As I mentioned last month, for the next few months I will be focusing on the words of Chapter 4 of Philippians, one of the most practical and important passages Paul ever wrote.
And this month, we turn to one of his most familiar verses – Verse 4. And while it is just nine words, it has more power than many other things he wrote.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice.”
You notice he didn’t say: “Be happy in the Lord always, and again I say be happy.”
For happiness, even though the Declaration of Independence guarantees our right to pursue it, has its foundation in how well things are going in life.
If we are healthy, wealthy, surrounded by good friends and family, have a good job, a comfortable home and all the things we figure we need to get through each day, then we are happy.
Happiness fills our lives, but we all know that happiness doesn’t always fulfill our lives. Truth to be told, though we always hope to smell the roses, oftentimes all we smell is the garbage.
We pursue happiness but can’t catch it.
Paul knew that -- well. He spent time in prison at the hands of his enemies -- he wrote Philippians in prison. On one occasion, he was stoned in a public square by his opponents and left for dead.
He had a big argument with his close friend Barnabas, and the two separated, never to work together again.
While on his way to Rome, Paul was shipwrecked off the coast of Malta. And while Acts doesn’t quite get this far, tradition says he lost his head, literally, while in Rome.
Oh, and there was violent opposition to his work, both from steadfast Jews and from the Jewish Christians who wanted the Gentile believers to adopt Jewish customs and laws before they could accept Jesus as their savior.
As Paul was writing Philippians, he had in his mind an awareness of all that had happened, was happening and would happen.
He also knew that the Philippian Church was struggling and not succeeding in its struggles. He had real concerns about where the Christians in Philippi would end up.
He likely wasn’t clapping his hands, stomping his feet, or shouting “Amen” when someone said: “If you’re happy and you know it…”
And yet, Paul had joy, which is different from happiness. Joy is an awareness that even if your circumstances defy being happy, you can still look to the Lord. That even if life is tumbling in and robs you of happiness, you can still turn to the one, the only one, who can help you make sense of your life. That even when all you smell is garbage, you’ve got the one who gave to the roses their fragrance and He will wave them under your nose.
Happiness is something that happens. Joy is a choice. Paul chose to rejoice despite his unhappy circumstances; he chose to rejoice in what he knew to be truly true about his life. And he told the Philippians to make the same choice.
He knew what was coming for him. He had a good idea of what would be coming for the Philippians (and for us, too, as a matter of fact). But all he could think of was joy – the joy of belonging to God, no matter what, in this world and in the next.
And in case he forgot it, and in case the Philippians forgot it, and in case we forget it (and, oh my, do we!) he said it again: Rejoice!
One of the most beloved Christmas carols is not: “Happiness to the World, the Lord is come.” It’s “Joy to the World,” because He DID come, will come again, and is here right now to boot.
And if we choose to believe that, all the things that make us unhappy can fade like the morning dew, even on a rainy day!
Maybe we should all just sing: “If you’re joyful and you know it, clap your hands, stomp your feet, shout Amen, do all three!” That’s more Biblical!
In Christ, John