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Advent: Joy In Every Season

Date: 15/12/2019/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Philippians 4:1-8

Christmas is said to be the season of joy, peace and love. And I wonder if you are feeling a lot of joy and peace this morning? For some, maybe this period has been a wonderful time of rest and celebration, and I’m happy for you. For others, maybe it has been a trying time for various reasons and it’s been hard to feel much joy and peace — maybe it’s your job or the loss of a loved one, or you’re having a difficult time with a friend, family member or significant other. To be honest, it’s been a mixed bag of emotions for me as I was writing and preparing this sermon this week, and I’ve been trying to find my own sense of joy and peace. A lot of things happened this week — things that brought great joy and deep sadness.

First, the event that brought great joy. My sister-in-law gave birth a few days ago to my baby niece. She’s the fourth one and I now have 2 nephews and 2 nieces. I felt joy seeing her at the hospital and carrying her for the first time. Welcoming her into our lives brought me much happiness and joy. But this week, I also experienced deep sadness. A conflict situation had arisen between some people in church and it made me sad to see how each person was affected.

The sermon theme had been decided on before all these happened this week. “Joy In Every Season” then became a personal question to myself: how can I have joy in every season, even in times of sorrow or conflict or pain? How can we?

I think this question is especially pertinent in this season when we see and hear the word “joy” thrown about more often than usual. But what is joy? Can you recall the moments when you experienced true joy? What was it like?

In the New Testament alone, joy is mentioned about 60 times. But sadly, it never seems to be on the top of the list of what it means to be God’s people. And it’s definitely not what Christians are known for. If people were interviewed on the streets about how they would describe Christians, I think very few would say joyful. Instead, people are more likely to say Christians are judgmental rather than joyful. And that’s sad. Why aren’t we a more joyful people?

I think the reality is that many of us don’t really know how to cultivate joy. That’s why we resort to quick fixes like alcohol, addictive foods, or find fleeting moments of happiness from sources like social media or Netflix, without truly experiencing joy or cultivating it for ourselves. Perhaps there is something we can glean from the Bible with regards to cultivating joy. For today, I’ve chosen a passage of Scripture from Philippians 4.

Philippians 4:1-8
Therefore, my brothers and sisters,[a] whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
Exhortations
2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion,[b] 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[c] in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.[d] 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved,[e] 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[f] these things. 9 Keep 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 a letter that Paul wrote to the small community of faith in Phillipi. I found it very interesting that Paul encourages them to rejoice in the Lord always just after he addresses a situation of conflict and disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche. He urges Euodia and Syntyche to be “of the same mind in the Lord”. There was clearly a situation of conflict and disagreement between the both of them and it was still unresolved and Paul was asking the others to help them. And in the midst of saying that, he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” I found this kind of strange. How does he expect anyone to be full of joy in the Lord when there is an unresolved conflict situation amongst them? Why would Paul tell the church to rejoice after he addresses a personal conflict? When we have conflict or disagreements, and they don’t get resolved, the circumstance can leave us disappointed, sad, angry, discouraged and bitter.

But it feels like Paul is asking them to do the very opposite of how we would humanly react. Why? And how is it possible? On top of all that, the people of Philippi were struggling under Roman rule and living conditions were tough. Most lived just slightly above the poverty line and malnutrition was common. The average life expectancy was about 40 years. It didn’t feel like the people had much to rejoice about.

When Paul encouraged them to rejoice in the Lord always, it wasn’t some fake superficial sentimentality. It wasn’t about pretending that everything is fine and denying one’s feelings of sadness, anger or grief. That would be the worst way to interpret and apply these words. Having faith in God doesn’t mean we run away from difficult realities and emotions. Instead, having faith is where the difficult realities are given meaning. What Paul is saying is not fluffy motivational positivity; it is something that wells up from the depths of a person’s soul. A person who was in prison and facing his own difficult circumstances so when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say Rejoice!” it is grounded in a reality more real, more powerful than any prison cell. Rejoice! That’s easier said than done. We have our worries and challenges. We have bills to pay, health issues to deal with, unresolved conflicts that weigh on us, uncertainties about the future.

Perhaps Paul knew something we didn’t. Perhaps he knew that the secret to having joy in the midst of the most difficult circumstances is simply to choose to rejoice. This was a man in a prison cell on his way to death. “Rejoice in the Lord” he says, “Again I will say Rejoice!” This echoes the words of the one he followed, Jesus. In the upper room on the last evening of this life, Jesus sitting at the table with his friends, sharing their last meal together, said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

And what did Jesus say to them so that their joy may be complete? Jesus told them in John 15: “Abide in me and I will abide in you. Abide in me. Live in me. Remain in my love. Make your home in me just as I do in you. Then your joy will be complete.” Whatever the circumstances you may be facing, abide in me and remain in my love. Perhaps that’s the secret to deep lasting joy.

