Sunday, October 9, 2011

Reason for Rejoicing

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Commemoration of Abraham
October 9, 2011

Rejoice in the Lord always.

That’s worth repeating. Again, I say, Rejoice!

Sometimes we emphasize things by putting stress on a part of the sentence: Rejoice in the Lord! Sometimes we emphasize things by repeating them: and so Paul says, Again I say, Rejoice! Paul isn’t just telling us to rejoice. He’s emphasizing it.

Ecclesiastes 3 is a great passage, isn’t it? There’s a time a time to be born, and a time to die; and it goes on from there with many things in life that are the opposite but are part of the very fabric of our lives. Among them are these two: a time to weep, and a time to laugh;       a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

It’s natural that we all have times where we cry. You’re reeling from the stinging words of your spouse, your mother faces a rare form of cancer, you lie awake at night with tears filling up your eyes because your children have strayed away from Jesus and His eternal blessings. There are many times we weep in this life. At the same time, there is a time to laugh. Life is filled with fun or enjoyment or simply good old fashioned comedy. We laugh at our mistakes, we laugh at Uncle Ray’s dumb jokes, and we laugh at the comedians who can find humor in the most ordinary circumstances of life.

In the same way there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance. Even as there is a time to be born there is a time to die. When there’s a death in the family there is a time for mourning. When there’s a birth in the family there is a time for dancing and rejoicing. Life is full of these opposite conditions and we naturally encounter them. We don’t need to shut ourselves off from the weeping and the mourning even as we shouldn’t refrain from the laughing and the dancing.

But Paul makes a point about rejoicing that we aren’t just to rejoice, but to rejoice always. First off would be the question of, how can we literally do that? We have to sleep. How do you rejoice when you’re sleeping? Then there’s the issue of natural cycles that our emotions and even our activities go through. We can’t always be up, emotionally or physically. And then there’s the matter of Ecclesiastes 3. There are times of weeping and mourning. How are we to rejoice in the Lord always when there are times we’re in sadness and grief? How are we to always be rejoicing when we sometimes face a barrage of events that leave us in no mood to rejoice?

This seems to be one of our problems as Christians who nevertheless remain sinners. We hear the command to rejoice in the Lord always and immediately wonder how it’s possible. For one thing, Paul concludes this Epistle reading for today with the grandiose claim: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” So there you go. It is possible. You can rejoice in the Lord always because of the Lord who strengthens you.

But it’s not even just that. It’s that you’re not just rejoicing. You’re rejoicing in the Lord. And rejoicing doesn’t consist only of being happy or being on an emotional high. Rejoicing is not something that is dependent circumstances. It’s not based in emotions and feelings. The rejoicing enjoined upon us here is not, Be happy all the time. It’s rejoicing. And it’s rejoicing in the Lord. Being happy is wonderful but it has more of an emotional and circumstantial aspect to it. Rejoicing is being in a state. It is knowing you have true joy. Where does this joy come from? The Lord. That’s why we rejoice in the Lord. Despite or even in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. We rejoice in the Lord because of who He is and what He has done and what He does.

And what is that? He prepares for us something that gives us reason to rejoice. Behold, all things are ready. The Old Testament gives about as good of a description of it that we have in the Bible: He prepares a feast that is the very best, the very finest of food and drink. And it’s not just a party, it’s doing away with all the things that would crash the party. Satan and death are overthrown. Death is swallowed up. The pall that covers every person is itself covered up. God breaks out the best serving ware and food to go along with it and celebration is the only thing that one can think to do.

In the Gospel reading the King prepares the very best party for the wedding celebration of His Son. “Everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast,” He says. That’s the reason for the rejoicing. But we don’t get it. Of course we’d rejoice if we were a part of that! What we don’t get is that we are! This is what our Lord has prepared for us. We are invited into His eternal celebration. Our rejoicing is rejoicing in Him. It’s based in the state we are in, forgiven and saved, that we rejoice always. Do we possess it in the fullness of its glory? No, we don’t; and maybe that’s why we discount it as we do. We won’t realize it in the fullness of its glory until we are actually in heaven, but we can be assured that we have the fullness of forgiveness and salvation even now.

