Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.- Philippians 4:1-9
They gathered together in the cramped little room that evening after their day’s work was done. It was their custom to set aside their other worries and responsibilities, and to come together this particular evening of the week, from the youngest to the oldest, and to enjoy a common meal together. Each of them brought something to share, in terms of both food and of themselves. Joining together in the ups and downs, sharing their joys and encouraging those who were facing troubles. Eating, drinking, laughing, crying, and especially praying together. Trying to work out more and more how to live as followers of Jesus, how to live with one another, and especially with those who weren’t part of their own group of Jesus-followers.
Sometimes, they were excited to receive a letter from another group, from another city, and sometimes even from one of the leaders of the movement in Jerusalem; maybe even on rare occasion, from an apostle. And tonight was just one of those nights, because they’d recently gotten a letter from Paul – the Paul, the famous persecutor of Christians who’d had a vision of the risen Jesus and who’d become a great leader in the church. Paul, the single most important voice in sharing and spreading this faith in Jesus outward from Jerusalem and into the non-Jewish world. Paul, the man who had actually started their own little group, the very first Christian church on the entire European continent, and who had returned to visit with them at least twice since then.
So as they gathered together that night, they wondered what he’d written to them. They knew that word had gotten to Paul about an ongoing dispute between two members of their own group. Both of them working hard for the good of the group, for the good of the faith, both of them much beloved… but there was this disagreement between them. It’s funny, they thought; it always seemed like the strongest disagreements occurred between the people who had the most in common, whose actual differences were the smallest. So they wondered, what would Paul say about all this?
Paul did offer his thoughts about their disagreement, asking for cooler heads to prevail, asking that they find common ground through their common faith and common desire or God’s goodness to shine forth in the world.
As part of that advice, Paul tells them, very strongly, to always rejoice in their faith in Jesus, no matter what. They thought it was odd to get that advice from Paul, since he had written these words while he was in a prison in Rome, about to be put on trial for his life, and when everyone knew that this was all but guaranteed to turn out badly. You would have thought that Paul was the least likely person to hear this kind of advice from. And yet, even from his own bleak vantage point, he told them: rejoice in the Lord, always.
There will be times in all of our lives when we’ll feel like there isn’t much to be joyful about. We might feel discomforted by unrest or some kind of friction or turmoil in our lives. We might feel like we’re in a situation where a bad outcome is every bit as guaranteed as Paul’s was. We’ll see the news and hear ignorant, crazy, dangerous words from various people on the world stage and wonder if there’s any reason to feel any joy at all. Still Paul calls us to rejoice always, and it’s that joy that we especially think about today.
One thing that Paul didn’t tell that house church of about 55 people or so in Philippi was that, just because they were followers of Jesus, difficult, maybe even terrible, un-joyful things wouldn’t happen to them. Quite the contrary, actually, just as he likely expected would soon be happening to himself. He didn’t try to cover over the less than joyful parts of life with butter cream frosting to make them more palatable, portraying them as God’s will, or God’s judgment, or God testing their faith, or some other similar nonsense. He told them that even in the joyless times, maybe especially then, they needed to keep reaching out to God, who in some mysterious way transcends the bad things while also still being there in the midst of them, alongside us. Paul didn’t offer them, or us, some cotton-candy promise that in response to their prayers, God would make everything better; he just tells us to keep praying, to keep reaching out and calling out to God. It’s advice that almost makes you think of all the little Whos living on the speck of dust in the Dr. Seuss story “Horton Hears a Who,” all yelling out at the top of their lungs, “We’re here, we’re here, we’re here!!!” and eventually being heard, and saved. In telling the Philippians to always rejoice and keep calling out to God in prayer and supplication, for a moment it almost seems like Paul is proclaiming the Gospel According to Dr. Seuss.
But then again, he really isn’t. Because in our case, because of the message of Advent, the greatest, most joyful of news, the news of God-with-us, when we call out to God at the top of our lungs, we hear the quiet voice of the one born in the stable saying “There’s no need to yell; I’m right here beside you. Always have been; always will be. I’m here, walking this journey with you and supporting you no matter what might come. We’ve got this, together, you and me. As hard as it might be, trust me. Hold my hand. I know how this all ends, and together, we win.”
Because of the message of Advent the message of God’s entering the world to be with us, whatever may come, we can have hope. We can have peace. We can even have joy. And we can all say
Thanks be to God.