Monday, December 17, 2012

Sermon on Philippians 4:4-7, for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "Rejoice in the Lord"

Note: This sermon on joy was written with the tragic and senseless events of the recent school shooting in mind. Our prayers and hearts go out to the victims and survivors, that God would sent His peace and the light of Jesus Christ into the darkness of this time. As the Psalmist in Psalm 42 reflects, sometimes joy may seem distant and we may feel only bitterness and grief. Yet he puts his hope in God that there will again be a day of praise and gladness. The Bible's teaching on joy is a reminder to us that Christian joy does not concede or retreat from evil, or times of grief or loss, but rather that God sends His good news of redeeming love and comfort to us precisely when we are hurting, lonely, and lost. It is the message of Jesus' victory of good over evil at the cross, that is the only hope for joy in a time of darkness. It is this joy in the Lord that is brighter than the darkness, and that gives us hope even in midst of our worst troubles. 

·         Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As we gather together today, doubtless many of us ache in our hearts for the victims of the unspeakable tragedy that just took place at the elementary school in Connecticut. We’re horrified to see such evil, especially against young children. Our hearts are filled with sorrow for the countless families of the victims, and also for those who witnessed these events and are still reeling from them. Many may feel at a time of such tragic loss, or during our personal losses, that for a long time there may be no room in our hearts for anything but sorrow. We may feel like the Psalmist, who in Psalm 42 bleakly remembered the glad praises he used to sing in the Temple, while he was wrestling with the turmoil in his soul because of some great grief. Yet from the depths of his sadness, he echoed this refrain: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God”. Sadness filled his soul, yet he hoped for the day when praise would again fill his lips—praise for the God of our salvation. The hope that rests in God does not die together with our losses. The darkness cannot extinguish the light.
·         Yet at such a time of loss, a person may wrestle with the familiar words from our lesson today: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!” Joy may seem to be the furthest thing from our heart, even if we long to experience it again, and to be renewed and refreshed from our griefs. Can joy be like water to a person who is desperately thirsty, parched dry by grief? We struggle especially with how it’s possible to rejoice in the Lord always. Like in the midst of our sorrows. When we feel like we’re living in deep darkness.
·         Yet surprisingly, in numerous places throughout the Bible, the river of joy flows right alongside our sorrows. Jesus spoke about joy and sorrow when He was preparing His disciples for His departure. He spoke of them in the same breath, and acknowledged that at many times, they will exist side by side. Jesus said to His disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” Not a worldly peace, not a fleeting, temporary peace, but an abiding peace in our hearts. He also said they “would have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” This is a joy that cannot be robbed from us, and a rejoicing that comes from knowing we’ll see Jesus again one day. Jesus concluded that speech to His disciples by saying: “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
·         You may also have noticed that He connects joy with the peace of God, just as Philippians 4 also speaks of the peace of God that passes all understanding, right after telling us to rejoice in the Lord always. It is indeed a mysterious peace, one that goes beyond all understanding, because this peace can exist even in the worst of situations. It is the deep peace of knowing that our sins are forgiven before God. The peace of knowing that everything has been made right with God because of what Jesus did in dying on the cross for sin.
·         Paul wrote those words “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice” while He was in prison for preaching that very good news, uncertain of whether he was going to live or die. Joy and peace for him existed in the midst of trouble. Or 1 Thessalonians 5 he wrote: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” In all circumstances. Again! How is that possible? What can we conclude from all these passages about joy?
·         From Jesus we learn that this joy is not naturally inside of us, but rather this joy and peace comes from outside of us, and doesn’t depend on our “ups and downs!” It’s not a peace or joy that the world gives, however pleasurable and satisfying those may seem as long as they last. It’s not a joy that flees from grief and despair, but it is the good news sent to those in darkness. This joy that comes from outside of us is a gift of God. It comes from Him, and not from us. It’s the joy of knowing that Christ has overcome the world. It’s the only joy that can face even the ugliest evils, because it’s the joy of knowing that Jesus Christ is the victory over evil. In the face of the greatest evils, even school shootings where any hope of justice seems impossibly out of reach, we know that a greater triumph of good over evil exists. This is the One Victory of good over evil that matters above all else. It is the victory of the cross of Jesus. In that victory, we can take heart that Jesus Christ has overcome the world. When the innocent Son of God, Jesus Christ, hung on the cross, justice also seemed impossibly out of reach. But His innocent blood had to be shed, in order to conquer the sin and evil that lives in every one of us.
