“Rejoice in the Lord Always” (Philippians 4)
“Rejoice in the Lord Always”: So says Paul in our Epistle reading today. Really? “Rejoice”? “Always”? Are you kidding me? “Rejoice always”? That’s easy for you to say, Paul. You don’t know what I’m going through. If you did, you wouldn’t be telling me to rejoice always.
I mean, come on! Look at all these bills I’ve got to pay! Rent, groceries, gasoline, maintenance on the car. Insurance: car insurance, health insurance, insurance on my insurance. Taxes: federal, state, local, and sales taxes, plus the fee for my tax preparer. Paying off the credit card. At the end of the month, there’s more month than money to go around!
And the doctors! Just when you think you’re getting healthy, along comes something else: some new ache or pain, some new injury, some new illness you didn’t know you had. And the prescriptions! Have you seen the cost of prescriptions lately? Oy vey! I wonder if the cure is worse than the disease!
My body is breaking down, and my marriage is breaking up. Yeah, there’s all that relational stuff, too. My kids don’t talk to me as much as I’d like. My boss is a jerk. And all the people I do like–so many of them are not around anymore. They’ve moved away, or they’ve died. Gosh, I miss those folks!
“Rejoice always.” Yeah, right, Paul. And don’t even get me started on what’s going on in our world today. Hundreds of people shot, dozens of them killed, just while they’re attending a concert. Hurricanes and floods. Wildfires out west. What’s this world coming to? And you tell me to rejoice?
Well, yes, Paul does tell us to rejoice. He even doubles down on it: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Like once is not enough, he’s got to say it again.
What are you, Paul, some kind of a nut? Are you delusional? Do you have your head so far up in the clouds that you’re not in touch with the real world, the world where I live? I guess that’s what too much religion will do to you. You just put on this phony happy-face and disregard reality. “Rejoice always.” Yeah, right, Paul. Easy for you to say. You don’t know what I’m going through.
Or does he? Does Paul know what you’re going through? And more importantly, does God know what you’re going through? And was this so easy for Paul to say, to rejoice always? Was Paul immune to suffering? Was he just some Stoic or Buddhist who blocked out negative feelings or unpleasant experiences like they didn’t exist?
I don’t think so. I mean, just read the Book of Acts. There you’ll see all sorts of trials and afflictions Paul went through. Literal trials. Lots of afflictions. Lots of anguish. Lots of persecution. Paul mentions these things at times in his letters. For example, in 2 Corinthians 11, he recounts his labors, his imprisonments, his “countless beatings, and often near death.” He says: “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”
So yes, Paul did know suffering. He did know affliction. And yet he is the same guy who tells the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” In fact, it was in Philippi, remember, when Paul first came there, that he and Silas were arrested and beaten and thrown into prison, with their feet in the stocks. And what were they doing at midnight? Praying and singing hymns to God. And now, years later, Paul is in prison again, this time in Rome, as he’s writing this letter to the Philippians. So Paul practiced what he preached about rejoicing in the Lord always. He didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk.
How was he able to do this? How could Paul rejoice in the face of so many difficult circumstances? Later in this chapter, Philippians 4, he gives us a clue. He says: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” What was this secret that he learned? He tells us in the next verse: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Paul is telling us that the secret to being content in whatever situation, the secret to being able to rejoice in any and every circumstance–the secret is this: It is “through him who strengthens me.” And that’s Christ. This is why we are content, this is why we rejoice: because of Christ.
Remember, Paul did not just say, “Rejoice always.” No, he said, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” “In the Lord,” the Lord Jesus Christ. It is that Christ connection that makes the difference. Being connected to Christ makes all the difference in the world. Jesus gives us a joy that the world cannot take away from us. Jesus gives us a joy that is greater than our circumstances. In Christ Jesus, we have a joy and a peace that passes all understanding.
How can this be so? Because Jesus has made peace for us by his death on the cross. There the Lord God laid on him, on Jesus, the sins of the world, your sins and mine. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Peace with God once more is made. No longer does God hold our sins against us. No longer are we sentenced to hell, under God’s eternal judgment. No, now the judgment is lifted. Jesus took it for us. Now the gates of heaven are opened. Now new life and eternal life are given us a gift. Jesus is risen from the dead and lives forever. And we are joined to Christ through faith and in Holy Baptism.
This changes everything. Now we have the sure hope of everlasting life. This is something that is rock-solid certain, no matter what happens to us. Now we do have a cause for joy in any and every circumstance. In the Lord we have peace. In the Lord we have hope. In the Lord we have joy. No matter what. And so this is why Paul can tell us today: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
But what about when we do have problems? What about those days when the sun is not shining for us? What do we do then? Yeah, Pastor, I know you’ll say, “Rejoice anyways,” but what else? Well, Paul does tell us what else to do in those situations: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” See, now that we are his baptized children, we have access to God and his throne of grace through Christ. Your dear Father hears your prayers. Does God know what you are going through? You bet he does! Your heavenly Father cares for you more than he does for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. And look at how he clothes and feeds them! Are you not of more value than they? Yes, you are! God sent his Son to die on a cross for you! What greater love is there than that? God knows and cares for you in all the afflictions you are going though. And he will keep you and strengthen you as you’re going through them.
So today, dear friends, we are wrapping up our four-week series on Philippians. We started out with Paul calling his relationship with the Philippians “A Joyful Gospel Partnership.” Then in chapter 2, he spoke of “The Joy of Being of the Same Mind, the Mind of Christ.” Last week Paul expressed “The Joy of Knowing Christ” and the power of his resurrection. And with all that in mind, all those reasons for rejoicing, today Paul wraps us his letter by calling us to “Rejoice in the Lord Always.” Truly we have seen that this epistle to the Philippians is rightly called “The Epistle of Joy.”
Joy running throughout, from start to finish! That’s true not only of this letter, it’s true also of our lives. Joy running throughout, from start to finish. Only the finish, the end of our brief pilgrimage here on earth–that will just be the start of a whole new rejoicing that will last forever. Joy unspeakable and full of glory!
Until that day, when Christ comes again, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” Amen.