Rejoice in the Lord always! And again, I say: Rejoice!
We find ourselves here today at the mid-point of Advent, heading into the longest and darkest nights of the year, just as the weather is dropping off – the windchill was -37o when I put the dog out to do her business this morning – and at a time when, for many, the stress of the Christmas season is mounting. This year in particular, we’re all exhausted, really exhausted from this marathon year of social distancing and cancelled events, adding a new and different sense of waiting to this Advent season, as we prepare for a simpler, quieter, and yes, perhaps even lonelier Christmas than most.
And in the midst of all that, the Church down through the ages chooses this Sunday to cry “Rejoice!” out through the darkness.
It’s a reminder we all need to hear sometimes, isn’t it?
There’s a lot of words that can be used to describe the Christian life: we’re blessed, we’re forgiven. We’re called to go forth in Christ’s name. We’re equipped by the Holy Spirit to face the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. We’re generous, we trust in God rather than money or strength. We’re obedient and, when we’re not, we’re repentant. And, above all, we strive to be people who, in every aspect of our life, are willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
But, if we’re being faithful to scripture, one of the words that we simply can’t ignore is “joy”. Joy fills the pages of scripture! ‘Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands: serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song!’ (Psalm 100). “The joy of the Lord” – the Lord’s own joy – “is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy” (Psalm 42). Isaiah writes, “shout aloud and sing for joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel” (12:6). Paul writes “the God of hope fills you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
…but it doesn’t end there. We’re not talking about brief flashes of happiness, a joy that comes and goes with the weather. No! This is a joy that goes much deeper than our present circumstances, our little successes or victories or mountain-top experiences. God’s plan for us is that we would have a life marked by joy, in spite of whatever fleeting situation we find ourselves in. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you on my account”, says the Lord; when that happens, ‘rejoice and be glad… they’re treating you as they treated the prophets before you’ (Matthew 5:11-12). Or James, beginning his letter to the Church, decides to start with this great opening line: “consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). Just imagine the glory of knowing that sort of deep and unwavering joy, that when we face trials, when we face the wounds and hurts and hang-ups of this broken world, when we face struggles and illness and broken relationships and seasons of pain and exhaustion, we’re so sure that our only hope is Christ, we’re so sure the “weeping lasts for the night, but joy comes with the morning”, we’re so sure that our hope is built on nothing less than the sure foundation which is Jesus Christ, we’re so sure that even though I walk through the dark valley and the shadow of death itself, the Lord is with me and will fill my cup to overflowing (Psalm 23), that no matter what unimaginable and unspeakable struggle we face, the Lord will work all things together for good for those who fear him and are called according to his name (Romans 8:28), so that, no matter what we face, we face it with joy. Just imagine.
But here’s the thing: It’s not just your imagination.
Our message for the world – no, even more than that – the Church’s message for you today is to rejoice and be glad. The “good news” is good news. The Lord will free the oppressed, he will bind up the broken-hearted, he will comfort those who mourn, he will release those bound as prisoners to whatever chains we find ourselves in, and he will put things right: he will display his glory, he will rebuild the ancient ruins, he will drive out those who oppress and steal and profit from the pain of others, and he will deliver justice, the true justice where all who try to stand on their own strength will be exposed, but those who put on the free garment of salvation, the free robe of righteousness, will be welcomed in to the feast.
Comfort, Comfort Ye
Throughout Advent we hear, from both Isaiah and John the Baptist, the call to joyful repentance. And we have to remember that it is good news.
I think life trains us to get it backwards. Even if, deep down, we know better, we’re led to believe that repentance is failure. Saying “sorry” is a last resort. Admitting guilt is something we only do after we’re tried all the other excuses. Our broken instincts would even have us throw away relationships before admitting defeat; think about it – how many times have you thought “well maybe I was wrong, but I’m not going to give him, I’m not going to give her, the satisfaction of hearing me say it”. We’d rather block someone out than repent.
…but here’s the surprising part. We’re not really blocking them out. When we refuse to repent, we’re blocking ourselves out, we’re cutting ourselves off from the joy that should be ours as those who take comfort knowing that the only reliable foundation, the only sure and certain hope, the only one who can stand when the world is crumbling is the one through whom it was made, Jesus Christ the Lord.
