Summary: Becoming involved with God’s agenda sets the stage for us to become joyful
La Accademia is where four unfinished sculptures of Michelangelo reside. They are called “The Prisoners”. Originally intended to for the tomb of Pope Julius the project was downsized and they were never completed. They depict, as you may have seen prior to worship, forms struggling to be free from the stone in which they are imprisoned. One common response to viewing these has been to sense a personal longing for freedom from the forces that hold us bound, imprisoned, and defeated. There is something about those figures that make us wish to be free. But like those incomplete statues it will take someone else to do the “freeing”
One seemingly never-ending struggle is to escape to a place where we experience joy. I’m not talking about giddiness or happiness. Joy is a sense of contentment in spite of what the circumstances seem to demand. Happiness depends on the situation we find ourselves in. Christmas morning for a seven-year old can be a “happy” time. Having that special someone agree to go on a date can be a “happy” time. Having your dentist call you and cancel your appointment can be a “happy” time. Joy is something else. It’s not gratification but a deep sense of something more. “Joy allows one to see beyond any particular event to the sovereign Lord who stands above all events and ultimately has control over them.”
Paul understood this. He uses the term in this letter more than anywhere else. And it’s used as a way to describe what he is experiencing and as a command to those to whom he writes. What makes this more amazing is that he is writing this letter from a Roman prison. We’re talking about a place that makes the abuse of prisoners in Iraq pale by comparison. Dark, dank, dismal and deadly, Roman prisons were usually the last stop before death. Yet through all of this Paul saw the light of Christ being sent to the world. He saw the freshness of the Holy Spirit blowing into lives across Asia Minor and Southern Europe. He experiences a sense of hope that no matter what situations he faced Christ would continue to be preached. And instead of a deadly last stop Paul knew that Jesus was the life-given and that the life He gave could not be taken away by Rome or anyone else. That is JOY.
But it wasn’t enough that Paul experienced this joy. He commanded it for those in Philippi as well. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, Rejoice!” he writes in chapter 4 of this letter. He is certain that no matter what situation they face that these Christ followers can also have the same sense of joy Paul has. Jesus tried to get his disciples to understand this same thing. John records a long discussion between Jesus and the disciples the night when Jesus was arrested. In chapters 13 through 17 at least seven times Jesus uses the word joy. Jesus tells them and us that obedience allows Christ’s joy to live in us and that make us complete. The certainty that Jesus rose from the dead makes grief turn to Joy Jesus tells us in John 16. Even our prayer life is completes our joy as we ask for that which is in line with the will of God and our Lord. And as Jesus prays for us in chapter 17 He asks the Father that His joy might dwell in us.
The “Joy of the Lord” is Joy that comes from the Lord, not only joy because of the Lord. It is joy that is fueled by being in the right relationship with God through Jesus. It comes because we are living the life Christ intends us to live not going off on our own. Let me add that most of the time when someone is living a life that is joyless it’s because they are no living in obedience to Jesus. What I mean by that is they are living lives that are centered on themselves, their wants, their needs and their wishes. They aren’t acting with love toward others. And all of this gives way to doing all the little sins [lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping, hating, etc.] that we think are big things.
Paul’s joy in prayer is because these Christ-followers in Philippi shared with Paul the task of sharing Jesus to the world. This was Paul’s first church in Europe. It was the first mostly non-Jewish group that Paul served. There’s no record of a synagogue in the city and had there been one Paul probably would have preached there first as he did elsewhere. It is there that Paul and Silas end up whipped and put in prison for doing an exorcism. These people had seen first-hand how Paul acted in tough situations because it is while in prison they were singing hymns to God.