Rejoice in the Lord Always!
There is a tradition at installations of pastors to their fields of service – congregations, mission fields, teaching positions – where brother pastors greet the newly installed pastor with a word of Scripture. Over the decades I’ve tended to use the same verse – not because it is the only verse I can remember – there are many verses in the Bible suitable for the occasion! – and I’m not overly miffed if another pastor uses it but they rarely do – but because it seems to me that there is a message here that needs to be heard as one begins one’s task. Today I find myself in the interesting position of not being the pastor going but staying – and this verse continues to knock at my head and remind me – who tends to be somewhat cynical – of a way of seeing the world and living in it – even when coming to the end of something. This verse in my opinion is good for ministry. More importantly it is good for life.
Paul – writing from prison – having just received support and help – reminded the Philippians six times to rejoice. He rejoiced whether the message of Christ was proclaimed for good or for selfish reasons. He faced the prospect of death – being poured out as a drink offering – and he rejoiced in the faith they shared and wanted them to rejoice with him. He wanted to send their colleague Epaphroditus back to them so that they could rejoice because Epaphroditus had been close to death but recovered. And when it came to specific instructions he begins by saying rejoice in the Lord and then in Chapter 4 we have the last occurrence when just after encouraging two women who seem to have a dispute or disagreement to work together he returns again to this point with the well-known verse – and the one I often use as a greeting: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! (Philippians 4:4)
Now the world knows rejoicing – think Olympics, success, victory in conflict, health over illness, and so on. But because life is full of more losers than winners and we learn to negotiate or make strategic alliances to get on in the world – we learn to compromise – after all, we don’t get it all our way all the time – so the world views rejoicing as an intermittent event – something that comes and goes – and looks askance at Paul who calls people to ‘rejoice always’. The world simply shakes its head and says ‘delusional’, ‘not possible’.
Sadly this perspective can also seep into the church where rejoicing is the product of spiritual success or miracles and where such verses as Paul’s to the Romans Chapter 5 seem to be forgotten – Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5 ESV) And a little later – For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:10-11 ESV)
Rejoicing is not the plastic smiley face that is glued on to one’s face irrespective of the situation one encounters. It is something that exists in the Lord – and because he is eternal, unchanging, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow – so the adverb ‘always’ is possible because there is an empty grave involved.
Our world lives according to many ‘ly’s’ – legally, morally, politically, socially, emotionally, psychologically, financially. Can you think of any others? Such things are important except that we don’t agree on the ground rules or criteria for them and the planet keeps missing the one ‘ly’ that is most important – that gives us the perspective we need to live each day. This particularly is the work you’re going to do in Sunderland, Steve – with Debbie and the congregation assisting. You’ve done it here – and all our Ascension congregations live this way.
It is because we live liturgically that Paul’s charge and encouragement to rejoice in the Lord always is not rejected out of hand but embraced. This is living no longer on our terms. It is Sunday by Sunday encounters with the living God who shocks us with grace – what a divine absurdity that he doesn’t treat us as we deserve – and his people become most real and honest – there’s no need for masks and faulty thinking with him for he knows us better than we do and wants us to know ourselves likewise. So in worship God calls, cleans, speaks, listens to our needs and responds, feeds us and blesses us for another week in the world – in our relationships – in whatever is going on – and because the cross stands tall and we don’t dodge it but see ourselves in it as sinners who are forgiven – as people loved by God who no longer want to make the lives of those around us miserable by trying to win all the time – and keep the rejoicing for ourselves – then we discover what sin and death have most robbed our world of – joy – a pure joy that just seeks to express itself in love – and so we rejoice … in the Lord … always.
The public ministry is essentially one of calling people to joy when they think they’re happy enough as it is. The life of the followers of Jesus is daily living in that joy – in the love of God in Jesus – conscious that we’re not gods but people loved by God who can make choices each day that affect ourselves and others and because sin clings to us and our sinful flesh seduces us with other joys and the world threatens or mocks us for following the crucified man so we face the paradox of Christianity – joyful struggle – secure in one’s salvation. The tension must be kept – as it is each Sunday for God comes close to us – personally, intimately, speaking to us, communing with us – graciously, lovingly – and yet our experience of this worship – of this life – can never get past our sins, our frailties, our shames.
We live by faith and not by sight – and that is nowhere more true than when we rejoice in the Lord always – when we keep praying, keep reading, when we say ‘God, you’re good’ even with pain or tears – when we settle back and look at our lives liturgically and see what God does for us then we rejoice again and again.
And this is true whether a believer or a pastor is here or Sunderland or anywhere else.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! (Philippians 4:4)
- Philippians 4:4