Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Advent 3 (C)
16 December 2018
As we know, each week during Advent has a particular thematic focus.
As we make our way through these four Sundays prior to Christmas this year we are considering in turn the themes of hope, peace, joy and love.
These are not only great Advent themes, they are also deeply significant elements in lives that are satisfying and deeply meaningful.
So today we are focusing on joy and we see that being reflected very clearly in today’s epistle from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always,’ Paul says. ‘And again I will say, rejoice!’
In a moment we shall come back to tease out this concept of joy using the excerpt from Paul’s letter as the basis for our reflections, but first I’d like us to set aside some common misconceptions about joy.
So let me simply list—without any detailed discussion—a whole series of examples where joy is sometimes mistaken for something else, or conversely some other aspect of life is as mistakenly believed to guarantee joy if we can just achieve or possess it.
Joy is not the same as happiness
Joy is not the same as being amused or entertained
Joy is not always expressed in laughter or a cheery face
Joy does not mean we are carefree or untroubled
Joy is not a result of alcohol, drugs and medication
Joy is not having the latest consumer products
Joy is not about lots of sex
Based on how advertising is designed, one could be forgiven for thinking that a profound sense of contentment and well-being in all kinds of circumstances is indeed generated by one or more of these attributes. The more the better, it seems.
But we also know from own our experience—as well as from observation of those who enjoy an abundance of these attributes—that influence, power, status and wealth do not ensure joy. Indeed, sometimes these sadly become demons that destroy lives and even drive people to self-harm.
So let’s focus on the brief passage from Philippians that we heard earlier:
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]
As we focus on this excerpt from a letter written about 25 years after Easter, let’s remind ourselves why we do this.
It is not because grabbing a few words from the Bible will provide us with a recipe for joy, or the answers to life’s questions. We are not hearing words spoken by God, but words written by Paul.
I am now going to recycle here what I wrote online a few days ago:
We read the texts not to hear what God has said in the past, but to hear how other people of faith have spoken about God in the past so that we are better equipped to listen to God in the present.
So we reflect on these words as words from Paul, and therefore words from someone with a deep insight into the dynamics of faith and life. As we do so, we are opening our hearts and minds to discern the whisper of the Spirit who makes the human words of the Bible a sacrament of invitation to live more deeply and more truly. When that happens then the ‘word of the Lord’ has been proclaimed and heard among us.
In this short paragraph, Paul offers us several ideas for contemplation. Let’s take them one by one.
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!
The underlying Greek word used here was also the everyday greeting when people met in the street or sent a letter: χαιρε [chaire]. It was the word on the lips of Judas as he greeted Jesus in the garden, and the words used by the soldiers as they mocked Jesus, “Hail, king of the Jews!”
As used by Paul here, we note that he adds “… in the Lord …”.
We are to wish one another—and also ourselves—happiness, health, peace, success and well-being in the Lord.
Our joy finds its roots in Jesus himself. The blessings we wish for others come from Jesus. What we hope for ourselves comes from Jesus, and is grounded in all that he means to us.
That makes joy an appropriate theme for reflection today as we get closer to Christmas Day. Joy to the world, the Lord has come!
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
If we have a deep sense of joy and if we are truly at peace within ourselves, then others should experience us as gentle people.
That almost seems like a quaint old-fashioned idea. But it invites us to think more deeply about how we conduct ourselves.
Are religious people known for our gentleness?
Do we have reputations as gentle people among our families and friends?
Or do we kick heads and push others around, just like everyone else?
Worse still, are we seen as people trying to push our religion down other’s throats?
Are we really people who want to the right to discriminate against students and teachers in Christian schools because of their gender or their sexuality?
Paul suggests that joyful people, as people who realise that the Lord is near, will be gentle and that everyone else will recognise that about us. If only that were so!
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Now Paul shifts the focus: from how others experience us, to how we handle the adversities that inevitably come our way.
Note that Paul assumes ‘stuff will happen’.
When ‘stuff happens’ in our lives we are not to worry about it, but rather bring everything that is happening to God, letting God know how we feel about the situation and seeking grace to deal with it. Things that might otherwise cause us to be anxious can now become something we bring to God with thanksgiving; in an attitude of gratitude.
Paul is going beyond the “don’t be anxious” advice we find in the Gospels, and urging his readers to bring their worries to God with thanksgiving. When we can do that, then we have found a sweet spot indeed, and our trust in the Lord is sustaining us through times when we might otherwise meltdown.
We will not get this right every time. Sometimes we will complain loudly and let God know exactly how unfair life seems. And that is OK as well.
But sometimes we will get it right.
When we trust God enough to be grateful even for the bad stuff—as it is happening, and not only with the benefit of hindsight—then we are getting very close to having found real joy.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Paul wraps up this section with words that are very familiar to us, even though when he wrote them in his short letter to the Philippians no one else had ever quite put it that way before.
When we find our deepest meaning in Jesus, the human face of God …
When others find us to be gentle people …
When we can set aside our natural instinct to worry …
When we bring our troubles to God with thanksgiving …
Then the peace of God which passes all understanding guards our hearts and minds.
When our hearts and our minds are guarded by God’s peace, we have joy.
May the hope and the peace that we celebrated these past two Sundays in Advent, mean that this week we find real joy.