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Rejoice in the Lord, Always!

Date: 13/12/2015/Speaker: Darryl Tan

Sermon for Gaudete Sunday

A very good morning to all of you. My name is Darryl, and it is a pleasure to be able to share the word with you today. I would like to start by giving you a bit of context to the liturgical season we are in right now, and more specifically, what this Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is supposed to signify. Most of us will know that Advent spans a period of 4 weeks leading up to Christmas, and is typically a time of anticipation and preparation for Christ’s birth. It also marks the beginning of a new liturgical year, or in other words, a new year on the church calendar.

What I learnt as I was preparing this message, is that the season of Advent originated as a fast of forty days leading up to Christmas, very similar to the season of Lent before Easter. And very much like Lent, it traditionally encompasses a spirit of penitence, or repentance, as a way of preparing for the Lord’s coming. This penitential element is why most of the lectionary readings during Advent actually have a rather sombre tone to them. But this Sunday is different. The third Sunday of Advent is a special Sunday, known as Gaudete Sunday. This Sunday that serious, reflective mood is suspended, and exchanged for joy and gladness, in celebration of the Lord’s nearness, and His promise of redemption. The lectionary readings for today proclaim: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” To mark this change in tone, traditional churches change their usual purple advent decorations for rose-coloured ones, and the third Advent candle is a pink candle while the rest are purple. We don’t have vestments, so we’ve changed the lights today, and I’ve come dressed to stand in for the candle.

The term “Gaudete” is from the first line of the central lectionary reading for this week, from the book of Philippians. “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.” Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. You know, when I realised that the theme for this week was all about joy and gladness, I was a little worried. Those of you who are familiar with me will know that I don’t really do joy. I have always identified more with suffering, and tend to approach my theology and spirituality from that angle. So it took me quite a lot of careful praying, thinking and studying to write today’s message. I hope you will find my reflections meaningful in some way.

I had to start by asking myself, what is joy? More specifically, what is joy to a Christian? How is a Christian supposed to experience joy? I think joy comes in two forms. Joy can be a feeling, an emotion, experienced in a moment of elation and delight. Joy is a description we reserve for the highest peaks of happiness, when your pleasure is so great you cannot help but express it outwardly for all to immediately see. But there is another, deeper, more lasting form of joy. Joy that is a state of mind, a state of being, less dependent on external circumstances. I think it is this second form of joy that we Christians are called to embody, indeed, that we are promised as followers of Christ. But this inner joy is also harder to define, making it more elusive and difficult to cultivate. To grasp anything I think we have to first try to understand it. I don’t claim to be an expert on joy at all, but after some consideration I would like to propose some possibilities of what this joy should look like so that we can all reach towards it.

To start off I would like to bring you back to the lectionary reading for today, from Philippians 4:4-7:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

This is one of my favourite verses, and one of the few that I have committed to memory. I remember clearly when i first came across it. It was shared with me by a JC classmate when we were both overwhelmed with stress studying for our A Level exams. I loathe taking exams because it invokes so much anxiety in me that i find quite unbearable. We all experience situations which make us anxious and worried, especially while living in a fast-paced and constantly changing world. This verse has brought me much solace and wisdom in my times of anxiety, and I have benefited much from carefully meditating on it.

At first glance, the instructions are simple. Don’t worry! Be happy! Pray and give thanks and you will have the peace of God. It really sums up the basic spiritual practices of Christians everywhere. Reflecting on this verse has taught me that joy in the Lord is a liberating joy. Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians, much like the hymn we sang this morning, promises us freedom from our worldly anxieties. “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and grief to bear. Oh what peace we often forfeit. Oh what needless pain we bear. All because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.” Often we say that because Christ has secured our salvation, we as Christians should no longer fear. But this concept of future victory often does not meet our needs in the here and now. So Paul’s instructions to ‘pray and give thanks’ is actually very practical advice. Through prayer we give form to our yearnings and our desires. Through thanksgiving we learn contentment with what we have already been blessed with. These are the basic principles of Christian surrender, learning to place our desires and worries in the hands of God and commit them to God’s will.

