Paul, part 5: Be Joyful
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on .
The total length of the recording is .
Before the talk,
- Philippians chapter 4, verses 1 to 9, was read from The Voice translation;
- A YouTube clip was played from The Simpsons in which Rod and Todd Flanders sing “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy down in my heart” [14 seconds].
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Just a very short clip from one of my favourite episodes of ‘The Simpsons’, where Bart has to live next door. The next door neighbours to the Simpsons are some very, very, very evangelical Christians known as the Flanders and the boys are being quite indoctrinated into the faith. So much so that they sing, I’ve got that joy, joy, joy down in my heart whilst they’re asleep.
I wonder if Christians are known for having that sort of mentality about how they should feel, mistaking happiness for joyfulness. We read in the Bible that we should always be joyful, always giving thanks and having the joy of the Lord as our strength. Perhaps Christians are known for putting on a stoic face in that, or that front that, because the Bible says, I should rejoice, then I must, whatever the circumstance and however I might really feel.
I wonder – maybe it’s not true of us here – I wonder whether Christians might repress our feelings when we are left, perhaps bereft at the loss of a loved one. When we are in shock because a sudden trauma has left us reeling. When we can’t believe that our job has been made redundant, and so we no longer have a reason for our existence. Many Christian cultures and I’m sad to say some Christian leaders over decades have been guilty of repressing and not validating people’s emotional health in the promotion of some form of happiness or false joy, because the Bible says we should rejoice and therefore happy smiley faces.
In my view, I wonder whether that’s tantamount to some form of spiritual abuse and if so, I’m very sorry if you’ve experienced that. Of course, as humans, we are great at beating ourselves up over difficult situations too. Those times when we find ourselves saying, “Well, there are others worse off than me.” I guess that’s maybe us trying to make sense of our situations in our minds. Looking at how we can validate our situation without being vitriolic about it. “It’s okay,” we might say, “It’s fine, it’ll pass.” It’s only whatever the situation is and somehow by belittling that important issue, we don’t see it for what it really is.
Perhaps sometimes we don’t want to confront its seriousness because sometimes it’s just easy to smile and act joyful even if deep inside we are crumbling. I wonder whether we actually, truthfully find it hard to rejoice. In the course of my work, I come across people in our community who are really struggling because it does happen, even in Frodsham. This week I met somebody whose family life is falling apart. Their time right now is not to put on that cheery face. Yes, they still have to work. They still have to put their feelings, as much as they can, perhaps to one side to focus on what they do, but yet they still have extremely valid feelings on how sad and how lost they must be as a relationship comes to an end.
How is it then that we rejoice in and amidst our not so joyful circumstances? Of course, it’s easy to rejoice and celebrate when we are in those good times. But how do we rejoice when we can’t face the day? Are we expected to just because the Bible says we must? Let’s look at the context of Philippians here. Paul is writing with overflowing joy to his favourite church, the faithful community in Philippi. In Acts Chapter 16, we see that he has a very special relationship with this people group and he’s so joyful for their partnership in the Gospel, in the good news of sharing Jesus.
The Philippians had recently sent Paul a gift to cover his expenses during his house arrest in Rome, and Paul now writes a to them his crown and his joy. Wow. Wouldn’t it be lovely? Wouldn’t it be amazing to be called somebody’s crown and joy? He writes to encourage this group of believers to joyfully work, work out their faith in unity. He suggests in his letter that they look to Timothy and Epaphroditus and to himself as examples to emulate and to experience full riches from God.
We find that this whole letter is contextualized in rejoicing. Paul is grateful. He wants his favourite people to know this and he wants them to be encouraged. Paul’s rejoicing here is contextual. We’ll be talking in the next few weeks as to when he’s not been so rejoicing. He knows his church and he knows that even if they are not going through a difficult time of persecution, that writing a letter of encouragement will boost them inside. It might not actually be in deference to what we might be brought up as British people to keep that stiff upper lip and bet and hope for better things in the hope in the face of adversity.
