Rejoice in the Lord always. Always and everywhere. Was Paul kidding? The world is too challenging a place to be full of joy always, isn’t it? I mean look at what is happening around the world – war, hunger, sickness, climate change – and in this country – murder, incarceration, tear gas, hatred, fear – and in my neighborhood – isolation, anxiety, desperation. Who can find joy in all of this? Funny thing, Paul’s world wasn’t all the different. He was imprisoned, not for the first time when he wrote to the Philippians. He was no stranger to oppression, war, violence, hatred, fear, and other such soul-destroying things. Yet, he found joy in the Lord.
And we are supposed to do the same no matter what is going on around us or in our own lives. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. However, joy is not the same thing as happiness. Joy is a more mature, deeper, transforming emotion than happiness. Happiness is dependent on one’s circumstances. Lots of things can make us happy. Joy is built on the connection between the human spirit and the Holy Spirit. Joy does not end when the moment has passed. This is how Paul could rejoice even when circumstances were not in his favor.
Where is the joy for today’s Christian? To be perfectly honest, I spent a good portion of my younger years feeling anything but joy. It was so hard to see through the pain of the past and the precarious balance of the present to any kind of lasting joy. It’s also hard to feel joy if one does not experience love. Only when I began to see myself as someone worthy of love, someone whom God loved deeply, did I notice joy blossoming in the depths of my being.
Zephaniah’s and Isaiah’s call to sing God’s praises even while still captive and filled with shame, make much more sense when considered in the context of God’s steadfast love. I don’t know why or how, but God continues to love humanity no matter what we do. When we engage in war and violence, God’s love remains. When we are filled with fear and hatred for our neighbors, God’s love holds fast. When we are lost to anxiety and despair, God’s love abides. Nothing we can do to ourselves, each other, or creation can change the fact that we were created in Love for love. For reasons beyond my capacity to fathom, God still loves all of humanity and waits for us to grasp hold of this truth.
When we understand ourselves to be God’s beloved, then joy becomes possible. The shame gives way to hope and the fear gives way to peace. Suddenly the world holds more beauty than violence and all our neighbors are God’s beloved. No, I don’t think it’s possible that any of us live in this truth 100% of the time. We are still subject to the emotions coursing through our bodies and the pressures of living in this chaotic world. The difference comes into play when we sit still long enough to sink into the very center of ourselves. When we allow ourselves to become conscious of the truth that resides in the depths of our being – we belong to God and nothing can change that. When we embrace this truth, then joy grows and becomes something that nothing can remove. Yes, joy can grow dim in the face of hardship. It can be masked by depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness. It can fade in the face of grief. Yet, it remains, always. A light in depths that cannot be extinguished.
Of course, this joy might require we do some odd things. We might have to write letters of hope and promise to churches from a prison cell. We might have to proclaim the power and presence of God to a people lost in shame and fear. We might need to preach release, salvation, to captives. We might have to sing while those around us weep, sing of God’s promise of hope, peace, joy, and love.
So, yes, let us rejoice always, trusting that peace that truly passes all understanding to keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. It might just get a little easier to stand with John the Baptist in the wilderness and prepare the way…
RCL – Year C – Third Sunday of Advent – December 16, 2018
Photo: CC0 image by Gerd Altmann