The Lord is near
Whenever you read Philippians, you’ve got to remember one thing: Paul was in jail when he wrote it. So when he says Rejoice!, we should take notice. Paul can rejoice even though he is in chains. Paul can rejoice when he doesn’t know whether he’ll live or die.
How is that?
Quite some years ago now, I was at a conference here in Brisbane and a couple of ministers from the Philippines were also there. They were facing the possibility of arrest when they returned home, yet they had broad smiles on their faces and a deep joy in their hearts.
How is that?
As a hospital chaplain, I used to see people who were seriously ill who could absolutely radiate peace and joy. It did my heart good to sit with them.
How is that?
Paul, sitting in the filth and damp and dinginess of a Roman jail, says,
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!
How is that?
How can we hear what Paul has to say, when life is going wrong? When we’re down at heel, downhearted, down in the dumps? When we’re sick, or jobless, or financially insecure?
How can we ‘rejoice’ then?
We can’t rejoice because of sickness or unemployment or death. Paul couldn’t rejoice because he was in jail, unsure of whether he’d live or die. Paul doesn’t say, Ignore reality—rejoice anyway! Paul doesn’t say, Rejoice in your illness. He says,
Rejoice in the Lord always…
Rejoice ‘in the Lord’—those three words make all the difference. How can we rejoice ‘in the Lord’? What does it mean to ‘rejoice in the Lord’ when things aren’t going well? We can be clear that it doesn’t mean walking around looking like a wet weekend all the time. But it’s also not about whooping it up and being raucous, though definitely that has its place. But really, I imagine that in his dark cell Paul had a fairly quiet, sustaining joy much of the time. And sometimes that’s the joy we need: a sustaining joy.
Sometimes we hear that a Christian must be happy all the time. For many of us, that can become a burden. But according to Paul, you can rejoice in a jail cell. You can rejoice in a hospital bed. When you rejoice in the Lord.
How do we rejoice in the Lord?
When I was a student in college, hundreds of years ago, the then Moderator told us of a visit he’d made to a congregation. He saw someone there, someone he knew who was going through a very difficult time. Shaking hands at the door after the service, he asked his friend how he was. Immediately, the minister of the congregation piped up: ‘Everyone’s good here!’
What could this poor man say? Did he contradict his minister? No, he told the Moderator things were good.
Is that the way we rejoice? By not allowing people who are sad to be sad? Friends, having joy isn’t the same as being happy all the time. Happiness is something we have on the surface, which comes and goes; joy is a deep down thing that is able to remain no matter what else happens.
Look at what Paul says immediately after his words about rejoicing:
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
Rejoicing ‘in the Lord’ involves caring for the Lord’s people. If someone is finding it hard to find their joy, we care for them. We don’t tell them to deny their pain, or pull their socks up. They need to know our gentleness.
Why can we rejoice ‘in the Lord’? Paul tells us why:
The Lord is near.
There’s a great encouragement. The Lord is near.
The Lord of heaven and earth is near us, the Lord who made all things. God’s power is available to us. Even more, God shares our suffering. Ask and receive. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing at all. Rejoice in the Lord.
The Lord who was tested in the wilderness is near us. The Lord who withstood the temptations to abuse his power as the Son of God is near us. He knows what it is to be tempted to do wrong, he knows what it is to be tested by the things life throws at us; he knows what it is to suffer and die. He is near to us in our distress and anxiety. Isn’t that a wonderful thing? We can rejoice in the Lord who is near.
God loves us and will never let go of us. Some of our young people were at a Chrysalis flight last weekend. Each one was touched by the reality of God’s grace, God’s undying love, God’s acceptance of them. They came away happy—and knowing more of what it means to rejoice in the Lord who is so near to them.
When good things happen, we often rejoice in the wrong things. We read the Old Testament story of the golden calf today, and we smile at Aaron who says,
These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!
How naive, we think. Idols don’t exist! But they do. We don’t call them the ‘golden calf’; we call them names like ‘education’, ‘money’, ‘the approval of others’. Anything that takes the place of God is an idol; and we rejoice in our idols. Things like education are good things of course; I’m very happy to have an education. But when these things become the foundation of our life, we rejoice in them rather than in the Lord. And when those things are taken from us, as they can be at any time, we suddenly have nothing to rejoice in. But the Lord will never leave us nor forsake us.
Whatever happens to us, we can be 100% sure of this one thing: The Lord is near. Good things like money and education come from him. If you doubt that, let me invite you to hold your breath. The next breath you take comes from air that God has given us. All good things come from God, so that we can rejoice in the Lord.
It’s only then that we can hear what Paul says next: don’t worry, let your requests be known to God, rest in his peace. The Lord is near.
Paul could rejoice in the Lord in a Roman jail, because the Lord was there with him. We too can rejoice in the Lord, whatever happens, because he is near at hand. Amen.