Rejoice in the Lord Always

July 2, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Isaiah 9: 2-3; Philippians 4:4-9


Lucy is trying to comfort Charlie Brown after his strikeout:

“That’s all right, Charlie Brown. You win some, you lose some.”

Charlie Brown replies, “That would be wonderful!”

Poor Charlie Brown!

Deep in our hearts we agree with Lucy in the PEANUTS cartoons when she says, “I don’t want ups and downs. I want ups and ups and ups!”

Today we focus on “Ups”; on joy. Rejoice in the Lord Always

The Fourth of July and fireworks go together like hot dogs and baseball games, or county fairs and fried dough. It’s part of the enjoyment of the holiday. And when I read the first verses in this morning’s passage from Isaiah I was reminded of fireworks and the feeling that we get when we see those magnificent multicolored flames blossom in the night sky: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” And the distinction between fireworks and what Isaiah is describing also points to the difference between pleasure or amusement and true joy.

Often we identify joy as being the same as happiness, and use those two words interchangeably. But happiness is something that occurs on an almost purely human level. In many cases, we can control our own happiness. Happiness is in the world, under certain conditions and it can be taken away from us by adverse circumstances. Happiness is a wonderful feeling. Charles Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts,” says that “Happiness is a warm puppy;” and Tom and I are in full agreement of that as we enjoy ten-week old Peat.

Joy is something deeper. Joy is so deep that it can persist under almost any situation. Unlike happiness, we are not responsible for joy. It is not something we accomplish or achieve, or fashion, or even earn. We find joy as we find a treasure by surprise.   Like fireworks, joy breaks into our lives often in the most unexpected ways. It can be in a moment when love is expressed, when we are suddenly caught up in the unbelievable beauty of our world, or when that which is lost is found. There is the joy that comes in being forgiven when we have been wrong, or the joy of being together when we have been separated. These are treasured moments of joy; a zest and radiance in our living that goes far beyond just being “happy.”

The joy of which Isaiah speaks is a gift of God. People in Isaiah’s time and place felt that they had been living in total darkness. Suffering and oppression had dominated their lives. The land of deep darkness for these conquered people was a land of brutality, a land of poverty and hunger, and a land without hope. But Isaiah says to them and to us who live in an age of pessimism, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” That was Isaiah’s poetic way of affirming that God is very much alive and at work in the world.

It is one thing for God to act. It is another for God’s people to recognize it.  When the people are in “the land of deep darkness,” they can’t see how the God who has delivered them in the past is at work in the present. And then, Isaiah says “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The people recognize God’s saving presence and rejoice. They rejoice in relief and thanksgiving, as they would at harvest time when survival is ensured. They get it. They know God is with them, here and now.

It is so easy for us to feel joy when all is going well in our lives and in our community, and in our state and in our nation and in the world at large.  But that is never the case.  The human condition is imperfect and we experience suffering and disappointment, feel anxiety and discouragement, become sad and afraid and any of this can impinge on our happiness.  We know what it is to walk in darkness, and that is why we need to hear Isaiah’s reminder that God lives.

On the night of May 5, 1863, a public meeting was held in Washington, and Frederick Douglass, the former slave, the great abolitionist orator was speaking. Then, somebody came in the back and whispered to those seated at the rear of the room, the shattering news that the Union Army had been defeated at Chancellorsville – 22,000 men either killed or wounded. Douglass stopped talking as he saw the audience rustling restlessly as the word spread up the aisles. Finally, someone handed Douglass a note with the message about the defeat. He read it, bowed his head in despair, and didn’t know how he could go on. A murmuring panic began to descend over the auditorium until an old black woman in the balcony stood up, and called down to the stage, saying, “Frederick Douglass, God is not dead!”

Rejoice That God Lives!  However, to live in a state of joy in a damaged world and flawed civilization we need to not only remember that God lives, but we need to take time to delight in the events, persons, and beauty around us, that reaffirm God’s constant presence and actions in our lives.

