Tag: Joy

Joy in Challenging Times – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19A (Philippians 4)


Philippians 4:1-9 New Revised Standard Version

4 1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

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                This is one of the most cherished passages in Scripture. Even if you’re not a fan of Paul, You have to embrace his encouragement to rejoice in the Lord always. Though it might seem odd to heed the call to be joyful in challenging times, like what has imposed itself on the world in 2020. While there is a place for lamentation, Paul seems to believe that there is also room for joy in difficult times. After all, he’s writing this letter from a jail cell (Phil. 1:7). So, here in the concluding chapter of Paul’s Philippian letter, written from prison to a community facing some form of persecution, Paul invites them to rejoice in the Lord always. In fact, he doubles down on that invitation, declaring “again I will say, Rejoice” (vs. 4). So, because the Lord is near (I take that to mean Jesus’ return in glory), “do not worry about anything, but in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (vs. 6).

                It’s clear that things aren’t going perfectly in Philippi. There appears to be some conflict going on, but not, it doesn’t seem, at the same level as what we find present in some of Paul’s other letters. Nevertheless, Paul seems to have reason to be concerned, which is why he keeps encouraging these beloved followers of Jesus who formed a church Paul had founded to keep focused on what is true and honorable. As we’ve seen, Paul wants them to keep focused on Jesus, whose humility can be the foundation for their unity (Phil. 2:5-11). He also offers himself as an example (Phil. 3:17).

Here in this concluding chapter, Paul speaks specifically to two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who appear to be at odds. We don’t know the background or nature of the conflict, but Paul wants them to be of the same mind. Therefore, he not only urges them to come together but also asks his unnamed loyal companion—perhaps Epaphroditus, who is mentioned as Paul’s companion and likely member of the Philippian community (Phil 2:25-30)—to help them resolve their differences. I should note that these two women are recognized by Paul as being coworkers with him for the Gospel, so they are important to him. This reality again reinforces the message that whatever Paul has to say about joy and peace in this passage, it is said in the context of challenging times both for him and for the Philippian congregation.

                As noted above, I write this reflection while the world is experiencing its own set of challenges that seem to keep piling on top of each other. First of all, the world is in the midst of a pandemic that has sickened tens of millions and killed hundreds of thousands of those inflicted, with the numbers in the United States outstripping every other country. That same pandemic has forced many of us into forms of isolation we’ve never experienced before. We miss the simple things like going to a restaurant or a movie without fearing the possibility that we might be exposed to the virus. Then there is church, where something as simple and joy-inducing as singing has been put on hold. We are also in the midst of a racial reckoning, that is forcing the nation to wrestle with the implications for our society of the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police (George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others) and vigilantes (Ahmaud Arbery). These deaths have led to months of protests that have yet to let up. We’re also in one of the most contentious and dispiriting election seasons most of us have ever seen. Many Americans fear that we are nearing the end of democracy in this nation. So, how do you find joy in moments like this? Where do you find peace? The answer is certainly not to be found in our cultural context.

                Note that Paul invites them to “rejoice in the Lord” and not in their circumstances. He encourages them to exhibit gentleness in their relationships. He tells them not to worry, but to be in prayer. This isn’t Paul’s version of that Bobby McFerrin song: “Don’t worry, Be Happy.” It’s not a call for blissful ignorance, as if there’s nothing to worry about. Instead, it is an encouragement to put one’s trust in God. Let us remember that Paul is writing this from a prison cell. Death is, perhaps, a possibility. There is persecution of some sort going on. Nevertheless, Paul enjoins them to rejoice in the Lord. As Martin Luther declared in a sermon on this passage, “Joy is the natural fruit of faith.” He continues in the sermon, making mention of Paul’s doubling down on the call to rejoice, declaring:

It is essential that we rejoice. Paul, recognizing that we live in the midst of sin and evil, both which things depress, would fortify us with cheer. Thus rejoicing, even if we should sometimes fall into sin, our joy in God will exceed our sorrow in sin. The natural accompaniment of sin truly is fear and a burdened conscience, and we cannot always escape sin. Therefore we should let joy have rule, let Christ be greater than our sins.  [Martin Luther].

This invocation of joy is powerful, but trusting God isn’t always easy, even for those whom we are told are paragons of faith. My Bible Study group is reading the stories in Genesis about Abraham. While he’s held up in Hebrews 11 as a paragon of faith, if you read the Abraham story closely, Abraham doesn’t always exhibit faith in God. Consider that even though God has promised to provide Abraham a son through Sarah (Genesis 17 and18), in Genesis 20 he passes her off as his sister. Only God’s intervention prevents disaster. Nevertheless, Paul encourages the Philippians to rejoice and let the peace of God, which surpasses understanding, guard their hearts and minds.  

                Though Paul encourages them to put their trust in the God who brings peace to their lives, he’s not encouraging them to be passive in their behavior. The reading closes with a call to action. Paul encourages this beloved community to focus their attention on what is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and that which is worthy of praise. From there, he asks that the “keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me” (vs. 9). In other words, while he commended them to look to Jesus for a model of the Christian life (Phil. 2:5-11), he’s not afraid to offer himself up as a role model. All of this begins in prayer so that the God of peace might be with us. Therefore, let us rejoice in the Lord, always!

