Today is the first Sunday of the Advent season. It’s a time of expectation and looking forward to the joy that is to come. At a time when the world is rushing towards the busyness of Christmas the church starts its new year inviting you to prepare your heart for God’s joy made incarnate. Now we know that on Dec. 25th Christmas will arrive and all our anticipation and excitement will come to a head.
But, waiting for Christ requires us to prepare our hearts, and not just our homes, for when he arrives. We don’t know when that day will be. We can’t pencil it in on our calendar. But we know what to expect. We will have to wait. And as we wait, we are to prepare our hearts by living out each day in faithfulness to God’s will.
Advent is not the only time God has made us wait. The Bible is filled with stories of God’s people waiting for rescue, deliverance, and salvation. Waiting is a pervasive theme throughout Isaiah which was written sometime after the Babylonian conquest of Israel.
Their country was in ruin. The Temple reduced to dust and ash. God’s people where in tears, suffering in exile. They shouted out to God, like their ancestors had but only to find silence. They wondered had God abandoned them to suffer alone.
They wonder, like we often do today, where God is or why God let this happen to them. In that time between our suffering and salvation, we wait for God to act. And thus, Isaiah reminds us to remain faithful; to wait patiently and with purpose. God is up to something, but what?
Read: Isaiah 64-1:9
Is it strange that Advent begins with a prayer of lament and a plea for help? Or that God’s people cry out for a savior and God makes them wait?
If anything good has come from 2020, it’s that it has made us better at waiting. We’ve waited during lockdowns and quarantines. Waited for test results, and toilet paper to be restocked. We’ve waited on our orders from Amazon, Instacart, and Postmates to be delivered.
Sadly, some have had to wait for hospital beds and respirators. Or outside nursing homes to wave to a loved one. We’ve waited for election results, unemployment checks, for school’s to open and work to resume, and of course we’re all waiting for a vaccine. If we’ve mastered anything this year it’s waiting.
In this particular passage, Isaiah reminds us that the same God who makes mountains quake and nations tremble is also a God who makes us wait. It hardly seems fair, especially when we feel all alone and scared.
What does this say about the character of God who hides from us in our time of need? It doesn’t feel very kind or loving does it? What could be the reason for God to want to leave us to our pain and suffering? I doubt it’s too be cruel.
Writing on this passage, Scott Bader-Saye argues two points on this strange characteristic of our Divine Creator. And I think they are worth pondering. First, he believes God hides from Israel to remind them that God is not exclusively theirs. Think about that for a moment because this problem still persists today.
Not just within Judaism, but within the different sides of Christianity and Islam and other religions. Each is guilty of claiming ownership of God. But here’s the thing, there’s no box big enough to contain, muchless control, God. The pot does not create the potter. It merely showcases her talent and creativity. No one owns God. Instead, God owns us. All of us.
Black, brown, or white; straight, gay, or indifferent, we are God’s beloved children. Or as the psalmist wrote, we are the sheep of his pasture. we can’t ever lose sight of that. Until we stop dividing ourselves over politics, gender, nationality, or religious doctrine the fullness of God’s power and glory will remain hidden from us.
The second point Bader-Saye explores is this idea that sometimes God hides on purpose. And that purpose is to awaken us of our wrongdoing. For example, God might hide to help us deconstruct a distorted set of beliefs and practices that cause us to make God in our image. I think there’s some truth to this.
In seminary, the professors were tasked with deconstructing any preconceived notions of God that we might have brought with us. This was a long process that truly tested the strength of one’s faith. Between shedding the old and the building up the new, there is a long period of waiting in the emptiness of one’s self.
It was an active waiting, where I was preparing my heart to receive God and to see my calling through God’s eyes and not my own. In his time of waiting for God, Isaiah is able to see and understand the difference between the God of Israel and the other gods in the cultures of his time.
He remembers God greatness recalling, “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” He is stunned and shocked to discover that this God works for the people, and the people for whom God works are the people who wait for God. Advent is a time of waiting for God who is working for us in ways that are yet to be revealed.
John Pavlovitz reminds us, “If we cultivate a bit of faith, that in-between time can be a hopeful space for us, a place where we can welcome transformation. Rather than wanting the time to pass quickly, we can actually enjoy it because we know we are being renovated.”
At the end of our reading today, Isaiah gives us two more insights into God’s character. One as a parent. And the other as a potter. Both of these images reveal an intimate connection that God has with us. To paraphrase Richard Rohr, God is always being drawn to the image of God in us.
Ours is a God who has not abandoned us in our wait, but one whose hand is upon us; shaping us over time like a parent shapes the character of a child, as a potter lovingly molds her clay. “Just as it is with the child in Mary’s womb, there is always change taking place, always new life about to spring forth.”
And so we wait for God to do what God does. To mold our hearts to love as God loves us and to shape our hands to give as God has given to all.
As you busy yourself preparing for Christmas, I hope you will remember this: You are God’s malleable work of art, being carefully shaped into the vessel of God’s incarnation to bring forth the presence of Christ to the world. You are a masterwork whether you know it or not. And a masterwork takes time.
As we enter a time of waiting for the incarnation, we do so knowing God is shaping us to be like him.
Thus in his first letter, John writes, “All of us who look forward to his Coming stay ready – with the glistening purity of Jesus' life as a model for our own” (1 John 3:2-3). By this we will not only be prepared to live in the promised realm of God when it comes, but we also get to experience what life in that realm is like today.
And so, we pray, and stick together, and love one another, and see to it that people are cared for and life is shared and peace prevails as we wait upon the Lord who is revealed to us in the incarnation of all that we do.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting On The Word, Year B Vol 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Pavlovitz, John. Low: An Honest Advent Devotional. Chalice Press, 2019.
Rice, Whitney. "Waiting Upon the Lord." 23 12 2020. episcopalchurch.org (accessed on 28 12 2020).
Can we trust in God’s faithfulness to be faithful to God?
I always love to say that my two best investments were my first house and my second wife. Of course, not in that order. If you have invested money before I think you’ll like today’s parable. It’s one where Jesus talks about a risky venture; the kind that is guaranteed to multiply one’s personal investment.
Ask any wealth manager and they will tell you, if you want to grow your money it will take time. They say the slow and steady path is often the safest bet. The quicker you go, the greater the risk you have to be willing to make. And the greater the risk, the greater chance of losing it all. Keep in mind, the investment Jesus is asking us to make isn’t so much about being rich and successful, but simply being faithful. You are investing in yourself.
Read Matthew 25:14-30
When Jesus told this story, he was in the middle of his own high-risk venture. He’s left Galilee for Jerusalem where in just a few days he will be executed on a Roman cross. So they don’t lose hope, Jesus tells his disciples a series of eschatological parables; stories that will prepare them for what is to come.
Last week it was about Ten Bridesmaids. Today, it’s Three Men and their Talents. When our modern ears hear the word talent, we often think of someone who has a skill or certain ability. My wife is a talented singer. Or my son has a talent for getting out of trouble.
But in 1st Century Palestine, a talent was something different. Back then, it was a large sum of money; roughly 15 year’s worth of wages for the average laborer. For someone to give these men even one talent would mean they were entrusting them with a huge fortune.
The parable isn’t about money or ability. It’s about something even more important. It’s about trust.
The master trusts his investments with these men. And does so without giving them any instructions on what to do with it. The first guy takes it and invests in a high-risk venture. The second dumps it into the stock market. Both men do very well; doubling their master’s money.
The third guy takes a very different approach. Instead of taking a risk he buried the money in the ground, a common security measure in ancient times. Given the volatility of the market these days, and the way this pandemic is affecting the economy it might seem like a wise investment plan. But that’s not the reason he gives. Instead he confesses he was afraid of the master. Because he had zero trust in the one who trusted him, he took zero financial risk. And as a result got nothing in return.
Again, this parable isn’t about money or one’s ability to acquire wealth. It’s about trusting God who first trusted us. To be prepared for Christ to return, we need to trust God by doing God’s will.
That’s what the first two do. They take a chance in their faith and as a result they both receive the same praise. And the same invitation: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant…enter into the joy of your master.” To be fair, I think the master would have responded just the same had they risked it all and come back empty handed. After all, he doesn’t commend them for their profits, but their faithfulness.
The master made it clear that he would have accepted anything – even the measly interest you get at the bank – had the intent had been motivated by faith rather than fear. This is a good lesson for us all. Fear has no value, other than it drives us to our downfall like it did to this man. As someone once said, “The God we face is the one we imagine.”
Faith on the other hand is invaluable. In giving his fortune to these three men, the master reveals his faith, and trustworthiness. He’s not terrible and appalling like the fearful man saw him to be. Given his response to the first two, it seems the master is more interested in the well-being of his workers than making a profit for himself.
That’s the portrait of God that Jesus paints for us. The first two men see this and take the risk without any promise of gaining anything in return. They have some faith and run with it. The third guy has none, and loses out.