There is reason for rejoicing. Who Jesus is, what He has done, what He does, has tremendous implications for us in our daily lives. Paul says, “let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” You know those times where things are getting tense and someone will say, “Let’s be reasonable here.” Sometimes that just ends up setting the person off even more. But what lies underneath the plea for being reasonable is the need to be forbearing. To give a little. Or maybe even a lot. In rejoicing in the Lord always we can better see how we don’t always have to insist on our own way, we can be reasonable, or even better, forbearing of others. In the same vein as rejoice in the Lord always Paul leaves no one out as the recipient of your forbearance. “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” is his exhortation. How do we do this?

Again, his answer is Christ. It so often is. We might even say it always is. What does he say? The Lord is at hand. This is reminiscent of the Lord’s words Himself when He came on the scene beginning His ministry: the Kingdom of God is at hand. The way Paul literally says it is the Lord is near. He is speaking in a way that sounds similar to our Old Testament reading: “It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, that He might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.’” He is near, at hand if you will. He comes to us. He spreads the feast. He delivers the goods. He is the one who makes it all happen. If you wonder at how you’re able to be forbearing of those who are driving you nuts, think on the Lord Jesus Christ and His forbearing spirit.

That’s how Paul is able to continue in this way: “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” When it comes to being a Christian Paul is not interested in exhorting us in a “realistic” way: Rejoice more than the heathen... Let your reasonableness be known most of the time because there will be times you just can’t be very reasonable... Don’t be anxious about most things… No, it’s rejoice in the Lord always. Be forbearing of everyone. Do not be anxious about anything. In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

If the fantastic spread our Lord displays seems to a distant hope then look to the places where He delivers the sure salvation He won to you in the here and now. You are Baptized. You are washed clean in the wellspring of life. You feast on the bread and wine your Lord gives you to eat and drink in His Holy Supper. In that Feast He doesn’t hold back but rather delivers to you all the blessings of eternal salvation and peace that surpasses all understanding in giving you Himself in that bread and wine—His very Body and Blood. The very body and blood that was given up on Calvary and that is now delivered to you for your forgiveness and to strengthen you.

With that, there is a ‘finally’. But I’m reminded of the stories of pastors who will say in their sermons, “And finally,” …and then go on for another 20 minutes. Well, this finally here isn’t mine, it’s Paul’s. Maybe he was one of those preachers who didn’t know how to conclude a sermon, because what he says next is “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

You could understand this ‘finally’ here as ‘in addition’, or something along those lines. At any rate, you can look around in this world and see a host of negativity, of corrupt morals, shameful behavior, and let that overwhelm you, losing sight of the peace of God which guards your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. It happens easily. That’s why it’s a concerted effort to think on these things. The good things, that is. The things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, if there is anything of excellence, anything worthy of praise, those things. In the south they reckon things will happen. “I reckon it’s gonna rain.” It’s not just that they see the clouds in the sky. They know the patterns of the weather and the seasons. There is thought behind their reckoning of “it’s gonna rain.” And that’s the way it should be with us. We should reckon those things that are good and true and worthy of praise. We should put time and thought into those things that God gives us in His Word.

How do we know what those things are? We follow the example Paul gives us. And that example is himself. “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things.” True, Paul was an apostle, and we don’t have any of those around anymore. But Paul serves as an example for us still as a brother in Christ. We all know brother or sister Christians that serve as models for us. A grandmother who quietly prays for people as she is too frail to do much else. A businessman who remains firm in Christian principles in an often morally complacent workplace. A mother who so often puts herself in the background so that her children can grow and experience so much of what will benefit them throughout their lives. A child who refuses to join in on the taunting of another child and even risks the same by standing up for that child.

We could think of countless examples of Christians who serve others in a way in which others are actually being served by Christ, because it is Christ who is working in the Christians who are serving. That’s the reason Paul uses the language he does: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” It’s all stuff we receive. We receive it from God in Christ. We are blessed by Him through others. And we see again because He can never leave Christ out of the picture that Paul follows up his exhortation with the promise: “and the God of peace will be with you.”

All of this is to say there is reason to rejoice. We rejoice in the Lord. We help each other out. We serve one another. We bear with others. We give thanks in all things. We rejoice in the Lord. With Paul we learn what it means “in whatever situation we are in to be content. We know how to be brought low, and we know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, we have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” And if we still aren’t always sure of this, we follow it up with Paul in saying, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Rejoice in the Lord always. There’s reason to. Amen.


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