In Philippians, the word joy or rejoice appears 11 times, and so this is Paul’s overarching theme to them. Next week we’ll be looking at a different church that Paul writes to where rejoicing is a lot lower down the pecking order because of priorities and other things that he has to admonish them for. Today, Paul writes to the Philippians to encourage them to live joyfully as citizens of God’s kingdom in a manner worthy of the good news of Christ.
It’s a positive letter with the fly in the ointment where he calls two ladies Euodia and Syntyche to agree on whatever issue it is they have fallen out over. He knows this Christian community well enough to speak to them about their fallings-out and so names them into getting right with one another. Not because it’s a salvation issue necessarily, but that they see eye to eye and that they remain united, showing what it is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, their Messiah. Following this instruction, Paul turns to something of importance to the whole community. Rejoice in the Lord. I say it again, rejoice. Paul’s expectation is that the two ladies here might be united in Christ, but his exhortation here is to the wider community. Rejoicing is a community-wide activity.
He uses the Greek word ‘kairo’, which is where we get our word cheerful from. Be glad, rejoice, be well, thrive. How can Christian communities thrive when all they feel is down or low or depressed? How can our community today show the love of Christ if all we do is complain about our present circumstances? This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t complain or moan because actually sounding off to some trusted friend or somebody who knows us really, really well and knows what we’re going through is actually really therapeutic.
It can be of so much supports to know that there is someone who will listen to us without judgement. Knowing that what they want is the best for you. You have permission to moan about aches and pains, your bad days and good days. You have permission. And why? Because even the best humans have off days. Even the fittest and most able people have aches and pains. Even the most upbeat people become depressed and need someone to encourage them. Even the counsellors need to be counselled. That’s a whole profession in itself. Those who support other people to sound off, to be validated, so that their own and other people’s woes are not burdensome just on the counsellor alone. Paul writes here about how anxious we can become and that an antidote to this can be prayer in its various forms. One of the things that has encouraged me in the past when I have worries is that I can pray with others, share the issue with a trusted Christian associate. The importance of where two or three are gathered cannot be overestimated, because there is something important about that strength in numbers. We need to surround ourselves and be supported when we cannot be joyful.
For those of us who for whatever reason cannot rejoice right now, please find somebody to moan at. It might not be that the best person to moan at is your nearest and dearest. Perhaps somebody who is a step away from that situation. Please, don’t let your frustration of a situation or a circumstance bring you down. Please, allow your Christian family to bring you to a place where your burden may be lightened, and perhaps even to a place where you can rejoice again. To a place where you feel restored and able to fight another day. I know that part of my job is to listen and to be there for the congregation here.
Rejoicing may not take worry away, but it takes our ordinary everyday humanity and it helps us to look beyond that, how through centuries people who’ve been confronted by centring themselves in a place of worship. I remember in Kent there was a place called Aylesford Priory, which has a number of monks still living there. It’s right next to the motorway, so it’s not the quietest place in the world. There’s a chapel. You open this big ancient door and close it with a quiet bang – if you can quietly bang something. You go down two or three steps into this very simple chapel. I could spend hours just being there with God.
Maybe we need to find a place where we find God. Maybe there is that place, that walk, that cycle, that bit of the world where you just know that you meet God there. How the sacrament of communion perhaps became important during that time when you might be in hospital.
I had the privilege of serving communion to dear Sue Whittingham at the Hospice of the Good Shepherd, with her family surrounding her. Knowing that she was a fellow partaker of red wine, I smuggled in a small bottle to use in our communion service. You can imagine that wonderful smile that would just light up the room when I explained that I’d smuggled in the wine so that we can enjoy sharing communion together. We could rejoice in that moment. We could rejoice in that moment, in that bread and wine, in the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, knowing that this snifter had been brought in especially for Sue. I still have no idea whether it’s allowable to take alcohol into a hospice, but in those moments of real worry and fear about the future, we had that secret of rejoicing, because it was real wine.