This parable is about our trust in God just as it is about God’s trust in us. It’s about our faithfulness to God who has faith in us. This begs the question: Can we trust in God’s faithfulness to be faithful to God?
This parable makes it clear in that if you focus on your fears, allowing your worry and anxieties to make your decisions then your fears will be realized. If you focus on your faith, stepping out of your comfort zone, knowing and trusting in God’s faithfulness then your faith will only increase.
I don’t think Jesus is telling this parable to his disciples to scare them. I think he wants to know if they can trust God enough to carry on his ministry when he is gone. Will they invest in the kingdom of heaven by investing their hearts in the gospel? Will they risk it all to care deeply and profoundly for all of God’s children? We must ask ourselves this same question. Are we willing to invest and risk it all – trusting the one who first trusted us?
Like Jesus points out, and will further explain in the next parable, this is how we too enter into the joy of God. Risking your life by loving and caring for the least of these our brothers and sisters. Faithful living is not static. It takes getting involved and taking risks. It’s easy to claim faith and to bury it in the ground... doing nothing to increase it.
This past presidential election revealed to me the fear of so many Christians, who claim to follow Christ, who seem to know what faithful living looks like, and yet hesitate or refuse to live it. Instead of trusting Christ faithfully, they put their trust a person who has nothing to do with him.
Today is a good time to look at your own actions, and ask yourself what are you investing in?
Faith is a high-risk venture. It’s not some insurance plan you take out for the hereafter. Faith isn’t so much believing ideas about Jesus as it is about following him and doing what he did. And the only way to really do that is by trusting God so completely that you can go all in faithfully and fearlessly as you carry the presence of Christ everywhere you go.
As the disciples will soon discover, living the gospel out loud is a risky venture. But it does pay out in abundance.
Jesus gives us the choice. You can choose to be like the fearful servant who gets exactly what fear has to offer: Nothing. Or you can choose to put your trust in God’s faithfulness, and reap the rewards that come with being like God’s most faithful child.
Jesus risked it all by going to Jerusalem and living faithfully to the will of God. He taught us that life is a risk one must take on faith, and not fear. Moreover, what turns out to be important is not our ability to make sound financial investments but our willingness to invest profoundly in our soul.
At the end of the day, life is not about what we accomplished but whether we learned to trust God enough to be faithful with our love.
It’s a high-risk investment where the only ones who lose it all are the ones who dare to put nothing in.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 308-313.
Inspiration taken from a sermon by Charles H.Hoffacker entitled Trust, Not Fear. https://episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/trust-not-fear-proper-28-–-2014 (accessed on 11-12-2020).
What a roller coaster it’s been. Filled with highs and lows, sharp twists and unexpected turns. I feel as if I have whiplash from refreshing the news feed on my phone. But here we are. We are alive. Although we might be stunned and numbed. There is light at the end of this tunnel.
I did not watch the election results on Tuesday. I had a feeling it was going to turn out the way it did. A waiting game. And if there is one thing that all Americans can agree on, it’s we don't like to wait.
Whether it’s waiting for mail in ballots to be counted, or being left on hold to speak to a customer service representative waiting makes us anxious, and frustrated. And sometimes angry. That’s the problem of living in a fast-paced world. We want faster technology, faster service, faster food, faster answers to prayers.
It drives us nuts to have to wait. Unless of course we’re waiting with a purpose...you know waiting to see how the film will end or waiting until you complete the next level in a video game before you take out the trash. I’ll ask my son to do something and it’s always, “In a minute.” I swear if we set our clocks to his time, we’d never grow old.
Although Joe Biden is the projected winner of the 2020 election, he has to wait until Jan 20 before he can move into the White House. We all have to wait to see what will happen in between. And like Tom Petty sang, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
As we will see in today’s reading, Jesus tells a story about a belated celebration and what happens in the wait.
It’s a parable on faith, where he tells us to “keep awake,” always ready for the future by being ready now. That’s because faith is all about active waiting.
Read Matthew 25:1-13
If I rewrote this parable for today, it would be about ten pundits in a room waiting for the election results to come in from Nevada. Wisely, Jesus chooses a theme for his parable that is more universal to tell us about the kingdom of heaven. It’s about a wedding that doesn’t go quite as planned.
I know from experience that even the best-planned wedding has the potential for mishaps. The weather can turn on a dime, catering can be delayed or simply not show up, or as it was in the case of my wedding, the organist plays “Here comes the bride” seven times before the bride actually comes...leaving the poor groom to wait at the altar while everyone stares at him.
Weddings were a bit different back in the day when Jesus told this parable. The groom would be escorted by the bridal party into a home where the bride was waiting. They would consummate the affair, and then when they were ready come out and the party would begin. It was a big celebration, but one that wouldn’t have had a definite start time. You knew it would happen on that day or the next at the latest. SO guest knew to come prepared for the wait.
It was custom for the bridesmaids to escort groom to the place where the wedding would occur. But it was also the custom for the groom to delay his arrival as a practical joke! We’re not sure what happened here in Mathew’s gospel other than these girls, dressed in their bridesmaid gowns, wait, and wait, and wait.
The sky grows dark, the evening hours pass. And before they know it, all of them are asleep. Suddenly, someone awakens them! And they quickly attend to their lamps. Five of them have enough oil, and soon their lamps are glowing in the darkness. The others five do not. They ask to borrow some, but there is none to spare. They run out into the darkness looking for oil, which I imagine wasn’t that easy to do. While they are gone, the bridegroom arrives - escorted by the light of the remaining bridesmaids to meet his waiting bride.
There’s something about this story that doesn’t sit well with us. The last are not first in this one. When the other five return, it’s too late. They are left outside. All dressed up, with no place to go. The story ends like a bad dream, with them begging but to no avail.
It doesn’t seem fair that the so called “foolish” bridesmaids take the blame in this story while the bridegroom faces no consequences for making everyone wait for so long or for not being considerate enough to wait for the oil-deprived bridesmaids to return. And the ones who had enough oil don’t catch any flack for their lack of generosity.
It’s a rather confusing explanation of the Kingdom of Heaven – one of hoarding, and a lack of compassion; a kingdom where one gets blamed for someone else’s carelessness. This is far from the things that Jesus has shared and shown up to this point. It makes me wonder if we’re reading this parable the way we’re should.
Maybe it’s not about the wedding, or these wise and foolish characters. Maybe it’s about something else in this story. There’s only one other thing in this parable that Jesus talks about...the oil. Some have it, others do not, or not enough. What does Jesus want us to have but not all of us possess? The way I see it, Jesus is talking about oil as a way to talk about our faith.
For example, the wise come prepared with enough faith to get them through the wait and uncertainty of tomorrow. The foolish don’t. They want the faith of the wise, only to discover it can’t be shared like that. My faith is uniquely mine. And yours is yours. What this parable is teaching me, is that it’s up to me to always be actively filling my spiritual reserves so that I will always be prepared to get through the long night of waiting.
I know what it’s like to wait; especially for God to reveal where I am supposed to be. And I know what it’s like to have your faith stretched thin. By the time I fell asleep Tuesday night (which was really Wednesday morning) my faith in our country, and in Christianity, was nearly all but gone. I had just enough oil in reserve to trim my inner light to get me through the night.
I had just enough faith left to know I can wait for God because I knew God is already here – working out the path that leads us to the celebration. In the midst of life’s joys and pain, in the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring, it’s our faith that keeps our inner, personal light shining. It’s our faith that helps us be prepared for when the time comes to enter into the wedding banquet.
Like oil in a lamp, we can run out of faith if we stop refiling our supply. Which is why Jesus issues a stark warning to stay awake. “Keep Awake!” Don’t let your faith fall asleep. Jesus is calling us to participate in the kingdom of heaven always. Actively engage in our faith – especially during this expectant period of waiting – by having mercy, offering forgiveness, walking humbly with our God; spreading the peace of Christ in the world.
Faith is our oil that allows us to shine the light of Christ into the darkest of days. What good is it if you don’t use it as we wait for God’s redemptive plan to be fully revealed.
Unlike when you put gas in your car and drive all over town, the more we practice our faith by being God’s love in the world, the more faith and love there is. The more you let your light shine on the Kingdom of Heaven, the brighter and longer your light will last.
Being prepared to wait isn’t about stockpiling – like many did with ammunition before the election. The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a doomsday story. It’s God’s redemptive plan for all of us. To be prepared is to keep your faith awake, and to put it to work while you wait.
We’re all invited to the wedding, but only some of us will get in. Later in Matthew 25 Jesus lays out what this means. But it boils down to this: those whose faith is focused on doing the work of the kingdom will see the kingdom. Those who do not will be left in the darkness.
Faith takes work. We can’t sleep through it. We have to keep awake, stay active. We have to exercise our faith if we want to build up the muscle. The more we use it, the more we have.
