This week, Christian churches around the world are celebrating the third week of advent with messages of joy. The first two candles are lit to remind us that God’s hope and love is with us and within us. A great reason to rejoice if you ask me.
We’ve also learned that advent is a time of waiting. And our waiting is not passive but active. Therefore as we light the candle of joy we are reminded that God’s spirit of joy is with us. And that we are to live it loud...singing and shouting and rejoicing...even on those days when it feels like joy is missing from our lives.
I confess the closer we get to Christmas, JOY seems to take a back seat to anxiety and the pressure to be happy. This year seems to be no different. Oddly enough, the week started out amazingly well. On Monday I met with a group of people who filled my heart with so much hope and love that I had trouble sleeping that night.
I woke up Tuesday still feeling great but some time in the afternoon something or someone just snuck in and robbed me of that good feeling. Has that ever happened to you? You’re on top of your game, and then something happens that knocks you down? It’s not something you rejoice over.Needless to say it was hard to find the inspiration to write about joy...knowing I struggled to find it in myself.
But God’s Spirit has a way of rekindling that light from within – bringing hope to the hopeless, love to the loveless...and yes… joy to the joyless. This leads us to today’s reading from the Apostle Paul who writes in Philippians 4:4-7 these timeless words:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything
“Rejoice in the Lord always” and “Do not worry about anything.” It’s painfully obvious Paul that never had to scramble to find last minute gifts for his wife. Or prayed for God to reorder the postal service so they might arrive on time!
What is it that gives Paul the confidence to say something so bold? For the most part, we think anyone who take this advice seriously is a hopelessly naïve optimists. Any good skeptic might say that a person who can rejoice all the time...has never watched a friend overdose in a parking lot. Or a family evicted from a home.
It’s true, there are some situations where it’s hard to find joy or the strength to rejoice. So it’s good to remember that Paul wrote these words from a jail cell. He had no idea if he was going to live or die. Despite his circumstances, Paul still found a way to ‘rejoice.’ How is that?
The Holy Spirit lit up in Paul like a roaring fire – allowing the Apostle to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ without fear or worry. Paul is a living witness to the power of God who is reordering human hearts from the inside out. So it doesn’t matter where Paul is, or what he is facing. With God’s joy inside him, he can’t help but rejoice.
That is what I want you to take away today: With God inside you, you too have God’s joy! So “rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say Rejoice!”
Our challenge, of course, is finding it in our daily lives. In a materialistic world, joy and rejoicing are often synonymous with happiness and celebration. This might explain why we get more anxious this time of year. As my friend pointed out, joy and happiness are not the same thing. “Joy” she said, “is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. As long as we have God’s Spirit in us, we always have joy...But it doesn’t mean we’ll always be happy.”
We have all heard a parent say it doesn’t matter what their kids chose to do in life as long as they are happy. It seems like a good thing, right? Who doesn’t want their child to be happy? But this notion teaches us to believe that a pursuit of happiness will lead to joy.
Happiness is conditional. It’s something we pursue and find through other means. And that’s not always a good thing; especially when your pursuit of happiness is a vice... that harms you and your relationship with God and others. Drugs, work, exercise, material wealth, and even religion…can offer temporary happiness of some degree…but only God can give you eternal joy.
God’s joy is not conditional. It’s a gift given to us out of great love for us. Paul sat in prison, content and rejoicing, because he knew what God’s love meant to him. Like Paul, our joy comes from the gift of love that was made manifest in Jesus Christ. It’s a gift that when opened makes us shout and sing and rejoice.
I know my joy is not based on ‘if’ God loves me...but ‘because’ God loves me. And Jesus is the proof of how much I mean to God. Jesus is God’s greatest gift for us– given without condition. If you want it, all you have to do is to make the choice to receive it. The gift of Jesus that God has given to you and me, is the hope we seek,...the love we desire,... and a joy that can never be stolen or taken from us.
Corrie Ten Boom in her book The Hiding Place illustrates this point. She and her sister, Betsy, had just been transferred to Ravensbruck,...the worst German prison camp they had seen yet. They were put into a barrack that was dangerously overcrowded and infested with fleas. Believing in the promise of God, they clung to Paul’s words: rejoice always, do not fear, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances.
Betsy and Corrie tried to thank the Lord for every detail of this prison... but Corrie had trouble thanking God for the fleas. As her sister persisted, Corrie eventually gave in and thanked God for the flea. In a Nazi prison camp, Corrie and Betsy openly share their faith. They held bible studies and prayer meetings without interference from the guards. Many months later Corrie learned how God made this possible. You see, the guards would not enter that particular barrack...because of the fleas!
“Rejoice in the Lord always...and do not worry about anything.” Sound advice to ponder and practice during our time of Advent wait. Taking these words to heart, I was able to find my joy again.
My long, dark week ended on a high note. On Friday we had a church outing to see the remake of...the Christmas classic, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. It’s a tale of a curmudgeon whose tiny heart...is not only transformed but triples in size...by the kindness and love of another.
In that movie theater, the Grinch and I discovered that the joy of Christmas is not all the material things we have around us. Instead it comes from a deep connection with our spiritual source.
True joy comes from God in whose image we are made. It is an unconditional gift that God gives out of deep love for us. And Jesus is proof of the length God is willing go to redeem us and reclaim us back to that Divine love.
With Jesus in our life, lighting the way home to God, we will find true joy in us no matter the situation we might find ourselves in. Best of all, when we choose to share that light of joy, we have reason to be happy and to rejoice. And so too does God.
Come let us embrace this light of joy...and to let it burn so wildly and fiercely in the world that all who look at us will see the light and love of Jesus...and be drawn to his joy and rejoice in his name, now and forever, 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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