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December 6, 2021

I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”  Luke 2:10

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”  Philippians 4: 4[1]

Think back on a time when you experienced an irrepressible, unvarnished joy that welled up from deep within you.  You couldn’t help but smile, laugh, jump up and down, cry with joy, dance, or express your joy in other ways.  However you expressed that joy, it was evident to everyone around you that you were filled with great happiness.   

That is how it is for those who truly believe that God came to earth as a baby and was placed in a crib, only to die on a cross 33 years later to save us from ourselves.  The joy we have in Christ does not mean that we are never sad.  The Christian’s joy is a deep, abiding joy that goes beyond current circumstances.  It is a stream that flows within our souls and refreshes and revives us despite the difficulties we face.  Joy is a fruit of the Spirit promised to all believers.  

Absent clinical depression, the underlying joy of a believer should be evident in his or her countenance.  I once heard a well-known theologian suggest that a joyless Christian is an oxymoron.  The angel announced to the shepherds: “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).  Good news indeed!   It was the best news that anyone would ever hear! 

During the season of Advent we sing, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.  The Hebrew name, Emmanuel, means “God with us.”  God came to us in the form of a human baby and left his Spirit with us.  The belief that God came to mankind over 2,000 years ago and that his Spirit dwells among us today should bring a smile to your face whenever you read or hear of it. 

Paul isn’t suggesting that you be joyful—his words to the church at Philippi constitute a mandate: Rejoice!  If you are a believer, having a joyful spirit is the result of your assurance that God is there for you in this life, and that he will carry you into the next life where you will never have another concern or shed another tear. You either believe that God became a man or you don’t believe it.  Jesus left us with a lot of evidence that he was indeed, fully God and fully man—and that is the basis for our joy.  He loved us so much that he died for us, and his Spirit lives in us today. 

Paul was not living the high life when he wrote his letter to the church at Philippi about AD 61.  After being arrested in Jerusalem in 57 AD, he initiated a legal proceeding by invoking his rights as a Roman citizen to avoid being tried in Jerusalem by the local religious authorities.  As legal proceedings have a tendency to do, his case dragged on for several years due to a series of unexpected events.  

For the first two years from AD 57 to AD 59, he was ensconced in a room in the palace at Caesarea.  After learning from Paul’s nephew that he had overheard a plot to kill Paul in Jerusalem, Roman soldiers rescued Paul from the religious authorities in Jerusalem and took him to the palace.  He remained there in their protective custody for two years between 57 and 59.  He was on his way to Rome for his hearing in AD 59, when he was shipwrecked and waylaid in Malta for several months.  He finally made it to Rome in AD 60, where he rented a house to await the hearing on his case, which was ultimately dismissed in AD 62, presumably for lack of evidence.  He received many visitors and wrote several letters during this first stay in Rome, including the letter to the church at Philippi. 

Despite being arrested, narrowly escaping a murderous plot, being held for two years in protective custody, surviving a shipwreck and a poisonous snake bite, and waiting another two years for his case to be heard, Paul found reasons to rejoice, and so encourages us to live our lives joyfully.

The psalmist explains the basis for our joy: “You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins. You set aside all your wrath . . . I will listen to what God the Lord says; he promises peace to his people, his faith servants . . . Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Excerpts, Psalm 85:1, 8, 10). 

The prophet Zephaniah echoes the psalmist:  “Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm . . . The Lord our God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.  He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3: 14-16, 17).  God sent Jesus to bear the burden of our sins, so that when we repent, we are forgiven and promised a place with him in heaven. 

Jesus explained that while John the Baptist was a great man, those who came after John would have a broader spiritual heritage because of what Jesus accomplished: “’I tell you,’ Jesus added, ‘John is greater than anyone who has ever lived. But the one who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John’” (Luke 7:28, Good News Translation).  We who have come after have a greater perspective of God’s plan for salvation. The generations following the resurrection came to understand that Jesus died for our sins, as promised by the prophets, and that is the basis for our joy. 

Life gives us many opportunities to be anxious, sad, apprehensive, and fearful –money problems, relationship problems, health problems, family problems, job problems—the list goes on.  But Paul tells us to rejoice always. Prayer is the bridge between worry and joy.  Bring your disappointments, hurts, and challenges to the Lord.  If you are grounded in faith, and turn to the Lord in prayer, you will experience a quiet joy that transcends your personal circumstances at any given time. 

Joy is not the same thing as being happy.  You are happy when good things happen.  Joy runs much deeper.  Even in the midst of difficult and painful circumstances, the believer maintains a joyful spirit, because he or she calls upon the Lord, and knows the outcome: whatever happens, you will ultimately spend eternity in a place of incomprehensible joy where you will never shed another tear or have another worry. 

Prayer:  God of power and mercy, we thank and praise you for sending Jesus to live among us—to teach and guide us—and then to die for our sins.  Open our hearts to you.  During this Advent season, remove the things that keep us from receiving Jesus with joy.  We thank you for the great joy we experience when we come into your presence now, and look forward to rejoicing with you in our forever home.  Amen 

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the third Sunday in Advent are Psalm 85; Zephaniah 3: 14-20; Philippians 4: 4-7; Luke 7: 18-35. 

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