Today’s reading from Thessalonians reads, “Rejoice always.” In Philippians, Paul expanded this and wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.”
He exhorts us to rejoice always. We say, “Always?” Are we to rejoice when all is going wrong? Paul would answer, “Yes, always.” Paul is not speaking of happiness which is a “mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” Happiness would have us rejoice only when things were positive. Paul is speaking about joy. The dictionary definition again stresses the positive. The scriptural definition of joy goes much deeper.
A lesson from a Zen master may help clarify this. Whenever people asked Master Roshi how he was, he would reply, “I am OK.” Finally, a student said, “Roshi, how can you always be okay? Don’t you ever have a bad day?” Roshi answered, “Sure I do. On bad days, I am okay. On good days I am okay.”
This for Paul, is joy as a deep, abiding sense that all is well even when things are not going right for us. We can be joyful when we have just won the lottery. We can be joyful when we have finished a session of chemotherapy. Some of you may be saying, “How can we rejoice on bad days?”
First, we can rejoice at all times because Advent and Paul tell us that the Lord is near. It is the abiding presence of the Risen Christ that enables us to rejoice at all times. Christ has our backs. Christ is with us at all times. Christ assures us that we will overcame anything even death. Paul puts it succinctly, “I live. Now not I but Christ lives in me.”
In the words of Isaiah, we can rejoice always because God has “clothed us with a robe of salvation and a mantle of justice.” God is with us at all times and in all places. Isaiah says that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him “to proclaim glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God.” When Jesus applies this verse from Isaiah to himself, he does not include the day of vengeance because, for him, God is LOVE.
We can rejoice because the message in today’s readings is clear. Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor, to set captives free. He is the one who is coming to baptize us in the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of God’s living presence in our lives. He is the face of God’s love. God loves us without condition. Our God is not a God of vengeance. We do not need to cower in fear. We can rejoice!
Second, we can rejoice when we have an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude, gratefulness should be our basic stance as Christians. Brother David Stendl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, teaches gratitude. His web site is gratefulness .org.
What does it take to have gratitude? We have to be awake. We have to live in the present moment. We have to be here now. A daily practice of sitting quietly with the Lord can help us develop this attitude of gratitude. Daily pray, putting ourselves in God’s presence and listening helps us to dwell in the present moment. The past is history and the future is unknown. Remember that God’s primary language is silence! God knows our needs. We need to shut up and listen.
Third, we bless ourselves and others because we are grateful. Every moment is gift. Everything is blessing. Before we came down this fall, we had the opportunity to spend a day with the Reverend Doctor Russ Parker, an Episcopal priest from England. He has been involved in healing ministry around the world. Today he is convinced that, as Christians, we are call to be people who bless. If we are grateful, we bless. The Hebrew word for blessing is baruk. Literally, it means to bend the knee toward. It is saying that God kneels before us to bless us. Wow!!!
Blessing means to flourish. We bless ourselves. We want to flourish. We bless others because we want them to have what they need. We want them to flourish. Make it a daily practice to bless others—family, friends, and enemies.
The traditional Jewish blessing in the Book of Numbers is well known;
The Lord bless and keep you.
The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
The Lord lift up his countenance to you and give you peace.
Wow! The word for “keep” is a shepherd term. It means to build a briar fence to protect the sheep. We can rejoice always because God surrounds us with a protective fence. God shows us his face and graces us. Finally, God lifts up her countenance to us and give us peace. The Hebrew term is “Shalom.” Shalom means peace, wellness, and total well-being.
We are grateful because God fences us in and protects us, no matter what is going on. We are able to rejoice because God brings us total well-being.
Being blessed, we are missioned to bless ourselves first of all. We bless ourselves when we recognize our basic goodness. We bless ourselves when we stop trying to strive for perfection. We learn to live with ourselves as we are. We are good and bad. The Sunday school teacher asked the class what color they would be if good was green and bad was purple. One little girl raised her hand, “I would be streaky!” Yes, we are streaky and can rejoice and be grateful as who we are. We do not have to be somebody else.
Second we are missioned to bless others. People who are grateful rejoice in the good fortune of others. They have developed the ability to wish others well, to bless them, to pray for them. They can rejoice in the good fortune of others. As difficult as it may seem, we are called to bless our enemies. Paul tells us to bless those who curse us.
As we continue to prepare for our remembrance that God as the Christ is incarnate in our history and our lives, we can learn to rejoice always. We will rejoice on bad days. We will rejoice on good days. We will rejoice because we are blessed and we want to bless others.
We are leaving Friday to spend Christmas with our sons in the Georgia Mountains. I look forward to being with you again in 2015. On the way out I have an early Christmas present for you. It is from gratefulness.org and contains a list of grateful living practices.