As we wait for a new dawn to arrive in this moment of darkness, as we wait, unsure of what others might do or not do, as we wait with anxious hearts for God to come lead us home, Jesus says keep awake. Do not let the light of your faith fade.
It’s up to us to use this time of active wait to be active disciples – taking up our cross and following in the footsteps of Jesus.
There’s no better time to shine than now – when hatred and anger and brokenness need to the light of Christ to see a way to love and kindness and reconciliation. Every moment we let pass is time ticking off the clock before the doors are shut. For the real tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait too long to begin it.
The kingdom of heaven summons us today to build up our reserves of faith that prepares us to weather the unexpected timing of God. I also believe we’ve been given this time today to wait for God, so that we can let our faith shine brightly for others to find their way.
Today, we have been given the time to wait for God, so that God can work in us and through us for freedom, justice, and compassion because world is still crying out for help.
Today, we have been given the time to wait, to find our own unique way to be the heart of God, the light of Christ, and the very presence of the Holy Spirit in this moment.
So, I invite you to let your faith shine brightly today, light up the darkness so all can see the way of truth and righteousness as we wait to walk with the bridegroom who leads us towards God’s open arms for the greatest celebration ever.
Bartlett, David L, Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4. (Louisville, Westminster John Knox) 2011. pp. 284-289.
Kelley, Shannon. Be Prepared. http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/lessons/2014/09/21/be-prepared
We spent the month of October talking about joy. In that time LA Lakers and the LA Dodgers both won the National Championships. For me, that’s reason alone to rejoice!
But today is also November 1. And that means…KNOWvember is here. If you are not familiar with this little tradition, it’s a challenge I made up that forces me to meet 30 people in 30 days. The goal is to look for things that connect us instead of focusing on the stuff that divides us.
On a spiritual level KNOWvember helps me stay focused on the Divine image that dwells within all people. And at the same time allows the Divine to shine through me. It’s in this simple action, I’ve come to discover that joy can be experienced in a way I think God originally intended – being in community with one another. Often a city can become united when their team wins the World Series.
But Christ calls his followers together on a much deeper level and for a much greater purpose. So we can “Rejoice in the Lord always,” a phrase Paul wrote to his friends in Philippi. Before we jump into our final look at this letter of joy let’s remember Paul is writing it from prison where the threat of being executed constantly looms over him. And yet, so too does his joy.
This is a perfect reminder to us all, that joy is not about having everything perfect. Joy is not, “Every cloud has a silver lining” kind of happy emotion. Let’s face it, some clouds are dark and thunderous. Joy is also not about having all together. Being rich and successful doesn’t mean your life doesn’t unravel or that someone can’t steal your joy. It just means you can cry in a nicer car or a bigger house.
It makes me wonder if we all have to suffer at some point, if only to grasp the fullness of Paul’s idea of rejoicing always. Tom Holliday notes, “Joy is applying God’s truth and power to our imperfect and sometimes terrible circumstances and realizing that God is right there,” in the midst of whatever life throws at us.
Like I said a few weeks ago: when life kicks the joy out of you, God kicks it back in. No matter what obstacle you’re facing, or struggle you’re dealing with, you can still find joy because joy first found you. And loves you no matter what. All because true joy begins with God, and when God is at the center of your life you can experience the fullness of God’s joy. And always have a reason to rejoice.
READ: Philippians 4:1-9
In this final chapter, Paul hints that there’s some tension happening between two women. Perhaps this is why he was writing the letter in the first place. But Paul doesn’t give us details about their dispute, because the details are not important. It doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong. What’s important is this tension is making their joy incomplete. They’re not being of one mind with Christ Jesus.
This is not to suggests we have to be the same or think the same. Christianity isn’t a robotic ritual. But there’s plenty of commonality to focus on. For example, Jesus calls us into a way of life built upon the strong bond of God's love which has been poured into us. If we want to find real joy, the kind that allows us to fully rejoice in the Lord always, then we have to be of one mind, and one heart. That is to be in oneness with God.
Recently, a disagreement happened between two friends it was over something as trivial as politics and led to one of the friends cutting the other out of her life. This kind of stuff is happening all over our country. Families are split, friendships are broken, and even churches are losing people because they’ve chosen politics over love.
I suspect in a couple of days half the country will be gloating from the outcome of our elections. That means others will be left gutted. How can we rejoice, muchless find real joy if someone we care for is hurting? Abraham Lincoln knew, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
We might not always see eye-to-eye. That’s okay. Some of us are liberals. Some of us are conservative. In our house, some of us are Giants fan. While others are still enjoying the Dodger’s World Series victory. Yet we still manage to love one another.
Here’s what I want you to know: In spite of our differences, when we love as God loves us, we become one instrument of God's joy. Moreover, if God’s love is at the center of all we do, then we can confront and reconcile the things that steal our joy. The Bible tells us that Christ came to reconcile us back to God. This tells me that reconciliation leads to joyful living.
Perhaps you know what it’s like to work out your differences with a friend or a loved one. There’s a sense of joy and happiness that makes your bond that much stronger. Through Christ, God’s love and joy are given to us so that we can do the same for one another. As Paul wrote in Ephesians, “Be imitators of Christ, as beloved children. And walk in love.” When we do that for each other, we become not only closer to one another but closer to God as well. That alone is reason enough to to “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
Like Paul mentioned, you are able to rejoice and find our joy when you “let your gentleness be known.” It seems to me that God works best through our compassion; in the kindness and love that Christ put in our hearts. Jesus was gentle. He did not push people away, but instead drew people to him through love. He didn’t put up a wall or separate people from who is worthy and who is not worthy of his love. Instead Jesus crossed over social and tribal boundaries to share God’s love and show God’s grace to everyone who needed to feel it or receive it. It didn’t matter what they believed or how much faith they had Jesus showed gentleness and compassion to all, because that’s how its done in the kingdom of Heaven.
That’s how joy is given and received with God in Christ Jesus. That’s how Paul is able to rejoice always in the Lord knowing that God is always present and always one step ahead of him to receive him with open arms at the finish line. This is our assurance as well when we chose to walk in the footsteps of Christ. Instead of hurting people, Jesus comforts, heals, and forgives no matter what. And he calls us to do the same, to be little Christ in the world, sharing the love of God to all.
Once again the acronym for joy is Jesus Others and You. This is an invitation to be like Jesus who served others so that you can find your everlasting and eternal joy. We see this throughout the gospels. For example, on the night Jesus was handed over to his death, he gives his disciples one final lesson. After washing their tired and dirty feet, Jesus told them to “Love one another as I have loved you.” Everything Jesus did was based on this one simple yet profound sentence. As Sara Miles poetically noted, “(Jesus’) human body was God’s language, as much as his human speech.”
Jesus revealed God’s glory in the way he loved others. He continues to do so today , in the varied ways he shows his love to us. It’s in this love, in the receiving and in the giving, we are one with Christ who is one with God. Just as we share in God’s love we also share in God’s joy. And when we share God’s joy, the world can help but rejoice always!
I can’t overstress the importance of this love ethic; especially as we struggle to find joy in our lives. Our nation is divided. People are hurting. The pandemic and the politics behind it are not helping. Too many of us are allowing these things to steal our joy. In his final commandment, Jesus gives us an important clue to God’s nature: Love and Joy cannot be separated.
Without God’s love at the center of our life, real joy cannot and will not ever exist. Not in you. Not in me. And not in the world. If you are lacking in joy in your life, if you are angry with someone or if something is causing you pain, look within yourself, look for the divine who is inside you (whether you know or not God is in you because you are made with God’s DNA) and you will find a divine light flickering in you.
And be like the light that shines in the darkness of the world, be the joy of Christ who gave his life so that others could live life, a life eternal. This is what it means to love one another as God first loved us.
Therefore, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable" go and do those things for others by being like Jesus who humbled himself – not for his glory, nor for his need to be right, but for the righteousness of God’s glory.
I will leave you with a quote from Herni Nouwen who wrote, “When God’s love is at the center of all we do, then we are able to offer our joy and peace, our consolation and reconciliation to others; especially in moments of crisis or conflict.”
Once we start living intentionally with this kind of conviction, then our joy can never be defeated. No matter what the world can throw at us, we remain as God's beloved children. For that alone, let us "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice."
Let us pray: Holy and Merciful Creator and Lord, we lift up our hearts with thanksgiving and praise for all that you have done in our lives today. For that we say thank you. Amen.
Holladay, Tom. Philippians: The Eight Places Joy is Won or Lost. El Toro: Saddleback Church.
Miles, Sara. Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
Nouwen, Henri. Bread for the Journey: A Day Book of Wisdom and Faith. New York: HarperCollins e-books, 1997.
We have looked at the word JOY from the perspective of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi.
