[Singing] “This is the day / This is the day / That the Lord has made / That the Lord has made / I will rejoice / I will rejoice / And be glad in it / And be glad in it!”
I worked at a camp in Wisconsin one summer, and we sang this song every day. Every. Sin-gle. Morning. It was the same thing. We’d gather in the lodge at 6:30—no matter how exhausted from the days of continuous activity upon activity you were; no matter how tired you were of kids constantly asking “What’s next? When’s dinner? What’s next?”; no matter how sick of the drama in your cabin during Jr. High weeks; no matter how tired you were from trying to sleep in the heat on a tiny bunk bed—we got up early…for a meeting. We’d sit through that morning meeting, just hating it. And then, we’d all stand and sing, “This is the day,” clapping along the whole time. And, somehow, it always worked. By the song’s end, no matter how tired, stressed or anxious we began the day, at the end of the song we were glad, and we did have joy. And at the end, we would all shout, “HAPPY DAY!”
Such joy naturally pours out with another Sunday School song, too: “I got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy down in my heart, down in my heart to stay!” You just end up being more joyful after singing it.
Both of these songs, as well as the one the kids all sang during our Children’s Lesson, simply echo what Paul tells us in Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is near; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Those are some beautiful and encouraging words. They’re perfect for a big celebration like today. But come on…rejoice always?! That sounds a tad unrealistic, don’t you think? Don’t be anxious about anything?! Really? Sounds a bit idealistic? I mean, we’ve got problems. Big ones, too. But, it sounds like, according to the apostle Paul, we’re supposed to set our problems aside and somehow conjure up JOY? We can’t just sing a song and shout, “HAPPY DAY!” and make our anxieties disappear. And no naïve slogan like “Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS”—a phrase that sounds like it belongs on a motivational poster featuring a tiny kitten toying with a ball of yarn—is going to make those problems go away or any easier to deal with. And what’s this talk about “the Lord is near?” He certainly doesn’t feel near with all of these big problems we face day in and day out. Rejoice always, and don’t be anxious, for the Lord is near? Sure. Easy for Paul to say!
But he doesn’t have five mouths to feed; or a mortgage to pay; or a difficult custody battle to deal with. He’s not looking for employment in this economy; or struggling to keep a marriage together; or trying to protect his children from bad influences. Paul didn’t have to worry about trying to maximize his kids’ scholarship opportunities by signing them up for every single AP course and every single extracurricular sport and activity under the sun; and then figure out how to get them to all of these things. Paul didn’t have the internet and social media updating him, second by second, on how the world is rapidly spinning out of control. He didn’t have to deal with healthcare; or abortion clinics; or the threats of ISIS; or school shootings; or violence against police; or transgender bathrooms; or racism in America; or having to cast his vote for “the lesser of two evils.” Rejoice always? Don’t be anxious? The Lord is near? Sure. Easy for an apostle 2,000 years ago to say!
It can be difficult for us to muster any form of joy in these situations. It’s difficult for us to see the Lord’s nearness with so many terrible things in the world on top of our own big problems. Think about all of the deadly natural disasters we hear about or experience: flooding; tropical storms; tornadoes; earthquakes with death tolls in the thousands. And that’s just a few examples of big, disastrous events that we have absolutely no control over. It sure doesn’t seem like the Lord is near in those times. Easy for Paul to say “Rejoice always,” but tough for us, sometimes.
How about the death of a loved one? God’s presence can be difficult to feel when you’re helplessly sitting at the bedside of someone close when death is sitting right there, too. It’s even more difficult to rejoice when such loss is unexpected and you don’t get the chance to say goodbye.
***On Feb. 27, 1991, it was the height of the Desert Storm War. A woman named of Ruth received the worst news that a mom could ever receive. Her son, Clayton Carpenter, Private, First Class, had stepped on a land mine in the Persian Gulf and he was dead. You know, you never expect things like this to happen to you, or to someone you love. But when these tragedies hit home, the questions come to mind: “Why would God let this happen?” Or, “Where was God that night?” Or, “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” Have you ever asked those questions yourself? Ruth was asking these questions for the next few days. And although people tried to comfort her, there just aren’t any words that can take away the pain of a grieving mother. Somehow, in those situations, telling them to “Rejoice Always, for the Lord is near!” seems inadequate and inappropriate. Shouting “Happy Day” would be like rubbing salt in a wound. So who does St. Paul think he is, telling us to rejoice in the Lord always?
