Sunday, December 18, 2016

Difficulty rejoicing

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

Just how do we rejoice?

For a lot of people, particularly at this time of year, rejoicing is something that seems to be completely impossible to do. Not only do we have those who suffer from the lack of light, but you only have to look around and see those who are dreading Christmas: the homeless, the lonely, the financially compromised. There are those who are suicidal at this time of year, and besides, with all the political and economic upheaval at the moment, rejoicing is the last thing on our minds.


Many will try to rejoice. They will do so by eating lots and drinking lots and trying to laugh lots, but they quickly find, when all the festivities are over, that the crushing weight of this world with all its cares and concerns creeps in and the gloom of mid-January causes the sun to set once more upon the soul. How can we rejoice? How can we rejoice always?


In writing to the Church in Philippi, St Paul utters the famous lines, “Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say, Rejoice.” Surely that’s easy for him to say! Except it isn’t. Look at what St Paul goes through. In writing to the Church in Corinth a second time, he says:
“I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned , thrice I suffered shipwreck , a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.”
Does it not seem that if anyone has cause not to rejoice, it’s St Paul? The world will look at his life and see it as one of abject failure. Yet he does not. He exhorts us to rejoice always and this must mean that he has found a way of being able to do this himself.

We are to rejoice in the Lord.

Don’t think for one minute that this is easy, but it is possible. For St Paul this means that we can find the greatest joy in serving God. He boasts not in any achievement of his, not in any possession of his, not in his apostleship or position as missionary bishop. He boasts solely in the cross of Christ. He remembers that all his sufferings find worth in that cross. Whatever pain he’s in, whatever persecution he receives, whatever hardship he endures, he is participating in the sufferings of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and if we suffer with Christ, then we will rise with Him.

This is still not easy. It takes time for us to learn not to be earthly minded. We have to rid ourselves of the tendency to define our lives by anything other than God. It calls for prayer. In order to rejoice in the Lord always, St Paul tells us,
“Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing: but in every thing, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
God is interested in our problems and pains. St Paul tells us to make our supplications to God, but to remember to give thanks for the things that we do have. Everyone has something to be thankful for if we look carefully enough. The world wants us to be grateful to it rather than to God. This is where the culture of right and entitlement comes from. We Christians are to be careful for nothing: we are not to see our rights and entitlements as things to be grasped and held onto. These rights and entitlements are merely part of the sinking ship. Our cares will cause us to sink even as St Peter started to sink when he tried to walk on water. We need to learn to let go.

Once we let go, we will receive peace from God the like of which the world can never know, let alone give. This peace will help us to be joyful. Note that joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is a fleeting thing that will perish with the world. Joy is something that lasts. It is a fruit of the Holy Ghost and therefore nothing that the world can give.

It is the cross of Christ that connects us with Eternity. Our sufferings in this life, hurt, and cause us much tribulation, but we must see them in the context of Christ’s Holy Cross and put all our faith in God, not divide it with things of this world. If we work at it, then we will find the promised joy. St Paul found it, and he wants us to find it too. We should do the same, find joy and pass it on to others. That way the world will see a greater dawn than it ever could imagine.

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