Happiness is a feeling, but joy is a reality based on a relationship.  St. Paul writes to the church in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Have you ever thought of joy as a command? “Rejoice in the Lord.” These words were written by a man who somehow learned to put life into perspective. Paul knew as much as any of us that life can be difficult. He had been beaten for his faith, shipwrecked and imprisoned. Yet he knew that God is greater than any adversary, any painful emotion, and any remembered hurt. He is not rejoicing because of a Positive Mental Attitude. He is not rejoicing because he’s O.K. and we’re O.K. He’s rejoicing because he knows that God is in control. It’s not just any kind of cheerful good mood. Paul can rejoice, can experience a deep joy even in dark times because his deep relationship with God, his trust in God’s love, his belief in God’s presence sustains him.

“How do we maintain joy in the midst of grief?  We keep our eye fixed on the big picture. God is in control. He is the reason we rejoice. In a hospital bed, we can rejoice. By a grave side, we can rejoice. During the breakup of a marriage, we can rejoice. We are in God’s hands. Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Then he says, “ Let your gentleness be evident to all . . .” That’s a strange progression of thoughts. What has gentleness got to do with rejoicing? Scholars tell us that Paul is using an interesting ancient Greek word (epieikeia) that is translated gentleness here. Other translations of the Bible translate epieikeia as patience, softness, modesty, forbearance, or humility. It is not the gentleness that comes from weakness, but from an internal source of strength.

In her book Radical Spirit, Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, talks about this kind of epieikeia that she calls humility. In the spirituality that developed in the Middle Ages onward, she says, spiritual life was presented as a series of ecclesiastical dos and don’ts and rooted in pious exercises. When done enough and regularly, these spiritual duties merited the summit that is God. Humility topples that kind of spiritual merit system. Humility is a way of life that begins with awareness of the presence of God and is lived with honesty and care for all. Chittister has translated some of the teachings of St. Benedict into what she calls “The Twelve Steps of Humility.” They are, she says, at every pace of the way, one step closer to a joyous life.  Brimming with love of God, a proper love of self, and love of tall creation to which we give our care, we are fully free, totally authentic, sustained and driven by the spirit of God.

I’ve had The Twelve Steps of Humility printed in this week’s bulletin as an invitation to joyous living. The steps are:

  1. Recognize that God is God.
  2. Know that God’s will is best for you.
  3. Seek direction from wisdom figures.
  4. Endure the pains of development and do not give up.
  5. Acknowledge faults and strip away the masks.
  6. Be content with less than the best.
  7. Let go of the false self.
  8. Preserve tradition and learn from the community.
  9. Listen
  10. Never ridicule anyone or anything.
  11. Speak kindly.
  12. Be serene, stay calm

If we practice these things we will grow in freedom, living with our eye on the big picture, our eye on that Love that casts out fear; in awareness of the Love that is God.

Joy is our witness to the world of God’s love. Theologian, Teilhard de Chardin has said, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Episcopal priest Samuel M. Shoemaker said, “The surest mark of a Christian is not faith, or even love, but joy.”  And the 15th century mystic, Julian of Norwich said, “The greatest honor that you can give to Almighty God, greater than all your penances and sacrifices and mortifications, is to live joyfully because of the knowledge of his love.” Joy comes on the other side of surrender. Someone once said, “What we ask for in life is not always what we get, but it is what we would have asked for in the first place had we known.”

Experiences of joy can be like fireworks on the Fourth of July that surprise us one time after another, as they explode into the darkness. Each separate recognition of the inbreaking of God brings us joy. And that’s good. We are happy for it. But a joyous lifestyle requires that we remember between the bright and beautiful explosions of light that God remains present and active always. And this is where community comes in.  In our darkest times we need to be reminded and from time to time others need reminding too. Together we revel in the joy God’s love. Only together can we always be full of joy in the Lord.

So today we rejoice and are grateful for God’s loving presence, for the times we recognize God’s inbreaking in our lives and for community, there to support and remind us, when life seems dark.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.