The fact of the matter is that we live in a fallen, imperfect, sinful world. Bad things happen because sin exists. And Paul knew this full well. In fact, Paul’s not making light of our current anxieties weighing on our hearts. He’s not trying to tell us that following Christ will make every challenge go away, either. After all, Paul knew full well the troubles, the persecution that the people of Philippi were facing—he had faced the same persecution: beatings, imprisonment, near death experiences, hunger, the tragic, sudden deaths of people he cared for. Paul had plenty of reasons NOT to rejoice. In fact, he was sitting in a prison even as he was writing this letter to the Philippians. So with every letter, every sentence, every paragraph of this Epistle resonates the rattling of Paul’s chains echoing in a prison cell. Surely he knew death was coming for him. Yet he found reason to rejoice always.
Paul found reason to rejoice, because he knew that while the world is fallen and imperfect, there’s a God who will not rest until He restores it back to perfection—the way He meant it to be. He found reason to rejoice, because he knew that there’s something greater coming—someone greater coming…again. Paul found reason to rejoice because he experienced how near the Lord truly is. That, in all things—through triumphs and tragedies and everything in between—in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him. Paul found reason to rejoice because sin—his sin, your sin, my sin—had been paid for in blood, and would find its end on the last day. And Paul found reason to rejoice, because after three days, the tomb was empty! And the man who rose from that grave is the Son of God Himself, Jesus Christ, who is coming again. And that, whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice!
***Let me tell you a little more about Ruth’s story. She had been mourning the death of her son for three days. And then, the phone rang. She picked up the phone, and from the other end of the line there came a voice that said, “Mom, it’s me. I’m alive.” Ruth didn’t believe it. She thought it was some kind of cruel joke. But as he continued to speak, she recognized the voice. It was Clayton. It was her son! Her baby boy was alive, and he was coming back to her. Ruth said she laughed, she cried, she rejoiced. Because, what seemed like a hopelessly, tragic situation was radically transformed into the greatest day of her life. That’s the kind of joy we have in Jesus. It’s the joy of knowing that the hopelessly tragic situations of our lives are temporary. But there is hope from the empty tomb—hope that will radically transform the anxieties and terrors of this world into forgotten memories. We will still have our own troubles. There will still be natural disasters, bills to pay, and marriages to mend. There was never a promise that things would get easy following Jesus—but we have great reason to rejoice!
In Jesus, we have every reason to rejoice in the Lord. The difficulty is rejoicing ALWAYS in the Lord. What’s difficult is that we fall into the trap of forgetting that God had a hand in our success. As we celebrate Holy Trinity’s 30th Anniversary, we can only marvel at how God, by grace, chose to work in this place and let us be part of it. We can only rejoice in the Lord, always in the Lord for getting us this far. On the flip side, we struggle with rejoicing always in the Lord when we lay the blame on Him for things not going our way, rather than consider what He might be calling us to, instead. It all comes down to perspective. And I don’t mean comparing our situations with that of others. When these bad situations happen, when we struggle through life, when tragedies strike, are we angry at God? Or are we thanking Him, and rejoicing in what He’s done for us in Christ, and what He’s doing in our lives? It’s a matter of perspective.
I remember singing "I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy" in Guatemala. Crowded all around were people who worship the same Triune God, we believe in the same Jesus, and we're heirs of the same eternal life and salvation in Him...and yet, there were some big differences I noticed as we sang that song. Sure, they had darker skin than me, darker hair, darker life experiences than I could ever imagine. But, in spite of their circumstances, we sang that song differently…and I don’t just mean a different language: [Singing] “Yo tengo, gozo, gozo, gozo, gozo en mi Corazon!” They sang it differently, because, they really meant it. [Singing] “Porque Cristo me salvo!” which means, “Because Christ saved me.” It was a matter of perspective. In spite of the little they had; in spite of being surrounded by a culture of death all around them; in spite of coming home to a place of abuse--alcohol, verbal, spousal--in spite of all these things, they show that they have every reason to rejoice always…and so do we.
Christ saved me. Say that with me: Christ saved me. The Lord is near…and some day our Lord will return! And there will be a new heaven and a new, perfect earth. And we who believe in Jesus will live with him in his kingdom which has no end. Until that day, we let our reasonableness—our reasons for joy—be made known to everyone. So we say with Paul, “Rejoice in the Lord, ALWAYS!” HAPPY DAY!
Come soon, Lord Jesus. Amen.
***Illustration referenced from: http://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-sermoncentral-staff-stories-easterresurrection-61510.asp. Incidentally, after worship, a woman from my congregation came to me, floored, because she recognized that story. Ruth is her cousin! Small world!