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Philippians 4:4. Rejoice in the Lord always!

Advent 4, December 21, 2014 A+D, Emmaus Ev. Lutheran Church U.A.C., St. Louis, Mo.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Dearly beloved, let us consider four things: What rejoicing is. What rejoicing in the Lord is. What rejoicing in the Lord always is. And how to do it.

First, what rejoicing is. What happens when you rejoice in something? You love it. You enjoy it. You take delight in. It makes you happy and content. Also, it is something you have, since you do not usually rejoice that you lack something good. For example, your spouse comes home and says, “Rejoice! I got a raise at work.” You rejoice when your team wins the big game. You rejoice that you can enjoy a beautiful day. Or you rejoice that your finals are done, your papers have been turned in, and burdens have been lifted from your shoulders. You rejoice that you finally sold your old car, your house, or your bike, and now you can move on. Sometimes people ignore the good things around them and refuse to rejoice. If your son is in a bad mood, you might have to remind him, “Rejoice! Look at all that the Lord has given you: family, friends, a home, food on the table, even some toys and games.” People can ignore the good things around them and refuse to rejoice. But on the other hand, rejoicing is not usually something you can just decide to do. Rejoicing does not come from a decision you make. Instead, it springs up from something outside of you. It springs up from some good news, from something that you enjoy, something that you love, and that you have, whether it’s freedom, beloved people, security, or even a new toy. It comes from outside of you. That is what rejoicing is.

But note this: The Apostle does not command you to rejoice always, period. God’s will is not for you to be constantly happy in everything in your life. In fact, when you look at yourself and your sins, you are supposed to be sad. The prophet Isaiah says: “Wail, for the day of the Lord is at hand!” (13:6). And St. Paul writes to the Romans: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). So when St. Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he’s not telling you that it’s a sin to be sad. He is not commanding a normal, worldly happiness.

Instead, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” What is rejoicing in the Lord? It is basically the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods. How so? The first commandment requires that we fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Whatever we love above all things, that is what gives us joy more than anything else. If you love something and you have it, then you rejoice. That’s how it works. So rejoicing in the Lord means that you have the Lord as your God (not money, not your stuff, not your lust or pleasure, not even other people) and also, you have the Lord; He is with you. So that’s why rejoicing in the Lord is a commandment. But aren’t you tempted to let your grandkids, your girlfriend, your new computer, your smartphone, be your greatest joy? If you want to see whether you’re keeping this commandment, try telling everyone not to give you any Christmas gifts this year, and see if your heart rejoices in the Lord and is content and happy! The sad truth is that not just secular people, but even you Christians sitting here at Emmaus Lutheran Church probably have more joy in worldly things than in the Lord. Secular people sometimes take joy in evil things, but Christians like you sometimes take God’s good things, His good gifts, and make them your highest joy, something that is not good. The good gifts of God—like family, friends, food, drink, Christmas presents—can be misused, when they become more important than God and His Word. I think we can see this when people stay away from church to be with family, or when churches cancel their Christmas services so that people can have family time. Or when peace in the family is more important than speaking the hard truth in love and calling family members to repentance. This is putting God’s gifts in the place of God. It is rejoicing less in the Lord and more in the Lord’s earthly gifts.

Can you be like Job, so that even if you have nothing else in the world, like Job who lost everything—even his children—you could still rejoice in the Lord? To be honest, I doubt that I could. Of course, not even Job really lived up to this. He did not reject faith in God, but when plagued by illness and loss, he could not really rejoice. But the commandment stands. And you cannot live up to it, either.

Rejoice in the Lord always; not just sometimes, but always. This is a commandment for all times in your life. Whether you feel happy, sad, bored, excited, distracted, etc., you are supposed to rejoice in the Lord always. That means to keep Him in your heart, to let Him be your greatest joy. Do you rejoice in the Lord? By the grace of the Holy Spirit, yes you do, but in weakness, and not always. And so you know that any rejoicing in the Lord which you can do here in this life is only preliminary. You will first be able to keep the commandment in heaven. Then you will rejoice in the Lord always.

So how to do it? How to rejoice in the Lord always? As Pr. Hellwege said in a sermon a few years ago, it is a question of perspective. How to view the world? We often look at it with “me” in the center. Instead, look at it from God’s perspective. We deserve damnation, wrath, rejection, etc. But instead we have received a baby who is God the Son, born unto us. We have received the obedience of Christ counted as our own obedience. We have received His sufferings and cross, counted as our own. From that perspective, we have good reason to rejoice always!

Of course, you can’t just decide and try hard to rejoice. Here’s why. True joy doesn’t come just from human willpower or decision. True, you can decide to not rejoice despite all of God’s good gifts to you in Christ. But you can’t just decide and try hard to rejoice. It’s like how you can’t just decide to fall in love with someone and try hard to make it happen. Instead, this love comes when you concentrate on what is outside of you. You are taken by her beauty, her voice, her kindness. You’re focused on her, and love springs up. So also with joy, you can’t just decide to rejoice in the Lord. Instead, God has shown you how beautiful He is, how sweet His voice is in His Word, how kind He is in sending His Son. God Himself, the Son of God, became a helpless baby, humble and dependent on His mother and other people. God Himself chose to be a child, to have dirty diapers, to fall down, cry, get scrapes and bruises. He chose to live a holy life for you. He chose to suffer the punishment of your sins by a painful, bloody death. He arose from death and ascended on high. And now, the Lord is at hand. He is at hand invisibly in His Word. He is at hand tangibly in His Sacraments. He will be at hand visibly when He comes again. When you’re focused on this, then joy will spring up from outside of you. If you are in love, what happens when you hear that you get to see and be with the one you love? You rejoice. And that is how rejoicing in the Lord happens. You hear that you get to see and be with Him. The Lord is at hand. For you, this is good news. Rejoice in the Lord Jesus always.

May God cut off from our hearts the joy in worldly things, so that we may take full joy in the Lord, who is at hand and abides forever. Amen.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Rev. Dr. Benjamin T. G. Mayes

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