“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
This verse in Paul’s letter to the Philippians is loved by many people. It is a favorite to read over and over. In hearing the entire passage today I am seeing it in new ways. I especially identify with the opening words. “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for…” As this pandemic year continues, I expect you also can understand Paul’s sentiment. We long to see each other and to be physically together and yet we are not there yet. So how can we do this is, how can we always rejoice?
Of course, this year 2020 has brought some times of happiness, the births of new babies, being able to see family and friends even from afar, finding those rolls of toilet paper, getting an economic boost just at the right time, eating favorite foods, learning to use zoom, and so on. There have been happy times even though these are overshadowed by many more times of grief and unhappiness.
As we look at this particular scripture I think it might be helpful to make a distinction between happiness and joy. For my purposes today I will define happiness as something that happens to us or for us. While similar, joy is a deeper grounding, a state of being, a place of calm and peace which is always available to us. Joy comes from knowing to whom we belong. While happiness is external brought about by things outside of us, joy is internal. And yes, 2020 has brought much unhappiness and yet the joy found “in the Lord” is unchanged.
Before I go any further I want to stop for a moment and address an effect of this time of pandemic. That is that the number of people experiencing depression is higher than usual now. Some sources say much higher than usual while the actual figures are unclear. Please know that if you have a loved one who is depressed now, my remarks today by no means are to suggest that what is required is a simple change of attitude. That is not how depression, a serious medical condition, works.
If you do have a close loved one who is in a depression currently, I feel certain you have talked to them about it. Please know that you may need to do more than talk. Talking is always a good first step but the person’s depression, the person’s illness, may prevent them from actually carrying through with what you have discussed.
An analogy is that the person experiencing the depression is in a hole and depending on how deep that hole is, it may not be enough to offer a hand to pull them out. You may actually have to get into that hole with them and push them out. As the loved one, you may need to make the doctor appointment with the person; you may need to be the one to drive them to the appointment, or appointments. You may need to be the one to find the therapist that the insurance will cover. Gently talking is a first step. However, for a person who is depressed, it may not be enough.
If you are that person who is experiencing depression, I am talking clinical depression now, not just a short period of the blues or brief sadness. But rather a prolonged time where you can’t see the stars shine, or know the warmth of the sun, or feel God’s presence, don’t wait. The illness is treatable and your doctor can help make a plan for you with medication and/or therapy.
St. Paul is speaking to all of us today but for some hearing his words may seem like a foreign language. I encourage you to take that outstretched hand or that push to get help. You can get better; those stars, that sun and God are all nearby and you will experience them again. And when you do the rejoicing that Paul is speaking of will fill your heart.
So let’s go back to today’s passage from Philippians: Paul writes that we are to rejoice in the Lord, to rejoice, always. What is surprising is that when he wrote this letter Paul was in prison. While biblical scholars disagree as to which exact imprisonment this was, we can be sure that it was not a desirable place to be. Perhaps a better word to describe it would be deplorable. Conditions would have been such that Paul was kept in a cramped space with poor food, and poor sanitation. Depending on which time of being in prison he might have been physically punished by flogging or awaiting execution. Certainly from the outside this was not a place of happiness, and yet Paul says to rejoice. And what he rejoiced about was because the Lord is near. Even in captivity with everything that meant, Paul was able to experience the nearness of Christ. It is for that he rejoices. We can learn from Paul that no matter our condition or external circumstances, we too can have that deep internal peace by knowing that God is with us. While we may be in the worst of situations externally, we can still experience joy internally.
Paul goes on in the passage to say that when our anxieties get in the way of that rejoicing we are to pray about it all. We are to take our concerns and unhappiness to God in prayer. This includes everything, from the smallest to the largest. Christ will meet us in that place of worry and distress. He has been there before us and he is there alongside us. Our joy and rejoicing is “in the Lord” and is because He is close to us.
Life in the Roman Empire in the first century was filled with violence and fighting, cruelty and oppression, disasters, disease and injustice. While the exact circumstances are not the same, it sounds very familiar to life in the twenty first century. Paul’s advice to the Philippians then, and now to us, is to focus on what is true, what is honorable, what is just, what is pure, what is pleasing, what is commendable and what is worthy of praise.
Is Paul acting as a Pollyanna, encouraging positive thinking skills to deny reality? No, he is not. Paul knew the reality of those terrible things first-hand. But Paul also knew another reality. Paul knew the certainty of Jesus’ resurrection and that is the reality that mattered.
This is the reality in which we live and the reality that still matters to us. Hope comes from this reality and this is why we rejoice. Jesus Christ in whom we live and move and have our being is the risen Lord. We live in God’s love always.
So, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for… Until we are able to be all together keep these words close to your heart.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
This is the truth that matters.