It’s hard to be joyful at Christmas sometimes, isn’t it? You think of loved ones lost. You’ve got the cold or the flu. Maybe work is hectic and chaotic. School exams dominate our attention.
It’s apt then that Paul uses an imperative here, a command, rather than a simple indicative or future tense. Notice, he says, “Rejoice,” do this, instead of, “You will rejoice always.”
Because that would be just plain foolish. “You will rejoice always.” That would reinforce this false theological notion in our country that you can just believe it and achieve it. Faith healers say, “If you believe enough, you’ll get well.” Prosperity gospelers life Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen say, “If you want it hard enough, God will grant it to you.” And so, if Paul said, “You will rejoice,” it’s as if he ignores the facts of life: wars start, soldiers die, friends die, family members die, people get cancer, marriages fall apart, parents let us down, children act like, well, children. Life’s tough. You die. It’s agony. There’s not always all that much to be joyful for.
So Paul didn’t say, “You will rejoice all the time.” Because Jesus doesn’t. Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble.” Jesus says, “We must go through many hardships.” Jesus says, “I did not come to bring peace, but division.” Jesus says, “Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me.” Not a lot of “You will rejoice,” there.
Yet, Paul says, “Rejoice.” Always. Even when Christmas stinks. Or if it’s great. Even when you don’t get what you want. Or do. Even when Dad or Mom let you down. Or come through with flying colors. Even when they’re not there. Or are. Rejoice if your body is breaking down. Rejoice if your healthy. You can rejoice, do you do rejoice, you must rejoice, because your rejoicing isn’t based on any of those things, according to Paul.
He said, “Rejoice in the Lord.” In the Lord. Today we sing carols of joy. Not about chestnuts roasting or bells jingling. We don’t rejoice because of egg nog ready to be drunk. We don’t rejoice because of presents under the tree or white Christmases. We rejoice because of the Lord. We can rejoice, and let our gentleness be evident to all, we can not be anxious about anything, because “the Lord is near.” We can afford to be joyfilled, patient, moderate, gentle, because of what Christmas really is. Because of our carols of joy. Listen to the words from the lips of our children this afternoon: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” And it has nothing to do with earthly happiness, wealth, gifts, or presents. The angels good news of great joy? “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you, He is Christ the Lord.”
Then too, listen to the hymns of Advent and Christmas that talk about joy and rejoicing. The great Advent hymn, “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel”: “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel, shall come to you, O Israel!” To do what? “And ransom captive Israel.” “From depths of hell your people save.” “And bring them victory o’er the grave.” “Rejoice, rejoice!”
We’ll end tonight with “Joy to the World!” Why joy? “Our Lord is come!" Not just near, as Paul said, but come! He’s come! He’s born! And He’s coming again. He is near, nearer now than just moments ago.
We just sang, “Let all together praise our God.” Why praise and rejoice? “For us he opens wide the door of paradise today!” For us, paradise, today! Good news of great joy!
In a moment we’ll sing, “Now sing we now rejoice.” Again, why rejoice? Not gifts and presents and tinsel, but “He from whom joy streameth poor in a manger lies!” The One brighter than the sun arrived, the one Malachi called the Sun of Righteousness, the one who can “cheer my wearied spirit.” Why am I weary? Because my sin means my death; because my sin means “I cannot rise to thee,” but today the angels proclaim that Christ has “come from on high to me!”
We could multiply the examples by the thousands in this glorious section of our Christian hymnody. But that should suffice to make the point. This joy comes from outside of us. Despite all the gifts and blessings that God has showered down upon us, we have nothing, we are nothing, without this one gift, without this one blessing: this child, the heavenly wonder, our God become our brother to bear our burden. To give us joy, joy, joy!
This is a peace, that as Paul says, surpasses all understanding. It goes beyond anything we can understand that God would do this for us, for us, for us! He did. He gave us His Son. His Only Son. Into life for us. Into death for us. And back to life for us. For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven. This guards your hearts and minds, even if and when our bodies perish. This secures you until the Lord who is near comes in all His glory to take you to the place where God will no longer need to command you to rejoice, but where you will rejoice always. Heaven. Amen.