There’s a rather heavy feeling around at the moment. When Covid started, we thought a few weeks would see the worst of it done – but almost 6 months later, we are heading into worsening statistics. There are no promises of a quick letup. Beyond that, and little mentioned, is the economic recession that follows – tighten your belts. If your pension is safe, it is unlikely to rise much.
So when we read Philippians 4:1-9, there is a danger that the words fail to be understood. Worse, that we take them as irrelevant, even insulting. What does Paul mean, “Rejoice”? How are we supposed to, without being unsympathetic, even crass? – Well, let me tell you, because it is important.
What I said about the situation we’re in is true. There are lots of problems, and not a lot to be happy about. That was probably true of life in Philippi, too. Paul writes the letter while in chains in prison (1:13). He knows that “some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry” (1:15). He has had to ask the Philippians to remember the example of Christ – reading between the lines, we wonder if conceit or ambition (2:3) were a problem there. He has to remind them (2:14) “do everything without grumbling or arguing”, and to ask for help getting Euodia and Syntyche to make up their argument (4:2). Philippi is like any other church – less than perfect, with a number of “issues”. Yet Paul says Rejoice!
The first clue is in the word. He says “Rejoice”, not “Be happy” or “have a party anyhow” (just as well, because lockdown restrictions, which you should be observing, don’t allow that). There’s a big difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a reaction to everything going well. Joy is a gift of God’s Holy Spirit, and we’ll talk a little more about what powers it, making it possible even in hard times.
The second clue is the next phrase. “Rejoice in the Lord always”. When our life is hard, God is still good, his love and faithfulness are dependable, and God is in control. That is something to rejoice in! It doesn’t mean our life will be easy, but it does bring a sense of confidence that whatever the conditions, whatever disasters threaten or come our way, God will not be overcome, God’s purposes will not be prevented. That does need an element of faith. I don’t know what will happen in the next year, 5 years. But I have faith that God can and will be in it all, working good for those who will face life with faith.
And we could say there is a 3rd clue in what follows:
“Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” It is because the Lord is near we don’t have to be angry, we don’t have to worry and irritate. “Do not be anxious about anything,” because, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, God knows, and with God you can find a way – no, better than that, the best way forward.
At every eucharist (the Communion Service, in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and often Methodist and Presbyterian services) the leader says “Lift up your hearts”. It is so old and widespread it has a Latin name “Sursum Corda”. The answer is not a muttered “We lift them to the Lord”, but an act of faith, a choice to see the world, not as it favours us, but as we look for God at work, and find joy in that.
We can’t all be happy all the time. We shan’t all be happy all of the time. Sometimes your brothers and sisters in Christ will need your sympathy and support. But we can be joyful, and respond to the call to rejoice. Even if it’s as hard as doing press-ups, I will lift my heart to God, to enjoy what God is like, and what God is doing, because it is good, and worth enjoying and celebrating.