We’ve used the acronym Jesus Others You to help us remember that we are to mirror Jesus, serve other’s, and do the work God has called You do. But it’s not just our work of faith that brings us joy, it’s also knowing God is working through our faith that allows the world to rejoice.
Like we learned last week, our goal is to “provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God.” As we move into chapter three Paul writes about finding joy in past accomplishments, like planting a church in Philippi.
But in our reading for today, I want to look at how he finds joy by looking forward towards the future.
C.S. Lewis once said, “The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour.” A Buddhist might say, at sixty seconds per minute. A Canadian might say something similar but in metric. And I’m not sure how to calculate that. But I do know when it comes to thinking about the future many people get anxious while others remain apathetic.
In ten days, America will vote for the future of our country. Some of you are nervous about who will win and what that will mean. Others have given up caring because they believe no matter who wins nothing will really change. Whatever happens on November 3rd Paul letter reminds us that we don’t have to let that steal our joy which God has given to us in Christ Jesus.
I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. - Philippians 3:12-14 (MSG)
It’s not been easy for Paul to know Christ and live out the power of his resurrection. He has been beaten more times than he can count, he’s been arrested, ridiculed, shipwrecked, and now he sits in prison awaiting what will be his death sentence. In spite of all this, Paul presses on. “Forgetting what is behind him and straining towards what is ahead…the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” This is similar to the “running a race” analogy that Paul used in another letter to encourage the Christians in Corinth to “Run in such a way as to take the prize.” (1 Cor. 9:24)
As a kid I used to run sprints, which meant I ran at full speed for just a short distance. I was pretty good, and won a lot of blue ribbons to show off. If you’ve ever run like this, you know that going at a breakneck speed will only take you so far. You run out of track as quickly as you run out of gas.
I believe Paul is telling us that we need to train for the long haul. Like a marathon runner who pushes through the pain by visualizing and staying focused on finish line. As Christ followers, this doesn’t mean we look only towards the rewards of heaven when we die.
Running is an active sport that requires us to be very present in the moment. If you run on the street, you have to be mindful of the traffic. If you run on trail there is the uneven ground, rocks and other obstacles to look out for. Faith is the same. We live it here, in the present where there are many challenges to face. Christ has called us to be mindful in the world if we are to live out the gospel in such a way that people get a glimpse of God in their lives.
We also need to be faithfully present because this is where God meets us to strengthen and encourage us beyond the sprint - to go the distance to where the fullness of God’s glory is reveal to us.
In March, and after a 35 year hiatus... I took up running again. Only this time with a slower pace and a more purposeful goal of going longer distances. Although I never run as far as I’d like, I still I press on...pushing myself to reach smaller goals I’ve set for myself.
There are days when it’s hard to breathe or too easy for my legs give out. I have a choice, I can allow myself to stop (which sometimes I do) or I summon the strength to press onward. On those days when I have to stop and walk home the joy is sucked right out of me. But on those days I push on, when I come running down the alley, panting and sweating in full stride, I fully rejoice because I made it home alive.
Through his struggles, the pain and anguish that Paul endured, he kept his eye focused on the goal; running a spiritual race totally committed to winning the prize. Paul could have given up, dismayed that he hasn’t yet reached his goal. But he knew that this isn’t a foot race or a presidential race. It’s a holy race. One where God is always a step ahead leading the way to the finish line.
As the psalmist once said, “The signposts of GOD are clear and point out the right road. The life-maps of GOD are right, showing the way to joy” (Psalm 19: 7-8, MSG)
Paul has a reason to rejoice. There’s holiness in his dissatisfaction because, as Mark Driscoll Tom Holliday pointed out, “God is making stuff happen... even in our times of wait.” While Jesus was in a tomb for three days, God was busy changing the order of the entire world through his mysterious resurrection. Leaning into the power of Christ’s resurrection, Paul rejoiced knowing God was working on the signs that will point him to the finish line.
Whatever trials we are facing we can rejoice too by looking forward to the goal Christ has set before us. Take a moment to think about what has God placed in front of you to help you push our faith onward and upward towards Christ. Maybe it’s a person you’re angry with or don’t see eye-to-eye. Maybe it’s a situation that is difficult too handle. In those moments, you must never lose sight of what God is working out in and through you. God is always one step ahead.
Now, when I run I look for certain visual markers, like traffic lights and streets, that let me know how far I’ve gone or how much further I need to go. For example, the last mile of my runs are often on a beautiful tree lined street. No matter on how far I’ve gone that day, I always narrow my focus on this small beige square in the distance. It’s the wall of an apartment complex near my house. When my breathing becomes harder, and my legs throw a temper tantrum, I focus on that square, knowing the bigger it becomes the closer I am to ending the pain and suffering that I have imposed on myself.
Paul encourages his friends in Philippi to keep their eyes set on something – the everlasting joy of being forever with Christ. With Christ in our sights, we can kept living out the gospel knowing it only brings us closer and closer to our goal. The more Paul remained focused on that prize the easier it was for him to find joy and rejoice...even in his own pain and suffering.
The same is true for us. In the most difficult of circumstances, Paul committed to the race by committing to Christ. So should we. These three verses provide us with a good reminder of why we are running this race in the first place. If we choose to follow Christ with heaven as our prize, then we have commit to live a heavenly life here and now...one that mirrors Christ. We must be committed to the race of ... giving people a glimpse of good living and the living God. Yet we have to also remain very present in this moment where the world has its sights set on knocking us down, leaving us to feel dismayed and dissatisfied.
Think about how hard you strive to do the right thing while constantly battling pushback from others. It can be frustrating and make you want to give up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to quit and walk away. But we can’t. We have to keep running the race.
Maybe you feel unsatisfied with your faith journey because you feel like you’re doing nothing more than running on hamster wheel, going nowhere. You struggle to live into your Christ-likeness, and yet still heaven feels so far away.
No matter how hard you work for peace and justice and equality, people continue to hate and harm one another. No matter how much time you give at the food pantry, how many bags of groceries you put together or how much money you raise, people are still going hungry in your community. Yet, we have to keep running the race.
Remember what I said at the beginning of this sermon series...when life kicks the joy out of you, God kicks it back in. God is working for our victory. So let us not to lose hope, but instead rejoice knowing this is a spiritual journey, a holy marathon. It’s a divine race where God is one step ahead of us being victorious with and in and through you.
By allowing God to be present in us, we receive God’s trophy, the prize of Christ. And so we have to keep running the race. Because we’re not running for our glory but so that the glory of God may be seen in us. Paul had a heart to honor God’s glory, it was the goal he focused on. A goal so great that nothing, not even imprisonment or death, would stop his commitment to running that race and moving closer to Christ. Thus Paul rejoiced constantly.
Tom Holliday wrote, “Paul pressed on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called him. He had a visionary commitment and the vision wasn’t based on what he could do. Paul’s commitment was based on the understanding of Christ’s vision for his life.”
I believe God has a specific purpose for your life. So keep running the race. I believe you’ve been called for something greater. But you have to keep running for it to be constantly revealed to you. You may not see it yet, and you may not believe you’re experiencing it right now, but never forget that God is one step ahead preparing the way for your victory.
Stay focused on the goal. Stay committed to it like Paul did. If only because God is focused on and committed to you.
One last thing for us to remember. Joy is not automatic. It is a discipline, a daily choice we must make faithfully. We have practice it and exercise it so we can build up the spiritual muscles and endurance we need to find joy in all circumstances . This is especially true at the end of life’s race when we lean in and bust through the tape at the finish line - completing the race and claiming our prize that is Christ Jesus.
Let us pray:
God we ask for the strength to keep running this race, we ask for the patience and peace we need to deal with the obstacles before us. Help us to see with your eyes, the road ahead and the prize that awaits, as we run this race for your glory and your honor. Amen.
Holladay, Tom. Philippians: The Eight Places Joy Is Won or Lost. El Toro: Saddleback Church, 2014.
For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at the word joy. And what that means to us and how we live our lives. You might recall that I mentioned my joy is sometimes connected to the outcome of certain sporting events. Actually, just one...the NBA Championships. And only when the Lakers are playing. This year they were there. And they won. And I’m still rejoicing.
Their hard-earned victory was exactly what our city needed. Before the coronavirus shut down the county, before fires destroyed millions of acres of our state, before people filled our city streets to protest racial injustice, Los Angeles suffered a massive lost on January 26, when Kobe and Gigi Bryant, and 7 others tragically perished in a helicopter crash. So yeah, this particular championship is just what we needed. It resuscitated joy back into the heartbeat of the city.
Before Kobe left the NBA, he spent his entire 20-year career with the Lakers: winning 5 national championships, 7 MVP awards, 2 Olympic gold medals just to name a few. Afterward, he would go on to win an Oscar.
