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“Rejoice always; give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
A good friend of mine dressed up as a Puritan for Halloween a couple years back. Now, at first I was disappointed. Halloween costumes in my opinion are meant to be scary and so if you don’t have fake scars, fake teethe, fake moles, or fake blood – in my opinion it just doesn’t count. But I have to say she played the part of the Puritan perfectly. She had no make-up, no flashy clothes, but most importantly, no smile. She didn’t laugh the entire night. Her goal was to look completely joyless.
Now, actually like the Puritans and think the costume was a caricature. But it is true - Puritans aren’t really known for being the life of the party. And historically speaking, a lot of Puritans thought laughter was evil. In fact, I heard one man was sentenced to three days in jail for smiling during his baptism. Why? Because the way of Jesus, they thought, was really, serious business. It meant frowning in this life to secure a smile in the next one.
Now, I think a lot of Christians are heir to this legacy. Christianity, we’ve heard, is about doing our duty. It’s about rolling up our sleeves and even stuffing the deepest desires of our heart to serve a much more noble purpose. The problem is that none of this meshes with Paul says in today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians. “Rejoice always.” Paul says. “Give thanks in all circumstances.” “This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Now, I have to say, living a joy-filled life is a challenging thing in today’s world, and there are a lot of reasons for this but I’ll go ahead and name three.
1. It’s impossible to be joyful if we’re preoccupied with ourselves. You see what John the Baptist acknowledges in today’s Gospel is actually pretty profound: “I am not the Messiah.” In other words, there’s a direct correlation between humility and joy. And when I use the word humility I don’t mean thinking less of ourselves – I mean thinking of ourselves less. I mean thinking more of God. You see joy is not something we can manufacture for ourselves. It’s the fruit of Jesus Christ being formed in us, which can’t happen if we’re preoccupied with ourselves.
2. It’s impossible to be joyful when we’re preoccupied with things. Psalm 1 actually says a lot about this when it compares a happy person to a tree that’s planted by streams of water. And I have to say I love this image. Because – there’s a difference between being a tree that draws on a nearby stream and a tree that depends on the fickleness of the outside rain. In other words, there’s a difference between drawing on inner resources – that is our own intimate relationship with God – and depending on outside factors that are completely outside of our control. And so think of the things that tend to make us happy – the size of our bank account, positive feedback at work, a clean kitchen, no one we love being sick or depressed, our football team winning, a new car, you get the idea – these are all like “the rain.” And sometimes they fall down on us steadily, and sometimes they don’t come at all. But the psalmist’s point, and the consistent witness of the Bible, is that we can’t depend on any of these things for our sense of happiness and joy. But like the tree in psalm 1 we have to be rooted; we have to be drawing on something that isn’t subject to changing seasons, something greater than our circumstances; and of course that Something is God and the stream is Jesus Christ.
3. It’s really hard to be joyful if we’re always trying to avoid the things in life that hurt. We get rid of our pain by seeking distractions. We get rid of our insecurity by eliminating risks. We get rid of our disappointment by downplaying our deepest hopes. But here’s the paradox of Christianity. Joy isn’t found in avoiding our cross. It’s found in embracing our cross with Jesus and for Jesus. As Paul puts it in Romans, “suffering produces perseverance and perseverance character and character hope.” In other words, pain isn’t good. But God is. And part of God’s redemptive work is to help move deeper into our pain in order to make us more like Himself. And becoming more like God is what increases our capacity for joy.
And so joy is impossible if we’re preoccupied with ourselves, or with things, or with trying to get rid of our pain. And yet Paul commands us. “Rejoice always. Give thanks in all circumstances. This is will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” And so the question is, how do we do it?
1. To rejoice always, we have to properly understand God. Because we won’t get joy if we don’t first understand that God is the most joyful being in the entire universe. In fact, it’s important to know that God lives a very interesting life. After all, when God created the heavens and the earth, He didn’t casually remark, “It’ll have to do.” No. God rejoiced when he saw that it was very good. And when God created you, He didn’t say “it’ll have to do.” God rejoiced because he saw that you are very good. And that’s because joy is foundational to the character of God. You see the sorrow of God, kind like the anger of God, is just God’s temporary response to our fallen world. But all sorrow and anger will forever be banished from God’s heart on that future day when Jesus sets our world is set right. And so if we’re going to learn to rejoice always, this is something we have to understand about God. Joy is foundational to the character of God.
2. To rejoice always we have to be obedient to Jesus – the incarnation of our joyful God. And Jesus came as the joy-bringer. Or to quote the Gospel of John, Jesus came so that our “joy may be complete.” You see, it’s not that we have to be joyful before we begin to obey Jesus. Joy is just what happens to us as we move deeper and deeper into a life of obedience. Joy isn’t found in taking the forbidden fruit, as if God were stingy and holding out on us. And so if God tells us not to do something, God’s not holding out on us. That just wouldn’t be consistent with God’s character. This is how the great hymn writer John Newton put it, “Our pleasure and our duty, though opposite before; since we have seen his beauty, are joined to part no more.” In other words, Jesus didn’t come to stuff the deepest desires of our heart; he came to grant them. The point of losing our life is to find new life in Him.
And so as you go out into the world this week here’s what I’d leave you with. Practice the discipline of celebration. Allow the Spirit to draw you outside of yourself. Dance. Sing. Be goofy. Live. Love. Lighten up. Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again. God wins. You and I are free.
You know that’s what Advent is about, right? Don’t be confused by the purple – it’s not primarily about repentance like Lent; it’s about joyful expectancy. It’s about reminding ourselves that God has already become human in the person of Jesus Christ, that his resurrection has set the new creation in motion, and that a day will surely come when he returns to make all things new. And that’s something worth celebrating.
After all, God built us to celebrate. I mean, what’s the Trinity but one big celebration? Remember, the angel that appeared to those shepherds abiding in the field didn’t just bring good news. The angel brought “good news of a great joy.” And that’s what Advent is about. It’s not just about our Lord coming to meet us. It’s about us coming with joy to meet our Lord.
And so let’s go back to my friend’s Halloween costume – “the Puritan.” There is nothing scarier, nothing more frightening, than a person who never smiles; a person who never laughs; a person who’s completely joyless – especially when they do so in the name of Jesus. Of all people, we Christians should be the life of this party that’s happening on earth.
“Rejoice always. Give thanks in all circumstances. This is will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”