December 12, 2021
SCRIPTURE READING: Philippians 4:4-7
I’ve always enjoyed Philippians because Paul seemed to have been in a good mood when he wrote that letter. It is his warmest letter sent to people he clearly loved deeply and that loved him.
But he was in prison – unjustly – with a trial soon coming that could result in his execution! And in the middle of his incarceration, he says this: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Don’t worry about anything!”
Either he is on to something really significant or he is delusional.
That kind of living where no matter the circumstances, a person can hold fast to joy is so attractive as long as it isn’t self-deception or blindness. It is so amazing to see someone who can be clear about his/her pain and circumstances, and still have a bed-rock solid trust that no matter the outcome of the mess they are in, all will be well. And then as an added bonus to see in that person real and undeniable joy! That seems first of all to be incredibly rare, and almost impossible to imagine!
I’ve been thinking about joy. We hear plenty of advice (that no doubt is all well and good in its place) about what to DO to be more joyful – like joy is something you ADD to your life because you work so hard at it.
I’ve been wondering if joy isn’t more like a gift that we were given from the beginning. That seems like a radical notion. Maybe joy is just a part of the deal from the get-go! It was ours once – and it was natural.
Perhaps it is true then, that we don’t have to learn joy – but for some we learn so early to squelch joy until we FORGET how to be joyful and have to relearn what we once knew. Sort of like joy is a characteristic of our creator that gets passed along to all of creation unless we mess it up or cover it up!
But there are times in our personal history and in national history where we can hardly imagine that we ever had joy. To me, it seems like joy is more scarce nationally than I ever remember it! But joy is irrepressible! And even now – in this pandemic imprisonment and political animosity, I see joy popping up now and again as if it has been alive all along, just buried somehow. It’s like the way the grass gets buried under a deluge of leaves this time of year. All along the street, people are out raking up the leaves so that the living grass is not totally smothered.
Of course, happiness is a different thing altogether. No one ever promised that we would be happy all the time – and I assume that Paul wasn’t HAPPY about his imprisonment. Happiness is laying on the beach on a warm day with a good book and a luxurious hotel room to go back to every night.
That is NICE, but it’s cheap really. Anybody can be happy when everything is going your way! But, rare is the individual who, like Paul, can rejoice and not worry even when every physical indication points to hard times ahead.
I rather believe that there are things one can do to uncover that irrepressible and natural joy that is designed into us by our creator. Maybe we should ask children! Someone made a study which is said to have shown that children laugh an average of 400 times a day while adults only laugh 17. What do they know that we have forgotten? Could it be that the joy that was there at the beginning of our lives has been robbed by the wear and tear of life and we just need to get back to what God gave us in the first place?
Paul, whose birth name was Saul, became an angry violent man as a young adult. Not much evidence of joy. He hated Christians, tormented and killed them. The beginnings of his recovery of joy was that moment on the road to Damascus when he was confronted by the living Christ: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads (prods, pointy sticks).” Yes! How it hurts to live a life so counter to the Creator’s design.
Maybe you too, have found yourself simply going in the wrong direction and the path to recovering joy is simply to turn around – be converted, if you will.
Once Paul decided to give in to that inner voice that kept telling him what direction he should go and once he aligned himself with what he knew to be the right way for him, he was on the track to joy.
When we get out of touch with God’s design for us, then joy becomes harder and harder to access. It is covered over! Joy gets covered up by our stubbornness – our self-willed stubbornness which gets us out of sync with the direction we know we ought to go – and one of the casualties is distancing ourselves from joy!
Now I’m not saying that the only reason we lose a sense of joy is our own foolishness or stubbornness. Sometimes joy gets covered over by life’s disappointments that have nothing at all to do with any choices of our own. And then, for the most part, our joy is hidden for a season – not gone forever. A different sermon for another time.
Joy is a byproduct of being properly aligned with God’s purposes in the world. Becoming aligned is for one thing, a life-time occupation because we change and the world changes and we have to adapt. It is also a wonder-filled process as we move toward getting better and better at learning how and where we fit into the whole divine scheme of things. At times it seems it is taking forever too long and it may seem at other times like the whole world is pitted against our progress. It is like raking leaves!
But there is so much joy as we begin to see ourselves fitting into a bigger plan – doing our part, doing our best, always listening to our Guide! It is a deep joy that is sustaining through tough times – even those times when no one around us understands why we do what we do.
And it usually happens that when we are not looking, all of the sudden we take stock of our lives on a certain day and lo and behold, something has emerged from the winter freeze and ALMOST you can see the bud of a flower that looks a whole lot like joy.
I pray for just such a day for you! Amen.