The night he officially retired from the purple and gold, Kobe did what Kobe did best. He put it all on the line – scoring 60 points alone for one last win over the Utah Jazz. It was a bittersweet, joyous occasion. Whether it’s leaving a career or giving in to sobriety, saying goodbye to something that has defined you for so long is often bittersweet.
When I left advertising, I was ready to pursue something new. Something that would challenge me creatively but would also be so fulfilling that I’d want to get up every day to do the job. Despite its challenges, ministry has brought me more joy than I ever imagined. I get to pray at work. And talk about God without being labelled that weird Jesus freak everyone tries to avoid. Even though many of you still try to do that. I’ve since learned that ministry can be emotionally and spiritually difficult job. But to live my faith out loud is a happy reward.
A recent study has shown that people who retire often struggle to find joy in their lives. In fact, 40% suffer from depression – triggered by feelings uselessness or insignificance, believing that they have nothing left to contribute to the greater good of the world. As we will see in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, that’s not the case. In fact, we all have something to do and to contribute and in doing it we will reap the benefits of true everlasting joy.
What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure. Do everything readily and cheerfully—no bickering, no second-guessing allowed! Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night so I’ll have good cause to be proud of you on the day that Christ returns. You’ll be living proof that I didn’t go to all this work for nothing. - Philippians 2:12-16
Right out of the gate, Paul tells us we need to get to work. You got to keep on doing what you’ve been doing…living in obedience…be energetic…but have reverence…no bickering, no second-guessing. No matter where we are employed, the goal of our labor should always be as Paul puts it to “provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God.”
What does that job look like to you? Showing up to church on Sundays? Being kind and getting along with everyone? Or being generous with your time and money? Volunteering or going out of your way to help someone in need?
For Paul, this meant getting up every day to live his life in accordance to God’s will; mirroring his life on that of Christ so others can come to know God’s glory. This is what it means to be faithful – to act on your faith that you have in Christ. This also means we can’t sleep in or take an early retirement. We have to get up every day and punch the clock for Christ.
The gospels only give us a small glimpse into the life of Jesus. What we know about his ministry is that he didn’t spend a lot of time sitting around quibbling over who was the greatest shooting guard in NBA history. He knew it’s Kobe. Whenever Jesus tried to rest or even retire for the night, people would come begging for help. And every time he saw them, Jesus had compassion for them.
Jesus spent his time living out the gospel – loving, healing, feeding, caring for God’s children so God’s glory could be seen, and God’s grace be given.
A couple of days ago I was talking with my mom about Medicare and Social Security. She said she didn’t get a lot because she only worked for a year or so. I told her that was not actually true. She worked tirelessly to keep our home and family running. Yet she still had time to run for public office, volunteer for numerous political campaigns, cheer at our sporting events and so much more.
Although my mother brought her own flavor to a conversation, it was always seasoned with the gospel. She knew her job wasn’t just a housewife or mother. She was also a beloved child of God who still shares the good news by living the gospel as best as she can be.
This reminds of me of a story in John’s gospel when Jesus is walking in the temple and a group approached him and said, “Tell us plainly, are you the Messiah?” This is a title given to God’s anointed savior. Jesus answered the men, “I’ve told you already, and yet you don’t believe. The works that I do in God’s name reveal who I am” (John 10:22-30).
What does this say about us? How does our work describe who we are?
Jesus worked out the gospel by bringing the good news to others in the way he lived out his faith and faithfulness to doing God’s will. This tells me that if we want to have real joy in our lives, we have to take the gospel, the very gift of our salvation, and put it into productive use. When we live short of all that God has given to us our joy is short lived.
Kobe Bryant took his gift to create multiple championships. He worked out constantly to keep his body in optimal health, and to stay at the top of his game. As students of Christ, we must constantly work on our spiritual health and wellbeing. We have to work out, what God has worked in us.
I think this is what Paul meant when he wrote, “Carry the light-giving message into the night so I’ll have good cause to be proud of you on the day that Christ returns. You’ll be living proof that I didn’t go to all this work for nothing.”
Paul worked out his salvation by mirroring Christ. So did all the Apostles, and all the saints before us. What they all showed us is that this job is what Henri Nouwen described “a daily work out of our salvation…to make our own lives available to others as sources of new life and joy.”
Just as Jesus pointed out to the men in the temple, our true identity cannot be reduced to a job title. I couldn’t say Kobe is the greatest basketball player of all time if he never played the game. Likewise, the gospel has to be lived out, it has to be experienced.
Salvation is not just a theory or religious concept. It’s a reality we live in and live out daily. The early church grew exponentially because they experienced Jesus firsthand through the works and words of the Apostles. This experience was passed down through the generations. To this day, people will continue to experience the everlasting joy of Christ through us.
That’s the church’s job. And by your faith in Christ, you are a part of his church. It’s in our living out the gospel that people will come to know who we are, and what we stand for or believe in. We need to get up and work out the Christ in us everyday. We need to let Christ’s joy be felt in the way we love God, love others, and serve both.
That’s the mission of New Church Sherman Oaks. We chose it because we believe Jesus meant it when he said, “They will know you are mine by the way you love one another.” As the church we carry on Jesus’ legacy. We become the visible presence of his love; the very place where joy is born. We invite you to join us in this mission, and to be a part of this good news.
Like Erma Bombeck once said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’”. Will you be able to say that?
Lebron, Anthony Davis, and the LA Lakers bench did this last Sunday. They used all that they had. And now they rejoice. Kobe used everything God gave him, every time he stepped on a basketball court...or a boardroom. And of course, Jesus left every last bit of himself on the hard wood of that old rugged cross.
Today it’s our turn. God has employed us to be more like Jesus, who through his righteous works of love was raised up and became one with God.
Like Jesus, we too will find our truest joy being one with God allowing God to work through us. And when God works through us life's most difficult challenges can be overcome. Joy can be had. Like Paul realized and shared with us, in Christ God has given to us all the abundance of life so we can pour out our life generously for others with great joy.
Whether you’re retired, unemployed, or overworked this is the goal. You might be student or in the midst of changing careers, but Christ is still calling you because there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Whether you are facing difficult challenges and overwhelming uncertainty – the work you do in Christ’s name is never done in vain. But done in glory of the One has given us everlasting joy through our glorious salvation.
Let us pray:
“God, help us to make the choice to live for your glory, to grow to be more like Jesus. Knowing that you will work out what we can’t work in. Help us to pour out our lives; recognizing that you are working in us with what you’ve already given to us in and through Christ Jesus. Amen.”
Bible. Philippians 2:12-18; (The Message).
Cook, John, ed. The Book of Positive Quotations: 2nd Edition. Minneapolis: Fairview Press, 1993.
Holladay, Tom. Philippians: The Eight Places Joy Is Won or Lost. El Toro: Saddleback Church, 2014.
Mahan, Michael. "How to find more meaning at work." Relevant, Jan-Feb 2016: 38-39.
Miles, Sara. Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
Nouwin, Henri. Bread of Life. New York: Harper-Collins, 2007.
In an article written on Paul’s letter to the churches in Philippi, Mark Driscoll described like I often see Jesus - as “a rebel, an outlaws, a renegade, and sanctified troublemaker.” This could easily define Jesus as well. But how odd is it that is not the image we have of him. Promoting people to be rebellious against the system isn’t what most of today’s churches like to be about. We don’t like to define trouble-making as a holy act. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Jesus did.
There are other similarities between Paul and Jesus. Both were single, homeless, lived on the welfare and charity of others, and yes each one was hated and rejected by his own religious contemporaries. In the book of Acts, we learn how Paul was run out of nearly every town he visited, and often took a good beating with him.
Again, this isn’t what ministers like to preach about. We like to focus on the kindness and the goodness, and of course the love. But believe it or not, in the first century, that was the stuff rulers considered to be seditious and subversive.
With all that Paul endured to share the gospel of Christ, he did so knowing God could not be beaten or defeated – the cross of Christ was his proof. When most of us would have thrown in the towel and walked away from God and our faith, Paul stood firm in his. He wrote this letter to his friends so they would do the same. He encouraged them to complete his joy by sharing in the Spirit of compassion and sympathy for one another.
Take a moment to think about all the vitriol and anger, the false narratives and deceit we encounter every day just on social media. How does it make you feel? Not very happy I’m sure. But happiness wasn’t Paul’s goal, was it? He didn’t confuse joy with happiness. Instead equated joy with Christ Jesus.
In the beloved comic strip Peanuts, Charles Schultz wrote, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” Many of us know what that kind of happiness feels like. However, this is not joy. Joy is not something that chews up your favorite pair of shoes. Or digs holes in your backyard.
In the 80’s Bobby McFerrin penned the catchy song, “Don’t worry…Be Happy.” If only joy were that easy. Simply because Paul equates joy with Christ that alone should give us all something to worry about. Living out the gospel is not easy, but necessary in order for our joy to be complete.
