3 Advent Yr C, 13/12/2009
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Rejoice in the midst of sorrow”
Back in the 1960s and 70s, there was a popular song that youth sang in church or at youth group functions. The song was very simple, some of you may remember it: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. Rejoice, rejoice, again I say rejoice.” We had lots of fun singing it as a canon. I can also remember that after singing this simple piece, it seemed to sink into my consciousness, and I’d sing it to myself all day long. I found it very difficult to get it out of my head once it was there. Has that ever happened to you?
Well, in today’s second lesson, upon which that popular song was based, the apostle Paul instructs the church at Philippi to: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Why would Paul say such a thing? Most of us can rejoice, however why does Paul add the word “always” and then go on to repeat himself by saying: “again I will say, Rejoice”? If Paul were alive and among us today, we might be inclined to argue with him, and say something like this: “Get real Paul, wake up and smell the coffee, there’s no way that we can always be rejoicing. How can I always rejoice Paul in the face of life’s downers? Don’t you know Paul that there’s lots of hurting and suffering in this old world? In fact, if you listen to the daily news, you’ll likely come to the conclusion that the world is becoming more hostile, corrupt and evil by the minute. How can we always rejoice when millions of people around the world are starving, naked, homeless and sick? How can we always rejoice when corporate CEOs get severance packages in the millions, while they steal pension plans from thousands of their own employees? How can we always rejoice when wars and terrorism drag on year-after-year and far too many innocent people are killed? And then Paul, closer to home, how can we rejoice when we only have until the end of this month before we close Grace Lutheran Church? We love this Church, now we have to close it, and that breaks our hearts. We are sad and grieving, closing our congregation is, in a way, like dying. Paul, tell us, how can we always rejoice in the face of such sadness?”
After such a litany of protests, Paul might answer us something like this: “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; I do know all about suffering and sadness too. Don’t you remember what I wrote in my letters about being shipwrecked, beaten, rejected and chased out of cities, towns and villages by hostile people? Yes, I know all about suffering and sadness, I’ve been arrested and when I wrote the church at Philippi, telling them to rejoice always, I was sitting in prison. I also had to deal with all of the conflicts, disagreements and divisions in several congregations—all of which caused me much pain and sadness. On a personal level, I had to struggle with health issues, and, while in prison, I did not know if I was going to be found guilty of crimes and executed. So, in light of all these things, you doubt the sincerity of my words to the church at Philippi, telling them to rejoice always.”
“Well, listen to me members of Grace Lutheran. I am able to say rejoice always because true joy, Christian joy, is not based on external circumstances. NO! If that were so, then yes, it would be impossible to rejoice always. However that is not the case. The way to rejoicing always is clearer when you read verses five, six and seven.”
“In verse five, I said: Let your gentleness be known to everyone—be considerate of everyone. The Lord is near. I’ve discovered that gentleness and consideration of others helps you cope with life’s troubles. In gentleness, being patient and considerate of everyone, hearing them out, I’ve won the trust and respect of others. How can I do this? Well, as I said: The Lord is near. Don’t you remember the words of Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel? Remember, he said: ‘I am with you always.’ For me, that has proven to be a wonderful promise. I know that I could never have gotten through all of my sufferings and heartaches without our Lord’s nearness. The message of our Lord’s nearness during this season of Advent is quite appropriate, as Advent means coming. Advent is a time for us to remember Jesus came as a human being in love as one of us over two-thousand years ago. He comes to us each day, and especially during worship times through word and sacrament. One day, Jesus said he will come again as the risen King of kings and Lord of lords to bring all of history to its completion. So, yes, the Lord is near. We can have confidence in his nearness because it’s not based on the unpredictability of our feelings. Rather, Christ’s nearness is based on his promise—which holds true now and throughout eternity. If we believe this, then we can always be joyful in our Lord.”
“We can rejoice in the Lord always dear members of Grace Lutheran because, as I said in verse six: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. I know this to be true from practicing it. Throughout my stormy life and ministry I had plenty of worries, anxieties and fears. I put life and limb in danger many a time. Jesus rescued me from the jaws of death and the evils of Satan on numerous occasions. I was able to rejoice always and cope with the daily circumstances no matter how trying because I prayed, offered supplications with thanksgiving making my requests known to our God. The Lord heard my prayers, supplications and thanksgivings—he didn’t always answer them the way I asked, mind you; he didn’t always give me what I wanted; rather, he had greater purposes for me to carry out and he always gave me what I needed.”
“In addition to all of this, I ended this section of my letter to the Philippians with a benediction in verse seven. I loved that congregation dearly, and so it was easy for me to offer them blessing upon blessing—because they had blessed me in so many ways. So I wrote these words as benediction, a good word, which is what the word benediction actually means. I wrote, and I also offer these words to you too: And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. You remember that I grew up and was educated as a Jew. Peace, in Hebrew Shalom, is more than just a word. Peace, Shalom is used by us Jews to greet someone to begin a conversation, and to say good-bye to someone when departing from them. The word also refers to health, wholeness, well-being, prosperity in the physical, social and spiritual sense. Peace, Shalom also refers to the future new creation—when God in Christ shall remove forever all evil powers, then sin and death shall no longer exist. Everyone shall live in a perfect state of blessedness, where joy and love shall rule supreme. So God’s peace guards us like a surrounding army filling our hearts and minds; giving us the willpower and ability to act by carrying out Christ’s purposes.”
“In short, Christ’s presence in us through his indwelling Holy Spirit works to help us. We are not always able to keep focussed in our prayers—the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf. We are not always able to stop worrying, and our hearts and minds don’t always focus on Jesus—again Christ’s peace given through the Holy Spirit in us accomplishes that for us. So, brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t let external circumstances side-track you. You can rejoice always like I did while I faced all the sufferings and sorrows of my life. Yes, even while closing your church, you can rejoice in the Lord always. Why? Because the Lord is near. He loves you so much that he suffered and died for you on the cross. He didn’t stay dead though. On the third day God the Father raised him from the dead. His resurrection is a sign of hope and victory. One day we too shall share in a resurrection like his. Your church too, after you close your doors, shall give new life to the larger Christian community by sharing your gifts with them. And Christ’s peace shall guard you every step of the way, throughout your life, your death, and beyond.”
Someone has said, “Misery loves company, but joy requires it.” What a beautiful insight. “Misery loves company, but joy requires it.” Joy requires company, community, connectedness. We can have many satisfying experiences by ourselves, but to experience joy we almost have to be in the company of at least one other person. That’s why worship is so satisfying to our souls. That is why serving others can be a joyous experience. Anytime we move out of ourselves and connect with another human being in the name of Christ, joy is possible.1
For the Christian, joy is…in the abiding assurance that “we belong, body and soul, to our faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ (Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A #1). It was this kind of joy that a young pastor encountered when he entered the hospital room of an elderly saint named Edith. It was the last day of Edith’s life; the pastor knew it and so did Edith. So when he asked her, “How are you?” they both knew that he was talking about more than her health. Their eyes locked, and she answered with a serenity born of both suffering and grace: “I have never felt such pain, or known more joy.”
Are Christians happy all the time? No, of course not. But they can be joyful all the time. Theirs is a joy that flows directly from the fountain of God’s amazing grace, a joy that, like God’s peace, “passes all understanding” (4:7).2 So, this Advent may you live with the joy of Jesus who is ever coming and near you; guarding you like a surrounding army with his peace. Amen.
1 Cited from: Duncan King, “I say, Rejoice!” at: <www.esermons.com>.
2 Cited from: Carol M. Bechtel, Glimpses Of Glory: Daily Reflections on the Bible (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), p. 73.