Image attribution: Longview Christian Church. Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55774 [retrieved October 4, 2020]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8328367@N08/2949605288.

A Joyous Homecoming – Lectionary reflection for Advent 3C (Zephaniah 3)

Zephaniah (18th century Russian icon) 

Zephaniah 3:14-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18 as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19 I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
20 At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.

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When you read this Psalm you almost get the sense that Zephaniah has Judah’s return from exile in Babylon, but Zephaniah’s ministry dates to the time of Josiah in the seventh century BCE, just prior to the exile in Babylon. While it’s possible that this song dates from the post-exilic period and was added to the earlier words of Zephaniah, it fits the earlier period just as well. Whether a celebration of a return from exile or national revival, it invites us to rejoice that God’s judgments have been removed and God is ready to renew the people in love. So, let us rejoice and be glad in the Lord our God!
We hear these words from Zephaniah as we continue our journey through Advent to the revealing of the Christ Child on Christmas Eve. The opening season of the Christian year, Advent serves as a reminder that God is faithful to the promises made. Thus, as we gather for Advent worship, we take hold of those promises that inspire and encourage us along the way. Advent is, of course, an eschatological season. It looks forward to the ways in which God will act on behalf of the people—thus the warrior imagery here.
For a nation like Judah, which stood on the road connecting the powers of Egypt and Mesopotamia, it often “hosted” armies seeking to expand their domains at Israel’s expense. Thus, they must entrust themselves to God’s care. There is a word here in verse 19 that declares that God the liberator will deal with oppressors, save the lame, and gather the outcast. Those on the margins will “change their shame into praise.” Of course, it should be noted that much of the book of Zephaniah is a rebuke to Judah, but not here. At least, here Zephaniah, looking forward, perhaps with Joshua’s reforms in mind, envisions a different, purified nation, that will celebrate God’s presence. In the verses just prior to the song, we hear the prophet speak of the remnant of Israel that will seek refuge in the name of the Lord and will “do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid” (Zeph. 3:12-13).
Taken by itself, upon reading this song of joy, you would never know that Zephaniah had pronounced judgment on Judah. There is the reference to judgments rescinded, but the nature of the crimes isn’t laid out. More likely we take hold of the opening lines, which invites us to sing the Lord, with songs of joy and exultation. Perhaps the song celebrates a new reality, in which Judah has heeded the call of the prophet and reformed its ways. Thus, it would appear, that Judah has taken steps to change their ways. They’ve heard the pronouncements and have reformed their ways. Thus, we can see the connection to the reforms of Josiah that returned appropriate forms of worship and decorum to the Temple, and proper behavior among the people. This leads naturally to a call to rejoice in the Lord. Even as we see signs that behavior changed, there is also the recognition that God is acting on behalf of the people. Again, it is good to remember that Judah was a small nation that sat between dueling empires, thus this little kingdom was a valued vassal, not for its treasures, but for its strategic location. The nation was constantly needing to shift loyalties, but for Zephaniah, there is only one loyalty to be considered, that is the loyalty to God, the protector, the warrior.
Placing this song into the season of Advent, we can see how it connects with the day of joy. So, Zephaniah joins Paul with a song of joy, as Paul invites the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). Though in Luke, John the Baptist is warning the crowds to be baptized, so maybe he is where Zephaniah was before the song was written! (Luke 3:7-18). There is, therefore, a connection in the season of Advent between the call for repentance and change and the invitation to rejoice in God’s presence.
So, what does Zephaniah have to say to us? How might we move into a position of joy? It would seem that this would require accepting God’s judgment, if we are to move into God’s new vision. If we fail to heed those calls to change our behavior, we will make the call to rejoice rather shallow. So, we might want to hear this reading with the caravan at the border in mind. Why, we would be wise to ask, have thousands of Central Americans lined up at the border seeking asylum? What might be the cause of the disruptions of life in Honduras and Nicaragua. How might situations on the northern side of the border, have contributed to the frustrations and distress, where parents fear the power of gangs that originated in the United States. Perhaps, we can start, as Seth Moland-Kovash suggests, by praying “in solidarity with our sisters and brothers around the world who do experience the world in ways much more like the experience of Zephaniah’s hearers. We pray for an end to all disasters and conflicts, and we trust in God’s promise for restoration” [Feasting on the Word, p. 55]. When we pray in solidarity, then it’s possible for us, whose situation is very different, to experience God’s restoration in our own situations. At the same time, it’s important to remember that this word of judgment is issued within a broader offer of mercy. Remember that Zephaniah sings that God has taken away the judgments placed on Judah. The same would be true for us.
When we are burdened with guilt, feeling that we must clean ourselves up first, before we come to God, will leave us in the dust. Yes, John called out the “the brood of vipers” for their hypocrisy, he also offered them an opportunity to start afresh in baptism. It is God’s offer of forgiveness that leads to joy. As Alan Gregory notes, “though God has not taken back a word of the condemnation, God’s grace exceeds the condemnation in the healing powers of renewal” [Connections, p. 36]. This encounter, both now and in the future, will not leave us unchanged, but instead will allow us to move forward in God’s grace into a new reality, one of renewal, and thus a joyous homecoming. So “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (Zeph. 3:14b).

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.