Habakkuk 3:17-18 John 16: 20-22 Philippians 4:4-7
I:-- It's easy to be happy some of the time; when things are going our way, when the ball is bouncing for us, when our ship is coming in day after day. Yet it is the command of God that we rejoice all the time. If our circumstances are what give us joy, then what happens when our circumstances change, as they always do?
I have used the words "happiness" and "joy" as though they were synonyms, but in fact they are not. Happiness depends on circumstances and therefore is relatively superficial; joy depends on something else and is eversomuch deeper.
The difference is illustrated in the correspondence between Martin Niemoeller, a pastor in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, and his wife Else. Niemoeller had been a submarine captain in World War I. When Hitler came to power and molested the church Niemoeller opposed him vigorously, with the result that Niemoeller was imprisoned for eight years. In one of his letters to Else he allays his wife's anxiety about him by telling her that he is faring better than she fears. His life now resembles the fierce storms he encountered during his submarine days: terrible turbulence on the surface, but unfathomable peace in the depths. A threatened man can "rejoice always" only if there is something so deep in his life that it is beyond anything which circumstances can alter.
We should be realistic and sensible about the distinction between happiness and joy. There are circumstances where no sane person is happy. When people are bereaved we expect them to be sad; when people are in pain we expect them to groan; when people are betrayed we expect them to be shocked. These are normal responses. When responses are not normal (that is, when someone's emotional response doesn't square with what is happening in her life) that person is psychiatrically ill.
Not only should we be realistic and sensible, we should also be compassionate. St. Paul instructs us to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. Our hearts are to be attuned to theirs. We are neither to disregard their sorrow out of insensitivity nor diminish their joy out of envy.
And of course there is one situation where we are never to rejoice. "Love does not rejoice at wrong", the apostle says in 1 Corinthians 13, "love rejoices in the right".
II: -- Let's look again at the command of God, "Rejoice in the Lord always." To rejoice in the Lord -- always -- means that we have settled something in the deepest depths of our lives. Think for a minute of John Newton, Anglican clergyman, hymnwriter, counsellor and former slaveship captain. John met Mary Catlett when he was fourteen and she twelve. They loved each other ardently. Newton spent years at sea on merchant ships, warships and slaveships. He saw Mary infrequently. Yet their love for each other was undying. By age thirty-nine Newton had become a beneficiary of the "amazing grace" for which he would be known ever after. He was now finished with the sea and would spend the rest of his long life as a preacher and pastor. He had always assumed that he would predecease his wife, unable as he was to imagine living without her. She, however, died first. Mary was buried on a Wednesday. Four days later, on Sunday, Newton stood up in the pulpit of his church in London. Everyone wondered what text the broken-hearted man would preach on that day. It was from the book of Habakkuk. "Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines... the flock be cut off the from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, YET I WILL REJOICE IN THE LORD, I WILL JOY IN THE GOD OF MY SALVATION" (Habakkuk 3:17-18). "I will rejoice -- not in my circumstances (for the time being at least they were dreadful) but in the God of my salvation".
So far from being exceptional, in the early days of the church Newton's experience was considered normal. Paul exults in the fruit which the apostles' preaching brought forth in the people of Thessalonica. "For our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power, in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction... you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit". The cumulative force of Paul's vocabulary is unmistakable: "gospel", "power", "full conviction". The climax is Spirit-inspired joy which comes to birth and thrives even in the midst of hardship. The gospel is the bedrock of it all.
III: -- Bedrock suggests foundation. As we probe scripture we learn that the Christmas announcement of the incarnation -- gospel-bedrock -- is the foundation of all rejoicing. "Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy... for to you is born this day... a saviour." The people of God rejoice for one reason: we have been given a saviour, the saviour, that saviour apart from whom any human being is undone.
Christmas is nothing less than a "Search and Rescue Mission". During my teenage years I read everything I could about the Battle of Britain. The exploits of the small number of young men who flew against overwhelming odds thrilled me. The tension mounted in their stories whenever one was shot down and had to parachute into the English Channel. Immediately a Search and Rescue Mission was mobilized to seek the downed flier and find him and recover him lest he be lost to future battles where he would be needed; indeed, lest he be lost. The Search and Rescue Mission had to find him, or else the downed flier would soon be a drowned flier. When at last, in the story I was reading, he was pulled into the recovery vessel my joy was scarcely less than his must have been!
Christmas is important for one reason: the search and rescue mission we need has been mobilized on our behalf. Our joy at the news of the rescuer himself is the measure of our awareness of our need and our gratitude for the gift.
Jesus sends out seventy missioners two by two. They are to speak in his name. They do. The seventy return elated. What spiritual triumphs they have witnessed! Why, they have even expelled evil spirits in the power their Lord has given them! Jesus tames their exuberance as he tells them what should set their joy a-throbbing. "Do not rejoice that the spirits are subject to you; rejoice that your names are written in heaven." Obviously there is nothing more important, because nothing more elemental, than having one's name written in heaven. Assurance that it is is the basis of our joy.
