(Sing: If your happy and you know it clap your hands)
That’s a fun song to sing… when I’m happy. But what if I’m not happy. I mean, I can’t be joyous all the time, can I? Sometimes I don’t what to clap my hand or stomp my feet; sometimes I’m angry, sometimes I’m feeling apathetic, or sad, or afraid and I find no joy when I’m feeling those emotions.
But Paul says that we should “Rejoice in the Lord, ALWAYS” Always. So, what gives? Is he saying “put on a happy face” or “fake a smile” no matter what’s going on around you? I don’t think so. That doesn’t square with we know about Pauline theology or even the rest of today’s text. No, I think Paul was talking about something beyond momentary happiness, he was describing to the church in Philippi, and to us, what a deeper sense of joy might look like even in tough times.
You see, Paul know about tough times. He was in prison and he had a choice to make. He could have chosen to be bitter, focusing on the negative, all that was wrong with his life, all he had lost, but instead he chose to focus on the positive, on all that was right, on all he still had. I rather imagine his letter to the Philippians was written as much to himself as it was to them. Because, being in prison, he had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord, always.” He had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote: “…with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” He had every reason to look on the dark side of his circumstance, but instead he wrote: “…whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable… if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” He had every reason to give up, but instead he wrote: “I press on… I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Yes, I think he was writing to himself as much as he was to others. Because, you see, we’re not always free to determine what happens to us, but we are relatively free to choose how we will respond to whatever happens.”[I]
And it’s in our response to the challenges of life, that “…we begin to find and become our true selves; it’s when we notice how we are already found by God; how we are already entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.”[ii] And it’s in this discovering of ourselves, our authentic selves, that we find this deeper joy, this unsurpassable peace, that Paul espouses.
“Well, that great,” you might say, “but how can I find this deeper joy within myself, really?” Glad you asked. When we read this text, we tend to focus on the “rejoice in the Lord, always” part and maybe the “excellence” part, but there’s a key line in this passage we often ignore. Verse 5 reads: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” followed by, “the Lord is near.”
Now, you could easily read and understand this passage without verse 5; “Rejoice, in the Lord always; and again, I say rejoice. Do not worry about anything, but in everything…” Okay, it makes literary sense but Paul though verse 5 important enough to include. Why? Well, if we desire a deeper sense of joy, if we long for a deeper sense of inner peace, Paul says, we must show an outwardly gentleness.
As I thought about gentleness, I remembered a cute story I heard many years ago. It seems that an elderly woman took her freckle-faced grandson to the zoo. Lots of children were waiting in line to get their cheeks painted by a local artist who was decorating them with tiger paws. “You’ve got so many freckles, there’s no place to paint!” a girl in the line teased the grandson. Embarrassed, the little boy dropped his head. But his grandmother knelt down next to him. “I love your freckles,” she said. “When I was a little girl I always wanted freckles, freckles are beautiful.” The boy looked up, “Really?” “Of course,” said the grandmother. “Why just name me one thing that’s prettier than freckles.” The little boy thought for a moment, peered intensely into his grandma’s face and softly whispered, “Wrinkles.”
Now, that’s one way to let one’s gentleness outshine bullying. I mean, the grandmother could have chastised the little girl, called her a name back, or the grandson could have punched her. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the grandmother chose a non-violent solution. And believe me, it’s not always easy. It’s not always easy to espouse and practice non-violence in a violent world. It’s not always easy to “turn the other cheek” when someone calls you a name, or trashes your family, or belittles your faith. We’re taught and eye for an eye, right? But you all know Jesus took that Old Testament sentiment and turned it upside-down. He offered, no, he commanded us to seek non-violent solutions.
You know, Gandhi once said, We may never be strong enough to be entirely nonviolent in though, word and deed. But we must keep nonviolence as our goal and make strong progress toward it”[iii]
And I think that’s the golden nugget here. Paul’s “letting our gentleness be known to everyone,” is finally not a weakness; it’s a strength. My friends, it’s when we find the strength to practice non-violence, as individuals and as a nation, that we can truly begin to love our neighbors in earnest. It’s when we find the courage to “turn the other cheek” that we can truly feel the presence the God. And, it’s when we practice gentleness, and all those “excellent” things Paul listed, that we can truly gain a deeper sense of inner peace; it’s then, that we can truly “rejoice in the Lord, always.”
My prayer for all of us in the days and weeks and months ahead, is that we will find that “always.”
May it be so. Amen.