Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.Philippians 4:4-7 NRSV
I don’t think I’m unique in that when I begin sermon preparation, I go back and review previous sermons I’ve preached on the assigned scripture readings for a particular Sunday. I don’t recycle or reuse them, but glean from them some textual points that may be worth repeating.
Though I don’t preach on a weekly basis anymore, I continue that practice. However, I now use some of that material as idea starters for blog posts such as this one. It saves me precious time.
As I was browsing through my sermons for the Third Sunday of Advent, imagine my surprise when I read from 2012 and saw that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place on December 14 of that year.
In that mass shooting, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed twenty first graders and six school employees before turning the gun on himself. Earlier that day, he had killed his mother at their home.
I couldn’t help but draw parallels between that horrific tragedy and the deadly events of last week in Oxford, Michigan, in which a 15-year-old boy killed three students and injured eight others
Granted, the situations are vastly different in many aspects. However, both occurred in December, a month in which we look forward to some relief from the worries of the world.
Even more disturbing is the relative indifference that I perceive in the reactions of the greater society. I don’t sense the extraordinary level of public outrage that normally accompanies such hideousness.
This Third Sunday of Advent churches light the third candle on the Advent wreath. On some wreaths, it is pink to signify joy. The Latin word for rejoice is Gaudete, which this Sunday has come to be known.
But the reality is that we have had little reason for rejoicing, not just this month, but for nearly the past two years. Our world is in a state of seemingly constant anxiety. At every corner there is some new fear to haunt our dreams and burden our days.
Yet our standard response appears to be resignation. We have become numb to the violence and all that goes with it to the point that we merely accept, or tolerate it.
The effect is that we worry, we get stressed out, and we get frustrated to the point of quitting. But none of that is going to solve anything.
There is a better way.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians at Philippi, tells them – and us – that we have a choice. He encourages us to rejoice.
At the time Paul wrote this letter, he was in prison, and he had a choice to make. He could have chosen to be bitter, focusing on the negative, all that was wrong with his life, all he had lost, but instead he chose to focus on the positive, on all that was right, on all he still had. I imagine his letter to the Philippians is written as much to himself as it was to them.
Being in prison, he had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord Always.”
He had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
He had every reason to look on the dark side of his circumstances, but instead he wrote: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
He had every reason to give up, but instead he wrote: “ And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.“
Paul’s joyful spirit provides a path for those of us who easily fall into panic, depression, anxiety, or impatience, when we face inconveniences, small and large, and by our ongoing struggles with COVID-19, or other illnesses of body, mind, or spirit.
Paul invites us to lift our eyes from the violence, the illness, the pain, the anxiety, and the sadness we have to live with, and to celebrate the fact that these troubles are only fleeting.
Paul’s letter reminds us that when we rejoice always, our moments of deepest anguish are also moments of rejoicing. And that joy can be transforming, not just to us, but the world around us.
+ + +