It is no wonder, then, that when Zacchaeus found himself overwhelmed by mercy and freed to abandon his hiding place in the tree he took Jesus home joyfully.
It is no wonder too that when Phillip proclaimed what Luke calls "the good news of Jesus" to the Ethiopian Eunuch the latter fellow "went on his way rejoicing". Because he was black he was the butt of racist slurs, and because he was a eunuch he was the butt of vulgar taunts. Yet he went on his way rejoicing in spite of it all, for through hearing the good news of the saviour he had met him whose news it is. This is the bedrock reason for rejoicing in any man or woman.
IV: -- As we rejoice in our salvation we find that other joys are added to us.
(i) For instance, the psalmist writes, "I will rejoice and be glad for thy steadfast love... thou hast taken heed of my adversities". There is no one whose life is not riddled with adversities. All of us are identical in this regard. Where we differ is in what adversity does to us. Does it grind us down like an emery wheel? Does it make us more bitter than lemon juice? Does it suffocate us in the deadly gases of hopelessness and apathy? Or are our adversities (still unpleasant) occasions when God's love soaks us with even greater penetration? The more mature Christians become the more we echo Jeremiah's conviction. "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning." The philosopher Kierkegaard used to say, "Life has to be lived forwards but it can only be understood backwards." He's right. Life can only be understood backwards. But to say this is to say that the longer we look back the more obvious it is that the steadfast love of the Lord has never ceased, and his mercies have never come to an end. Then life can be lived forwards even more enthusiastically! The One whose love gave up his son for me; such love would never withhold from me what I need now. To know this doesn't mean that we grin stupidly when adversity next settles upon us. It is, however, to rejoice in the sense of which Martin Niemoeller spoke: turbulence on the surface, rejoicing in the depths, for God's love is as steadfast as his mercies are endless.
(ii) And then there is the writer of Ecclesiastes. "Enjoy life with the wife whom you love." The same writer urges us, "Go, eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart." In other words, it is our foundational rejoicing in Christ that enables us to rejoice in all the creaturely joys God has given us.
It is a commonplace that those who pursue happiness never find it, since happiness is that by-product which surprises us when we are pursuing something else that takes us out of ourselves. People who expect creaturely joys to yield foundational joy always find creaturely joys a disappointment. Of course! -- for the reason just cited.
Everyone knows that human beings tolerate (in the medical sense of tolerate) any pleasure-giving stimulus. As we tolerate something it takes more and more of the same stimulus to give us the same pleasure. At the crudest, it takes more and more cocaine to generate the same "high". Similarly it takes a bigger and bigger stereo to keep the buff happy. And what boating enthusiast has ever decided he needed a smaller boat? No wonder we have to have more and more to stave off feelings of "ho-hum", boredom, and disappointment.
Not so with those who rejoice in the depths. For to be possessed of joy in Christ is to be rendered able to "enjoy life with the wife whom we love", enjoy the simple pleasures of bread and wine. We don't need ever more intense, more costly and more superficial stimulation to be content. "Because you are Christ's", Paul writes, "all things are yours as well." Indeed, the whole realm of creation is ours richly to enjoy.
(iii) Lastly,"we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God." Do you ever wonder how your life will end up? By "end up" I don't mean wondering whether it's going to be the nursing home or a premature heart attack or a highway collision. I mean what are we finally going to become humanly. What is our ultimate destiny? To Philippian Christians already rejoicing in their restoration in Christ Paul writes, "He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." True. But what will the completion be? We are going to share the glory of God. The splendour that surrounds God eternally; the magnificence, majesty and grandeur of God -- we are going to be taken up into this and bathed in it so that it spills over us and comes to characterize us. What other destiny could even approach this? No wonder the apostle rejoices in the mere anticipation of it!
My father died at age fifty-nine; one heart attack, no warning whatsoever, two weeks after he had been given a clean bill of health. My father-in-law, on the other hand, was ninety-four years old before his life seeped away in an institution. What about me? Which is more likely to happen to me? I don't waste two seconds thinking about it. Speculation is pointless. There is point only to reflecting upon and rejoicing in our destiny in Christ: we are going to share the glory of God.
Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, was teaching at the University of Bonn in 1935 when the Gestapo arrived at the classroom door and told him not to bother finishing his paragraph. Barth was going to be deported to his native Switzerland. He had five children, no job, and faced many wartime years of difficulty and discouragement. Yet it was Barth who wrote in his largest work, "The person who hears and takes to heart the biblical message is not only permitted but plainly forbidden to be anything but merry and cheerful."
The biblical message speaks of our Lord who is at hand, whose presence forestalls anxiety, and who summons us to rejoice always in him. The joy he lends us the world neither gives nor takes away, since he alone causes hearts to sing.
Victor A. Shepherd June 1994