Listen to our service and sermon below:
I like our family Christmas card this year just fine, but the words on it were not my first choice. We use an online company for our Christmas cards. You send them the photo for your card, and you pick from a selection of styles and fonts and little greetings they provide to go with it. Stacey does all the work, of course, but I’m invited to help decide which message to choose. We like the one we settled on, but we liked another of the messages better; we just couldn’t go with it, because the font was some old loopy cowboy script. A pity, since the message was perfect. It said, “Rejoice, Y’all!”
I liked it because it sounds like Stacey, and because in the present state of the world and of our lives, “Rejoice, Y’all” is a playfully subversive witness to the power of the love that will prevail. And putting the two words together is so much fun, as rejoice is a stain-glass churchy word, and y’all sounds more like bluegrass and grits. “Let us rejoice,” sounds like a sermon; “Rejoice, y’all” sounds like a welcome to a party.
When the Apostle Paul said to his friends, “Rejoice in the Lord,” you can almost hear the word, “y’all.” Nothing churchy about it—just a human being, deeply happy, inviting his friends to be the same.
I do wish we had a different word for it than rejoice. So far as I can tell, nobody uses it except as a religious term; and that is a shame, because English has no other way to make “joy” a verb. In Paul’s language, Greek, the word for joy was both a noun and a verb, used both ways all the time. So, when our Bibles say, “rejoice,” it’s really the verb, “to joy.” I wish we could say it, because joy really ought to be a verb. Past tense: When Michigan won, we joyed. Future tense: When Christmas comes, the children will joy. Present tense: Come on y’all, let’s joy!
But what is joy, anyway? Is it the same as happiness? No, it’s not, though we might call it deep happiness. Plain happiness comes and goes, depending on whether or not things are going our way. You get a raise, you’re happy; you have a good time with somebody you love, you’re happy; get a perfect piece of pie, happy! It’s a visitation of the pleasurable, and when circumstances turn against you, what you are is un-happy. You can hear the fickleness of it in the very word happy: “hap” as “it just so happened,” or “happenstance,” “haphazard,” “hapless.”
Joy is different. Like happiness, it’s pleasurable, delightful, exquisite. It just doesn’t depend on pleasure or on things going our way. And in its maturity, joy isn’t now-you-have it-now-you-don’t. Joy is a subterranean river, not always seen or felt, but there just the same. Up on the surface of your world may be nasty weather, struggles, darkness. But beneath the surface, joy remains, quietly flowing, deeply nourishing, and, in places, amazingly springing up—or rising enough toward the surface to be reachable anyway, if you dig down deep enough to reclaim it and drink deep of it again.
I guess it’s the digging down to it, the reclaiming of it, that Paul has in mind when he writes to his friends, “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, rejoice.” He knows something about having to dig down for it. He’s writing from a Roman prison. He’s in chains and suspects he may soon be executed. And the people he’s writing to are worried sick about him and are under other kinds of threats and strains. Paul from prison says, “Hey, y’all, let’s joy—in the Lord, always; I’ll say it again, joy!”
Is the man, as we say, “in denial”? Refusing to face the grim facts and pushing the same sick behavior on his friends? In other words, does he sound a little like the holiday season can sound to people who are in pain? All this colorful merriment, music, and scenes of happy families. The season advertises gladness, seems to expect it. And how does that work for the grieving, the scared, the badly treated, the exhausted and discouraged? Merriment? Man, are you watching the news? Rejoice in the Lord always? Don’t you know what so many of us are having to endure right now? I’ll pass.
But Paul’s invitation to joy puts no one in that position. He himself is suffering, and it’s as if he makes his way to all who suffer and lays his hand on their shoulder and says, “I know, I know. Still, the Lord is near; and beyond our seeing or our feeling, there are reasons for joy that remain, a river of reasons that flows deep down. Remember them. Give rightful praise for them. Joy can have tears in its eyes, and we can find the courage of our deep gladness.
How? Well, in part, by letting go of some stuff that blocks the way. Paul speaks of it in terms of anxiety, and he is spot on. For many of us the great hindrance to joy is our anxiousness. We can see a world of reasons to be anxious—so much that threatens us, so much uncertainty, so much that we want or need, or that others need, so much that’s not right. And truth be told, much of it is worth our grief and profound concern and passion and commitment to do what we can. But ongoing anxiety is a poison. Anxiety paralyzes, chokes the life out of a soul; and it is the greatest enemy of joy.
So, the text says, “Be anxious for nothing. But in everything, by prayer and supplication, with gratefulness, let your requests be made known to God.” Uncurl your anxious fingers, and let it go into the light that is God’s capacity to transform. Do this on the ground of your thankfulness. And then, says the text, then; “The peace of God, which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Here is a reliable pathway to joy: the emptied hands, the return to gratitude, the committing to God in trust. That’s just getting free; and joy is a soul set free.
Free, among other things, to make better choices, to live a life of higher, truer, strengthened purpose. Right living is the ratification of joy and the giver of it. David Brooks has spoken of “moral joy.”—the joy of living according to our best and highest values, the joy of being engaged with a cause greater than ourselves. So, when Scripture urges us to rejoice always, it is calling us to faithful living, to serving and bearing witness to what is right, which expresses our joy and will increase it, not only in us, but in others.
Don’t be afraid of it. The feeling of joy, when it takes us, is a powerful thing. It grants us freedoms that might seem overwhelming, new possibilities that may seem daunting. It says, Look how you can live! And maybe we don’t want to be that glad. Maybe we’ll take our joy in safer little bits. But the poet Mary Oliver says it well: “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it…. don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”1
What if this is the essence of why we are here? What if joy is not an option for us to take or leave, but our duty, our obedience—to forsake a joyless life, to know that joy is a decision, the life-giving, right decision, to live in the deep gladness of the children of God?
Soon you will hear the story again of how it was under a night sky that the angel said to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy.” Though the story doesn’t say it, that angel was smiling from ear to ear, and his arms were spread wide as the world. And the music that the shepherds heard filling the sky was the echoing laughter of the eternal banquet.
Joy to the world! It is always, always ours in God’s immeasurable, inexhaustible, astonishing love. The Lord is near. Rejoice!
1 Mary Oliver, “Don’t Hesitate,” Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010). 42.