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.” Philippians 4:4-7
We talked a lot about this passage at the pastors’ Bible study last Monday. For only 62 words, it packs a lot of punch. For starters, it tells us to rejoice. And Paul doesn’t simply say ‘rejoice.’ Just in case we missed it the first time, he repeats himself: “Again I will say, rejoice.”
We got it, Paul. Rejoice. But what about when things aren’t going the way we want them to go? What if Ray Charles’ lament – “My bills are all due and the baby needs shoes and I’m busted” – is a laugh-riot song compared to my lot in life? What if I am not at all happy? I mean really, Paul. Are you delusional?
Now before we write off this hunk of the letter to the Philippians as pious (and impossible) platitudes worthy of a coffee mug on a Christian tchotchke website, it might help to dig a little deeper. It’s worth noting that Paul is writing this epistle while in prison. He’s not at some 5-star beach resort sipping a Mai Tai. He’s not at all happy, either. The Philippians may think they have it bad, but Paul’s got it worse. What Paul points out is that rejoicing and being happy are not necessarily the same thing, especially if you believe that happiness means being satisfied with your life. Alfred Delp, the Jesuit priest imprisoned in Nazi Germany and whose Advent meditations we’ve been hearing on Wednesday nights, writes of the joy he finds in the Lord Jesus, and he certainly was not at all happy about his circumstances, but he had a choice. He could let his circumstances determine his attitude or he could follow Paul’s advice.
Choose to rejoice. I want us to understand, truly understand, how blessed we are this day. We can attend a church service without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death. 5.3 billion people in the world can’t do that. If you can read, you are ahead of almost one billion people in the world. If you have food in your refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of the world. We may not have it exactly as we’d planned or as we’d like. Circumstances may make us unhappy, but we have the choice to rejoice.
Choosing to rejoice also makes that “Do not worry about anything” admonition a little more understandable. I think that admonition is better expressed as “don’t obsess.” I once heard a woman speak about stress management and she held up a glass of water. Although we expected her to ask the ‘half empty/half full’ question, she instead asked how much we thought it weighed.
There were lots of guesses, but what she finally said was this. “The absolute weight doesn’t matter,” she said. “It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it is not a problem. If I hold it for a half hour, my arm will begin to ache. If I hold it for hours, my arm will feel numb and become paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass does not change, yet the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”
The worries in life are like that glass of water. Spend a little time on them and nothing much happens. Dwell on them a bit longer and they begin to cause pain. And if you think about them and dwell on them day after day, you will become paralyzed. Deal with the worries and then release them. Don’t obsess… especially not in this season that is ripe for worry and obsession. Besides, if you are rejoicing, you won’t have time to obsess!