In Advent each year we hear “comfort, comfort ye my people”, the Lord is building a highway, right? What’s he doing to the valleys? Lifting them up. What’s he doing to the hills? Knocking them down. What’s he doing to the rough places? Making them a plain.
Now, that all sounds nice enough, but think about that metaphor. This isn’t a kid playing in a sandbox. No, the message of the prophets – the message of the Church – is clear: the Lord is coming with all the might of his kingdom to reconnect the city that has been cut off. It’s a massive earth-moving project. The very things we think are immovable – high mountains and deep valleys – are going to be tamed. Think about that – “comfort, my people”, there’s a highway coming through; that mountain that cuts us off from the rest of the world? We’re going to blast it down. That deep, dark valley, that one where you have to be careful about getting too close to the edge because you might fall over the cliff as the ground beneath you gives way? That one where we’ve tried to build bridges, but the rushing water carries them away? He’s going to fill it in.
This is major, major work.
And we’re to take comfort in that massive – and entirely free – project. We’re to rejoice that he’s going to tear down that mountain, he’s going to tear down what we thought were the strongest highpoints of the world around us, and as he tears it down, he’s going to use that rubble to fill in the chasm that we could never cross.
…but that’s only comforting if we’re willing to climb down from whatever high places we’ve perched ourselves on. That same message of comfort for those in the rough places, waiting for the valley to be filled in, is, at the same time, a dire warning for those stubbornly standing on the mountain, isn’t it?
It’s the same thing with the message of freedom for captives and release for those who are bounds in chains of guilt or shame. It’s the most incredible tidings of comfort and joy to those crying out for release; but that same message is an incredible warning to those of us who are holding those chains around the hands, feet, and necks of others as we refuse to forgive the wrongs they have done and stop dragging those chains along with us.
Where’s the Joy?
Rejoice in the Lord always.
This is good news. No, this is the good news! It doesn’t get any better!
And we’re to be people of joy – joy, no matter what sin we’ve finally asked to be forgiven, no matter what struggle we’ve finally handed over to Jesus, no matter what deep hurt and pain done to us that we’ve finally said we’re willing to forgive.
Joy is a mark of Christian life.
…but what if you’re not feeling it? What if you’re not seeing the joy in your life?
This is something we easily get wrong. We confuse joy and happiness.
If we go back to the scriptures, there’s something we need to notice. In all those verses, there’s something in common. Not one of them says “I’m joyful because I’m happy about my present situation”.
No. Joy is an attitude. Rejoicing is an action. It’s not something that happens to us.
Scripture doesn’t say, “I’m rejoicing right now because I’m experiencing something that gives me joy”. This isn’t Marie Kondo picking up items around your house and deciding if they give you joy or not.
No. My favourite shirt or a picture of my grandparents isn’t going to give me joy that sees me through pain and affliction. No, we choose joy. We choose joy when we decide to see things through God’s big picture rather than our little obstructed view. We choose joy when we put our hope in that one and only sure and certain cornerstone, that sure foundation on which we can stand on level ground, Jesus our Lord.
…how else can we say “consider it joy when you’re persecuted”? How else can we say “blessed are those who mourn”? How else can we say “rejoice when you suffer”?
It’s not joy because you’re persecuted. It’s not blessedness because you mourn. It’s not rejoicing because you’re suffering.
It’s choosing to live in the sure and certain hope that, no matter what this life throws at you, you belong to God; you share in the risen life of Christ; your sins – though they are many – have been washed away, and no matter what comes our way: trials, temptation, pain, sickness, life, death, height, depth, nor any other thing in all creation can ever separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
…But it is a choice.
We don’t need to find joy to start rejoicing. But when we start rejoicing, we’ll find joy.
Remember the man whose son was dying when he came to Jesus? He cried out “Lord, I believe… help my unbelief”. Remember ‘doubting Thomas’? If he was just waiting for proof, we don’t know, he might still be waiting. But he asked for proof, and those who ask receive.
My friends, joy is a mark of a Christian life. But if we’re waiting to find some joy, I’m afraid we’re going to be waiting a long time. No… instead, we need to make a choice.
“Lord, I choose to be joyful… heal my bitterness.”
“Lord, I choose to be joyful… heal my anger.”
“Lord, I choose to be joyful… take away my pain.”
Take comfort, for the Lord is coming. Take comfort, for the Lord will set things right, and will work all things together for good. Take comfort – and, in all things, again I say: rejoice!