Not to bash on the church too much, but for decades ministers have watered down the bible's definition of true joy; reducing it nothing more than a warm-and-fuzzy feeling, or a carefree attitude of delight. The problem with that is people realized they don’t need the church to find that warm puppy feeling. And when they fall short of not worrying and being happy in the world...the church often gets the blame.
Joy is more than happiness, just as happiness is more than pleasure. Pleasure is in the body. Happiness is in the mind. But joy is deep within the heart, in the very essence of our being. It is a longing and a treasure that God buried deep within us. And Jesus is the key to unlocking it.
In his spiritual biography aptly entitled “Surprised by Joy,” C.S. Lewis described joy as “an experience no one would ever exchange for all the happiness in the world.” And for good reason. Like I said last week, joy doesn’t come from power or possessions but from a person: Jesus Christ.
We may not have him physically here with us today, but we do have his Spirit in us and with us every day. You see, joy doesn't just come from having Jesus over to the house for dinner. We unlock our joy by being united to him; sharing the same Spirit. Because of this, Paul can sit in a prison awaiting what will be his death sentence, and find joy knowing he is connected to his friends in Christ by “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord.”
What does this say to us today? It tells me that we need to push ourselves beyond the current political climate and the media madness to be reunited in Christ and reaffirm our Christian commitment to one another; by seeking to bring God's justice and reconciliation and peace to the world by being little Christ’s in our communities.
True joy is found not just in believing in Christ Jesus, but also when you live as he lived; love as he loved; sharing the same Spirit, showing the same compassion and sympathy for others. Thus, Paul tells us to “Do nothing out of selfishness but in humility count others as better than you.”
When asked in an interview what kept her humble, the late comedian Phyllis Diller sharply quipped, “Mirrors!” Oh, the uncomfortable truth in her statement. Mirrors don’t lie. Especially as we grow older.
In maturing our faith, Paul calls us to mirror Christ – to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus so that others can come to see God’s glory and find their joy.
When you look in a mirror, what do you see? Do you see the same faith, the same righteousness, the same love as God’s most beloved child?
Do you see a rebel or troublemaker who turns the ways of the world upside down by putting the interest of others before your own?
Imagine what our country might be like if our leaders looked in the mirror and saw Christ. Imagine if just once they adopted the mind of Jesus, “who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant; humbling himself to the point of death.”
Imagine what your world, your life, you joy would be like if you made others more important than yourself. Not equal, but more important. It might be easy for me to give up my place in line at the store or let someone take the last donut from the box.
Yet I know how much harder it is for to allow someone’s opinion to be above my own when it comes to discussing politics or religious ideology. But that’s what we are called to do. Jesus wants us to make other people’s health and wellbeing more important than our own. Even when our beliefs are vastly different, we are called to be like Christ who said “I did not come to be served but to serve.”
That’s what Joy is all about. And why it can be hard to find. It doesn’t mean we will be happy all the time, but we will have reason to rejoice because we are doing the will of God for the glory of God.
I want to leave you with something I learned in Sunday school as a kid that I think help you to mirror Christ. It’s an acronym for the word J-O-Y.
J stands for Jesus. Jesus is first because Jesus is the most important person in this equation. He is the one we are shaping our lives to be like.
O is for others. As in Jesus made other people more important. So that’s why we should too.
We share the gospel with others by living the gospel like Jesus did.
Lastly, Y is for you. You are also important. You are the one bringing joy into the world. But here’s the hard truth.
Joy can seem elusive these days because we like to put ourselves first. We go for what we want, often at the expense of others. That kind of joy is short lived. Self-centered people are eventually abandoned or voted off the island, because they suck the joy out of everyone else.
As you leave here today, remember that Joy is Jesus. Joy is living for others, serving and caring for them as Jesus did. Joy is about you and what you can do and what you achieve when you initiate Christ’s love in the world.
Living in the likeness of Christ, we become something greater than ourselves. We become the face of hope, the heart of love, and the hands of generosity.
We become the true Spirit of God’s grace bringing tenderness, compassion, and sympathy to others in the world. We become a church of rebels, outlaws, and trouble makers sanctified by Christ and made holy before God who exalts us to our rightful place as beloved children united in Divine glory.
Let us pray:
Beautiful creator, fill us with your joy until it overflows through us. Let us rejoice in Christ’s name in all that we do - in all the love we show, and grace we give, so that others will see your glory and rejoice. Amen.
Bible, The. Philippians 2:1-11 (NRSV).
Driscoll, Mark. Preach it, Teach it. Nov. 4, 2007. http://www.preachitteachit.org/fileadmin/SiteFiles/LegacyUploads/20071104_the-rebels-guide-to-joy-in-humility_en_transcript.pdf (accessed April 6, 2016).
Holladay, Tom. Philippians: The Eight Places Joy Is Won or Lost. El Toro: Saddleback Church, 2014.
Sproul, R.C. Can I have Joy in my Life: Crucial Questions Series No. 42. Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2012.
Last week, I had the pleasure of having our entire family together for the day. As we were sitting around the table having lunch, my mind drifted through a sea of memories. The day each of them were born. The many road trips we’ve been on. The countless giggle fest we’ve endured.
And then there was the night, right before Fiona went off to college, when we all dressed in each other’s clothes then filmed ourselves imitating that person. Lately, it’s been my go to thought whenever I feel like I’m lacking joy in my life.
What about you? What makes you rejoice? Or what do you think about when you hear the word ‘joy?’ Is it a particular place or person or happy memory from your childhood that evokes a warm feeling in your soul? For the next few weeks, we’re going to look at the word “joy” and talk about what it means to us as we face the difficulties of life. How can we, as followers of Christ, bring joy into the world today?
The word itself is in the Bible nearly 200 times; many are found in Philippians – a small letter Paul wrote to encourage his friends in Philippi to seek joy in all situations and circumstances. Given the circumstances our country, and the situations our churches, businesses, a civic leaders are facing, this seems like the perfect word and the right place to settle down for a while.
I invite you to read it in its entirety each week because I’ll be skipping over a lot of it. It’s a short letter and should not take you that long to read. Today we begin with Chapter 1 verses 1-11
To his friends, Paul is praying for them with joy in his heart knowing that they share the gospel - the redemptive love of God - just like we do. Even though we are not together in the physical sense, we are always together in Christ. Because we have Christ, we always have a reason to rejoice with one another.
Having only three letters, ‘Joy’ is a pretty big word. It’s the catalyst to countless loves songs and poems. It’s the one emotion that drives us to work harder, encourages us to love better, and motivates us to look beyond ourselves. Many of you find joy being with your kids or grandkids. Or spending a sunny day at the beach. Or curling up in bed with a good book.
For me, it’s hearing the laughter of my children playing together; enjoying a delicious meal with good friends; and of course, cranking up my guitar amp and stomping on the distortion pedal until the walls of our house shutter and shake.
The problem with finding joy in earthly things is while they might make us feel good, the effect is often temporary. I know my kids will find something to fight about. That good meal will come to end and we’ll have to say goodbye to our friends. Like a good book or a perfect day, we want our joys to last. But no matter how good we have it, or how badly we want it life always seems to find a way to kick the joy out of us.
Paul knew this well. As we heard from our reading, he wrote this intimate letter, not from a tropical beach or a private golf resort, but from dark and dank prison. I’ve watched enough episodes of Game of Thrones and Orange Is the New Black to know how hard it is to find joy behind bars. But if the Apostle Paul can find it in a dreary cell, then what’s stopping us from finding it in our own pit of despair?
Unlike happiness, joy is not contingent upon our circumstances. Regardless of our situation, Paul reminds us that we can rejoice. Yes, when we receive bad news, we can find joy in it. When things don’t turn out the way you intended them to, you can still rejoice.
Long before the U.S. government eased travel restrictions to Cuba, I snuck into Havana for a few days. There I saw first hand how badly the embargo had hurt the people. Buildings were crumbling and cars cobbled together with whatever parts they could find. Food was scarce. And yet, despite their severe poverty there was a sense of richness among them; a Spirit of joy filled them.
I could feel it in the air, and see it on their faces as it flowed out of them through music, laughter, and dancing. They had nothing, but yet had everything they needed to rejoice. Like Paul, they focused on what was good in their lives and what brought them true joy.
Henri Nouwen said, “Joy doesn’t simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it everyday.” We have to wake up every morning and choose to live as God has called us to live – as little Christs in the world – rejoicing in the glory of God’s love and grace in all that we do.
Paul tells the Philippians that true joy is not found in earthly things. Nor is it found in power, or prestige or having many possessions. True joy, the kind that never fades or leaves you, is found in a person. Can you guess who that is? Jesus Christ.
In Christ, God's abundant joy is made manifest for us. It’s how we see and feel God’s glory even when the world seems grim and gloomy. As the ancient psalmist wrote, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy…” (Ps. 16:11). You see, we don’t find joy because life is happy and good, we find joy because God is great – meeting us where we are to heal us, and comfort us, and to love and care for us no matter what.
