Philippians 4:4-9; Luke 15:1-10
‘...There is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents...’, these words tell us just how much every person matters so much to Jesus our Great Shepherd – he goes to great lengths to look for those who turn to him - and it’s amazing to think that each one of us is so loved by God our Father in heaven.
When the shepherd in the parable finds his lost sheep and the woman finds her lost coin, both the shepherd and the woman do the same thing: they call their friends and neighbours together and say, ‘Rejoice with me’, because I’ve found what I have lost. And in our first reading from the letter to the Philippians St. Paul says to the church, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’
Joy can be experienced in many circumstances and in human relationships. But we live in a world where there are natural disasters, political catastrophes, economic hardships; accidents, illnesses, death and widespread wickedness, and none of us are exempt from suffering. So how in the world does the apostle Paul expect us always to be joyful? Does he want us to move through life as if we’re on some kind of spiritual ‘cloud 9’, oblivious to the awful things that sometimes go on in the world around us? No - that kind of joy is mindless naiveté and it isn’t attractive to anyone seeking a real and grounded basis for faith. So how can we rejoice when the road seems long and tiring, the skies are dark, the path is rough and when life is hard?
We can be sure a sense of well-being that ignores what’s going on around us isn’t what Paul has in mind when he tells the Philippians to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. The letter he writes is filled with recognition of the difficult circumstances they are facing. At the beginning of the letter Paul speaks of his own situation as a prisoner facing execution. A little later he encourages the Philippians to remain strong in the face of the opposition that threatens them as well. But in spite of the realities of persecution and suffering, Paul repeatedly calls on them to rejoice in the Lord.
Among the many situations in which joy is experienced, Scripture tells us that it’s especially important in the life of God’s people to experience joy in response to all that God has done for us. There are some lovely poetic expressions of joy found in the Old Testament, especially in the psalms: Psalm 100: Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
And Psalm 96: Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. Let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.
And in the New Testament, Jesus encourages his disciples to be joyful in spite of persecutions: In Luke 6, Jesus says, ‘blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven’. [Luke 6:22-23].
We know that God’s purpose is to redeem the whole world through the cross. And that is why we rejoice. We can rejoice that God the Father loves us so much, in spite of all our failures and mistakes, that he sent Jesus into the world to be our Saviour and our Lord. Jesus Christ’s coming into the world has brought great joy. In Luke’s gospel when the angel appears to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night, the angel says to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord”. [Luke 2:10-11].
We can rejoice in the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus: in John’s gospel after Jesus hints at his ascension to his disciples, it says, ‘Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. ...Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy...’ [John 16:19-24].
We can rejoice that after Jesus ascended into heaven he sent the Holy Spirit to be our comforter and our guide. The Holy Spirit can bring an inner joy to believers – a joy that doesn’t have to depend upon external circumstances – when we remember and trust in God’s promises and the work of Christ on the cross.
Every day we can choose to believe in the unconditional love of a faithful God. Even in the midst of disaster, we can be joyful if we know we are loved by a God who is in control of the bigger picture, a God who will bring order out of chaos. We will still grieve; we will still shed tears, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and hope that he’ll see us through the storm; his grace and mercy will sustain us. Choosing to rejoice in the Lord means choosing to receive all that he wants to give to us. It doesn’t mean we deny the reality of our circumstances or pretend we have no pain. Choosing joy means acknowledging the truth of what is happening, accepting that this is a difficult time, even mourning and grieving; but also, at the same time, looking to Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. He has determined our eternal destiny and he knows what he’s doing, even when we don’t really understand.
Paul isn’t asking us to rejoice in our circumstances. He’s asking us to rejoice in the Lord and he says this repeatedly. Paul knows it’s good to be reminded again and again to rejoice in the Lord. Paul rejoiced in the Lord because what he desired above all things was to be in Christ, close to Christ, content in Christ and ultimately to be with Christ forever. His rejoicing is not about smiling at the tragedies of life. He rejoiced because even as he looked at the chains on his ankles and wrists, and had few to none of the comforts of life that most of us strive for, and as he heard about the persecution of the Philippians, Paul rejoiced ‘in the Lord’ because he knew that if he trusted God, God would make something good come out of his suffering, something that would glorify God, and Paul desired to glorify God far more than he desired to live in comfort.
Paul instructs the Roman Christians to rejoice in their sufferings [Romans 5: 3]. He didn’t say rejoice because of sufferings, but to rejoice IN them. And Paul isn’t alone in this instruction. The apostle James says: ‘Consider it pure joy... when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance’ [James 1:2-3]. And the apostle Peter says: ‘In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials’ [1 Peter 1:6]. So it seems that the New Testament teaches us to rejoice even through suffering, because God will bring something good out of something bad.
Finally, rejoicing ‘in the Lord’ is about priorities. What do you most desire? What is most important for you in life? What drives you to live and behave in certain ways? Whatever it is that we most desire, that is what we’re hoping will give us joy. But true joy isn’t found in the passing things of this world – it’s only found in the eternal relationship with God ‘in the Lord’. Rejoice in that.
Rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice that he loves you.
Rejoice that he suffered and died for you; that he rose from the grave for you. Rejoice that he promises to return one day and that we’ll be with him in glory. The angels in heaven rejoice over everyone who turns to the Lord. Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice! Amen.