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 by prayer and
supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made
known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all
understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in
Christ Jesus. Philippians 4: 4-7
This morning I made a quick scan of the front section of The Boston Globe and New York Times, and there’s a topic that gets no press. Not this morning. Probably not most mornings. That missing topic is “joy.” A good many of the other “spiritual gifts” get press on a fairly regular basis. Most every day there’s talk about love and peace, patience, discipline or self-control, hope and faith, healing and reconciliation… but when was the last time you had some conversation or read some newsworthy article about joy? My sense is that the theme of joy is something of a rare commodity. To have joy or – as we would say in slang – to do joy, is to rejoice. In our lesson just read, St. Paul commends us to “rejoice in the Lord always,” In case you didn’t hear him or didn’t believe him, he repeats himself: “again I say, Rejoice.” There’s something here that’s new and fresh to draw out of the treasury God’s provision: the gift of joy, to know the capacity to rejoice in life.
To rejoice is to have a deep sense of delight. The Greek word literally means “for the heart, in its deepest place of passion and feelings, to be well.” For the heart to feel very well. That’s what it is to have joy: to rejoice the heart. And why might it be – if you agree with me that this can be something of a rare commodity, an untapped spiritual gift – why is that so about this thing called joy? Why so rare? Well, several things have occurred to me.
Firstly, joy takes time. Joy is not fast food. Joy comes, I would say, as a by-product of living a savored life, of having time and taking time to “smell the flowers,” as we used to say. Joy needs time. There is this old monastic insight about living a joy-filled life. Take time, take at least some time each day, to do one thing at-a-time. Take time, take at least some time each day, if you are walking, just to walk. Take time, take at least some time, if you are looking to just look. If you are listening, just to listen. If you are sipping iced tea or watering the plants or petting the dog, to do just that. Do one thing at-a-time, and do that as often as you can. Take the time to let the fragrances and aromas of life penetrate to the deepest part of your being, where they can be savored.iI think we call this “being there.” I don’t think it has so much to do with the pace of life as much as it does with the intentionality with which we live our life. It’s to presume that each moment is pregnant with God’s real presence and provision and promise. Look for it; wait for it; savor it. Don’t just visit life; life needs time to be lived abundantly.
Secondly, it seems to me that joy requires acceptance. Joy requires our saying “yes” to life, to the life we’ve been given, to the hand we’ve been dealt. Probably many of us have woken up one day to discover that the script we’ve been handed in the play of life is not the part we thought we were trying out for. It seems to me that joy requires a deep willingness to accept how little of our life is actually within our own control. It’s an acknowledgment and an acceptance that God will be God: that it is God’s world on God’s time and that we are God’s creatures and that God is at work according to God’s good pleasure.iiJoy requires our saying yes to life – the life we live as individuals, as members of a family, as members of a parish, as members of various professional or volunteer circles. Joy presumes our living with an intentionality to accept the good gifts of life that actually are there, not to live life in a state of rejection or resentment for what is not there or no longer there. Life brings arrivals and changes and departures, and that’s life – the changes and chances of life.iii
To rejoice is to say yes to what is there. I would say that without that quality of acceptance of what is there, those unmet desires of the future will never become present, can never become present. Without that quality of acceptance and thankfulness, those unmet desires will always be elusive. In God’s good plan, there is a reason why today is not tomorrow. In some deep sense we need the provisions of today to prepare us to receive the promises of tomorrow. It seems to me that joy requires a posture of acceptance, of saying “yes” to life: not the life we could have had or feel we should have had, but of saying “yes” to God for the life that God has given us… which is the only place where there is life for us.
Thirdly, it seems to me that joy requires desire. I was talking with someone not long ago on this topic of joy. There was absolutely no joy in their life, they were saying. Well I asked them whether they wanted to know joy? – Well, they had never thought of it quite that way… about wanting to know joy. Do you want to be joyful? Joy is a gift, it’s a spiritual gift. And, generally speaking, if you want to receive a gift, don’t keep your hands in your pockets. Joy is a gift from God, and if you want to receive that gift, open your heart and open your hands to receive it. Ask God for the gift of joy. (I think it’s what we might call an “under-utilized petition.”) If you want the gift of joy, ask God for the gift.
