TEXT: Philippians 4:4-7


I think one of the great misunderstandings of Christian faith is the belief that Christians are supposed to be happy all the time. I had a friend who was secretary of a church in Atlanta. With a son in prison, another son having a nervous breakdown, and a husband in the hospital, she was depressed. But she never told a soul in her church and expended all of her energy putting on this cheery front at work because she thought that to reveal her depression would be a bad witness for her faith. Christians aren't supposed to be depressed, she believed. They're supposed to be happy.

This is not Scripture. Scripture does not say, in the words of that annoying song a number of years back, "Don't worry, be happy." Scripture says, "Don't worry, rejoice." And there is a world of difference between the two. If you will forgive a little language discussion, just as we have two different words--happiness and joy, so the Greek also has two different words. The Greek word for happiness is makarios and it refers to the freedom of the rich from normal cares and worries. It is the word used to describe a person who has received some form of good fortune--money, health, children and that sort of thing. And that is what our word happiness is about. If I am happy, it is because things are going well for me--my outward situation is good. There are no crises, I feel good, there's money in the checking account, nobody is out to get me, my job is going well, and so forth.

When those things start to change, however, I do not remain happy. When I got divorced and suddenly had no home, no money, and watched the man I loved move in with someone else--I was not happy. And anybody who came along and told me that as a Christian I should have been happy would have gotten a lovingly-delivered kick in the teeth. Jesus got so angry that he went on a rampage through the temple. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus and over the city of Jerusalem. Jesus sweat drops of blood in the Garden. And of the seven recorded sayings of Jesus from the Cross, not one of them was "Hey, isn't life good! Why the long face, Mom? Cheer up!"

We do not have a direct command to always be happy. Neither do we have an example of an always-happy Jesus. What we do have is the promise of joy. The word in Greek is chairo, described by the ancient Greeks as the "culmination of being" and the "good mood of the soul." Chairo is something, the ancient Greeks tell us, that is found only in God and comes with virtue and wisdom. It isn't a beginner's virtue, it comes as the culmination. They say its opposite is not sadness, but fear.

Happiness is the great feeling that you get when everything is going smoothly. Joy is what God gives you in the midst of trouble when you put that trouble in God's hands. Both happiness and joy have no fear. Happiness has no fear because nothing is wrong, and everything is on course. Joy has no fear because we have become willing to trust God that our suffering can be transformed to serve a purpose--a purpose that we have come to want more than anything else. Another way we might put it is that we have happiness BECAUSE of our situation, we have joy IN SPITE OF our situation. With happiness, fear and destruction might be just around the corner. With joy, the very things that others fear have become, in God's hands, a means of salvation. Fear, the greatest weapon of evil, has lost its power. It's what the Cross is all about.

That is why this passage commanding us to rejoice, is followed immediately by the command not to be anxious about anything. Joy is not about getting rid of PROBLEMS, but of getting rid of the FEAR of those problems. Paul is not writing from a happy position. Paul is writing to the Philippians from prison--his last prison stay. He will die soon. And things are not going to be getting any better for the church in Philippi either. The atrocious persecutions of Christians under the reign of the Emperor Nero are about to begin. Christians torn apart by wild animals in the arena. Christians covered in tar and set ablaze to light the Emperor's garden. There is about to be a time of great grief and loss and pain and torture. Paul is not telling them to be happy. This is not Pollyanna talking. Paul is telling them to rejoice.

Paul is telling them not to fear--not because it's going to be an easy road. Not because God is going to miraculously intervene and save them all from hardship. In Philippi, Christians with strong faith are going to be put to death. But they are not to be anxious...why? Because God is at work for the salvation of the world. God can use their pain, even their death to save others. Their eternal spirit cannot be harmed, and God will fill their suffering with meaning and purpose.

Many people believe that if your faith is strong enough, bad stuff won't happen to you. Worse, people go to those who are suffering and add to their misery by telling them if they had more faith things would have worked out. I spoke to a woman once whose baby had died from a heart problem. Someone claiming to be a Christian actually came and told her that she had killed her baby, because if she had prayed with more faith, her baby would have been healed.  That is spiritual abuse.

