Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Choice for Joy” Philippians 4:4-7
This Sunday has long been known as Gaudete Sunday. That name derives from ancient Latin words that began our worship on the third Sunday of Advent, long before the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. I’m talking about Paul’s exhortation to the church in Philippi. Gaudete in Domino semper, rejoice in the Lord always.
In the days when Advent was closely observed as a season of repentance, fasting was eased on this Sunday as Christians anticipated the joyful celebration of the birth of Jesus and his triumphant return in glory. These days, the only reminders of that celebratory observance are the name Gaudete or Joy Sunday and the pink candle on our Advent wreath. The pink is a softening of the season’s penitential purple.
“Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I will say rejoice.” The theme of this Sunday may feel like a jarring, dissonant message for some this morning. As we acknowledged in our midweek service of the Longest Night, the joy of Christmas may feel at odds with our personal feelings of sorrow, pain, and hardship.
Burt won’t be merry this Christmas. His wife Lois died last summer. This year on Christmas Day, there won’t be a salty, savory ham baking in the oven. Nor will there be a platter of deviled eggs or a sticky, sweet pecan pie. This year, the kids and grandkids won’t be coming home for the holiday dinner. Burt has a big, painful hole in his life. All Burt can feel is the emptiness and sorrow in his heart.
Kristin is struggling this Christmas. The kids will be spending the day with their father and his new wife—and they’re expecting a baby. While her kids are unwrapping presents from Santa, Kristin will have a second cup of coffee and watch one of those Hallmark Christmas movies. Kristin wonders how her “happily ever after” ended with adultery and divorce. She feels lonely, betrayed, and defeated.
Joanie and Curt don’t have much to celebrate this year. Their small business was a casualty of COVID-19. They have found other work, but it may take years to pay off their mountain of debt. This year instead of shopping, they’re making special gifts for the kids and upcycling some used toys and clothes. All the same, Santa won’t have much under the tree. Joanie and Curt feel stressed, disappointed, and powerless.
“Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I will say rejoice.” That’s what the Apostle Paul said to his friends in Philippi. Bible scholars tell us that the circumstances of the Philippian church were hardly joyful. Their Greco-Roman neighbors viewed them with suspicion. In fact, Paul and Silas had been driven out of their community by prosperous merchants who said they were bad for business. The young church needed Paul’s leadership, but his return to Philippi had been long delayed. When news came that Paul was in the imperial prison, the Philippians sent Epaphroditis to Rome to provide support. Then, came the news that Epaphroditus was sick—near death. We can imagine the worry and concern of the Philippians as they waited and feared the worst. It must have felt to some felt like a jarring and dissonant message when Epaphroditus finally returned, bearing Paul’s epistle with the exhortation to rejoice always.
We don’t like it when folks make light of our suffering. It feels like a gut punch when we are lost in grief and someone assures us that our loved one passed because God needed another angel. We feel like failures when a more skilled or experienced friend offers to help—after our plans have come to ruin. Early in my tenure here, I was approached by an older woman who had been a member of the church as a child. When her father divorced her mother—a scandalous turn of events in that day and age, Rev. Gurley, our pastor at the time, told the bereft wife and children that all would be better when they met a “nice guy.” Poor Reverend Gurley was well-intended, but his words felt like gall in the ears of those he had sought to comfort. Almost seventy years later, the anger and hurt of the daughter was still palpable as she told me her story.
It’s important to note that the Apostle Paul wasn’t speaking platitudes or empty promises to his friends in Philippi. He wasn’t making light of their struggle and fear. On the contrary, Paul believed that joy was a core characteristic of the Christian life in all circumstances, and he modeled that for others. The Book of Acts tells us that when Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi, they sang songs of faith and prayed—much to the amazement of their jailor. When Paul described to the Corinthians the difficulties of his service for Jesus, Paul said he was “grieving yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). Even as Paul wrote to the Philippians, his end was near. Condemned to death for the sake of the gospel, Paul had appealed his case to the emperor himself—and everyone knew that would not go well. Despite every adverse circumstance, Paul lived in joy and hoped that others would, too.
The secret to Paul’s joy was its source. Paul rejoiced in the Lord. This wasn’t the fleeting, superficial feeling of happiness that comes when everything goes our way. Rather, Paul’s joy was found in the knowledge that he belonged to God, who loved him enough to enter the world’s darkness and die for his salvation. Paul trusted in God’s love in every circumstance. He boldly wrote to the church in Rome that God’s love was always victorious, saying, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul’s joy in the Lord sustained him through rejection, persecution, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, imprisonment, and even the shadow death because he knew that he belonged to God both in this world and the world that is to come. Now that was something to rejoice in.
Henri Nouwen, one of the finest pastoral theologians of the twentieth century, taught that joy is a choice. Sounding a lot like the Apostle Paul, Nouwen wrote in his 1994 book Here and Now that “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that love away.” Nouwen saw joy as a spiritual discipline, the daily choice to remember our belovedness and to live in the light of God’s unquenchable love for us. This joy is ours always, regardless of what is going on in our lives.
Nouwen himself used daily quiet times of prayer to reflect upon his life and attend to his mood. In that stillness, in the choice to remember the love of God revealed in Jesus, Nouwen’s world would change. Worry, stress, irritability, and sorrow would give way to joy. In Nouwen’s words, the daily choice for joy transformed him from a “victim,” overwrought by the pain and challenge of life, to “victor,” resting in the eternal goodness of God. Joy can be ours for the choosing.
The choice for joy that Paul and Henri Nouwen described might seem like a dry theological assertion or an unlikely turn of events if we didn’t see it in action. We have all encountered folks who knew tremendous adversity and grief yet continued to shine light for the world around them. I think about Anna Ferree, who lost her two sons in tragic accidents. After their deaths, a friend asked Anna for help with watching her children. Before she knew it, Anna had a daycare in her home. There Anna provided love and support for many of Saranac Lake’s children. Anna still mourned the loss of her sons, yet she chose to make a helping and healing difference in the lives of local families. There were story times and naps, snacks and tea parties, play time and even prayer time. Anna saw her experience as a vocation, a gift from God who called her from sorrow to joy.
We all know people like Anna. The mother who raised three incredibly successful kids alone. The dad who never misses a Little League game, despite his battle with cancer. The older brother who skips college and works hard to provide the resources for others to get an education. They do the impossible with grace. We all know folks who have shown us an inner strength and remarkable faith that chooses joy, despite the odds.
Beyond the difficulties and problems that every life holds, there is cause for joy on this Gaudete Sunday, a joy that is both holy and improbable. When we stand fast in God’s love and make the choice for joy, we can be bowed down by grief, like the recently widowed Burt, and yet we can rejoice. We can struggle with broken, dysfunctional families, like Kristin alone on Christmas Day, and yet we can rejoice. We can know hardship and failure, like Joanie and Curt who lost their business, and still we can rejoice. Joy is ours because we are beloved. Amid adversity, we belong to God who has overcome the grief and sorrow, pain and problems of this world.
May we rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say rejoice.
Carla Works. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 21, 2021. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Michael Joseph Brown. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 13, 2009. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Henri Nouwen. Here and Now. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006.
4 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 4:4-7