For several weeks, the Apostle Paul’s letter to Christians in the ancient city of Philippi has been our guide to exploring deeper wells of joy. The joy of sharing the life of faith with one another. The joy of having the shared mindset of Christ. The joy of pressing on in faith together. The joy following Christ by walking in the footsteps of others. In our reading today, Paul urges these Christians in the strongest terms possible. Be joyful! Listen now for the word of God.
1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I’d like to talk with you this morning about the difference between relief and joy.
Last Friday, Caitlin and I attempted to fulfill a long-standing promise to our kids that we would visit Dollywood because we bought season passes in May and have only used them once. We got an early start that morning, and after about an hour, just outside of Newport, Tennessee, I remembered to put the address into the GPS. Immediately I got a warning from the Maps app that the park was closed.
We were halfway there, but we never checked, never imagined, it would be closed on a Friday. We pulled over to look it up, and it was closed for the day to set up a new Christmas theme. There were tears; some of them were mine. I love theme parks, roller coasters, and the scrambler. I was looking forward to that day. We had the whole day set aside!
For a few minutes, I quietly absorbed my disappointment, and then we got back onto I-40 East. It was a quiet car ride, and before long we stopped at the welcome center at the state line to create a new plan. There were brochures for everything, and we decided to go to Cherokee for the day and see the museum (which is wonderful), and that night go to the Launch Pad trampoline park.
When everyone got back in the car, I was relieved. The day was not a total loss. There was disappointment, but it would be okay. We had a plan.
That was relief. And then, that night, at the trampoline park, we found joy. The kids might say they had the most fun, but I think I had more. I strained so many muscles. I hurt my foot – it still hurts. I was so sore the next day. But goodness did I have fun. Jumping up and up, and higher and higher, turning in the air. It was sheer joy.
Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say, rejoice!” If you’ve been with us through the book of Philippians, you know that joy is one of Paul’s greatest hopes for these Christians in Philippi. In this verse, he tells them to be joyful, but we know you can’t command joy. You can fake a smile, you can fake a laugh, but joy is a gift. Joy is discovered, not manufactured. What Paul really is saying is to receive this gift that is at the heart of their faith. The Revised English translation probably captures it best when it says, “I wish you joy in the Lord always. Again I say, all joy be yours.”
It is a blessing at the heart of our faith. And yet, I think we often look at our faith as a source of relief more than joy. Forgiveness relieves us from the guilt and punishment of sin. Life everlasting relieves us from the pain of death and separation. God’s love relieves us from the sadness of being alone or excluded. Faith is about relief, and we miss the joy.
Sometimes we see our whole lives through that lens. We had lots of rain this weekend, but the basement didn’t flood. Breathe a sigh of relief. We got holiday plans in place; everyone can make it. Breathe a sigh of relief. The doctor says, “Don’t come back for six months.” Breathe a sigh of relief. Daughter got into college, early decision. Breathe a sigh of relief. Son got a job; he’s not moving back home. Breathe a sigh of relief. The market is turning around; we won’t be broke. Breathe a sigh of relief.
Some psychologists suggest that relief often comes from a deeper sense of anxiety about our lives, and even about ourselves. They say that what is lurking underneath those feelings of relief is really fear and worry. Fear of failure, worry about not measuring up. If the daughter didn’t get into college, or if the son didn’t get a job, or if no one could make it for Thanksgiving, or if I didn’t figure out a backup plan for Dollywood – did I fail? Did they fail? Have we failed? Down deep, this fear of failing to become what we are meant to be, and the sadness of falling short of our expectations, drives so much of our desire for relief.
Last weekend, Dusty Baker, the manager for the Houston Astros, finally won his first world series. I was personally pulling for the Phillies this year, but Dusty Baker is hard to not root for. He’s won so much with different teams but never won the World Series. As a manager, he’s known for being kind and compassionate. As a player, he invented the high five! He’s been chasing this world series dream for almost thirty years of managing in the major leagues.