This is a two-way relationship. We know when we choose to latch on to Christ our vine, the fruit of the Spirit is gradually produced in us. Lasting joy is the result of the indwelling and the nurturing of the Holy Spirit within us.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

The gift at Christmas we receive is the ability to abide with Christ. The great joy of Christmas is that God is here with us, Immanuel. And God continues to be here with us today, and is inviting us to abide and live in this love.

So when have you experienced true joy? I would say I experience joy when I have an inner awareness of the presence of God. Even when everything around me seems bleak or bewildering, there is something calming and even joyful when I become centered and grow more aware of God’s presence. When I sense God’s presence, I know I’m not alone and I can lean on God’s wisdom and strength to guide and sustain me. Perhaps that’s what Paul meant when he said later in Philippians 4:12 “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through Christ who gives me strength.”

I can do all this through Christ who gives me strength. How do we experience the reality of God’s presence within us? About two months ago, Miak shared about the Rule of Life and how that can be a helpful spiritual discipline to make us more aligned and aware of the presence of God in our lives. That is one way we can do so and hopefully, for those of you who journeyed through the six weeks of meditations and reflections, it was helpful to build up a rhythm of paying attention and spending time in God’s presence. There are also many other ways that you can pay attention and spend time in God’s presence. Whichever way you choose, just remember that it is the regular ongoing rhythm of being with God that keeps us abiding with Christ. So don’t give up and keep at it, and encourage each other to keep this rhythm going. And as we spend time experiencing God’s presence, that can lead us to feeling joy, no matter what situation we may be in.

So how do we cultivate more joy in our lives?

Perhaps it might be helpful for us to try to define what joy is. If we want to experience and cultivate joy, we need to at least know what it is. Joy and happiness are wonderful feelings to experience but they are different. Some have said that joy is deeper, more consistent and is cultivated internally. That’s why we sometimes say we are able to experience joy in the midst of sorrow. It comes when we make peace with who we are as God’s beloved, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts and events.

Of course, this is just a simplistic comparison because we can experience happiness and joy at the same time. I think the line between the two is not always so distinct and there is often a blurring of lines, especially at joyous occasions. We might feel happy at a joyous occasion and that can spark something deeper within us, perhaps a sense of gratitude for how loved we are by God. I think about how I experienced happiness and joy at the birth of my niece. I call it ‘happiness’ because it is externally triggered by people and by an event but it is great joy too because it goes deeper than just a superficial feeling that passes quickly — her birth reminds me of how we were all tenderly created and lovingly brought into life and into this world by God. And how God surrounds us with love from the moment we are born.

We often recognize joy as a feeling. And it is! It’s most recognizable as a feeling because that is the most easily seen. The thing about feelings and emotions, though, is that we don’t have immediate control over our feelings or emotions. We can’t just decide to feel something. But joy is also a state of mind and an orientation of the heart. It is a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope.

What does joy look like in the people around you? Who are the most joyful people you know?

I was trying very hard to think and finally realized the most joyful living things I know are children and dogs. 

Have you noticed how carefree children are when they play and how joyful they seem when they laugh and giggle? I often play with my nephews and niece and I’ve watched them growing up. Interestingly, the older they grow, the less carefree and joyful they seem to be. I think that’s true for many of us. As we grow up into adulthood, we take on the worries, pressures and cynicism of the world around us, and we forget that the ability to feel joy is something we are all born with. We are born happy and free. Joy is innate. While joy needs to be continually cultivated in a world that is often filled with darkness and discouragement, we were born with the ability to feel and experience joy. Perhaps today, God is calling us back to joy, back to who God created us to be…calling us back to God.

My partner and I waited for some time before we welcomed a dog into our lives. We wanted to make sure that we had the time, resources and energy to care for a dog because we knew it would be a big commitment. What we didn’t expect was how much our dog would teach us about joy, love and simplicity. We try to walk her almost daily and recently it has been difficult because of the rainy season. The other day, I took her out for a walk and even though it was drizzling, we both continued on our walk. Usually on our walks, she enjoys sniffing around the grass and trees and flowers, but ever so often, she would look at me with this face that I would describe as almost joyful and I can tell she is absolutely happy and contented just being there with me. We’re just happy to be around each other and it is one of the simple joys in life that my partner and I look forward to.

I wonder why my dog seems to take so much joy at simple things and I realize it’s her ability to be present in the moment. Dogs are very good at being present in the moment. They don’t ruminate about the past and they don’t worry about the future. They live in the here and now. And I realized that’s something we can learn from them. When we are able to quiet the chatter in our minds and create space for God to show us what’s going on around us, we are more able to take joy in the simple things. Maybe then we will be able to enjoy just being with God. Sometimes this requires us to slow down because when we’re moving at a frantic pace, we often take the simple things for granted.

This past week, I asked myself what are the simple things that bring me joy. And I realized that on my walks, I sometimes see the younger, greener leaves growing in the midst of the darker green leaves. And seeing this has always brought me joy for some reason. Somehow, when I see the lighter green leaves, it reminds me of the seasons of life and how God is continually birthing something new even in times when we may not be able to see what’s going on. I realized that noticing these leaves gave me joy because it sparked a sense of hope in me.