For Paul to say “rejoice” is to acknowledge that Christians will have problems--bad problems. No matter how much faith they've got. It is a part of the meaning of the very word "rejoice." Some people will get diseases and die no matter how many prayers are said for healing. Promising young Christians will be gunned down by random violence, no matter how pure their lives have been. And in the midst of it all, we are told--not to be happy, but to rejoice. We are happy BECAUSE OF, we are joyful IN SPITE OF. Well, fine, but how do we get there?

Paul calls joy one of the fruits of the Spirit because we can't have joy until we have begun to develop a spiritual life. We can have happiness without spiritual long as the conditions in our lives are favorable. But we can't have joy. Joy comes as a result of a complete trust in the love of God and a deep desire for the will of God to be done in the world, no matter what the cost might be to ourselves.

When it finally becomes more important to be an instrument of God's peace than it is to be comfortable and have what we want for ourselves, we are on the threshold of joy. It is the attitude that is willing to suffer death--even death on a cross--if God deems it necessary. Jesus was not happy on the Cross, but I believe he had joy--joy because he knew he was doing the work of God and that God would use that work to save the world.

When our spirits are hid with God, even our death cannot defeat us and every minute of our suffering can be used for God's good. It is what Obi Wan Kenobi knew when he allowed Darth Vader to strike him down saying, "You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine." It's what Paul meant when he said, "To live is Christ, to die is gain." It's what Job meant when he said, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him." It's what a friend’s sister meant when she got a diagnosis of breast cancer and said, "It's a win-win situation. If I live...I get to keep on living. And if I die, I get to be with God."

This is what joy is about. Don't worry--not because God won't let the bad guy hurt you if you ask in faith. Don't worry because that bad guy will be made to serve the purposes of God if you will give the situation into God's hands. It comes from ultimate trust that God is good and loving and in the process of bringing peace on earth, goodwill to all. And it comes from wanting to be a part of that more than anything else in the world.  I have told you about the night I learned about love.  It was also the night I learned about joy.

It was about midnight, November 1, 1980. I was back at home, having just graduated from college in June. I woke up, hearing noise in the hallway outside my bedroom. I opened the door and heard my mother on the phone. She was half yelling, half crying--almost incoherent--saying over and over again "I can't wake him up! I can't wake him up!" I ran down the hall to my parents’ bedroom and saw my father lying on the bed, his eyes glassy with the look of death. My mother was still on the phone and I remember thinking, "Jesus raised the dead, and he promised that we would do even greater things. I can pray for him to live again."

I got down on my knees by his bed, and I prayed for Jesus to put life back into my father. And as I prayed, I got more and more desperate. I remember feeling that I was about to go over the edge into hysteria at any minute. But just before I fell over the edge, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I heard a voice say, "No."  Immediately, I was flooded by peace. I looked up. There was no one in the room. My father's glassy-eyed stare was gone as his eyelids were now closed.  I finished my prayer by giving my father permission to go and to be with God, and then I got up and went to my mother. I was not happy--not by a long shot. I didn't understand, and still don't, why it had to be him--47 years old, who gave so much to so many.  But even in the depths of my grief, there was this strange and wonderful consolation of joy. 

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t fight disease and pray for healing and call on God for help in times of trouble.  God encourages us to do just that and to do all we can both for ourselves and for others.  But when the answer comes back “no,” as it did to me; as it did even to Jesus in the Garden; when there is nothing more to be done either in heaven or on earth than face the coming trouble, the goal of faith is to give it over to God in trust that what seems like the end of all things is merely a somber prelude to a glorious Easter morning.  Such trust is rewarded with the joy of God that no person and no circumstance can ever take away.

With every step closer to that sort of faith, we see more of our fears dissolve. When we truly don't care whether we live or die as long as God's will is being done, there is nothing left to fear. Joy enters our souls, just as it entered Bethlehem during Roman oppression and had to make due with a feeding trough for a bed.  And that joy, once it enters, cannot be taken away, even by a cross.  It is a gift more precious than any gold, frankincense or myrrh; and we must travel the distance of faith to receive it.

Maybe this time of the year finds you happy.  Maybe it doesn’t.  Happiness comes and goes in the twinkling of an eye.  But the joy of the Lord is our strength at all times and in all places and circumstances.  Work for it.  Run to win it.  God longs to give it to you.  Amen.


Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson

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