But Paul does not promise that our prayers will be answered, at least not in the way that we would expect. When we pray we often have some idea how we would like our prayer to be answered. Are we closed to only see the answers that we seek? We are promised the peace of God, but Paul intentionally qualifies that this peace is something which surpasses all understanding, a peace that may defy human logic and reason. Are we open to having our prayers answered in ways that we do not expect? In the times that I have prayed and meditated with this verse in mind, my prayers have often turned from asking for something, to asking to be freed from wanting that something. Through reflection and thanksgiving, our worldview becomes greatly expanded beyond just our own circumstances, and we can come to realise that we are all a part of God’s greater plan according to His will. So this peace not only liberates us from our anxieties, but also frees us from the expectations we have of ourselves, others and even of God. From this peace, a joy that is liberating is born.

Henri Nouwen puts it a lot more eloquently than I could, so I quote:
“I have found it very important in my own life to try to let go of my wishes and instead to live in hope. I am finding that when I choose to let go of my sometimes petty and superficial wishes and trust that my life is precious and meaningful in the eyes of God something really new, something beyond my own expectations begins to happen in me.
To wait with openness and trust is an enormously radical attitude toward life. It is choosing to hope that something is happening for us that is far beyond our own imaginings. It is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life. It is living with conviction that God molds us in love, holds us in tenderness, and moves us away from the sources of our fear.”

As I read around this verse to prepare this message I discovered something interesting that I didn’t know before. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians makes a good study of this topic of Christian joy. Philippi was the location of the first Christian community to be established in Europe, founded by Paul when he first visited them with Timothy sometime around the year 50 AD. The epistle was written about 12 years after that visit, and within that interval the Philippian church had sent one of their ministers, a man called Epaphroditus, to bring their gifts and contributions to Paul in his time of need because he was in prison at this time. In the course of his work with Paul, Epaphroditus fell gravely ill and almost died, but after a lengthy period managed to recover. Paul then writes this letter to the church while he is in prison, and tasks Epaphroditus to return to Philippi with it. In this letter he takes the chance to encourage and advise the Philippians on various matters of church life, but more importantly, he repeatedly conveys his profound optimism in the face of his imprisonment, using the words ‘joy’ and ‘rejoice’ liberally throughout what is actually quite a short letter.

In chapter 4: 10-13 Paul says:
“I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

The second quality of joy I have drawn from Paul’s letter is that his joy is a source of spiritual nourishment. The first time I remember profoundly experiencing this joy was when I first joined Livingwater, a support group helping men reconcile their faith and sexuality. This was the first round of Livingwater Miak ever facilitated, way back in 2005. It was the very first time I was meeting other gay people in person, and I was so full of fear and anxiety. That was my first time meeting Miak, and I totally didn’t know anyone else in the group. Miak had promised in one of his emails to me before we met that the truth will set me free, but I don’t think either of us realised at that time where this truth would take us. I don’t remember exactly what was discussed that night, but what I do remember is the rawness and honesty in the sharing of our struggles and questions in the safety of that space, and I left feeling not so alone in the world anymore. That night I tasted a joy so powerful that it really lifted me up in a time when I was feeling very conflicted about my faith and spirituality. After that I remember always looking forward to the meetings on Friday evenings, because I would always leave feeling refreshed and energised. I only started to regularly attend FCC a year later, but in the 9 years since that joy has never completely left me, and continues to sustain me in my personal life and ministry to this day.

I believe firmly that this nourishing joy cannot be found in solitude, at least not in full. It is a joy that exists in the holy fellowship of community. I found it in the relationships I shared with the brothers in Livingwater, in the home I found among this congregation, and in the deep bonds I share with my cell group. This is the wellspring of joy that we can draw upon when life gets us down, when the trials seem too great, and when your own spirituality has appeared to run dry. This is how I interpret Paul’s assurance that “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” I believe that Christ is manifested through the people in my life. It is why in FCC we believe so strongly in the importance of relationships, and how it is the basis on which we act out our faith. This joy is not just nourishing, it is empowering. It continuously empowers us to become more than we were yesterday. And when we are empowered, we can in turn empower those around us. The miracle of shared joy in healthy relationships is that it is self-reinforcing. That’s how we are called to live and build healthy Christ-centred community. Are we expressing this nourishing, empowering joy in the relationships we have in our personal lives and in this community?

