Rejoice! The Lord is Near!
December 16, 2012
I chose the title for this sermon at the beginning of the week—days before the events of Friday. Early in the week, when I looked at the scripture lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary, I believed that we needed to hear this word of hope. The Season of Advent is filled with opportunities for repentance and talk about judgment—similar to the Season of Lent. But early on, the church fathers recognized that in the middle of this season of introspection and preparation, Christians needed to have an opportunity to take a deep breath and remember who we are. The word for “rejoice” in Latin is “Gaudete”. They called this third Sunday in Advent “Gaudete Sunday”—a Sunday for rejoicing. In our tradition, this time for a deep breath is reflected in our Advent Wreath. Instead of a purple candle, we light a pink or rose colored candle, signifying that this is a day for rejoicing, for recognizing and expressing our Joy that the Lord is near.
After I heard the news on Friday, I almost changed the sermon title—not because of failure of heart, but because I didn’t want to appear insensitive to the grief and sorrow that people are experiencing in the wake of Friday’s shootings. After thinking and praying about it, as well as after checking with several of the people of Cunningham just to make sure I wasn’t losing a grip on reality, I decided to not to change the sermon. I realized that especially in times such as these, we need to hear the Good News that the Lord is near.
This is not a simplistic statement that ignores the tragedy around us by pretending that evil is not around us. It is not a matter of minimizing or ignoring our pain. It is not a matter of using glib phrases to put on a happy face. No—it is recognition that even in the darkest of times, no matter how painful they may be, God is with us.
I have learned this wisdom from parents and preachers alike. There is a difference between joy and happiness.
Happiness is an emotional response to the moment. The root word of “happy” is “hap”—a 14th century English word that means “chance” or “fortune.” This same word “hap” also gave rise to the word “haphazard.” Happiness is fleeting. It’s good to experience it, but you need to capture it quickly, because it is soon gone.
Joy is different. Joy is the continuing confidence that, despite our outward circumstances, we can live at peace, resting comfortably in God’s presence. To rejoice is not necessarily to make an emotional statement about how we feel at a given moment in time. Rather, joy is an on-going way of living and experiencing the world around us in relation to the God within us.
There is a real distinction between seeking the feeling of pleasure that we so often view as “happiness” and learning to experience joy. For me, joy is not a feeling; it is the assurance found in knowing that despite a world that is falling apart outside of us, we belong to God and God is with us. As I understand the letter that Paul wrote to the Philippian church, Paul was urging them—and he is urging us—to experience this joy.
Paul tells us to “rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Rejoice is a verb. Paul is not saying here that we should be happy about the things going wrong in the world. He is not so calloused as to say that we should be glad about pain and suffering. He says that we should rejoice—not because of the pain, but because the Lord is near. By the time Paul wrote this letter to the church in Philippi, he had already gone through more pain and suffering than most. Paul wrote this letter from prison (see 1:14). He faced an uncertain future, and recognized the real prospect of death (he talks about this very real possibility in Chapter 1, verses 20-24).
But death was not something that Paul feared. He had reached the point that he could honestly say that for him, to live was Christ, and to die was gain (Philippians 1:21). He rested in the assurance that it was better for him to stick around in this life so that he could support his friends in their spiritual journey; yet he longed to be with Christ. Either way, Paul saw himself as winning. (v. 23). He reminds me of my Dad—my Dad often used to say that living or dying, he was the winner. If he died he would be with my Mom in the presence of God; if he lived, he stayed with us. So Dad was at peace.
I admire these attitudes. Yet, when we face tragedies such as last Friday’s, I still have a hard time. It’s not so much wavering in my faith as it is becoming impatient that such pain and suffering still exists in the world. It’s our own form of exile. I just don’t believe that God intended for us to live this way. I feel a little bit of what the Psalmist must have been feeling when he wrote the words, “How long, O Lord, how long?” (see Psalm 13).
But it is precisely for these moments of despair, these moments of agitation, that Paul was writing. Paul knew that, if left to our own power to rejoice in the face of such pain, we couldn’t do it. That is why verse 7 in this morning’s reading is so important: “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
The Greek word that is translated as “guard” has some special significance. We often think of “guarding” our hearts and minds in military or police terms. We think of a jail or prison, where we are trying to keep someone from getting out. That is not what Paul is speaking about here. Think instead of a strong fortress that protects all who live inside. Think of security. This, Paul says, is what the peace of Christ does for us. Christ does not pretend that the pain and suffering doesn’t exist; but the One who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) has promised us that we will not experience this suffering alone.
That, my friends, is Good News. It’s Good News in the midst of a sorrowful time. We would prefer that our Good News would be filled with jubilant ecstasy all the time. We want our weeping to turn into dancing (Psalm 30:11) and we want it now! We want all of our songs to be sung in a major key, but life is not like that.
Are you familiar with major and minor keys in music? A major chord sounds happy to our ears. Think of the Christmas Carol, “Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come!” The tune expresses the joy we feel about the coming of Christ. It is a song of celebration.
But with just a minor change in one note, with lowering that one note just a half step, the major key becomes a minor one, and what a difference that minor change makes. Compare the feeling of “Joy to the World” with the feeling expressed in the Advent Hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” This Advent Carol proclaims “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel,” yet it sounds much different. Both carols describe the coming of the Christ—one with joy, and the other with longing and yearning. How can we have such different reactions to the same event?
Our youngest daughter, Margaret, is a music teacher in the Fairfax County Public Schools and also directs the Children’s Choirs at Herndon United Methodist Church. Margaret told Carol and me that a week and a half ago, a precocious 4th grader named Emma in her Church Choir asked her why “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is written in a minor key if it’s a happy thing.
What a perceptive question for a 4th-grader!
Margaret responded that “Jesus was coming into a world that wasn’t happy and that had people that weren’t—and still aren’t—always nice to each other and the music reflects that.” I was pretty proud of Margaret’s answer!
The minor key of the music reflects the longing of the world for things to be set right. It’s a longing that God’s children have experienced for thousands of years. It is a longing that is fresh in our hearts once again. We want to sing “Joy to the World,” but we can’t. Just as the Jewish people living in exile in Babylon hung their harps by the willow trees because they couldn’t sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land (Psalm 137), there are times that we can’t sing the songs of happiness—at least not yet. The pain is too near.
But Advent is a time for remember that even though pain, suffering and sadness is near, the Lord also is near. We can rejoice—even in the middle of our suffering and even in a minor key—that Emanuel has come to us.
Yet there is still another song to be sung. A song, written in a major key but much quieter, that reflects this understanding for me. A song that reminds me, even in the dark times, that Jesus loves us. It reminds us that even though we are weak, He is strong. Even though we are surrounded by the purple of longing for another day, today is a pink day, Gaudete Sunday, a day in which we can sing--and even rejoice—“yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.” He loves us, and He promises to be with us, even “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Even in the dark times of life, we can rejoice, for the Lord is near. Thanks be to God!
Copyright © 2012 by Thomas E. Frost. All rights reserved.
 Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia. This sermon was delivered two days after a gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut before killing himself.