I think when Paul talked about rejoicing, he’s not just talking about being happy. Rejoicing comes from the word root joy, surprisingly, which is somehow deeper than happiness. Happiness can be expressed joyfully as an emotion, but I wonder whether joy and therefore rejoicing is an attitude. The way that I approach life because and in spite of my life’s lot, in spite of my circumstance, I might not be happy. But the deep rejoicing I can offer to God about how I feel about Him surpasses being just happy. This deep, unswerving hope that I receive when my situation dictates that I shouldn’t be as internally joyful as I am, relies on the depth of that sincere and steadfast voice of calm.
Hebrews chapter 6, and I think it’s verse 19, talks about that anchor being sure and steadfast and secure. That is the joy that we need to have in our God. That still, small voice of calm, which we often sing in the hymn, that still, small voice of calm that Elijah experienced on Mount Carmel during his problems. That’s the rejoicing that I think Paul is trying to get across to the Philippians. Yes, rejoicing may well involve whooping and celebrating God, and of course, it should. That kind of celebration and rejoicing isn’t always appropriate, but that’s still hopeful, firm, secure, internal core inside us says that we cannot turn away or be moved from our faith. Perhaps that’s part of what Paul is talking about here when he instructs them to rejoice. That peace of God which he talks about here can only come from the God of peace. He wants the Philippians to know the peace of God.
Through this centred way of living, with that calm assurance and that peace of God that comes from knowing the God of peace, knowing that our gentle nature should be seen so that people will know what it looks like to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. Or our life practice is full of whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, whatever is praiseworthy or excellent that we put into practice. Rejoicing, says Paul right here, isn’t singing and praising and shouting about how great God is, although it might be. Rejoicing is an active lifestyle.
He says, just to be sure, if you don’t know how to live in this way, watch me. That is a challenge. “To help my brother or sister to rejoice, watch how I do it.” Wow. Can that be said of me? Am I helping my faithful followers of Jesus to walk in the right way? Are my actions pointing them to the way? Have whatever I have learned over the days, or weeks, or months, or even years of being a faithful follower of Jesus? Have I learned or receive or heard from someone and put those qualities into action? Because it seems to me that the doing it is the litmus test. How am I loving people the Jesus way? How am I doing? Do I need to offer someone in confidence? Do I need to sound off to someone in confidence, so that I can be a real, honest, active rejoicer? Can I be a listener?
Am I still hiding from something that I cannot change, but want God to do something so that at the very least I can receive that deep joy that comes from being a rejoicer? Sometimes, it just takes an audience of one, to be honest with God about how you’re feeling. Take this moment now to be open to say what you want to say honestly to God. Be in that moment with him. Speak in your heart and let him listen. Then, listen and let him speak. Be calm to your core. Sometimes, it takes an audience where two or three are gathered over a curry, or a prayer, in the trusted group, knowing that Jesus is there also. Learn from others.
Let’s not live this life alone, but let us rejoice that there are others who are journeying with us. Sometimes, it requires a whole choir to sing out an anthem of resounding and rejoicing praise. In the action of sung praise, we put our rejoicing into action. If we believe the words we are singing and focus on the God to whom we are praising, something inside us grows and becomes encouraged. We are telling ourselves the truth which encourages us, but it somehow also blesses the God who loves us. Let’s be honest enough with ourselves and with God in this moment. Let’s take a few moments of silence now, and through that silence, through our deep worship, through music, or poetry or words, let us rejoice. Let’s take a few moments now to reflect.
Rejoice in the Lord. “I will say it again: Rejoice. Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” [Philippians 4:4b–7 NIV]
Loving God, would you please help us to be able to rejoice greatly? Would you help us in our circumstance still know to the core that we are able to rejoice? Father God, I pray for those in our congregation who for one reason or another find it really hard to feel that they are rejoicing. Father, I thank you for their experience of you. I thank you that so many of them know you and, in spite of their feelings, they are still somehow rejoicing against adversity.
Father God, for those who are feeling on top of the world, and invincible, Father God, would you please continue to bless them with that feeling of invincibility so that they can bless others?
For each of us, Father God, would you help us to look to one another, as we look to you as an example of a rejoicer? Father God, would you fill us with your spirit? Would you fill us with that resilience that we need to face each day and, however our rejoicing comes, would you be met by us on our journey? Would you walk with us? In Jesus name, I pray. Amen.
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Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the talk are from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.