After he won in Game 6, a reporter asked Baker, “Do you feel relief?” You can understand why the reporter would ask it that way. The media focused exclusively on how many times Baker almost won, and whether – at 73 years old – this would be his last chance. It cast an ominous shadow over his career: would he fail to win a world championship? Do you feel relief, the reporter asked?
Baker responded, “It’s not relief. It’s not relief at all. It’s just sheer joy and thankfulness.” Maybe you saw the video of Baker being mobbed by his team in the dugout after the last out of the ninth inning. If you did, you understand. The man was hanging onto the net, trying not to collapse under the collective weight of more than a dozen men, and he way smiling from ear to ear. It was no relief. It was sheer joy and thankfulness.
This is the gift of our faith in Christ. God does not want us to reduce Christ in our lives to the mere relief that we’ve escaped our worst fears, sin, death, suffering, loneliness, exclusion. Paul doesn’t say to the Philippians, “Be relieved!” He says, “Rejoice!” This joy is possible because of God’s wholeness, God’s peace in Christ Jesus that guards their hearts and minds.
When Paul says “guards,” he is using a military metaphor, appropriate for Veteran’s Day weekend. He says that when we pray about our needs and give thanks for our blessings in Christ, “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The literal Greek there is that the peace of God will “stand sentry watch.”
Now, I am not a veteran. Those of you who have served know better than I do the importance of the sentries who keep watch around the base. Because the sentries keep watch, life inside the base or on the ship base can continue in peace. Even if there is danger on the outside, soldiers can eat, train, plan, play, and sleep in peace because sentries are keeping watch.
God’s peace stands as a sentry watch around our hearts and minds. Even when we pass through danger or hardship or grief, God’s peace in Christ circles us around with love and care and goodness. We become more aware of this loving care when we pray about our needs, and when we give thanks to God for our blessings.
The peace of God stands watch over our hearts and minds, and so we can let go of anxiety and fear. God has encircled our life with divine blessing, so we can be joyful. No more do we need to settle for temporary relief; no more do we need to worry that we are not enough. The love of God opens the way to a joy so deep that sadness cannot touch it, so energizing that no fear cannot overwhelm it.
A few months ago, I was walking in my neighborhood, listening to a podcast interview with Father Greg Boyle. I mentioned him and his work in the first sermon in this series, that he’s a Jesuit priest who founded HomeBoy Industries in Los Angeles. If you don’t know about Boyle or his work, look him up.
In this podcast, he was being interviewed about his work with gang members, and the host was really asking for lessons that could be applied to the church and society. If Boyle could help rival gang members find a sense of friendship, maybe he could help us get out of our mutual moral outrage and us-vs-them divides. Here’s the part of the interview that stopped me in my tracks, coming from this man who has seen so much tragedy and danger. He says…
The mark of an authentic disciple is joy and bravery. [You] can easily identify what lurks underneath most things by identifying fear and sadness…. But if it’s joyful and if it’s brave and if it takes seriously what Jesus took seriously—inclusion, nonviolence, unconditional loving-kindness and compassionate acceptance—if it does all that stuff, then it stays close to the marrow of the Gospel. It’s never afraid, and it’s filled with joy.
I wonder if what lurks underneath most of our desire for relief is really fear and sadness? Many times, I know in my own life, we are just glad for the storm to pass, for the news to be “not that bad,” because we know how bad it could it have been. And I know that many of us carry fears – fears for our society, for our neighbors, for our climate, for our children and grandchildren’s futures. Sometimes, we’re even a afraid for our own life – have we measured up, have we done okay?
The longing for relief from our fears is powerful, but if we stop there, in life or in faith, we miss so much of what God wants for us. The gift of life in Christ is bravery and joy, a deep joy that is born out of prayer, and thanksgiving, faith in the care of God, and a sense for your own deep beloved-ness.
When I think of missing Dollywood, I was so grateful to be surprised by joy at the trampoline park. When I think of Dusty Baker holding onto the net in the dugout, I’m so grateful he was staggering under the weight of joy – and not a fear of failure. And when I think of you, dear beloved children of God, I hope you will embrace God’s gift of joy and bravery that is yours in Christ Jesus. Never settle for mere relief.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina