Advent 4 – Philippians iv.4
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Reedemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Christmas time is a time of joy – a time of gift-giving, a time spent with family, a time spent remembering the miracle of the Incarnation of Christ. But for many, Christmas is not simply a time for rejoicing. For many it is a time of great stress, where the pressure to buy expensive presents push people to unwise financial decisions. For many it is a painful time where divisions in the family cut deeper, or where a lost loved one’s absence is so much harder to bear. Even the joyful mood of Christmas itself can be a burden. Have you ever been in a bad mood, and someone else was just too cheerful, and it made you feel worse? The Christmas time expectation of rejoicing may make this even more difficult to endure. Today’s epistle reading, from Paul writing to the Philippians, contains immense wisdom for how we can rejoice in the Lord always, and serves as a fitting perspective to have in mind as we approach Christmas Eve. So let’s take it verse by verse and break down what Paul is telling us here so that we can know how to rejoice in the Lord always.
- REJOICE in the Lord alway:
The first thing you might notice is that this is a command. Paul doesn’t say, Rejoice if you feel like it, or rejoice when you get a chance. He says to rejoice always. It reminds me of something my stepfather would say when we were acting up as kids and heading to the movies or the amusement park. He would say, “Behave yourself, because I have been looking forward to this. You’re going to have a good time whether you like it or not.” This command can be tough to hear because we don’t always feel like rejoicing. So how can we relate properly to a command to rejoice?
I looked up the Greek for the word Rejoice, and it is Chairete – which means be joyful, rejoice, just as translated here. But something interesting I noticed is that it was also used to say Hello and Goodbye. It’s sort of like how we say, “Take care of yourself,” or “Have a good day.” Sometimes when someone tells me to have a good day I like to jokingly reply, “Don’t tell me what to do.” So the sense in which chairete is a greeting is not a command in the strict sense but rather a well wishing – a hope. When you say, “Have a good day,” you are saying, “I want you to have a good day,” but with more emphasis – it’s like the pronouncement of a blessing. Paul wants us to rejoice in the Lord because it is good for us to rejoice in the Lord.
The tricky part of this statement is the “alway.” Are we really to rejoice in the Lord always? Some pretty hard things happen to us in the world. Are we to rejoice in the face of great tragedy in our own lives or evil transpiring in the world? Such a thing could get irritating very quickly. I recall the autobiography of Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place. In that her sister Betsie would say, no matter what happens, we always have to thank the Lord. As the evils of Nazism swirled around them and they worked as a family to help Jews escape persecution, Betsie continued to maintain: no matter what happens, we have to be thankful to the Lord. Then one day they were put into a Nazi concentration camp, and found themselves tossed into a room that was filled with lice. Itching, scared, exhausted, Corrie Ten Boom heard with frustration her sister say, “We have to be thankful to the Lord.” Corrie admits that her thought was, This time, she was sure that her sister was wrong. But what happened next was they slowly began to realize that the Nazi guards of the prison were leaving them alone, not harassing them like they were doing to the other prisoners. The reason was the guards didn’t want to get the lice, and this made it easier for Corrie and Betsie to minister to the hearts of their fellow inmates. Betsie was right – the lice, of all things, became a reason to rejoice in the Lord. If God in His providence can manage to bring out a cause for rejoicing in a lice-infested Nazi prison cell, then He can bring rejoicing into our hearts in much less dramatic situations. The key part of this phrase is in the Lord. Often we hear commands from God in Scripture and think, okay, here is something I will do. But the source of joy’s power comes from God, and the reason for joy is in God. It doesn’t say to rejoice in our attitude, or rejoice about our circumstances, or rejoice in our theology. It says, Rejoice in the Lord. God is the author of joy, and he is eternal, and in him we can find the eternal rejoicing that never wearies to speak good of His name; we can rejoice in the Lord always.
- and again I say, Rejoice.
Paul repeats himself here as a common example of the Hebrew means of emphasis: repetition is a verbal underline in the Jewish way of talking and drawing special attention to something. According to Strong’s Concordance, the Greek word for rejoice, chairete, appears 74 times in the New Testament. In Luke chapter 1:14, an angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah to foretell the birth of John the Baptist, “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth,” whose central purpose in life was to proclaim the meaning of Christ’s ministry, as we saw in the Gospel reading today. When the Magi were guided by the Star to Christ’s nativity, it says in Mark 2:10 “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” Rejoicing marked the beginning of Christ’s life, and it also marked the end.
When Christ was being crucified, the crowd mockingly said, Hail, King of the Jews! The word Hail is Xaire – they meant it sarcastically, but Christ was truthfully worthy of the title, and though they did not know it, their words contained another truth – that Christ’s death on the Cross was a work of his sovereignty and the source of the greatest joy imaginable. This sarcastic expression of joy was made real and sincere when Christ showed himself to the disciples, and in touching his hands and seeing the scars in John 20:20, “And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.”
I mentioned that the Greek word for rejoice can mean hello and goodbye. We see here that Christ’s coming into the world was a cause for rejoicing, and that his death and resurrection was a cause for rejoicing too. Shakespeare wrote that parting is such sweet sorrow, but our hellos and goodbyes can be filled with joy because we are like the man who heard the good news from Phillip in Acts 8:39 who went his way rejoicing. Yes, we will have times of sorrow, grief, anger, and depression. We don’t need to force ourselves to have fake joy, but should instead look into the objective treasure of the revelation of Christ. Whether we are coming or going, whether we are saying hello or goodbye to earthly joys, by always reflecting on the meaning of Christmas Eve, by never ceasing to repeat the sounding joy that comes alive in Emmanuel, we can rejoice in the Lord always.
- Let your moderation be known unto all men.
When I first read this verse I thought it had to do with financial moderation, or maybe regulating how much Christmas ham we eat. But the word translated here as moderation, epieikes, means gentleness – being mild, reasonable, moderate in the sense of attitude. So what this is actually saying is that we need to regulate our emotions, so that we provide a good testimony. But we have already been warned against doing that on our own strength when we have been told to “Rejoice in the Lord.” Christian moderation of emotions, godly self-control comes from knowledge of the truth – that the temporary upsetting circumstance cannot overcome the joy that comes from worshipping in spirit and in truth the Incarnate God. I understand the overpowering experience of negative emotions, having suffered them myself. As Camarie can attest, I do not always let my moderation be known. But we should take care to watch our tongues when we are upset. James 3:6 reads, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” In our personal interactions, including on social media, we have to be careful to guard our testimonies, but if that moderation of attitude is sheerly an effort of self-control it won’t last. It will slip. To really let our moderation be known to all men, to have them see us as gentle and reasonable, then we have to be fully engaged in the cause for our rejoicing, which requires a full and constant participation in the basic elements of Christian life: worship, fellowship, reading the Scripture, prayer, and the sacraments. By doing so, we can rejoice in the Lord always.
- The Lord is at hand.
It’s interesting that this reading is paired with that of John the Baptist. As what could be called the last prophet, John was also the first model of the evangelistic calling of the Christian. Paul has just told us to let our testimony be seen before all men, and then reminds us of something that we should live in accordance with but also be making others aware of: Christ is coming back. Scripture teaches that no one knows the day or the hour when Christ will come again, but we should live in a manner as if he could at any moment. While being responsible in all that we do in business and in our obligations, financial or otherwise, we should also live in a way marked by the knowledge that Christ will come like a thief in the night. We won’t be able to be ready for it ahead of time, so we better be ready for it at any time.
Another point is worth mentioning here. When I looked up the Greek word for “at hand,” I noticed that it’s an adverb that means “near by.” In Acts 17:27, Paul tells the Athenians that God appointed the nations and their histories in such a way “they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” Something the Anglican philosopher George Berkeley showed was that because all of Creation cannot exist apart from God’s perception of it, that means we have no secrets from God. We might feel like we are concealing things in our hearts, that we can close the door so others cannot see what we are doing. But God sees each word and deed, even each thought. That is frightening, but it also is exciting because it means that God knows exactly what we need, both in terms of eternity but also from one moment to the next. If we live both as if God’s ultimate plan for us is at hand but also that in our everyday needs he is nearby, then we can rejoice in the Lord always.
- Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.
When Paul tells us to be careful for nothing, he isn’t saying to be careless, so don’t use this verse as an excuse to drive over the speed limit or eat extra cookies over the holidays. In Elizabethan English, to be careful literally means to be filled with care: so don’t let yourself be so careworn that it fills you up, to where you feel like your worries are washing over you and drowning you. If you are struggling to have joy, it’s probably because you are trying to battle the care on your own strength. Whatever is flooding you with care, empty out your cup of worry before the throne of Grace. Let him know. He wants to hear it. Pray without ceasing, and ask for what you need. And take time to consider the reasons you have to truly be grateful – to be thankful for your salvation and for the immense providence of God’s Word, and to be thankful for every blessing in your life. When we realize that every good thing we have, our jobs, our families, our homes, our food, our Christmas cheer – none of it is owed to us. Cultivating a thankful heart through prayer will help us to see more objectively how serious the causes for our concern are. If we are grateful then maybe we can see that our causes for worry aren’t as big as they seem, but if they really are bigger, then immersing ourselves in heartfelt prayer with God will make it clear to us that he is bigger, that he can fill us with joy instead of care, and then by means of his grace we will be able to rejoice in the Lord always.
- And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
What a blessing it is that the peace which God offers us passes understanding. Thank goodness for that. Can we really understand the Incarnation? God, who is eternal, sinless, and all powerful, became a human, a creature which is temporal, beset by a sinful world, and weak. How can the limitless nature of divinity be joined to the limited nature of humanity? How can Christ be the Second Person of the Trinity but not know the day or the hour of His own Second coming? For that matter how can God be three persons but one God, one Lord? How can God be three persons and one Lord, but only the Second Person of the Trinity is incarnated and not all three of them? How can the death of this perfect, sinless, almighty, physically weak and vulnerable man, God who had become a baby, become a sacrifice for my sins? All of this is such a miracle, and all of the brilliant theology of Christian writers throughout the ages can only help us to glimpse understanding of the wonder that it is all really true. We can take comfort in knowing that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and because God made possible the impossibility of joining his eternal, holy, and ancient nature with a mortal, earthly, infant body, then those cares that would hamper our joy are light work for him to overcome. When we fix our minds on the shocking glory of the miracle of the Incarnation this week and all that it means for us and for the world, then we will not be able to help ourselves – we will be compelled by our hearts and minds, filled with the peace that passes all understanding, to rejoice in the Lord always. Amen.