Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We enjoy going on family walks at night during December to see all the pretty Christmas lights and decorations that adorn our neighbourhood’s houses. My wife pointed out to me one house which had the word “joy” in giant wooden letters on their lawn. Joy is a theme we encounter throughout the seasons of Advent and Christmas. We find the sentiment on cards, holiday decorations, and in music. However, the real joy is not always so easy to come by. Experience tells us that “joy” is often hard to find, especially at this time of year. Loneliness, family strife, health problems, unexpected crises, grief, and national events make it seem like joy is always beyond our grasp. The only time we see joy might be when we watch holiday movies.
As hard as it is to find joy sometimes, this actually invites us to stop and think about what it is we are looking for when we speak of “joy.” Is it an emotional high? A state of perpetual happiness? An absence of conflict? Or is “joy” something that has become little more than an empty seasonal sentiment? Yet, today in our epistle reading, we find a command to “rejoice.” And that is not a call to just “be happy.” But, how can the Bible tell us to rejoice when we’re in the midst of hard times and circumstances? What reasons do we have for joy?
“Rejoice in the Lord always”. With these words, Paul is encouraging joy, not happiness. There is a difference between these two. Joy is not really an emotion. When he wrote this, the apostle Paul was not very happy. He wrote from prison, awaiting a trial that he almost certainly feared would end in his execution. The apostle was also worried about the spiritual health of the young churches he started. So we should not think that he’s particularly happy. But his letter is unusually joyful, overflowing with rejoicing and exhortations to rejoice.
Many things can cause us to rejoice. We rejoice when we get good news. We have joy when we achieve our goals. We rejoice at significant life events with our family and friends. Sometimes, this joy will be fleeting. Paul’s command to “rejoice in the Lord always,” tells us there is a type of joy that is enduring. This joy can keep us going when life challenges wear us down. How can God expect those who struggle with countless problems to rejoice? Paul wants us to have a kind of joy not based on our circumstances.
Our society bombards us with numerous causes of worry. Our world produces anxiety. There is some new fear at every corner to haunt our dreams and burden our days. It gets worse: the news and media do their best to keep our anxiety levels at code orange. Anxiety will steal our joy. When we constantly worry about every little thing, the joy of the Lord gets overshadowed by anxiety. That is why God tells us to worry about nothing and to lay every concern at his feet. Cast your cares upon Him, that He might restore to you the joy of your salvation. Paul is not saying that there is nothing to worry about or that we fear unnecessarily. Instead, he tells us to put our anxieties, fears, pains, and concerns into the hands of God. Paul encourages you to lay your life, burdens, wounds, and thoughts before God in prayer. You’re being invited to bring your daily lives’ requests and genuine concerns to your Father in heaven.
That’s the key to a Christian’s rejoicing. Paul doesn’t just say rejoice. He says, rejoice “in the Lord.” Paul is not telling us to be numb to our circumstances or insensitive to others’ troubles. Far from it! Our emotional or physical pain is still pain. Hurts, whether they’re our own or others’, still hurt. We are affected by life’s pains and disappointments. So, we are encouraged to rejoice in every situation. This does not mean a weary sigh, “Well, at least I have my faith,” when some setback or sadness occurs. It means, even amid tears, we have an attitude that looks up and sees and relies on God, that looks for reasons and ways to express joy. But what are those reasons?
Reasons to Rejoice
The Lectionary puts Philippians 4 with an Old Testament lesson from Zephaniah 3. The prophet Zephaniah piles on the joy: exult with all your heart, rejoice, sing aloud, shout for joy! We usually do not associate a prophet of the Old Testament with joy and excitement. These verses from Zephaniah are one exception. Why is there so much joy?
First, I want you to notice that joy engulfs God, as well as Israel. Verse 17 says that God “will rejoice over you with gladness; he will exult over you with loud singing.” Now, isn’t this an interesting turn of events? God is almost giddy with glee.
Have you ever seen people waiting at an airport, literally hopping up and down with eagerness to be reunited with someone in whom they take delight? They stand on tiptoes staring up into the gate area, and they crane their necks the shake their hands with anticipation. They cannot sit still. And when the loved one appears, the dam breaks. All the love and delight comes gushing out in a spectacle of giggles, tears, laughter—everything all rolled into one big burst of exuberance.
That is how God feels about the salvation of his people. God will rejoice over us. It’s like he carries little pictures of us in his wallet, eagerly and gladly taking them out to show to anyone who will look. Zephaniah can say at the end of the passage: “God will quiet us by his love.” All those fears, all those anxieties, all hurts and all those things that have you crying out for relief, they will all melt away. The love of God for you is far surpassing any of these. “He will quiet you by his love.” This is a picture of being drawn into someone’s embrace, smothered with a hug that is sheer bliss for both parties. It’s the kind of hug that melts away your cares and anxieties and quiets your heart. The love of God for you is such love. This is the kind of love that makes God rejoice over you.
Jesus said, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance,” (Lk 15:7). Our God is moved, is deeply affected by our attitudes and actions. The Creator God does not watch from a distance but is deeply invested in the life of the world. God sings. God shouts. God rejoices. God and God’s people alike are caught up in a joy that overflows into song, a joy that springs from love renewed, relationship restored.
Why is God rejoicing and overflowing with joy? What makes all this joy possible? Joy is brought about in two ways: by being with someone you love, and by the well-being of someone you love. God has joy because he has secured our eternal well-being and he will be with us. This joyful reunion does not come cheap. To a hurting people, Zephaniah says: “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” There are judgments against you. You are guilty before God. You have lived as if God did not matter and as if you mattered most. You do not love the Lord your God with all your heart. You do not love your neighbour as yourself. There are those you have hurt and those you have failed to help. Your thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin.
But the Lord has taken it all away. Not arbitrarily, not like the police officer who says, “well, it’s Christmastime, I’ll let you go with a warning today.” No, God had to find a way to deal with all that comes between him and us. He also needed to deal with all that could drive us apart all over again. That’s a hard work—so hard that it will land the Son of God on a cross. God himself came forward and voluntarily offered himself as our substitute. When we trust him, God removes our guilt. God welcomes us with bells on. He puts a ring on our finger, kills the fatted calf, throws a party, and leads in the festal dance. With that, he actually dwells with us. (See my midweek sermon).
It was for the joy of your salvation that Jesus set His gaze to Calvary and endured the cross, scorning its shame. The joy of saving you far outweighed the suffering it entailed. And it is for the joy of our salvation that we too endure our cross, knowing that our present suffering is little compared to our coming glory in Christ.
Joy is not a feeling that is dependent upon circumstances. It is choosing to reflect on God’s actions to redeem you even when all the present circumstances might indicate that some other power had won. We have joy because God is with us. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s dwelling within us. It is something that God produces in a heart set free to be joyful in Christ. Because of Christ, we rejoice when suffering, even when there is little reason to be happy. You are people loved by God. His cross is the forgiveness of all sin, and his empty tomb destroys death. And when he comes again to bring you to himself, he will give you life eternal! How can this news lead to anything other than rejoicing?! “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice.”
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.