What about you? What are the simple things in life that bring you joy? Do you spend time paying attention, noticing and giving thanks for these things?

When we are more present, the simpler things in life become joyful – the food we eat, the people we’re with, the air we breathe, the smells and sounds of nature. The more we abide with Christ, the more in touch we are with our true self, the less we feel the need to seek momentary happiness from external events and sources. Joy becomes a more constant state of being, as we begin to cultivate joy from the inside out.

The question is: what are we focusing on?

Paul said, “Finally, beloved,[e] 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[f] these things.” (Phil 4:8)

Earlier on, we sang about the goodness of God. And these verses are often interpreted to mean that since God is true, honorable, just, pure and worthy of praise, we should focus on God. And focusing on the goodness of God can help us cultivate joy in our lives.

But I was reflecting on this verse and would like to suggest two additional ways to understand this verse. It may apply to us in at least two other ways:

1. Our internal focus
2. Our external focus

What we choose to focus on internally and externally affects our ability to experience joy in our lives.

1. Internally: the seeds we choose to plant and nurture within ourselves

For example, what we think about ourselves and what we pray about is very telling about our internal focus. Do we spend a lot of time criticizing ourselves and magnifying the criticism that we receive from others? Is our prayer time filled with more whining than wonder? More complaining than contemplation? The seeds we choose to plant and nurture will bear the fruit that we sow. If we tend to focus mainly on the negative, the outcome will probably be negative. What kind of fruit do you think you will produce if you could balance the negative self-talk with a more accurate perspective of who you really are, what you are good at and what you need to work on?

• What is one thing you’ve learnt about yourself in this past year?
• What is one thing you’re proud of yourself about?

2. Externally: what we choose to focus on when we see another person

Usually, in conflict situations, we naturally remember the negative things people say and do, and we sometimes end up labelling one another. But that’s not helpful in journeying together as a community. Perhaps instead of developing tunnel vision and focusing solely on the negative actions and words of others, would it be possible for us to also look for the good in them? I’m not saying sweep everything under the carpet. We are here to help each other grow and sometimes that means speaking the truth in love. And sometimes the truth is hard to hear when we are pointing out an area for improvement. All I’m saying is this: Is there anything true or honorable or just or commendable or praise-worthy of the other person? If so, then consider these things too. All of us are multidimensional and complex human beings, and growing together means learning to see one another more holistically.

Ultimately, what we choose to focus on internally and externally affects our ability to experience joy in our lives. What are you focusing on internally within yourself and externally towards others? Is there one thing you would like to change in the way you think about yourself or others?

Earlier during worship, we sang this song, Seasons.

Like the frost on a rose
Winter comes for us all
Oh how nature acquaints us
With the nature of patience
Like a seed in the snow
I’ve been buried to grow
For Your promise is loyal
From seed to sequoia

Lord I think of Your love
Like the low winter sun
And as I gaze I am blinded
In the light of Your brightness
And like a fire to the snow
I’m renewed in Your warmth
Melt the ice of this wild soul
Till the barren is beautiful

You’re the God of seasons
And I’m just in the winter
If all I know of harvest
Is that it’s worth my patience
Then if You’re not done working
God I’m not done waiting
You can see my promise
Even in the winter

Cause You’re the God of greatness
Even in a manger
For all I know of seasons
Is that You take Your time
You could have saved us in a second
Instead You sent a child

These lyrics are beautifully written and I wonder if this song spoke to you in some way. For me, these words spoke to my soul:

Like a seed in the snow
I’ve been buried to grow
For Your promise is loyal
From seed to sequoia

“Like a seed in the snow, I’ve been buried to grow” reminded me about the dormancy of winter. In winter, everything on the outside looks barren and dead but deep under the snow is the seed waiting in anticipation for the right timing and conditions to signal that it’s time to grow. And just at the right time, that little seedling finds the strength to push out from beneath the soil and grows and grows into a sequoia. The sequoia is a redwood tree and it is known to be the biggest tree in the world. It grows to an average height of 100 meters. Perhaps we are that seed who have been buried to grow. Maybe everything in your life on the outside looks barren right now but God’s promise is that in the right time, we will grow from seed to sequoia.

What we focus on internally and externally influences our ability to cultivate joy. I wonder what seeds of hope & promise is God sowing in your heart today?

In this season, we can choose to focus on the darkness and barrenness or we can choose to focus on joy and the seeds of hope.

For me, I’m turning to joy and to the manger. I’m choosing to abide with our God who at the right time, in the right season, came into our world to show us the extent of what love looks like. Like the shepherds who were startled by a sky full of light and angels singing on a dark night long ago, the same message rings true for us today: “Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.”

May you find joy in this season and in every season as you abide in Christ and focus on goodness and love, as we all wait patiently in anticipation and hope for the God of the seasons to grow us from seed to sequoia.

Amen.