Rejoice in the Lord Always
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery AL
16 December 2018
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The verses we heard from Zephaniah are often called the Song of Joy. “Sing aloud, O Daughter Zion; Shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” it begins. Canticle 9, the first song of Isaiah, exhorts the inhabitants of Zion to “ring out their joy” because the Holy One of Israel is in the midst of them. And Paul tells the Philippians to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” He says it not only once but repeats himself. “Again, I will say, rejoice!”
It is important for us to remember that these exhortations to rejoice are not recommendations. Rejoicing is not something we are to do only when we feel like it. Rather, we are commanded to rejoice. Joyfulness, to put it simply, is a Christian duty.
This may seem strange to us. How can joyfulness be commanded? How can we be joyful when our spouse just died? How can we be joyful when we just got notified our health condition cannot be cured? When our children are addicted to drugs? When our spouse wants a divorce? When people are killed by senseless violence? Perhaps the best way to get at this is to think about the difference between happiness and joy.
Happiness and joy, as expressed in the Bible are not the same thing, though they have some similarities. Happiness is something that is very dependent on our own subjective feelings about external circumstances. I may be happy that I got a new job or found a new friend. What makes me happy, may not make you happy. It is hard to find things in which people find universal happiness. Even more difficulty, sometimes people find happiness in things that aren’t good. Some people find happiness in manipulating and abusing others. Some people find happiness in power which they can use to exploit and control others. We have no agreed upon objective measure in our day for what counts as happiness. Each of us gets to decide what happiness is for ourselves.
Joy on the other hand is somewhat different. The Greek word for joy is chara—which means having an awareness of God’s grace. It reflects an inner spiritual reality, not an external one. You might find it interesting to know that the word for grace is charis. And that the word for rejoice is chirete. All of these words are related to each other and chirete (rejoice) literally means, “To experience and be conscious of God’s grace.” Grace is not something that is ever bad for us. Grace, one could say, is the primary form of God’s being with us in the world. It is the way he reveals himself to us and communicates his love to us.
This is why we are commanded to rejoice and not commanded to be happy. We are commanded to be aware of God’s grace in our lives at all times. There is nothing that exists that grace cannot penetrate. God’s grace is all around us. The problem is that we have difficulty seeing it. I suspect this is the case because we are more focused on trying to be happy, rather than being joyful. Happiness, as we all know, is very fleeting and circumstantial. It’s sort of like putting on a warm coat when its cold, or taking a hot bath, or having a cup of hot chocolate. But someone could steal our coat, or there could be no hot water, or the cup of hot chocolate might spill.
J0y on the other hand, we might say, is like internal thermoregulation. Joy can help adjust our body temperature to the external environment such that when it is cold outside we wouldn’t need a coat or a hot bath or a cup of hot chocolate. Joy governs our soul’s response to happiness and sadness. Joy helps us to know how to respond internally and spiritually to external circumstances.
I recently talked to someone who is a new father. I asked him how being a father has changed him. He said that when he is with his daughter, he feels such a deep sense of joy that nothing in the world can touch him. Like being with her provides a force field which shields him from all the negative forces of the world. He even remarked that he becomes the world’s nicest and most gentle driver after he spends time with his daughter. He doesn’t mind if people cut him off, he let’s people come in front of him, and drives the speed limit or slightly slower.
This, I think is a beautiful example of the deep and abiding effect that joy has on us and how we respond to the gifts of God’s grace. That experience with his daughter effects him so deeply and spiritually that his outward orientation to the world changes. It softens him, it makes him more gentle with everyone and everything. This example might help explain why Paul can say, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I will say rejoice. Let your gen
But acquiring a disposition of joyfulness that is commanded is neither easy or automatic. Being consciously aware of God’s grace in our lives takes some disciplined attention on our part. It is easy to take God’s grace for granted. This is probably because, since it is all around us, we sometimes fail to see it when it is staring us right in the face. And, difficultly, too, of course, it is hard to be joyful because there are some powerful forces at work which are thieves of thankfulness and joy.
Some of these thieves of thankfulness and joy are envy, materialism, narcissism, and cynicism. Envy and materialism rob us of joy because they encourage us not to be grateful for what we have. Perhaps this is why John the Baptist tells his followers to get rid of their second coats and for the soldiers to be satisfied with their wages. Narcissism robs us of joy because we may not notice that we have been given a gift, because we think we were entitled to it anyway. Cynicism robs us of joy because it is an inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest. It is hard to love people if this is how we are oriented.
So one way we might be able to meet the challenge of being joyful people is not to give that thief of thankfulness and joy anything to steal. How might we do that? First, we might take a very hard look at the things and people that we envy and ask ourselves why these things make us jealous. More things or more status or more money might make us temporarily happy, but will they make us more joyful? Will they make us more gentle? Will they bring us more peace?
We might also pause and ask ourselves which things in our lives are gifts and which things we think we are entitled to. What things or people do we have in our lives that are truly gifts, but we don’t treat them as such? Do we feel entitled to have a house, a car, a spouse, children? A good job? A church home? How would our lives be different if we lost some or all of these things? I suspect that if we sat down and made a list of gifts that we already have in our lives, we will be surprised by its length. Rejoice at this list you write down.
Finally, we might examine our cynical attitudes, whether it be about the world, our nation, the church, our family, our workplaces, our friends, etc. Is the world really more bad than good? Are all people motivated purely by self-interest? All the time? If we think that is true, then we are making a terrible indictment on the nature and work of God. For to be cynical about everyone and everything is, in effect, to deny that God is working in the world at all.
But God is working in the world. We all know it. We have all experienced it in some form or another or we wouldn’t be here today. One of the challenges of the Christian life is to remember that God’s grace is always working in the world. God is in the midst of us. God is at work whether we are happy or sad. His grace penetrates through every darkness, through every disappointment. We just need to practice being more aware of that reality which is all around us. When we can do that, the vicissitudes of life will affect us less. We will become more gentle and more peaceful. This is why we are not commanded to be happy, but commanded to rejoice. “Rejoice in the Lord Always. Again, I say rejoice.”