And then, lastly, it seems to me that joy requires endurance. Particularly in the New Testament, so much of the writing about joy is in the context of suffering. Why is it that we hear so much about “the joy of the cross of Christ”?ivWhy is it with the annunciation to Mary and to Elizabeth, they first know fear and then they know joy? It’s the same with Joseph: first fear, then joy. And it’s the same with the shepherds: first fear, then joy. And much later, it’s the same with the women at the tomb joy comes out of fear, of all things?! Why is it that Jesus says in the beatitudes you are set up to be blessed when “people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and defame you on Jesus’ account? Rejoice in that day,” he says, “and leap for joy”?vHow curious. Why is it that Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “Very truly I tell you… you will have pain… but your pain will turn into joy”?viHow is it that St. Paul could write from prison to the Philippians, as he was about to be executed, commending us to “rejoice always ”?vii
That’s because there is some paradox here about joy. (Our English word “paradox” comes from the Greek, paradoxa: para = other; doxa = glory, “other glory”, i.e., God’s glory being manifest in a way other than we would have imagined.) It seems that there is some direct relationship between the depth of suffering and the height of joy. That the extent to which we have known suffering, so we can know joy. It doesn’t mean that we should go looking for suffering; there’s surely enough of it to go around without looking for it. Suffering has a way of finding us. (I think that has something to do with the cross of Christ….) Nor does it mean to deny suffering. It seems that there is some direct relationship between the depth of suffering and the height of joy. (It’s not a de jure principle: first you get suffering and then you get joy… like first you eat your vegetables and then you get dessert. No, it’s not a de jure principle. Rather I sense it’s simply de facto. It’s de facto: this seems to simply be the way it is. There is something about our suffering in life – what we would not have chosen but cannot avoid – there is something about our suffering, when we say “yes” to God, when we show ourselves ready to bear our suffering before God, that opens the door for transformation, for consecration. The Psalmist writes, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.”viiiThere is something about facing the dark night that allows us to see the dawning of joy.
Back in my high school years I set off to be a competitive swimmer. Several weeks into my first season I was a broken man. I think every muscle in my body hurt. My neck hurt. My shoulders hurt. My arms hurt. My back hurt. My thighs hurt. My calves hurt. I was at my end and I was sure that I would fail and never make the team. And I remember, in my youthful desolation, pouring out my heart to one of the wise old men on the swim team – I think he was 18 years old. And I told him of the absolute despair of my heart and the pain of my body. I remember that he listened patiently, and then he asked, “Do your feet hurt.” “What!?” I asked. He said again, “Do your feet hurt?” “Well,” I said, “no, at least my feet don’t hurt.” He said, “They will!” He said, “You’re getting in shape!” This is what it takes.” Well, I was in ecstasy. Everything still hurt in my body, but my heart soared to the heavens. I was right where I belonged. My suffering was not for naught. That this slight, momentary affliction was preparing me for something more and something wonderful.ixAnd I made it! I was suddenly full of ecstatic joy!
Joy is a mystery. It’s as mysterious as our suffering. And, I think, it’s as boundless as our suffering. Somehow, in God’s economy, the one is creating the space for the other. Do you recall Jesus’ parting prayer for us (for you!) in John’s Gospel: “Holy Father, protect them… that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. …Now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”x
Go ahead: “ do joy.” (Try it, you’ll like it!) And if you can’t do it, ask God for it. (It’s a gift God’s Spirit is waiting to give out.) And if you still cannot rejoice, if you can’t reach to receive the joy that is there waiting for you, ask for some help. Joy will not spare you of suffering, nor did it Jesus. We are not spared the cross; we’re shared the cross… but also the joy that follows. Joy will give you a place in your heart to be well, to be passionately alive, even amidst the changes and chances and sufferings of your life. If you know something already about suffering – and I would imagine that all of you, in your life and ministry, are very acquainted with suffering – then you are at least half-way there. You’re “set-ups” to unwrap the gift of joy. Truly. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace….”xi
i St. Paul uses the images of “fragrance” and “aroma” in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17
ii St. Paul writes: “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12‑13)
iii A beautiful collect from Compline reads: “Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (BCP, p. 133)
iv See, e.g., John 16:19-23; Romans 12:9-13; 2 Corinthians 8:1-2, 13:9; Philippians 1:18-21; Hebrews 12:1-2; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:3-9, 4:12-14
v Luke 6:22-23
vi We hear Jesus say: “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” (John 16:20‑22)
vii Philippians 4:4-9
viii Psalm 30:6
ix St. Paul writes, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16‑18)
x Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” (John 17:13)
xi Romans 15:13
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