robert said. His hands are twisted, and his feet are useless. He can’t bathe or feed himself. He can’t brush his teeth, comb his hair, or put on his underwear. Strips of Velcro hold his shirts together. His speech is drawn out. Robert has cerebral palsy. This crippling disease didn’t keep him from graduating from high school or attending university and becoming a teacher.
Robert’s disease didn’t prevent him from becoming a missionary in Portugal. He moved to Lisbon, alone, in 1972. There he rented a hotel room and learnt Portuguese first through a local a restaurant owner and then at university. He became involved with students, distributed brochures in a park about Christ, started small groups in a local church and within six years seventy people joined the church, one of whom became his wife, Rosa.
Robert then spoke in different churches around the country. Other men carried him in his wheelchair to the microphone. They laid a Bible in his lap and with stiff fingers he forced open the pages. Robert could have asked for sympathy or pity, but he did just the opposite. He held his bent hand up in the air and boasted, “I have everything I need. My joy is complete.” His shirts are held together by Velcro, but his life is held together by joy.
I think this is a good illustration of the joy that our Bible reading is talking about, especially when Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” You can see how Robert’s external circumstances didn’t give him any reason for happiness or celebration, but he could boldly exclaim he had everything he needed despite his disabilities because he had “joy in the Lord”.
As we can see here in this man’s life, joy in the Lord had given him patience to endure all the problems and roads-blocks that his disability put in his way. Joy gave him the confidence and strength to go beyond his own strength and will-power to do things that many would consider too hard and too problematic.
Joy in the Lord gave him the vision to look beyond his present difficulties and only see new possibilities because he knew that, with Jesus by his side, nothing was impossible. He had the words of the apostle Paul on his lips, “I have learned this secret, so that anywhere, at any time, I am content … I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me” (Philippians 4:12-13).
So in the first instance, Robert’s joy in the Lord gave him patience, confidence, strength and vision to look beyond his disability and see the possibilities.
No doubt this disabled man who relied totally on others had moments of anxiety, but he knew that the answer to anxiety is praying to the Lord who invites us to come to him with our worries. Paul says, “Don't worry about anything, but in all your prayers ask God for what you need, always asking him with a thankful heart” (Philippians 4:6). Trusting God, having confidence in his love for us even though at times we don’t understand why events unfold the way they do, placing our lives into his loving all-powerful hands enables us to “rejoice in the Lord always”. We are unworthy of such love, and yet he loves us so wonderfully. That gives us an even greater reason to rejoice in the Lord.
So secondly, we see that joy in the Lord quietens our anxious hearts and minds.
My guess is that Robert, like any of us, had times when he became frustrated and angry about his disability and wondered why he should have cerebral palsy. He could do much more without it. But perhaps he came to realise that God was even able to do more through him because he totally relied on God to get him through each day.
His “joy in the Lord” gave him peace – not simply resignation as if to say, “Well, if life gives me lemons, I might as well make lemonade”. He had the peace of the Lord that assured him that even though he didn’t understand everything about God, he knew that God had a plan for him, and God would give him the strength and understanding and wisdom to be able to carry out his calling as a servant of the Lord. He was at peace with his body and its limitations and he was at peace with the huge calling that God had given him to be a teacher and a missionary. He took comfort from Paul words, “God's peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
Jesus is the Prince of Peace who comes into our hearts and minds and lives when everything else is in chaos around us and calms us with the confidence and knowledge that the love of God and his power will never abandon us. The peace that comes from God assures us that even if death should come, we have nothing to fear – nothing can separate us from the love of God. We are forever held in his embrace.
So thirdly, joy in the Lord gives us the peace that only God can give.
Paul is not calling you to simply smile, put on a happy face, even though the world around you is falling to pieces, your health has fallen in a heap, or death has dealt your family a cruel blow. When Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always” he is talking about a joy that doesn’t arise out of what is happening around you but arises out of the love that Jesus has for you and the confidence and trust that you have in that powerful love. Remember when Paul wrote these words he was sitting in a jail – his future uncertain, his conditions smelly, dirty, dark, and damp and yet he could still say “I am content”, “Rejoice in the Lord”.
The strange combination of trouble and sorrow on the one hand, and peace and joy on the other, is only possible “in the Lord”. And God's peace, which is far beyond human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Christ Jesus.
John The Baptist - Alexander J. Burke
John the Baptist: a Biography -Charles Croll
Vince Gerhardy Blog
John the Baptist in History and Theology - Joel Marcus
John the Baptist: Prophet of Purity for a New Age - Catherine M. Murphy
Advent For Everyone: Matthew - N.T. Wright
The Dawning of Indestructible Joy: Daily Readings for Advent -John Piper
The Dawn of Redeeming Grace: Daily Devotions for Advent - Sinclair Ferguson
The One True Story: Daily readings for Advent from Genesis to Jesus - Tim Chester