“Again I Say, Rejoice” / Philippians 4:4-7 / 16 December 2018
“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, Rejoice.” You see the word joy everywhere in December. But what does it look like? What does it mean? Joy, the most appealing, most mysterious, most comforting characteristic any human can possess! Joy can draw us to another person just like the sound of an electric can opener used to draw cats—back when cat food came in cans. Joy, one of the deep beauties of the spirit that cannot be fabricated. The great French mystic and scientist, Teilhard de Chardin, said that joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God. Though most of that brilliant man’s words are very much beyond my grasp, this bit of wisdom is well within our reach, for we’ve seen it in our world. We have all known people whose lives were marked with joy, perhaps even despite suffering, and we could not look away. We’ve known others whose lives were marked by a conspicuous absence of all joy, and from them—even if we love them—from them we cannot get away fast enough. Here’s a general rule of thumb to keep in mind when thinking about faith, or any profession, or relationships, or politics, or life in general: Trust joy. People can simulate humility. It happens all the time. People can manufacture an insincere serenity. People might even find it in themselves to concoct kindness, or concern, or generosity. But you cannot fake joy. You’ll always know when someone is trying to fake joy because it’s the stuff of our hearts. Offering a human being bogus joy is like trying to convince a fish to swim in vodka. Even a broken heart knows joy too well to be fooled by a counterfeit. And where there is joy, there is God. In these days when old hatreds are given new life; in these days when bigotry, misogyny, racism and xenophobia are fashionable once again, it would be nice to see more ministers, and politicians, and teachers, and policemen, and attorneys, and homemakers, and all people with a new sense of their own deep joy. If all the world’s broken people were plugged into their joy, I’m sure all would be well. Joy is the birthright of every being created in God’s image. And where there is joy, there is God. Let there be joy, joy to the world.
Think of some people you’ve known who displayed joy in their living. Not all joyful souls are Mr. Fezziwig. Many of them were relatively ordinary in most respects. It was their simple joy that made them shine. I think of the painter Bob Ross, who used to have a show on TV to teach people how to paint landscape scenes. His paintings, on their own merit, would never hang in any museum. There was nothing about the man to hold your attention. He had an afro, which was curious for a white man. His voice was a lullaby. Like Mr. Rogers, you look back on unglamorous shows like his and wonder how they gained such popularity. But he loved what he was doing. “Let’s put a tree right here,” he’d say. “A happy little tree! It’s there inside your brush. All you have to do is push it out. Anybody can paint; all you need is a dream in your heart. How about some happy clouds, flying overhead. Ooh, here they come! This is your world,” he would say, “your creation.” Just listening to the man, as he talked about painting, could make you feel that all was well with the world. And though he was no Van Gogh, and certainly not an entertainer, he was possessed of a quiet joy that kept him on the air for eleven years, without flashy gimmickry. Back before cooking shows became known as “smack downs” and “cake wars,” their popularity depended not on competition, but simply on the joy that Julia Child and the Cajun Chef brought to the art of cooking. It was a contagious thing, that joy. It didn’t need a winner and a loser. How many a math teacher stands at the board with chalk dust on her hands, waxing philosophical about integers and absolute values, as a student sits at his desk and seriously considered biting off his own thumb! She loves her job. She loves nothing more than sharing the joy of mathematics with the next generation. The presence of joy somehow makes it all the more convincing, all the more meaningful, all the more urgent.
When I showed up at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School to begin my doctoral program, I was the first student to arrive at our very first class. There was a tiny old woman shuffling papers in one corner of the room. I greeted her with a smile, the way you do with a stranger. I assumed she was the cleaning lady and thought nothing more of it. She was tiny and really old, dressed in polyester pants and sensible shoes, the way my grandmother would have dressed to spend a day around the house. But she approached me and offered her hand. “I’m Dr. Moore,” she said. “I’ll be your professor.” To my great shame, I admit that my heart sank a little. I’d been working in the parish for five years already, and this little old lady was going teach me how to preach? She explained that she was a nun, but that she loved Presbyterians because her bishop wouldn’t let her preach in Catholic churches, and Presbyterians allowed her in their pulpits. That made me feel even more shame for doubting her, but I did doubt her! “Catholics don’t care about preaching,” I told myself. “And this lady’s too old to know anything I don’t already know.” But within minutes, it became clear that preaching was her passion. She knew it inside out. She helped us think about it incisively and clearly. She had insights, and wisdom, and wit, and a true way with words. She was good. But most of all, she had joy. She loved what she did in life. It wasn’t mirth. It wasn’t giddiness. It was definitely not constant smiles and endless grins and laughter. That’s not what joy is. It’s an all-consuming passion that has no victims and does no harm. Joy is a simple delight in the moment at hand. Where there is joy, God is. Where’s your joy?
