First Mennonite Church
March 8, 2015
Rejoice In the Lord
Text: Philippians 4:4-9; Habakkuk 3:17-19
A bank teller tells the story of a man who always came to the bank with a frown or scowl on his face. Every time this particular costumer came to the bank he would carry out his transactions but would never give thanks to the bank teller who had served him. After one such day, the bank teller asked the other tellers if they had noticed the angry looks of this customer. An older lady who had worked for many years in the bank said she had seen that face for many years. “Oh,” she said, “I believe when that man was baptized, he was baptized in lemon juice. That is why he is always angry.”
I want to believe that each of us have been baptized in the fountain of Living water—that is, we have been baptized in Jesus. And everywhere we go, people can see his sweet spirit reflected in us by the kindness, gentleness and especially by the joy we exude through God’s grace.
It is good for us to remember that the letter to the Philippians was written by Paul when he was in prison. Yet in this letter, Paul mentions the word “joy” and some other forms of this word at least 16 times. Paul prayed and interceded with joy for the Philippians (1:4). He rejoiced that the gospel was being preached even if the motivation behind it was not pure (1:17-18). Paul would continue to rejoice in the promise of God’s deliverance from prison (1:18, 19). He called the Philippians to rejoice, not only in chapter four, but also in chapter three, verse one. He called the Philippian believers “his joy and crown,” and with whom he loved and desired to be (4:1). The letter to the Philippians is often called the “joy letter” of Paul, but Paul’s circumstance when he wrote it was anything but joyful. He was imprisoned without cause and confined to a cell with guards keeping watch over him.
In the last chapter of Philippians, Paul gives a list of exhortations. He urges two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to reconcile and requests the church leaders to help them achieve peace.
And then Paul commands the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord.” Paul emphasized his command by adding, “Again, I will say, Rejoice!”
It is nothing new to hear that there is a great difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is an expression of good feelings in response to a given circumstance or happening. When we visit with friends, eat together and spend time in candid conversation, we experience happiness. When we get good news or achieve something or receive a gift, we feel happy. Happiness is the response to things that come from the outside. And we all have a long list of reasons as to why we should be happy. If we have more health than illness we should be happy. If our mind is still functioning well, that is more than enough to be happy. If we have food, money for the basics of life, or if we have loved ones who share the joy of having us around, how blessed we are. All of these things in life are more than enough reasons to be happy.
Joy on the other hand, although it is also an emotional expression of happiness, is from the inside. Joy flows from the state of the heart, mind and spirit. Joy is the expression of the Divine presence in the person. The apostle Paul tells us that joy is the fruit of the spirit of God (Galatians 5:22). If we have Christ dwelling in our heart, we have all the reasons to be joyful. That means that joy is not man-made nor the result of outer circumstances. Joy is Divine.
So what is the relationship between happiness, joy and the command to rejoice in the Lord always?
To rejoice is to express the joy that abides in us. And if joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, then to rejoice is to savor that fruit with those around us. Joy is contagious and cannot be kept under a bushel. Therefore, when you meet your neighbor, coworker, or the person at the check-out counter in the grocery store, let the joy of God’s Spirit in you be known. Greet others with a genuine desire of goodwill for them. Let your face radiate with the joy of being redeemed by grace. Let your gentleness be known to everyone, adds Paul. The command of Paul is to rejoice in the Lord always. That means that the reason and source of our joy and rejoicing is the Lord. To be able to always rejoice in the Lord requires us to see life under a single lens. And that lens is Christ, his presence, his work and his providence. That means that we will no longer see on the one hand a material world and on the other a spiritual world. When we are able to see everything through the lens of Christ and everything he is to us, even what is often considered the most mundane thing or activity will lead us to rejoice in the Lord. We will realize that the food we eat is a blessing of God. We will be able to see that every penny we earn and spend is a gift of God entrusted to us. We will be able to see that our life, with its cares, matters to God. And for each of these things we will rejoice and give thanks to the Lord for them.
The challenges to always rejoice
I should not forget that there are various obstacles to always rejoicing. By experience we know that good news does not come by every day and in that case happiness might not be constantly around. Also, by experience we know that keeping a joyful spirit –that is being joyful 24/7 is simply impossible. There are plenty of reasons to despair. The world is full of bad news and even when it is not our intention to allow these things to absorb our thoughts, it is not easy to not be affected by the constant bad news we hear. But not only that, there are times when we ourselves do not feel well. When sickness comes, whether to us or to our loved ones, it causes us to be sad, worried, or even scared. The same apostle Paul who commanded his Philippian friend to rejoice always instructed those in Rome to “rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:12, 15). There will be times when not everything will go well. It is then that the words of the prophet Habakkuk should be our comfort and hope.
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation (Habakkuk 3:17-18).
James also has words of counsel:
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any
kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that
the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let
endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature
and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
Joy is both a gift of the Spirit of God to us and also the result of obedience to the Lord. When difficulty, trials, and suffering come, our heart will find strength and joy in the Lord. Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy. We should think about the oyster. When a grain of sand is stuck between its shell and causes it pain, the oyster turns the grain of sand into a beautiful pearl. But if the Lord is not in the person, the opposite can happen. He or she takes the pearl and turn it into grains of sand.
My dear brothers and sisters, the Lord calls us to be salt that preserves the world from corruption. But the apostle Paul says that Christians spread the sweet aroma of Christ in the world. Let us, therefore, make Christ be known by our gentleness and sweet spirit. Let us be witnesses of the beauty of Christ and the Holy Spirit through a life filled with joy. A joy that neither trials nor the challenges of life can quench. Let us be messengers of the good news. Even if the world goes from bad to worse; even if confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior becomes a dangerous thing to do or is considered outdated, we can say like the prophet Habakkuk: yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.
There is the story of a third-century man who was anticipating death. He wrote to his friend these last words: “It’s a bad world, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people are the Christians–and I am one of them.”
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, Rejoice!”
Today In The Word, June, 1988, p. 18.