Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, December 12, 2021
Philippians 4:4-7

    When you came to worship this morning, did you happen to go by the banner in our front hallway that says “Rejoice in the Lord always?”  This verse begins our second reading from this morning from Philippians, but even though you’ve passed that banner perhaps weekly, have you taken time to think about what it means to rejoice always?  I mean, is Paul telling us we’re supposed to feel happy all of the time?  That doesn’t seem realistic or achievable.  Most of you know, I love words.  “Rejoice” is one of those churchy words that I happen to love, and I think we should use it more often, even if we might get strange looks.  Think about it -- there is no verb form of “happy.” You have to say “I am happy” or “we’re so happy.”  But the active verb of “joy” is “rejoice.” There’s a sense of deep happiness, of expressive emotion with praise and “exultation” if we want to use another churchy word from our first reading from Zephaniah this morning.  Rejoicing in the Lord is an active way of living out our faith.  We rejoice with singing and shouting, with prayer and thanksgiving, with dancing.  And we can rejoice in the Lord, Paul tells us, not only when everything is going well, but even during difficult times, because “joy” is a deeper, more complex emotion than happiness.  Joy is a fruit of the Spirit from God, that comes out of hope in hopeless times and faith in God’s promises no matter what.
    On the first Sunday of Advent, our focus word was “watch,” and last week we talked about “preparing” the way of the Lord.  Today, on this third “pink” Sunday of Advent, we reflect on what it means to rejoice in the Lord always.  How do you rejoice?  With a party, with prayer, with singing, with dancing?  With others or alone?  When do you rejoice?  We might naturally rejoice at the birth of a child.  We rejoice today with the Erichsens as we welcome Logan officially into God’s family through the rite of baptism.  We rejoice at a wedding, especially of course when we like the couple and feel it’s a good match!  We rejoice on our birthdays and at special holidays like Christmas and Easter, of course.  We rejoice when there’s justice in the courts with a fair verdict, when war has ended, when family gathers for the holidays, when our team wins!
    But what about rejoicing BEFORE what we’ve been waiting for and longing for has happened?  Can we rejoice ALWAYS, even in the hospital or doctor’s office awaiting the diagnosis?  Can we rejoice although this pandemic has dragged on far longer than any of us has expected and everything is NOT normal?  Can we rejoice even if this time of year this year we are not feeling so happy, and memories of loved ones who are now gone have us feeling a mixture of emotions including sadness and loneliness?  Can we rejoice in the Lord always?
    Well, Paul’s instructions to the church in Philippi are to encourage believers ESPECIALLY during times of hardship.  Paul is writing this letter from prison, in fact.  He doesn’t call people of faith to rejoice when all is going well, when all is right with the world. Rather, in difficult circumstances, as he is imprisoned unjustly, he says, “Rejoice in the Lord, always, again, I say, Rejoice.”  The prophet Isaiah writes during a time fraught with division and violence; the kingdom of Israel is divided, they’re in the midst of the Syro-Ephraimite war, but he calls people of faith to “Shout aloud and sing for joy.”  One hundred years later, the prophet Zephaniah is concerned about great economic inequalities, religious and political oppression, natural disasters, and widespread idolatry, and yet at the end of his message of judgment he calls the people to “Rejoice and exult with all your heart.”  And John the Baptist doesn’t mince words in our gospel for this morning.  Religious and political oppression continue.  Poverty is widespread.  The need for a Savior, the Messiah, to come is great.  But despite what seems like harsh words to us, the people listening to him keep hanging around.  They’re filled with expectation and hear his words that Jesus the Messiah, is coming as GOOD NEWS.  In every circumstance in our readings for today, in other words, everything is not OK; all is not right with the world, and yet, people of faith, from Isaiah to Zephaniah, to John the Baptist to Paul, rejoice anyway.
    Why?  How can we have joy when everything from our personal lives to the state of the world is not right?  The scriptures are clear:  we rejoice because God is with us.  God has been with us from the beginning, and God will continue to be with us. Jesus, whose coming we celebrate in just a few weeks, is Immanuel, God with us.  The promises of God in every instance of our scriptures today link rejoicing with the news that the Lord is near.  “The Lord is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more,” Zephaniah assures us.  “Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel,” Isaiah proclaims.  “One who is more powerful than I is coming,” John the Baptist tells us.  “The Lord is near,” Paul says.  
Paul and the Philippians remember that when he was imprisoned earlier in Philippi with Silas, the Lord shook the doors of the jail cells open with an earthquake, and the jailer became a follower of Jesus as a result.  God can make use of us even in difficult circumstances.  God’s presence is revealed even when there is suffering.  War, economic and political realities that aren’t right, unjust imprisonment and oppression, personal loss and illness cannot keep us down as people of faith, because we know Jesus is coming and God is with us, always, no matter what.  God will bring us through.  That’s why even in our joyful preparations for Christmas we look beyond Jesus’ birth to Jesus’ death on a cross and rejoice even though we know the road for this precious baby boy, God’s only Son, will be a difficult road.  We know that after Christmas, after Good Friday, comes Easter and resurrection hope.  So we rejoice, in what God has done for us in sending us our Savior, Jesus, and what God will do for us – an end of oppression and economic inequality, an end of idolatry and disaster, and end to violence and death. We know the good news, Jesus is coming, one more powerful than any of us.  Let’s rejoice, regardless of our circumstances in this good news.  Amen.