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” the Apostle advises us in his beautiful letter to the Philippians. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice.” Paul’s letters are always densely packed. He intended his readers to spend hours and hours poring over each word, savoring each turn-of-phrase, holding each expression up to the light to see how it reflected its radiance from this angle and from that. Paul doesn’t often repeat himself in his letters because paper was too scarce, and it was physically demanding work to scrawl things out with a quill dipped in ink. After all, he’s writing this letter from a first century dungeon, where quills, and ink, and sufficient light, and flat, hard writing surfaces were hard to come by. He probably used the cold stone floor as his writing desk. Paul was so thrifty with his paper that he left no spaces between his words! It was up to the reader to decide where one word ended and another began. Under such circumstance as those, what could be so important that an aging Paul would go to the trouble of writing it out twice? Joy! Only joy. And in Paul’s words, “always” joy. A joy so profound that no jail cell can contain it. No impending martyrdom can stamp it out. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice.”
But there’s a real shortage of joy in our world these days, so much so that we’ve learned to stop expecting it. Think about it: Even PBS wouldn’t air a show like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood anymore—with its unglamorous, simple joy. In the 21st century, Bob Ross would give painting lessons at the community college. Julia Child would work in the kitchen of a pricy bistro on the Upper East Side. These quiet souls would go about their joyful lives all unknown to the world, if their day had been the one in which we live. Why? Because we are in a hurry. We need things to happen at a faster pace than joy can allow. And in an absence of joy, we settle for lesser things—thrills, and noise, and great shows of emotion. Joy still cannot be faked. We still know it when we see it. But joy takes time, patience, sacrifice. Getting to a place of joy is never fast. In our great hurry, we fill the gap with substitutes. Instead of joy, give us excitement. Give us merriment, pleasure, material gain.
What is life but the endless quest for joy—the deep delight of body and soul? But if we do not understand that there are no shortcuts to joy, then our God-given calling to find joy could become a greedy grab for lesser things. The limitless greed of those who despoil the planet, all for their own short-lived material gain, purchasing governments and crushing the world’s poorest in the process? They’re reaching for a joy that their money can never give them. The one who loves and seeks power; the one whose life is most driven by lust; the one whose heart is ruled by his stomach; the one who lives for his next buzz, his next high—aren’t these all regular folks like you and me who’ve lost their way on the road to life’s joys? They’ve tried shortcuts, settled for counterfeits. Aren’t these just people who’ve given up the holy quest and settled for something unsatisfying, something crass, something less than what they’re meant to seek and to be? Yes, the misguided quest for alloyed joy is perhaps the bane of all true happiness. It’s phoniness is unsatisfying, so we can never get enough. It drives individuals and whole societies into the ways of consumerism, and wastefulness, and selfishness, and greed. It so overwhelms our dumbed senses with a desire for entertainment and the distorted values of a broken world that we have little energy left for the things of true joy.
Ah, but enter…John the Baptist! John, the wild man of the desert! Do you think he was a joyful man? John the Baptist always shows up at our Yuletide preparations, as he does today, bidding us, “Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers!” I’m a great fan of John the Baptist. I’d like to see locust-shaped Christmas tree ornaments, honey-flavored Christmas cookies, gifts wrapped in camel skin. John was a serious man, a true ascetic. The only thing John the Baptist has in common with Winnie the Pooh is his middle name. But his is not the artificial joy of attainment, and enrichment, and material gain. No, his is the joy of turning away from all the shiny things that matter little and setting our hearts on the things that matter much. It’s the joy of setting relationships right. John’s is the joy of social justice. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. Collect no more than you need. Be satisfied with enough.” John’s is the joy of right relationship—toward our belongings, toward our fellow creatures, toward ourselves, toward God. That joy is not cheap. It will cost you.
But like all joy, it’s addictive. And where there is joy, God is!
So, what do we have so far? We know that joy is the genuine desire of every beating heart. We yearn for it; we spend our lives seeking it. We know that in the absence of joy, we’ll settle for the cheap thrills of power, and money, and possessions. But these things will never ease our aching hearts. We know that joy is costly. It means sacrifice, and patience, and time. We observe this truth in our world and in the silence of our memory. Joy takes simple delight in what is. And like John the Baptist, bids us be content when we have enough. It asks for our utter devotion, but in return gives fullness of life. Joy does no harm to any, but blesses all. Joy makes no unfair demands, breaks no rules, encumbers no conscience. Joy is the sweet and innocent pleasure of being present in the time and the place you’ve been given. But how do we get to a place of joy in our day-to-day lives? Philippians is so dense and so packed with good words that it’s easy to get overloaded and hear none of it. But listen! It lays out for us a step-by-step guide for finding joy in our daily lives. The road to joy far easier to follow than any Magi’s star, albeit less flashy, less sparkly. The road to joy described in Philippians is this: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Prayer and thanksgiving, thanksgiving and prayer. In other words, meditate on the good that is yours, and ask for what you need. It’s a recipe for joy. And where joy is, God is. So rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice. Amen.