Third Sunday Of Advent: Finding Joy In The Journey
Today we come to the third Sunday in Advent. Advent is a time for us to turn the focus away from ourselves and think about Jesus. About his first coming to earth, his coming into our lives, and his second coming here to earth.
The Christmas story begins with the angelic announcement of the birth of Christ. In Luke 2:10, the angel of the Lord said to the shepherds, “I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people:” (Luke 2:10). good tidings...good news. I think it’s safe to say that we could use all the good news and great joy that we can possibly find at the end of the most difficult year we have had in recent years.
And if there’s anyone who ought to be filled with great joy and spreading joy throughout the world, it’s those of us who are Christians. Because we have more reason to be joyful than anybody else on the face of this earth. That’s why Paul was able to say in our epistles readings today, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice.”
But, let’s be honest. For many, it’s tough to find much joy right now. And it’s easy to see why. Because happiness is always connected with circumstances. If circumstances are good, then it’s easy to happy. But if circumstances are bad, then we’re unhappy. And so, we spend our lives thinking that if we could just change some aspect of our lives — more money and fewer bills, a better job, the perfect spouse, children that always behave, enjoying good health, surrounded by people who are always kind and loving, then we could be happy.
If we could somehow just get rid of all our problems, then life would be great. But of course, we all recognize that that’s never going to happen. And yet Paul said, “Rejoice in the Lord, always.”
“Always” means to rejoice when things aren’t going so well. When the car breaks down or gets totaled. When the money in the bank runs out before you get paid again. When the whole family is making trips to the doctor one after the other. When you’re isolated from everyone else in the world. Those are times that it’s not so easy to rejoice. And yet, here’s Paul saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice.”
Paul had learned the secret to joy no matter what his situation was. So, how did Paul do it? How could Paul stay joyful even though times were tough and events hadn’t turned out the way he wanted them to? How was he able to keep this positive attitude even when people around him weren’t treating him very well? How was Paul able to have joy when he was so uncertain about what was going to happen in the future?
This morning I want us to try to learn how to develop that same kind of joyful attitude. You know, we may like to think that this year has been one of the worst possible years, but if we take a look at Paul’s life, I don’t think that any of us would want to trade what we have experienced this year with what Saint Paul was experiencing when he wrote his letter to the Philippians.
In chapter 1, Paul mentions a lot of negative things that were going on in his life. But Paul was able to see how God was using those negative things to accomplish some positive things. And because of that, his life was filled with joy.
So, let’s take a look at Paul’s situation to see what Paul was experiencing while he had such great joy.
I. Paul Had Joy Despite Unpleasant Circumstances
For years, it was Paul’s desire to preach the gospel in Rome. Since Rome was the center of the great Roman Empire, it was the key city of its day. And Paul knew that if he could conquer that city for Christ, it would mean reaching millions of people with the message of salvation.
And so Paul went to Rome, but it wasn’t exactly what you would consider ideal circumstances. He wanted to go to Rome as a preacher, but he ended up going as a prisoner. Now if I had been in that situation, I probably would have complained about how nothing ever seems to work out right. Everything is going wrong. But I want you to notice that Paul didn’t react that way at all.
“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known in all the court, and in all other places, that my imprisonment is for Christ.” (Philippians 1:12-13).
It would have been so easy for Paul to sit and complain. But instead, Paul rejoiced that he was finally in Rome. It wasn’t ideal circumstances. But what made the difference is that Paul didn’t just see hardship and setbacks; he also saw an opportunity for evangelism
It’s true that Paul was a prisoner, but he soon learned that his imprisonment, instead of shutting the door, had actually opened some new doors. Sometimes we say that when God closes one door, he opens another.
But, for Paul, it was more than just a cute little motto. He truly believed it. And so, even when he’s thrown into prison, he sees it not as a door being closed, but as door which opened into whole new areas.
What do you suppose Paul was doing while he was a Roman prisoner? He was constantly praying to God. He was talking to visiting Christians about their spiritual welfare. He was dictating letters, like this one to the Philippians, dealing with spiritual matters. And I’m sure he spent time talking about Christ with the soldiers he was chained to.
I think Paul’s attitude shows us that there are two questions that we can ask ourselves. Either we can ask the negative: “Why did this have to happen to me?” Or we can choose to ask the positive: “How can these things that have happened to me result in some benefit that God has in mind?”
Like Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20).
II. Paul Had Joy Despite Difficult People
“And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of contention, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.” (Philippians 1:14-17)
Paul’s imprisonment had two very different effects on Christians around him. First of all, Paul said that most of the brethren were encouraged by his chains. They saw Paul continue to preach the gospel while he was in prison. And because of Paul’s boldness, they were encouraged to be bold themselves in proclaiming Christ.
These were Christians who loved Paul. And when they saw him confined to his house, they increased their efforts to preach and to spread the gospel, so that the gospel would lose nothing because of Paul’s imprisonment.
But there were a few Christians who didn’t share those feelings of admiration for Paul. Now, it’s hard to believe anyone would oppose Saint Paul, but there were some Christians in Rome doing just that. We don’t know exactly who they were or why they felt the way that they did except that they were motivated by envy and strife.
Paul’s response to his critics was to say, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. And will continue to rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).
As long as Christ was proclaimed, Paul didn’t care who got the credit and the honor and the prestige. He didn’t care what others said about him, or how much they disliked him. All that mattered to him was that the gospel of Christ was proclaimed.
III. Paul Had Joy Despite an Uncertain Future
Paul was facing a trial in Rome. If he was found innocent, he would be free to preach some more. But if he was found guilty, he would be executed. Paul knew that he would either live or die, depending on the results of the trial.
So, he wrote in verses 19-20: “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”
Paul says, “My concern is, when I stand before a pagan judge in a pagan court, I don’t want to do or say anything to embarrass Jesus Christ, my Lord. I’m not worried about the verdict in my trial. My only concern is that I’ll have enough courage to stand up in their midst and by what I say and do that I exalt Jesus Christ. Whether I die or whether I live doesn’t matter. All I want to do is exalt Jesus.
The reason that Paul was able to have such great joy in the midst of such an uncertain future is that he had an attitude that’s described in Philippians 1:21, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” In other words, Paul said, “There’s only one thing in life that really matters to me. I want to share Christ and his gospel, and as long as I can do that, I’m happy, whatever happens.”
So, how do we learn to be content no matter what our circumstances are? We do it by having our mind focused on one thing and one thing only — serving Jesus. And when you have a mind that’s focused on Christ, you begin to see things differently.
A Man by the name of Kenneth Dodge tells about an 8-year-old boy named Frank. Frank had a date with his father to go fishing one Saturday. They were going to fish the whole day. On Friday night he had everything laid out. He was ready to go.
But on Saturday morning he awoke to discover that it was raining cats and dogs, and they couldn’t go fishing. So 8-year-old Frank grumbled and griped and complained all morning long. He kicked the furniture, the dog, the cat. Nothing was right. “Why does it have to rain today?” His father tried to explain to him that the farmers needed the rain. But that didn’t satisfy Frank. “Why does it have to rain today?” he said.
About noon, the clouds broke and the sun came out. His dad said, “Well, we can’t go fishing all day, but at least we can fish this afternoon. Let’s go.” So they jumped into the truck, went to the lake and fished all afternoon, and caught more fish than they had ever caught before. The baskets were full, and they had the time of their lives.
They came home, and mom cooked some of the fish for supper. As they were sitting down to eat, Frank’s dad looked at him and asked, “Would you ask the blessing?” Eight-year-old Frank prayed this prayer: “God, if I sounded a little grumpy earlier today, it was because I couldn’t see far enough ahead.”
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? We’re so caught up in the difficult circumstances we’re going through right now, and the difficult people we’re dealing with right now, and all the things that surround us, that we just can’t see far enough ahead. But when we take time to look, we’ll begin to focus more and more on the positive, because in Christ we have a wonderful future.
I can assure you that our circumstances are not the things that will make us joyful. They can make us happy for a while as long as circumstances are good, but they’re not going to always be good. And if we’re waiting for things to get just right so that we can be happy, then we’ll never experience joy. But when Christ becomes our central focus — our very reason for existence — then and only then can we begin to understand the meaning of true joy.
I think ones of the reasons that there is so much unhappiness in our world today is because our society is consumed with ourselves. What’s best for me? What will make me happy? What can I get out of it? It’s the ME culture.
May each of us strive to say with Paul, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” And we can give thanks for what the angel of the Lord said some 2000 years ago, “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people” (Luke 2:10).
Brethren, Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice! (Philippians 4:4)