Just after Easter in 1991 one of our seminary students came back from break almost in despair. During the break he and his family had visited a pastor friend of his, who also happened to have been a seminary classmate of mine. Just a short time before that visit that pastor’s wife had passed away from cancer, and the student kept crying out, “Where’s the victory?” “Where’s the joy?”
Sometimes that seems to be a legitimate question. When you see what is going on in the world or in your own life, when you hear Paul’s exhortation, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, ‘Rejoice!’”, you might well ask, “What is there to rejoice in?” What is there to be joyful about? Every week we pray for people in our congregation, as every congregation does every week, for those who are ill, for those who have had loved ones who have died, sometimes old and full of years, sometimes tragically, and when these things strike you close at hand, the urging, “Rejoice,” may certainly seem hollow or out of place. In these situations, you more likely want to cry, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!” or perhaps, more simply, “Come, Lord Jesus!” But those cries certainly are not out of place, because those cries arise out of faith. They, and you, have heard the promises that God has made, and we trust in them. It may seem paradoxical that in the midst of your anguish you can heed Paul’s urging, but that is exactly how his own life played out, and Paul invites you to follow his example.
St. Paul wrote this letter to the faithful at Philippi while he was in prison. In Rome, near the end of his life. He didn’t know whether he was to live or die, and in fact, at the beginning of his letter he says that he is hard pressed to decide between earthly life and death. To live is Christ and to die is gain, he says. Some suggest that it is better put, “Christ is my life, and death is gain.” Departure from this life, he notes, is better by far. He goes on to point out that he cannot decide whether he would prefer to remain “in the body,” or depart, which is as he literally puts it “much more better.” Were he to remain here, on earth, he would have the opportunity to continue in fruitful service to God. Clearly, the opportunity to continue the preaching of the Good News, even in the face of hardship, remained a joy for him. Both in the book of Acts and in 2 Corinthians we are told of many of the hardships Paul went through for the sake of the Gospel. For Paul, “rejoicing” in Christ was not dependent upon external circumstances. We see in Acts 16 that when Paul and his co-worker Silas were in Philippi they were arrested for “disturbing the city” with their message. They were beaten and stripped and thrown into prison and their feet were placed in stocks. Yet for all of this, as they sat there, they were singing hymns! They had learned to be content, indeed joyful, with whatever circumstances they might be in. Knowing God, they knew that whatever suffering they might be put through, they had a Savior, and they were privileged to suffer in His name. This clearly came through to the other prisoners, who were listening to them. “What kind of people are these, that even in the midst of being punished (and unjustly at that), they can be singing and praying?” And even when God provided an earthquake as a channel of escape, Paul and Silas remained behind in order to care for the jailer who was on the verge of killing himself for fear they had escaped. The result was the baptism of the jailer and his household, the joy in the midst of adversity exhibited by Paul and Silas showed them all that there is a very real God who may not take adversity away from us, but who brings us through it to show that nothing can separate us from His love.
Paul’s words can accurately be rendered, “Rejoice and keep on rejoicing!” Or, “Continually rejoice!” Grammatically, this is an imperative, But that doesn’t mean that this is a command of the law. It is not something that you can do by your own efforts, by your own strength of will. Rather, these words are an invitation, something that we do because we know the one to whom we belong. You rejoice in view of what Christ has done for you. The repetition, “again I say,” emphasizes the urgency of the matter, but this then leads into the reason you can keep on rejoicing. You are to let your “reasonableness,” “gentleness” “moderation” be made known to all men. In demonstrating your joy to all, you are to do so without being strident. When struck, do not strike back. You can face the future with equanimity because you can see the goal God has put before you.
The joy we exhibit, indeed the only reason we can exhibit such joy, is because “the Lord is at hand.” That of course is how advent relates to joy, for Christ’s advent, His presence, is remembered. That is why this week is dedicated to such joy, and why the candle on the Advent wreath this week is rose colored rather than the blue or violet of the others.
Even though we live nearly 2000 years since Paul wrote these words, he was absolutely correct then, and he is still correct today. Peter in his second letter reminds us that the Lord does not count slowness in the same way that we count slowness. In the midst of the trials of this life we can live lives of, not “quiet desperation,” as Henry David Thoreau puts it, but lives of quiet joy. The life of quiet desperation arises from the suspicion that life is simply an exercise in futility, which at times, if we only look on the surface, it appears to be. Yet that sense of futility can be overcome, indeed can only be overcome, in the recognition that we have been called by God not only into the church, but also into the world, in the various vocations and the various communities into which God has placed us. And that of course includes the church.
A few years ago (actually, it was about ten years ago now), I submitted a column for the religion page of the Edmonton Journal, which I had entitled “Why I like going to church.” When they published it, they changed the title to something like “Going to church should be viewed as a privilege, not just a duty.” I began the piece this way:
“Three thousand years ago King David of Israel wrote, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Psalm 122:1 ) Being “glad” is not a word we often hear used when talking about going to church! We usually hear words like “duty” or “obligation” rather than “privilege,” and “bored” or “stifled” rather than “glad.” And I do have to admit that there are times when churches are more boring than joyful; hence the solution marked by so many that we need to make church more entertaining if we want to sell the product. Added to this, the idea that “religion” is about one’s personal relationship to God “however you may conceive him [or her, or it] to be,” not to mention the idea that “I can worship God by myself, or by communing with nature,” can make communal public worship seem irrelevant.
“I would submit, however, that quite often the problem is not with church per se, but with our understanding of what is going on. Why was David so glad? Why so often are we not? I think that one of the reasons is that when we see church as duty rather than privilege we put the focus on our obligation to be doing something for God rather than seeing the true starting point: that God has invited us to gather so that he can do something for us, namely give us the gift of forgiveness in the very real ways that he has promised. True religion, and truly helpful religion, is about joining together in community to receive very real gifts from a very real God who has acted in a very real way for us and to thank him for those gifts.”
We don’t create meaning for our lives. Neither can we create joy. Rejoicing comes about as we realize what great things God has done for us. “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice, with exultation singing.” Imperatives like that, are not commands we must follow in order to be “truly Christian.” Rejoicing is not an obligation. It is a Spirit-led response to the good news. “Proclaim the wonders God has done, how His right arm the vict’ry won.”
Our sure hope is that the sufferings of this present time cannot in any way be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us, so we can endure as we look forward to that coming glory.
Rejoicing comes in knowing that the Lord is at hand. Knowing that provides the peace which passes all understanding, that peace which the world cannot give. It is because we know that the Lord is at hand that God’s peace, that peace which passes all understanding, guards our hearts and minds, protects them, until the day of Christ’s returning. In the days of The Lutheran Hymnal pastors ended their sermons with those words “The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Some of us older pastors still do. The fight may still be fierce and the warfare long, but we already take part in that distant triumph song.
The themes of the four weeks of Advent; hope, peace, joy, and love, are inextricably intertwined. They are all exhibited because of the reality that the Lord is at hand. We come together here on the Lord’s Day and join together bearing one another’s burdens because He actually is at hand here to give his gifts to us. He is in the midst of us with His word being preached, His absolution pronounced, His body and blood being distributed and received, and more people being brought into His family through Holy Baptism. Strengthened in faith, focusing on the Lord who is at hand, who indeed is right here among us, even now, we know that the heavens have been ripped open and he has come down among us, even as we await His final appearance for which we cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Therefore, Rejoice! Amen. And the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.