Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

[Philippians 4:4 NRSV]

One of my colleagues in the conference of bishops, when asked how are you, responds, “Hopeful.”

I have latched on to that and taken it a step further, and I now answer the question with the word, “joyful.”

I was recently mildly taken to task for my use of hopeful language. I understood the comments as disappointment over my seeing things with a little too much hope and optimism, although the person stopped far short of accusing me of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. I admit I try to look at life in a positive light, even if it may not all look good to others.

I’m not quite sure that’s exactly what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the congregation at Philippi and told them, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” But he certainly wanted to make a lasting point to this group of Christians for whom he had a great affection. 

The church in Philippi was the first one he founded in Europe.  The members of the congregation had supported his missionary journeys.  So there was a sense of endearment, a fondness for the Philippians.  Yet despite the tenderness of this letter, Paul still makes a forceful appeal to this congregation to stand firm in the Lord.

paul-writing-in-prisonLike many congregations, the Philippians had their share of problems.  There was a conflict between two women in the congregation.  The people there had worries.  Some were anxious, some weak willed, some were fearful, some were suffering.  Paul, himself, wrote this letter from a jail cell.  In many respects, the Philippian church was not much different from congregations today. 

It is these types of concerns that take the joy out of church life, the joy out of worship, that can rip the heart out of a congregation. This would be perhaps one of the greatest challenges I have faced in my time as synod bishop. Despite my best intentions in the use of hopeful language, there are days I come home mentally exhausted and emotionally drained. I am human, after all.

As I wrote in my recent newsletter, as I make my visits around the synod, I invariably encounter anxiety, if not outright fear. Paralyzed by declining attendance and shrinking budgets, congregational leaders wonder what will become of their congregations when the money runs out and the mission and ministry is no longer sustainable. That anxiety motivates some people in church leadership to act out in uncharacteristically mean-spirited ways. People are tempted to do really stupid things to make the fear go away, not the least of which is being bad to each other.

Our world produces anxiety. At every corner there is some new fear to haunt our dreams and burden our days. Just mention the acronym ISIS and watch a person’s reaction. Our current political landscape is laden with presidential candidates spewing inflammatory rhetoric daily to create a climate of crankiness. Many elected officials have manipulated our fears into political gain.   

But Paul, out of a concern for the frailties of his flock, makes a powerful statement that is both the beginning and ending point of all his other exhortations.  “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he writes—not sometimes, not only when you feel like it, not every other day, not only when things are going well, but ALWAYS. 

I am really and seriously trying to develop that discipline. But I don’t need to tell you that it’s downright difficult.

It is human tendency to worry, to get ourselves stressed out, and frustrated to the point of quitting.  And none of that is going to solve anything. 

I came across the following bit of wisdom several years ago in a business magazine. Though it may be somewhat dated, I believe the information still holds true.

Stress management experts say that only two percent of our “worrying time” is spent on things that might actually be helped by worrying. The figures below illustrate how the other 98 percent of this time is spent:

·       40% on things that never happen

·       35% on things that can’t be changed

·       15% on things that turn out better than expected

·       8% on useless, petty worries

So the bottom line is that 98% of the time our worrying doesn’t accomplish anything, yet we continually worry.

I remember a church sign I read once which said, “Worry looks down, fear looks around, but faith looks up.”  It is when we are in our moments of deepest suffering that we begin to see that.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians reminds us that when we rejoice always, our moments of deepest anguish are also moments of rejoicing.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding—because, believe me, no one will understand—the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Nativity SceneThis third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of rejoicing, we know someone is coming.  Jesus is coming and we are filled with joy.  That joy has nothing to do with our circumstances.  We can have joy in spite of them.  Joy comes from a close and intimate relationship with God, who loves us enough to come to us in Jesus Christ, born in stable reserved for animals. 

Joy is the most reliable sign of the presence of God.  It is an ingredient in our lives as Christians.  This gift of God in Jesus Christ brings the joy of knowing we are loved beyond measure and valued beyond compare. Such joy compels response.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

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