The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, 2017 – Exodus 32:1-12; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-12
Rejoice in the Lord always! And again I say, rejoice.
My aunt, this past August, died after about a year fighting cancer. Last fall, in the weeks and months after she was diagnosed, the family was grieving and, really, in shock. But my aunt, round about Christmas-time, told my mother this: “I keep having these moments of joy. I look back over my life, and I am overwhelmed with joy.”
How could this be? What was this joy, that grew in her as the cancer occluded her mind and her life?
It was not happiness, exactly. She was grieving too, for her husband, who is also ill, for her children who are still in their 30’s and 40’s, for her little grandchildren whose growing-up she will not see. But in all this, in the midst of the suffering and loss, it was joy that surprised her as she looked over her life, again and again.
What was this joy?
It was not, I think, the joy that I saw advertised in the library this week. “Design Your Life!” it trumpeted: “Five Steps to a Joy-Filled Life!” It was a how-to guide by a couple Stanford professors of engineering and design for making the career you want, the career—and so the life—of maximum satisfaction. Follow these steps and design your own joy. Joy as the by-product of a well-crafted career. Is this what joy is?
Paul does not think so.
Paul is writing to the Philippians from prison. As a life goal, prison is not high on anyone’s list—anymore than cancer. And Paul does not know whether he will get out alive. Paul was in prison more than once, and we are not sure from which prison he wrote this letter. But if he is in prison in Rome, he will not in fact survive. Sometime around 62-64 AD, according to ancient tradition, Paul was executed by beheading in Rome. Prison and death: this is where Paul’s “career” ends. Our Stanford authors would say there was a design flaw.
But Paul says, “Rejoice!” Paul, like my aunt, precisely facing death, is filled with joy.
Joy comes up again and again, in Paul’s letter. Perhaps it is why I find it so beautiful. Here he is in prison, far from the churches he loves, the churches whose faith and thriving are on his heart every day. Here he is in prison, where people are even now trying to stir up trouble for him. Here he is in shackles, his mission to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth shackled with him, limited now to his prison cell (though he does indeed preach the gospel in his prison cell!), and all he can say is “rejoice!”
At the end of the letter he says it: “For the rest, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord!” Brothers and sisters, my joy and crown.
In the middle of the letter he says it, “If I am to be poured out as a libation upon the sacrifice and offering of your faith, I rejoice!” You, too, rejoice with me!
In chapter one he says it. “So what if some seek to make trouble for me in my chains by preaching Christ? So what? Christ is proclaimed—and in this I rejoice.”
And at the letter’s beginning: “I give thanks to my God in every remembrance of you always, in my every prayer for you all, making my prayer with joy.”
Joy is Paul’s first word and his last, even in the face of prison and death.
There is no career, no well-planned life, that can give a joy like this. Death in the self-designed life can only be the end of joy. But Paul is not living the self-designed life. He has not “found” himself, or the right career, or his happy place.
Paul has found Christ. Paul has found Christ and him crucified, a cross and a new world. Christ has found him, has called him, has blasted him out of his own well-planned life—his successful former life as a serious and gifted and reputable Pharisee, circumcised on the eighth day, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church—Christ has blasted him out of his own well-designed life into the apokalupsis, into Christ. I had the well-designed life, Paul says to the Philippians. I was a success.
But then Christ. But then Christ. Christ stepped into “my” life and called me to him. Christ, standing before Paul in Paul’s successful life, Christ crowned with thorns.
There is a deeper joy.
There is a cross that rises over all our best efforts, over all the strivings of this earth. There is a peace that is true.
Joy is so elusive when we seek it for ourselves, when we seek it in ourselves, when it is something we try to make by our own efforts. It doesn’t last; it doesn’t satisfy. So we buy another car, or a bigger TV; we get a better job, a bigger job. Joy as product, something that we should grasp. This joy does not last. What good is your newest mobile device, when you are dying? This joy does not last. And that is because this is not what joy is.
Rejoice in the Lord! Paul says. Joy is found not in ourselves but in Christ. Joy is found in the one who did not seek anything for himself, who gave it all up, even unto death, death on a cross.
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.
Why? He did it for us. Because we are lost. Because in the midst of our well-designed lives we have missed the one thing that is real. We have thought that we are it, that this is it, our work, our things, our fun, our success. We have said in our hearts, “There is no God.” We are too busy for God anyway. When would we have time to pray?
The kingdom of heaven is like a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He sent his servants to call those who were invited to the banquet. And they did not want to come…One went off to work in his field and one had to go in to the office.
God calls us to a feast! Here at this table, here in the hands of the Christ who held out his hands to us. God is calling us to a feast. And we do not want to come. We’d rather make our own gods, dance around a golden calf.
Why does Christ suffer the loss of all things? Because we are lost. He gives up all things for us. When we are lost, far from the one thing that is real, far from the joy that is true; when we turned away from God to make our own gods, design our own joy, he did not turn away from us but lowered himself, but came to us, and walked with us right here where we are, dancing around the golden calf, blind to the beauty of God. God came to us when we would not come to him, in the man Jesus Christ. In Christ he held out his hands to us, he suffered our turning away, he lifted us up to God again, lifted us on his own shoulders, even on the cross.
For to me to live is Christ, Paul says. Because Christ has lived for me. Because Christ has walked with me when I was lost, when I was dancing in the strivings of my own heart after a joy I never could grasp. Christ has walked with me when I would not walk with him. He has not left us there alone, by ourselves in our well-designed lives that never quite satisfy, but has come to us and found us and lifted us up again on his own back to God.
It is love that Paul found in Christ. Love for us even when we do not love him; love that never fails.
It is so concrete, this love of God, known in the nail-marks in his hands. Come back to me, God says in Christ Jesus, with all your heart, for you are my beloved. I know you are lost. And I will give up all things for you. I will turn your sorrow into dancing, your weeping into songs of joy. Even at the grave I will make my song. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. I will make even death, your death, now the place of my love.
Perhaps this is why my aunt knew joy in her dying. Because Jesus was there with her, every step of the way; because in her dying as in her living, she found his face.
It is love Paul has found in the hands of the Christ, and it is love he sings. With his life he sings it. His life a song of Christ, and his dying now the place where Christ’s love is known. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Down through the years Paul’s letter sings, his heart poured out, his life poured out, a love-song to his Lord. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say rejoice.