In Christ, God’s greatest joy is given freely to us. This joy was not born in a palace of plenty, but in a dirty stable to poor family in need. This joy was not always revered but often rejected, even to the point of death. But as it was revealed to us on that first Easter morning, this is what we know. God’s joy is eternal. It does not die. It faces the most dire situation and comes out victorious.
We must never forget that whatever difficult situation we’re facing nothing is too difficult for God. And no matter how tough our circumstances may be God is tougher. As the pandemic and unrest in our country wear us down, the joy of Christ Jesus fills us back up. When everyday life kicks the joy out of us, God kicks it back in. Sometimes its hard to see this while we’re suffering the aches and pains of life.
Thus, Jesus tells not to give up. To keep doing what we are called to do. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have have kept my father’s commandments and remain in his love. I tell you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
Given the uncertainty we’re facing these days, it’s imperative that everyone who take the name of Christ must remain faithful to the mission of Christ. We must remain obedient to our call to love God and each other. If we do that, Jesus said our joy will be complete. And not just our joy, but the joy for the world around us.
If you’ve ever been in a room full of giggling kids, you know how contagious laughter can be. The same is true with joy. So this is what I hope you will do today. Rejoice. Share your love and joy. Maybe it’s a little bit, or a whole heck of a lot, but let it be seen. Let it be felt. Share it.
Jesus taught us that when we give of ourselves to others, to ensure that no one is without, our joy will be complete. Whenever we seek justice, promote peace, walk humbly – sharing the gospel with our words and deeds, we can rejoice because this is God’s joy in us overflowing upon the world. When we share our joy with others, those feelings grow and expand across time and space.
This is the power God has given to us through Christ, God’s greatest joy. When we come together, as one people and one body, to break bread and share in this holy meal we find our joy knowing that God is with us and in us and all around us.
Therefore let us rejoice, with all the saints before us, knowing what God has done for us through Christ Jesus. In remembrance of him, and for the sacrifice made on our behalf, it is my great joy to welcome you to the table of God’s blessing.
Together, with the churches all around the world, we gather to celebrate and rejoice in remembrance of all that is good and holy. Whether you are filled with faith or with doubt, you are invited to share this meal with us. This is God’s table, and no one will be turned away.
All we ask is that you to come with an open heart and open hands to receive God’s blessing through the One whom all blessings flow.
Let us prepare our hearts in prayer:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in thy will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Brothers and sisters, we are given this assurance that no matter how far you think you have strayed from doing what is right, you are never beyond the boundaries of God’s love.
(Pick up the bread)
“The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat of this bread and drink of the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.” The bread of life and the cup of salvation.
Let us pray. Lord Christ, by your Holy Spirit you have fed us and nourished us in this sacred meal. Bless us now with joy-filled hearts and send us into your world, to love and serve you in the way Christ taught so that all eyes might see your glory. And rejoice in your holy name. Amen.
God gave us laments, so we can have a way to talk to God when we’re mad and pissed off. And to do so without feeling guilty or ashamed.
Yesterday I had a wonderful talk with a total stranger. Something I’ve missed doing since this pandemic masked us up and has kept us separated. We talked about all sorts of stuff. And if you know me, you know we eventually got talking about our faith. It seems she lost hers recently. But not completely.
She’s been struggling to make sense of all that’s going on in the world. And wondering where God is. Like so many of us these days, she told me she felt abandoned by God. This is what hurt her to the core. I confessed to her that I was having some trouble too, not with faith per se. But connecting with God.
The truth is, I’ve been having trouble lately praying. I can muster one up if called to do so. That’s not the kind of prayer I’m talking about. I’m talking the ones that come from the depths of the soul, down deep where past pain and hurt have been stuffed away. It’s in that storage closet of sorts that my conversations with God get personal, and powerful.
I can see why Jesus said don’t pray in public. Instead, he instructs us go be alone with our thoughts. Go someplace where you can talk honestly with God. But recently I just don’t feel like talking. It’s like the words just aren’t there. Yes, even Jesus gave us a prayer to help us in times like this. The Lord’s Prayer is a good, corporate prayer that focuses on the basics of life...God, Food, Forgiveness, Protection.
But sometimes it’s not enough to get me to that place where I need to be. That place where all my secrets, anxieties, fears and pains hide. The place where I need God the most. I told the woman I was talking to that it’s in these times, that I turn to the Psalms.
I had a great professor in seminary who said, “If we want to learn to express ourselves before God in praise and prayer, there is no better place in the Bible than the Psalms. They don’t teach us how to worship, they show us how.”
If you are not familiar with the psalms, they are poetic songs and prayers found in the Old Testament. There are 150 to choose from; covering a wide spectrum of emotions and situations you might be facing today. Best of all, the psalms use a language that’s authentic and real. Whether they’re psalms of praise or protest, each one reveals God’s greatness while providing us with a way to express ourselves to God honestly.
So, when I found myself lacking the words to pray this week, I sat down with this psalm...Psalm 25. I read the verses slowly until a particular word or phrase spoke to my heart. And freed me to speak to God’s heart. READ: Psalm 25:1-10
Suffice it to say, Psalm 25 is an unusual beast. It’s one of three alphabet psalms, meaning each verse begins with the successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Now these are difficult psalms to write. As you might have noticed, they often lack any clear, logical structure. By comparison to others, this one’s all over the place – much like my thoughts when I try to pray.
But here’s the thing. Personal prayers often lack structure. They are more stream of consciousness versus a set pattern. That’s what makes them uniquely yours.
There’s a good example of this in the movie The Apostle, starring Robert Duval who plays Sonny Dewey, a womanizing Pentecostal preacher with a violent temper. Having lost his wife and his church, Sonny’s life spins out of control. There’s a great scene in the film where he’s pacing the floor of his attic and what might seem to some like the ramblings of a madman, Sonny shouts out this prayer:
“God, I'm confused. I'm mad. I love you, Lord. I love you, but I'm mad at you. I am mad at you! So, deliver me tonight, Lord. What should I do? Now tell me. Should I lay hands on myself? I know I'm a sinner and once in a while a womanizer, but I'm your servant! Ever since I was a little boy and you brought me back from the dead, I'm your servant! What should I do? Tell me. I've always called you Jesus, you've always called me Sonny. What should I do Jesus? This is Sonny talking now.”
Like most of us Sonny has a complex relationship with God, but his prayers are always full of honesty and raw emotion. Even though they are scripted, his words feel real because he speaks to God through his fears, anxieties and hope. The very essence of Psalm 25. Despite it being all over the place, this psalm, like all the others, give us a hope-filled language to speak from our heart, whether it’s in joy or in pain.
Now this particular psalm as a lament – a passionate complaint or cry for help. When read in its entirety, Psalm 25 plumbs the depths of loneliness and affliction. It then swerves upward in praise of God before descending into fear again. Heck, it even tries to manipulate God into forgetting any past wrongdoings. Imagine having permission to change God’s mind. Like a child trying to get out of trouble by making stuff up to see what sticks, Psalm 25 meanders all over the place as if the writer knew everything sticks with God.
You see, God doesn’t care what we say or how we say it. God just wants us to show up and start talking. God is relational, always there for us. And even gives us a language to use for whatever we are feeling in that moment.
I believe that’s why God gave us laments, so we can have a way to talk to God when we’re mad and pissed off. And to do so without feeling guilty or ashamed. Walter Brueggemann made the commented that “it’s an act of profound faith to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing they will be taken seriously.”
Whether it’s prayer or praise or just an avenue to voice your anger, the psalms free us to relate to God as real people. We can go to the extremes. Be vulnerable and authentic, knowing and believing God is big enough to handle our pain and suffering. Given what we’re going through today, we need psalms like this. Psalms that say, “I’m mad at you God” or “Where are you Lord? Don’t leave me hanging out on a limb for you.”
Maybe you’re like Sonny. Maybe your life is unraveling, and you don’t know what to do. If so, then psalm is for you. Maybe your life isn’t as dramatic as that, but maybe you’ve hit a wall with your faith or lost direction of your life’s purpose. If so, this psalm is for you.
Maybe something happened a long time ago that has left you feeling alone, ashamed, or afraid. Perhaps some underlying anger or deep resentment that is causing you to react in a way that is well, not very Christ-like. If so, then this psalm is for you. Given to you by God for this purpose – to draw you closer to the very source of life so you can find your peace and salvation.
But as you leave today, remember this: When you’re hurting inside because someone hurt you or you hurt someone there’s a psalm to calm our pain. And to give you a voice to forgive.
When the racial injustice in our country has caused our cities to erupt in violence and your temper to boil over there’s a psalm to calm our rage and to lead you to righteousness.
When you’re suffering from the emotional, physical and spiritual pain caused by this pandemic, there’s a psalm to calm you fears and anxieties that draw you closer to God’s healing love.
