REJOICE – REALLY?
A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, December 17, 2017
Text: Psalm 126; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
When I was growing up, it was a family tradition to have daily devotions around the breakfast table. Though this may evoke a scene from Norman Rockwell, it seldom was that serene. In the early morning bustle of feeding four kids and getting them off to school there was frequently just a little bit of stress. Sometimes those daily devotions felt like a burden. The source of those devotions was “The Secret Place,” which is a daily digest of biblical and spiritual reflection and prayer still produced by our denomination. We get a few copies every quarter and make them available to our community. You can find the latest edition in the church entryway. I’m sure our family used that resource both because it was from our denomination and because my father occasionally wrote for it.
On one particularly disoriented morning, more than one of us had gotten up on the proverbial “wrong side of the bed.” Maybe it was a day when no one really wanted to go to school – either the weather was too bad or too nice. Maybe it was one of those Saturdays when there were a multitude of chores to be done before we could play. Maybe it was the stress of a holiday season. Maybe there was sibling rivalry. Maybe my father had scorched the oatmeal. Whatever the reasons, we were out of sorts. Norman Rockwell would have found nothing idyllic to paint that particular morning as we gathered, grumbling, around the breakfast table for our daily devotions. Clearly, we needed a little attitude adjustment, but we weren’t having it.
The reason I’m telling you this is that the Bible reading for that morning focused on rejoicing. Maybe it was one today’s texts – “May all who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy!” or “I will greatly rejoice in the Holy One, my whole being shall exult in my God…” or “Rejoice always…” Truth be told, I think the reading was probably another of Paul’s exhortations to a first century congregation. “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) – wonderful words written to the church in Philippi.
My sainted mother, fed up with our discontent, decided to make a crusade of getting us to rejoice. For the rest of whatever time we had together that morning, every time we opened our mouths to grumble or complain, to show a mean or distressed face, she would respond by proclaiming forcefully, “Rejoice! Rejoice!” Though I doubt it led to a lot of joy, it has remained a memorable childhood event for me. Rejoice! Rejoice! Really? Can you actually pressure yourself or someone else into rejoicing? The Psalmist, Isaiah, Paul, all encourage rejoicing on occasion, but can it be imposed? I’m quite sure it did not work when my mother tried it.
Yet, here it is, year after year, on the third Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday. I like the sound of that word gaudete – Latin for joy. In their wisdom, the creators of the liturgical calendar have designated this Sunday as the Sunday for rejoicing. So, get with it folks, “Rejoice! Rejoice!” Really? you say. Who are you tell us to rejoice? And that’s a fair question, though I’m not ever likely to tell you to rejoice. I might invite you or encourage you or even coax you, but I can’t imagine instructing you. I don’t know if joy is a fragile flower, but I’m sure it can’t be forced to bloom.
So, help me out here. Where do you find joy in your life? What causes you to rejoice? Where do you find joy in this season? What elicits your rejoicing? And, one more approach to the topic, where would you like to find joy? Where would you delight to find yourself rejoicing?
One of the challenges of this Advent season has been to find hope, to find peace in a world that seems in so many ways to have gone mad. In the midst of the chaos and stress of daily living on this planet, how can we talk about joy? Rejoice – really? Some days it’s almost too difficult to get out of bed for fear of what we fill find in the daily news. What incivility, ingratitude, insolence, injury, insanity will confront us today? How much more can we take of disasters, natural and unnatural, of disease, of disrespect, of distress at every turn? When and where can we find time to rejoice? Maybe an afternoon or evening watching “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” will do the trick.
But seriously, here it is in the wisdom of the ages. “When the Divine Lover enters the human heart, all yearnings are fulfilled! Then will our mouths ring forth with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy! Then we will sing our songs of praise to You, O Beloved of all hearts. For gladness will radiate out for all to see, so great is your Presence among us.” So, sings the Psalmist in Nan Merrill’s paraphrase. Is there something to be said for us today in opening our hearts to the Divine Lover, the ever-near and still-coming One whose promised presence among us we celebrate in this season? Is there room in the inn of our hearts for a miracle still to be born, in spite of all the turmoil around us? Rejoice – really?
“I will greatly rejoice in the Holy One, my whole being shall exult in my God;” proclaims the prophet, “for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, God has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” Garments of salvation, robes of righteousness, the adornment of the wedding banquet? Dare we make such a claim for ourselves? Yet the One whose birth we await, claimed exactly such a wardrobe when he began his ministry, echoing the prophet’s claim and announcing its fulfillment in his ministry and ours as his followers. “The spirit of GOD is upon me, because the Holy One has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the God’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion…”
As difficult as it may be to discern at times, it is precisely this sort of proclamation and practice of good news that will bring joy to our lives. Remember, joy is not happiness. Joy contains that deep satisfaction of action rightly taken, of life well-lived, of love played out in human interaction with all of creation. The great Russian novelist and mystic, Leo Tolstoy, wrote that “Joy can only be real if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.” Rejoice – really?
“Yes,” says Paul, “Rejoice always…” “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” I don’t know Paul, that sounds like a tall order, a lot of work, maybe more than I can handle. Is this really God’s will in Christ Jesus for you and me? Well, for the sake of today’s theme, let’s take the exhortation seriously.
What would it take for us to rejoice always? Prayer without ceasing sounds like a good start. What if my life was a prayer that God’s will be done in and through me? I imagine, as challenging as that would be, it would also yield some joy to be so centered in the Holy One, the Divine Lover.
What if our lives were shaped by gratitude for all we’ve been given, gratitude that played itself out even when times were tough, and we were inclined to be grumpy or worse? Karl Barth observed that “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.”
What if we were really open to the wild unpredictability of the Spirit’s movement in us and through us? Henri Nouwen believed that “Each day holds a surprise. But only if we expect it can we see, hear, or feel it when it comes to us. Let’s not be afraid,” he encourages, “to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy. It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.” Are willing to live with that sort of expectancy of and receptivity to what the Holy One might be doing among us? Are we willing make ourselves vulnerable in order to experience the joy inherent in shared humanity? Rejoice – really?
Are we ready? Are we making preparations this Advent? The day of rejoicing is fast approaching. Do we want to be left out or do we want to lift our voices, however faintly, with “all who go forth weeping tears of repentance, bearing seeds for sowing,” so that we, like them, may “come home to” the Holy One, the Divine Lover, “with shouts of joy, leaving sorrow behind”? Rejoice? Yes, really! Rejoice! Amen.