·         Ephesians 2 tells us that this was how He Himself became our peace, and reconciled us to God by His blood shed on the cross. Through this mysterious victory on the cross, He brought us near to God, so that nothing can separate us from His love. So in His rising from the dead, we see that no barrier can stand between us and life with God—not even the ugliest tragedies, not even our most painful memories, not even the guilt of sins we feared were unforgivable. He is our forgiveness, He is our peace.
·         His victory becomes our victory by faith, as 1 John 5 says: “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” By faith in Christ, we too have victory, even over death. And our joy, our peace—the peace of God, really—rests in our hearts. This is the joy and peace that we have in all circumstances—joy in the Lord. Joy in ourselves or joy in our circumstances either doesn’t exist or doesn’t last—and certainly cannot stand up to the darkness of our world.
·         And so the call to rejoice should never become one more thing to feel guilty about—as if feeling guilty about it could help reverse the situation! Because this joy in the Lord doesn’t come from within us by manufacturing or stirring up the right feelings by our own willpower. This joy comes from outside of us, from Jesus Christ our Lord. And it’s available to us even when outward circumstances are bad: in the midst of our loneliness, fear, hopelessness, or whatever imprisons us. If Christ’s joy penetrated and illuminated Paul’s prison, so also can it penetrate and illuminate our own prisons, whether they are of our own construction, or of others. But more than that, Christ sets us free—free from sin, death, and the power of the devil, who with his constant lying and murdering would do anything to rob us of our peace. So the joy we have is also the joy of knowing that in the Lord we will one day be utterly free of those powers, and never again be subject to death, fear, sin, or sorrow. We know that “The Lord will rescue [us] from every evil deed and bring [us] safely into his heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:18).
·         This is the light we see, shining in the darkness, shining into our gloom. The light the prophet Isaiah wrote of, so long ago: “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. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest” and, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2-3, 5 ). The joy, the light that shines in on us is the joy of the Christ child, born to us to be our Prince of Peace. The joy of knowing Christ has overcome the world; He was born to set His people free, from our fears and sins to release us. He is the dear desire of every nation, the joy of every longing heart (Come, thou long-expected Jesus).
·         So with that joy of the Lord in our hearts—let us “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!” Now, may the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
·         Pray: Friend of the little children, lighten the darkness of our hearts. Remember in mercy all who have been devastated by the shooting this week in Connecticut. To Your care we commend the injured and the mourning, the traumatized and the terrified. Embrace and comfort each hurting family, O You who have known in Your own flesh what violence and hatred can do, and yet triumphed in love. Give them Your peace and a share in Your hope. Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read Philippians 1:7, 12-14 & 4:4. In what circumstances did Paul find occasion to tell us to “rejoice in the Lord always”? What circumstances do we find ourselves struggling to rejoice? How does the peace and joy of the Lord penetrate our prisons of hopelessness and fear? Why does this joy truly come in the Lord?

  1. Why is joy “seated” in a deeper place than emotions like happiness and sadness? How does this make it possible to have joy, even when outward circumstances are bad? 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; 1 Peter 1:6-7; 4:13; John 16:22. How does joy relate/compare to the blessedness of the beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)?

  1. What is the “reasonableness” that Paul speaks of in verse 5? Titus 3:2. In other passages, this word is sometimes translated gentleness. Why ought patient listening and gentleness be characteristics of all Christians and evidenced in our interactions with others? How do the opposite behaviors harm our witness?

  1. How is prayer the prescription for anxiety (worry)? See again 1 Thess. 5:16-18; 1 Peter 5:6-7; Matthew 6:25-34. Why does giving thanks to God in all circumstances help change our perspective on anxiety?

  1. God’s peace passes both human understanding, and also angelic understanding. How does this peace have the power to change our hearts and minds, and guard them against every attack of the devil to rob us of peace? How did Jesus give us this peace? Ephesians 2:13-18; when did Jesus announce this peace to His disciples? John 20:19; 14:27; 16:33

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