When the ugliness of our human condition causes you to clinch your fist and scream there is a way to say to God exactly how you feel.
Trust me, there’s nothing you can say that God hasn’t heard before. When you’re feeling directionless, or even faithless, the psalms lead us back to the open arms of God who is mindful of our needs and merciful in love, always generous with grace. Ours is a God who is always looking out for us. Who always knows where we are and what we’re feeling, because this God is always with us, always beside us, in us, and all around us just waiting for us to show up.
So, let me say it one last time. No matter what you’re feeling or what challenges you are facing right now, God is here inviting you to seek salvation from the ugliness of the world. You don’t need the perfect prayer or even the perfect words.
Nothing is required for you to show up. Just show up. As you are. In whatever mood you’re in. Speaking whatever language you need to get your point across.
God can handle it. Dare I say, God even loves it. Why? Because you trusted God with your most intimate and most vulnerable self. I can’t think of a better way to pray or more holy act than that.
Lord God, though sometimes words fail us ... you do not. You are always faithful even when we lose faith, you stay with us. Your presence in our lives not only save us from ourselves, but empower us to live in your right ways. You have given us the words and language to speak to you. And so we offer these words of prayer and petitions for this church, and the needs of those who are a part of it. Lord God, we pray to you knowing that you receive us in your heart. As we move into the world today, empower us with your Holy Spirit to walk in the ways of Christ Jesus, to be visible presence of your love for the glory of your name. Amen.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word Year A Vol. 4. Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 2011 pp. 104-109.
Come November 3rd we can pretty much guess 48% of our country will vote Democrat, and 48% will vote Republican. If my math is correct, the fate of our country rests in the hands of roughly 4% of the population. To think that a small minority can have such an enormous impact on our lives.
If you find this information alarming, consider this – the entire mission of the church was entrusted to only a few, unqualified people. I believe that when Jesus handed his disciples the keys to the Kingdom, he did so knowing God would be doing all the heavy lifting. All they had to do was trust and remain faithful to God’s Word. For better or worse, that’s exactly what they did.
Today, despite of who we are and what we’ve become, God continues to put his faith in you and me – entrusting us to care of one another. How we vote will say something about our faith...about who and what truly matters in our lives.
This is not me being political. It’s me reminding anyone who dares to take the name of Christ, must also take the cross of Christ and continue his ministry and mission of living the gospel out into the world...by living in the will of God.
Today’s reading isn’t part of this week’s lectionary. It was chosen because it seemed to be the perfect conclusion to a theme that had unexpectedly emerged over the last month or so. It is also the conclusion of John’s gospel that tells a symbolic story of Jesus, after his resurrection, visiting his disciples for the last time to make sure they know their calling in life. Read: John 21:1-17
I love this story on so many levels. It’s profound, it’s personal, it’s intimate and inviting. It’s daybreak, my favorite time. It’s quiet and calm, the world seems settled and manageable.
It’s a time also when Jesus goes to the beach to have breakfast with his disciples for the last time. Having grown up on a beach, I imagine the water is glassy and still, and the morning mist gives it an eerie calm. A light chill sneaks around in the silent breeze. Along the shoreline you can almost hear a slow, melodic heartbeat; the rhythm of small waves lapping upon the rocks and shells.
I imagine Jesus standing there barefoot. And why not? Walking on sand in sandals is no easy task. With the damp sand squishing between his toes, the resurrected One calls out to his disciples who are fishing about 100 yards offshore. When Peter notices it’s Jesus who is calling out to them, he immediately jumps overboard and rushes towards his friend. Thankfully the others are a little more sensible taking the boat full of fish with them to shore.
Peter is always in a hurry, isn’t he? It’s so like him. And very much like us today. It seems like we’re always rushing here and there with little regard to what’s going on around us. The problem with rushing through this story is we might miss the wonderful subtleties and profound symbolism that offer insight to the ways God works in our lives today.
For example, notice what Jesus is doing. He’s waiting; sitting on the beach for his disciples to come home from work, which by the way isn’t going so well. So, Jesus intervenes; helping them out by nudging them in the right direction.
What does this say to you about how Jesus works in your life? Here’s what I think. Jesus is waiting for me; watching over me as I go about my day. While he waits, he guides me and helps me navigate the work he has called me to do.
And so the first thing we learn is in Christ God is intentionally present in our lives; not just waiting for us, but working and caring for our success.
Next, while Jesus waits and watches over them, he is also preparing a fire for his friends’ breakfast.
This task might seem mundane. But in scripture, fire is highly symbolic. You might recall it was a pillar of fire that led the children of Israel through the wilderness, and tongues of fire that leapt from the mouths of the disciple on the day of Pentecost. Fire is the symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit. So it says something about Jesus’ presence on the beach.
Also, John tells us this is a particular kind of fire. It’s not one made with pieces of driftwood but with charcoal – something you don’t just find charcoal lying around a damp beach in the morning. At that hour, I can’t imagine there were venders out there selling any. No, Jesus had to provide the materials himself. He had to carry the dirty, bulky load with his own hands. This tells me what Jesus is willing to do for us.
Now there are only two places in the New Testament where we find a charcoal fire. Believe it or not, both are in John’s gospel.
The first time is on the night Jesus is taken into custody. While warming himself around a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest, Peter will deny knowing Jesus three times. The second time we see a charcoal fire is here on the beach, where Jesus redeems Peter three times for his betrayal. So, first we see that in Christ God is intentionally present in our lives, and next we see that God carries our burdens and redeems those who seek forgiveness.
The next clues might seem obvious. They are the fish and bread being prepared by the fire. We’ve seen this pair before when Jesus feeds the hungry crowds. It was there by the seaside that thousands of people gathered to hear Jesus speak and only one small boy was bright enough to bring something to snack on – a few small fish and a couple loaves of bread.
Now that we have one kid away in college, that measly meal might feed my family. But 5,000? Leave it up to Jesus to do the impossible – being able to take those ingredients and distribute them to everyone so that no one would leave hungry.
Another interesting thing about this beach breakfast is Jesus doesn’t feed them his fish. Instead he instructs his disciples to get theirs. Did Jesus not prepare enough for everyone? Maybe he wants to see the results of their labor? After all, he has called them to be fishers of people.
Again, Peter is quick to respond. He runs to the net and hauls the bounty across the sand by himself. For all of you Cross-Fitters out there let me see you add that to your routine. Despite the abundance of fish in their bounty, 153 to be exact, the net did not break.
This tells me that in Christ God is intentionally present, carrying our burdens always ready to redeem us and has faithfully equipped us so that we can do the work he has called us to do.
Lastly, there is the beautiful symbolism of the bread. Like fire, bread has a rich history in Israel’s past too. From their exodus out of Egypt to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness to the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples on the night that he was given over to his death, bread always symbolizes something greater than physical food.
It represents God’s Word. As it is written, “People do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” The Word of God is the Bread of Life. In the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus is described as the perfect embodiment of God’s Word.
Whenever we see Jesus and bread together, we know we are being called to a heavenly feast were God’s words nourishes us and instructs us to do our job that is to love and serve God and one another. Today in the church, this meal has many names: the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Whatever you call it, the meaning’s the same. That God is calling us to the table of blessing.
At this Holy Feast, we are reminded that Jesus is the bread that is broken for all who seek to feast on God’s abundant life and salvation. Through Jesus, God is intentionally present in our life, always ready to redeem us, equip us, and feed us along the way. Whatever your need is — relational, spiritual, physical, or emotional, — God is waiting for you, ready to take care of you.
God’s redeeming love transcends all our human brokenness and sin. It frees us from all our burdens and fills us with all life. God calls you and frees you for a purpose, a calling, which is to carry the bread of life out into the world where love is so desperately needed.
While we see in the final verses Jesus redeeming Peter for his denial, we also see our own redemption and calling. Jesus asks his beloved friends, “Do you love me?” And Peter is quick to respond. In fact, he even gets a little annoyed that Jesus keeps asking him the same question over and over again. There is something to be said about that repetitiveness, beyond the symbol of redemption. It’s not that Jesus needs to know if we love him. Instead he wants to make sure we know what we are to do with that love.
“If you love me,” Jesus said, “then feed my lambs and tend to my sheep.”
This is the most honest and honorable political act that still rings true today. This is our calling. Watch over one another. Redeem and forgive each other. Equip and feed and care for those who are not able to do for themselves.
Do not be a wolf in sheep clothing, deceiving people for your advantage. But instead be the bread of life that welcomes anyone and everyone to the heavenly banquet where God has prepared a place for you and me.
Let us pray:
Lord you have called us to be your people, you have fed us the never-ending meal of your love, you have equipped us with your Spirit, and redeemed us with your Son. Send us now out into the world to be the visible presence of your love, a feast that nourish and heal your sheep and your world. Amen.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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