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Sunday, 11 December 2011

Be Joyful Always

From St Paul's instructions to the Thessalonians, which formed part of our first reading:
“Be joyful always;
pray continually;
give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.”

“Be joyful always;
pray continually;
give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Hmmm. It rather jumped out and hit me in the face when I was reading the passages set for this Sunday, and I can't help but wonder what on earth St Paul was talking about. How on earth are we supposed to be joyful always? Does he mean we always have to be happy, and it's wrong if we are miserable? Surely not! How can we pray continually? We do have lives, after all – we need to concentrate on other things like cooking the dinner or the work we're being paid to do! And how about giving thanks in all circumstances? Even in the middle of a disaster?

The Bible tells us, over and over again, that we should rejoice and be glad – I believe there are over 800 verses telling us to. So it must be something we are meant to do. But how?

We aren't always happy and rejoicing – and indeed, it would be quite wrong if we were. If someone is hurting very badly, it doesn't help to go and be happy all over them! There are times when we are all very unhappy – personal tragedies, dreadful things that happen to loved ones, national tragedies.... how can we “be joyful always” when people have lost their homes in a hurricane or an earthquake?

Indeed, in the letter to the Romans St Paul tells us to “Weep with those who weep” as well as “Rejoice with those who rejoice”. And even our dear Lord wept when he arrived at Bethany and found his friend Lazarus dead and buried.

So it's obviously not wrong to be unhappy, to be sad. And yet we are told to be joyful.

Well, for one thing, St Paul also reminds us, in the letter to the Galatians, that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. And this means that it isn't something we have to find within ourselves. It is something that grows within us as we go on with God and as we allow God the Holy Spirit to fill us more and more. Joy grows, just as love, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness and self-control do. We become more and more the people we were created to be, more and more the people God knows we can be.

That doesn't mean we'll never be unhappy, far from it. But we know, as St Paul also tells us, that God works all things together for good for those that love him. Even the bad things, even the dreadful things that break God's heart even more than they break ours. Even those.

We may be unhappy, we may be grieving, we may be depressed. But we can still be joyful, we can still rejoice, because God is still God, and God still loves us. Okay, sometimes it doesn't feel like that, but that's only what it feels like, not what has really happened. God will never abandon us, God will always love us. God will weep with us when we weep. And underneath there always is that joy, the joy of our salvation.

Okay, maybe that is understandable. We can be joyful always if joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. But what about praying continually? We have lives, don't we? We have to do such basic things as eating and sleeping and going to the loo, never mind earning our living. How can we pray continually?

I suppose it depends on what prayer is. If it's all about a conversation with God, or even worse, a monologue from us telling God about our world and our lives, then it probably isn't possible.

But what if, what if it were more about an attitude of mind? A way of living where we are continually conscious of God's presence with us, of God's love for us? There is a plaque some people like to have in their homes that says “Christ is the head of this house; the unseen guest at every table, the silent listener to every conversation.” That can sound as though he's some kind of creepy stalker, but it's also a reality, if you are God's person. And one can practice being aware of this, of God's constant presence with us.

It does take practice, of course; you can't just go from only thinking of God when you're in Church on Sunday or when you're praying or reading your Bible at home, and forgetting about Him when you're watching East Enders or getting the supper. Some people find it helpful to build reminders into their lives, so that every time they put the kettle on, say, or get up from their chair, or whatever, they remember to – I was going to say grin at God, but you know what I mean. After all, you can be sitting very happily in the same room as someone else, both of you utterly absorbed in whatever it is you're doing – even, it has to be said, watching different television programmes over the Internet – but you're still aware that the other person is there. I think it must be a bit like that with God. You can be getting on with your life but aware, in the background, that God is there with you. I wonder if it's that that St Paul meant by “Pray continually.” I think it must be something like.

By the way, don't think I'm some sort of super-spiritual genius – I can't do this, a lot of the time. Sometimes I can, but more often than not it doesn't happen!
I'd like to be able to – but then again, like all of us, there are times when I'd really rather forget.....

And, you know, I bet that, like the underlying joy that the Holy Spirit gives, being able to be aware of God's presence, so that you can take up and put down conversations with Him, must also be a gift of the Holy Spirit.

So, be joyful always, pray continually, and the third one was “Give thanks in all circumstances.”

Give thanks in all circumstances.

Now, I know there are some writers who have interpreted this to mean that we have to give thanks for everything. I don't see how we can do that – I mean, we know that God's heart breaks when a child is killed on the roads, or when an earthquake devastates a country. How are we supposed to give thanks for things that make God Himself weep?

I don't think it means that. I think it's more about having a thankful heart. About acknowledging God's good gifts to us. About – okay, if you like, about counting our blessings. We can't, and I don't think we should, thank God for the dreadful things – but we can be aware that God is there, in the midst of the dreadful things, and we can certainly thank him for that. We can be aware that in all things God does work for good for those who love him.
“Be joyful always;
pray continually;
give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.”

“For this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” That's important, too. I don't think we can just do all this in a vacuum. It is because God wants this for us, it is His best for us.

Yes, it will take some work on our part – we know that God the Holy Spirit will most certainly do his part by enabling us to develop a sense of joy in Christ that can and will be there even through the most heartbreaking of outward circumstance, but of course we have to do our part by allowing Him to, by practising, with His help, being aware of his presence at all times and developing, again with His help, a thankful heart that sees and acknowledges what God is doing in our world. And no, it won't be easy, and no, we can't do it by ourselves but only with Christ's help.

We are in the season called Advent, and Christmas is rapidly approaching. We've already started singing carols – King's Acre's carol service is this afternoon, if you fancy coming along – four o'clock, I think. And over the Christmas season, we will be singing words like, “Yet what I can, I give him, give my heart” and “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today!” The thing is, do we really mean it? Are we just singing lyrics we've known for years and never really taken much notice of? Even the ghastly “Away in a Manger” – “No crying he makes?” I don't think so! Not if he was a real baby, not a wax doll! Anyway, sorry, even when we sing “Away in a Manger” we are asking God to “fit us for heaven, to live with thee there!”

And that's what it's all about, isn't it? St Paul's instructions are things we simply can't do on our own, no matter how hard we try. But if we do ask God to help us fulfil them, if we do learn to “Be joyful always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances”, then when we do get to heaven, we'll fit right in! Amen.