Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18 Third Sunday of Advent December 16, 2018
It was six years ago yesterday. Hundreds of people filled the Catholic cathedral that sits high on a hill in Roanoke, Virginia, for the funeral of a pastor beloved to many in our Synod. He was only 58 when he died from the cancer in his lymph system. It was an occasion of great sorrow, of deep mourning. And the family asked me to read these verses: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!
“Rejoice in the Lord – always”?! Even when a tragic death occurs?
“Rejoice in the Lord always” – even when wildfires destroy towns, acres, lives?
“Rejoice in the Lord always” – even when a hurricane causes physical and emotional damage that will take years to recover from?
“Rejoice in the Lord always.” Paul wrote those words to the congregation he had founded in Philippi. We read them in what we now call the letter to the Philippians. When Paul wrote these words, he was enduring a period of great personal suffering. He was in a jail cell, imprisoned by authorities who were trying to keep civil order, because Paul’s preaching of the resurrection of Christ was provoking violent opposition. From his prison cell, Paul was emphatic, repeating the word: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. He continued: Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
All of this is very hard to do when there is so much reason for despair, is it? None of this is possible unless we are rooted in joy.
There is great difference between joy and happiness. Happiness comes and goes, dependent on what is happening to us. Happiness ebbs and flows, according to how well our primary relationships are going. Happiness ebbs and flows according to how fulfilled we feel in our work at this particular time. We are happy when we have enough money not to worry about paying the bills. (Ironically, often, when we feel stretched for money, it’s because we’ve spent money on stuff that we thought would make us happy, but it doesn’t!)
Joy is much deeper than any of this. When we are rejoicing, it is coming from someplace far beneath the surface of what’s happening to us. Joy comes from what is enduring. I appreciated Pastor Griffin’s questions for prayer this past Wednesday evening: “Where do you find joy? Is your joy related to hope, gratitude or love?”
Here’s an example of joy that comes from gratitude and love. Last week, Patty and I decorated our Christmas tree at home. Doing that each year always makes me think of the year 2006. I had just come home from a month in the hospital, I was recovering from a near-fatal fungus that had infected my lungs, and I was weak as a kitten. A neighbor had helped Patty buy a Christmas tree and get it home. Our son and daughter-in-law then came to see me. The three of them brought the tree into the house and started to decorate it. I sat down in a chair and watched as they put on the lights and the first ornament or two. And when I woke up, the tree was decorated, the boxes were all put away, and I heard their voices talking softly in another room. (I had been asleep for a long time.)
Each year, decorating the Christmas tree is a time of great joy for me – because I remember 2006, and I am grateful. I am grateful for the love and care my son and daughter-in-law showed. I am grateful for the strength I now have, 12 years later. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice, St. Paul wrote to the Philippians. One of you asked me last Sunday morning, “How are you?” I replied, “I’m great! I’m not in an ICU. I’m able to breathe without oxygen!” I was in the rejoicing mindset, you see!
I hasten to say that I am not always in that mindset. Perhaps you can identify with me when I say that? It is the day-to-day life of baptism: when we drown the old, self-centered, selfish person so the new person can rise up to live in gratitude, the result is joy because we remember that all is gift!. Rejoicing comes from deep within us, when we have the perspective that nearly everything we worry about isn’t worth worrying about.
Joy, rejoicing, comes when we are living in Christ. Let me read again this morning’s verses from Philippians, as well as the rest of the passage that my friend’s family asked me to read at his funeral six years ago: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 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.
Paul is describing of what it looks like to live in Christ, and that brings us joy! (It would be a good idea to put a sticky note to mark this passage in your Bible so you can come back to this description over and over, particularly when you’re having a hard time drowning that old person within you; when you don’t feel like rejoicing in all things!)
And let me say one more thing, something that might surprise you about this morning’s gospel passage. John the Baptizer is describing joyful life in Christ, too, in this reading from Luke! John’s words to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him are so harsh and judgmental. He calls them a brood of vipers, after all! But there is great joy that comes from the sacrificial generosity and the integrity that John is inviting them into (and us, too, as we read the story). John is a prophet, pointing to what God is going to bring, and calling the people to repentance, to live in that hope. John names sharing your coat with someone who is cold and your food with someone who is hungry. John then addresses tax collectors and soldiers specifically, but he’s addressing all of us: turn away from exploiting others who have less power and privilege than you and I do. Many of you know from your own experience: there is great joy that comes from living in the ways John calls us into, while watching, in hope, for what God has promised – the day to come when there will be no more need for exhortation, because there will be no one with inadequate clothing and not enough food, there will be no more extortion, no more violence, no more crying, no more dying. That is why the passage ends with words that may seem very strange: So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. It’s because this is the good news of Jesus. It is the way of Jesus that brings joy, rejoicing.
There is much that makes us unhappy, and that even causes despair. But that’s just day-to-day stuff. When we are in Christ we are living in the promise of the resurrection, and in God’s promises of the day to come when there will be no more crying, no more dying, and that’s what we’re working for.
The themes of Advent remind us to look for what God has begun in the birth of Jesus the Christ; and for what God is doing as we live in Christ, in love and gratitude; and to watch in hope for what is to come. We even declare this each week: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” In this “mystery of faith” there is joy!
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Andy Ballentine
 My emphasis.
 In the Holy Communion Prayer of Thanksgiving.