Advent is a season of repentance, but God gives us a great gift in His word today; He gives us both the permission and the power to rejoice, not only in Advent but always.
St. Paul’s words today serve several purposes. They are first of all a directive to rejoice. What is joy? Most people confuse joy with happiness, but they are two very different things. Happiness is external, joy internal. Happiness is temporary, joy is permanent in Christ. Happiness has to do with temporal things like a winning lottery ticket or a good hair day, but joy has to do with our great God and Savior Jesus Christ and the gifts that He gives. Happiness can be pursued and even obtained for short intervals, but joy is a gift that remains with us no matter what happens, because we know that our sins are forgiven and we have peace with God through Christ.
Why do we need this directive, especially since we are new creations in Christ? Because of the usual suspects: sin, death and the devil. Sin leaves us with guilt, and guilt robs us of joy. The world’s catechism works hard to deny guilt but it will never succeed. If sin is the fang of the snake, guilt is the rattle, and wherever the head is the tail is always close behind.
Death also conspires to divest us of joy. It makes us sick, weak and afraid. As with guilt, the world tries to put a positive spin on death, but nothing it does can take away its sting. Only Jesus, who willingly suffered death for our sins, and conquered it by His glorious resurrection can empower us to rejoice even in the face of death. The Bible says of our Lord that, “for the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, scorned the shame and is seated at the right hand of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) With these words: Rejoice in the Lord always, Jesus teaches us to do the same.
And there’s the devil as well who incites so much malice, envy, hatred and revenge among men that finding joy is like looking for a needle in a haystack, so this divine directive, given to Christians of all ages by the pen of St. Paul, is a priceless treasure that cuts through despair and fills us with Advent joy.
God’s word also gives us permission to rejoice. How are we to live our lives as Christians? Should we spend our days and nights anguishing over the sins of our youth? Should we lead drab, austere, celibate lives like the Shakers? Not at all. It’s true that we should regret and confess our sins. They are an affront to God, an assault on our neighbor, and degrading in the extreme to us as children of God, but with these words, "rejoice in the Lord always," God instructs us to put sorrow behind us and to rejoice in Christ our Lord who became incarnate to save us, and fills our lives with the joy of forgiveness, and the promise of eternal life.
Though our faith makes us glad in the extreme our rejoicing isn’t the manufactured optimism of Joel Osteen, or the artificial enthusiasm of the so-called contemporary worship churches. Instead it’s a reverent and sober joy which focuses on Christ crucified for our sins, and raised again for our justification; one that fills us with delight and our devotion to it knows no bounds.
God’s word also gives us the power to rejoice. Paul is writing these words, but God is the one speaking, and we must always remember that His word brings into existence the very thing that it says. As God spoke the world into existence, He likewise speaks joy into our hearts by this word today. Without His gracious word we could search for joy our whole lives and never find it, but with Him, joy is ours.
Scripture also instructs those who rejoice in the Lord to let their moderation be known to all men. Though joy is an internal quality, it can’t help but spill over into the way we live. As God’s people St. Paul charges us to be reasonable and agreeable, gentle with others, tolerant of their weaknesses, and as much as humanly possible live at peace with all men (Romans 12:18). Joy makes this possible, because when we are at peace with God and at peace within, we are eager to be at peace with others as well.
God’s word also gives us a reason to rejoice, namely that the Lord is at hand. What does Paul mean by these words? First He joyously anticipates the Lord’s return because on that day all that Jesus accomplished by His birth, death and resurrection will be delivered to us in full! Graves will be opened. Death will be destroyed. Tears and sorrow will be forgotten and our joy will be full. Whether the day of the Lord is around the corner or many centuries in the future we should be ever mindful of this great event and by faith join the saints of the ages in confessing: the Lord is at hand.
But it’s not just the Lord’s future coming that causes us to rejoice; He’s also close at hand in the word He inspired, and in the sacraments He ordained. Whenever we hear God’s word heralded, whether by Isaiah the Prophet, John the Baptist or by the “called and ordained servant of the Word,” we are hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd. By it He gathers us close to His bosom, carries us through the valley of the shadow of death, leads us into the green pastures of His love and fills our lives with joy. The same is true of the sacraments. In baptism sinners are incorporated into the Triune God and made holy, even as God is Holy. In absolution we receive the continuing therapy we need to be constantly cleansed of our sins, so that even as we struggle with temptation our joy might be full. In the mass we receive the true body and blood of Christ into our own sinful and dying bodies, so that the life of Jesus might be imparted to us in every way.
These things, the Lord’s second advent, His holy word and blessed sacraments cause us to rejoice unceasingly in the Lord, and in the good promises He makes to us. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice. Amen.
~ Rev. Dean Kavouras