For my third and last reflection on Christian joy, I have drawn on another verse from Philippians, chapter 2:1-5:
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

I think Paul is clear here how joy is only complete when there is unity. If you read the whole epistle, it is evident that there was disagreement among the Philippians. It was probably bad enough that Paul actually specifically named two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who he urged to “be of the same mind in the Lord.” Imagine that! Being immortalised in the Bible because you were quarrelling over something!

The topic of unity in church actually came up during the recent leaders retreat that we had over the Deepavali holiday, and it made me stop and think. In the years i have been in FCC I actually haven’t given much thought to the idea of unity in church. Someone in the meeting remarked that we are so committed to embracing diversity that everyone has their own way of doing things, and when we can’t reach a consensus we just exist in our separate silos. I think in FCC’s early years people came together on the common background of LGBT discrimination in the wider Christian community. People understood how precious having a safe space to worship was, and were a lot more accommodating of differences because there was nowhere else to go. It was from this desire to be a home for everyone and anyone that our commitment to embracing diversity was born. But actually, if you think about it, embracing diversity is quite counter-productive to church building and growth, because it is so much harder to reach a consensus on all our decisions. Take bible study for example. A call for more bible study would be promptly met with agreement in most churches, and the pastor would simply write a syllabus for all the cell groups to use. Here, we first need to sit down to discuss ‘what is bible study’. As we have grown over the years, we have increased in confidence and also in terms of organisation and structure. We are no longer as bogged down by a persecution mentality, which is definitely a good thing, but I think we have somewhat lost sight of our unifying purpose.

One way, and indeed the more conventional way of building unity in church is to simply unify our teaching and theological beliefs, reinforce that through the sermons and in cell group teachings, and make all our decisions from a single point of view. But I think doing that would be going against our vision of the kind of church we are called to be. Not that that’s a sacred cow we cannot slay, but that decision should be taken very thoughtfully and deliberately by the whole church. I believe there are other ways of building unity in church; ways which don’t simply rely on making everyone believe the same things. We need to rediscover the joy that we have in our faith, in our status as siblings in Christ, and to build on that as the foundation of doing life and church together. This is a lesson I learnt from my time on the old church council, before it became known as the board. It was made up of members so different it was a wonder we managed to anything done together. But I think we all came from a place where we deeply loved and cared for this home where we all found joy in our faith, that we could work together for its benefit. Is your life in church joyful? Does that joy show through as you come and worship here, as you relate to each other in this space? Can we individually and collectively make that joy our unifying mission and purpose?

The more sceptical among you will probably be thinking that I’ve employed a few too many motherhood statements with not much substantiation, and if I were listening to myself I would probably be rolling my eyes a bit as well. If we had that kind of joy we can all sing kumbayah and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, like in most of the sermons in FCC, I don’t have any easy answers for you. Seeking joy is a continuous process in a Christian’s life. Like what Mark said, being happy in heaven is probably a state of mind that we have to continuously inculcate, and the same goes for being happy on earth. If you look at it from another angle, the question can be framed as “how do we incorporate joy into our church culture?”

This is where in the spirit of Advent, and also because today we’re holding our AGM, I would like to cast your gaze ahead, into the coming church year, and into the future of FCC. The question of shaping our church culture is one that the pastoral team is deeply concerned with, and will be trying to address in time to come. A lot of effort will be devoted to planning and education in order to cultivate the kind of culture we want here in FCC. I want to take this chance to invite all of you, individually and in your groups, to be active participants of this process of joy-seeking. It won’t be an easy process. It’s a fact that we bring our own traditions, understanding and experiences of church and spirituality with us, and sometimes these expectations are very difficult to change because they are so deeply ingrained in our subconscious. Culture can only be shaped when inch by inch we gradually shift in our thoughts, beliefs and actions to more closely resemble the person, and in turn the church, we are called to be. The process of finding this joy has already been started for us – it came in the form of a baby born on Christmas day, through whom our eternal joy and salvation is already assured. It is now up to us to work out that joy through careful study, learning and growth. Can we find that joy which will liberate us from our past and empower us enough to dare to step into new and greater truths? Can we find the joy to spur us to action and participation in community, even as it requires our time and effort and goes against our worldly longings? Can we find the joy that will bind us firmly as siblings in Christ; that will see us through conflict and disagreement to remain as one body?

In liberation we become free. In community we are nourished. And in unity we become church. So today I say to you, rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say, rejoice!