Paul’s words in Philippians chapter 4 are a tall order. Always? How is that even possible?
Christmas time is, without doubt, a time of joy. The angel declared it that first Christmas night, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that will be to all people.” If ever there were a time to experience all the warm jollies, it would be this time of year. The words “joy,” “happy,” “glad,” and “merry” keep popping up in all the songs. Gaiety abounds in the commercials and movies about the season. Christmas is the season of hope, faith, love, and JOY. “’Tis the season to be jolly!”
And yet . . . for many, this season is also a time of deep despair.
We’ve all felt it. That niggling feeling you get smack dab in the middle of all the happy reunions, the gift giving, the carol singing, the parties . . . that feeling that deep down everything is NOT all right with the world. Not yet. Not everyone gets along, or even tries to. The kids get sick. The weather cancels a much-needed celebration. Or worse. There are empty seats at the family table. You receive an unexpected health diagnosis. You don’t have the money to cover the bills anymore. You’ve lost your job. Stories of addiction, betrayal, murder and hate fill our news.
How do we rejoice always in a world that is still so dark?
The answer lies in the context of the verse itself. For, you see, I may have left out some very important words. Here’s what Paul actually wrote:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” [emphasis mine]Philippians 4:4
Paul doesn’t ask us to rejoice in our circumstances. He asks us to rejoice In the Lord. We rejoice because of our faith in God’s promises. The Christmas story is a prime example of how God keeps His promises. The Messiah, foretold for generations, is finally born. God became flesh and lived on earth with man. His death and resurrection ushered in another promise. Through Christ’s salvation, we are freed from the curse of sin and death. But that’s not all. We have great hope in the promise that someday our King will return and all that’s wrong with this world will be set right. No more sorrow. No more pain. No more death.
So, what does it look like to rejoice always in a dark and desperate world? After our study in Acts, I can’t help but picture this rejoicing in action. The story would have been a familiar one to the first recipients of the letter where Paul encourages his readers to “rejoice in the Lord always.”
“A mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas, and the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with wooden rods. They were severely beaten, and then they were thrown into prison. The jailer was ordered to make sure they didn’t escape. So the jailer put them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks.
Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening.”Acts 16:22-25
Wait a minute. Hold the phone. They’d been severely beaten, thrown into prison, bound in the stocks, and they were SINGING? That ain’t right! It’s not even natural.
It wasn’t natural. It was so unnatural, that people sat up and took notice. As a result, the Philippian church was born.
Paul describes this attitude of joy again in 2 Corinthians 6:9b-10:
“We have been beaten, but we have not been killed. Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything.” [emphasis mine]
We can rejoice despite our circumstance because, as Christians, we have great hope. Today’s sorrows are nothing compared to tomorrow’s glory. So, this Christmas, and all the days after, let us be known for our continuous joy.