Saturday morning I woke up and immediately thought, “What am I going to preach about tomorrow?”
I had been wrestling with that question all week.
The Old Testament reading is fascinating but what I would tell you about it is more fodder for a Bible study than a sermon. The Gospel reading has a peculiar and even discomforting parable. I didn’t want to preach a message of judgment this morning.
Honestly, I have never sat down to write a sermon and thought, “You know what my congregation needs to hear? A good old sermon about judgment.”
So Saturday morning I awoke with the thought, “What am I going to preach about tomorrow?”
My question was answered by Paul’s simple command we have read this morning: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. This led to a couple of hours of pondering that single word of command: rejoice.
Friday night, at our weekly Zoom call that we know as Friday Night Wine Time, we were discussing how peculiar a season this is. One person said, “There are only three days in each week now: Sunday, today and yesterday.” We talked about how time has slowed to a crawl and yet things that happened just a couple of months ago seem like they happened years ago. I was reminded of the line from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, “Time moves slowly, but passes quickly.”
What does it mean to rejoice in the midst of a pandemic? Four things are worth noting about that simple command: the word Paul uses, the punctuation of the command, our response, and the fact that Paul felt he had to repeat it for emphasis.
Let’s look into those four points, but not in that order.
First, let’s consider the word Paul uses. Paul tells us to rejoice. Paul doesn’t say, “Be happy!” or “Be delighted!” He says rejoice.
Paul writes these words to the church in Philippi. The church there was founded by Paul on his first missionary journey. It was the first church on European soil. Paul maintained a warm and affectionate relationship with the Philippians for the rest of his life.
Today we read the last of four weeks’ worth of readings from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul wrote the church while he was in prison in Rome. The Philippians had heard about his plight and they sent him a gift to encourage him. This prompted Paul to write a thank you letter which is what we now know as the epistle to the Philippians.
But Paul being Paul, he couldn’t simply say thank you. Instead he wrote affectionately and tenderly to his beloved encouraging them in the faith. One of the major themes in the letter is joy and the source of that joy. As one commentator of Philippians wrote, “If you remember one thing about this book [it should be] We are moving toward heaven—so keep going!”
Which leads to our response to Paul’s command. Joy can be a choice. Joy is not happiness. Happiness is a response based on the things that have happened to us. None of us are happy within this season of COVID. Nevertheless, our faith teaches us there is reason to be joyful, there is always reason to hope.
Sometimes we need to be reminded of that so that we can renew our decision to be joyful, to be hopeful.Paul knew this. That is why he chose to repeat himself. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” he writes. Then he immediately repeats himself, “Again I will say, Rejoice.” The Greek here is in the present tense: in this moment rejoice. It is a command, an active on-going command. Paul issues this command twice to emphasize its importance and that it is essential to our spiritual well-being.
Fourth, notice the punctuation in this command. The command ends with a period not an exclamation point. There is no sense of celebration here, there is no sense of ecstatic reveling, or promise that a great time will be had by all.
Instead there is a quiet calm in Paul’s command. Two sentences later he reminds us of the source of that calm, the source of our joy. Paul says very simply, “The Lord is near.”
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, calmly find your joy within the presence of the Lord.
These are difficult times. There is great suffering, there is great turmoil, there such uncertainty. All of us are anxious and agitated. Surely Paul felt quite similar feelings. He was in prison, facing execution!
Yet he wrote wisely and calmly of joy and the choice of to be joyful. He told his beloved how to nurture joy as well. He spells out the practice of thinking upon the things that build hope. In other words choose to feed you soul morsels of joy and not of peril and anxiety.
Perhaps a paraphrase, a bit of a midrash of Paul’s words will help us all.
One last thing my beloved family: all the things that you can imagine, all the things that you see that are sincere or worthy of adoration, all that is right or modest and saintly…anything, anything at all that is lovely and of good report, if you catch a glimpse of something of valor or virtue that is worthy to be praised, let your mind and heart be nourished by these things.
Fill your souls with what is soulful. Choose to nurture your joy with that which is joyous. And the peace and comfort of Godwhich resounds beyond the limits of our minds will protect your hearts, souls, your ideas and even your worries within our anointed messiah Jesus.