Holding on to Joy
by Jack Wald | May 20th, 2018

Philippians 3:1-4a

As I was preparing this sermon I thought to myself, “I wonder if anyone has come up with a one word summary of each book of the Bible.” So I looked it up and, like every time I think I have an original thought or idea, I found several lists. An original idea or thought is hard to come by.

The lists have different words for the books of the Bible. Genesis could be promises or beginnings. Deuteronomy could be preparation or obedience. Isaiah could be glory or salvation. But all the lists use the same word for Philippians: joy.

In our text for this morning Paul writes:
Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord!

This is not an isolated use of the word joy or rejoice. In the 104 verses of Paul’s Philippians letter, joy or rejoice occur 13 times. That’s more than one out of every ten verses.

Paul began his letter writing (Philippians 1:4)
In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy

Paul rejoices that Christ is preached (Philippians 1:18)
But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,

In the midst of persecution Paul has joy. (Philippians 2:17)
But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.

And Paul encourages the church in Philippi to have joy in the midst of their persecution. (Philippians 2:18)
So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.

At the end of his letter Paul repeats his encouragement to be joy-filled. (Philippians 4:4)
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Joy is the defining quality of a life lived with Christ.

Jesus said (John 10:10b)
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

In the ESV that is translated, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” and in Eugene Peterson’s The Message he translates this as “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”

Life lived to the full, abundant life, better life than you have ever dreamed of – that is a description of a joy-filled life.

This is not a happy life. There is far too much injustice, suffering, and pain in the world to be happy all the time. Happy comes and happy goes with the circumstances of our lives. Joy is a far deeper state of being that allows us to be joy-filled even in the most desperate of circumstances.

Do you remember what Jesus was feeling as he approached his crucifixion? He went with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. (Mark 14:33–34)
He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

Luke 22:44 tells us:
And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

And yet we read in Hebrews 12:2
For the joy set before him, Jesus went to the cross.

When Paul and Silas first came to Philippi, they were severely flogged and put in prison. (Acts 16:25)
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.

Joy allowed Paul and Silas, despite the pain of having been severely flogged, despite sitting in chains in a prison cell, despite the uncertainty of what would happen next, to pray and sing hymns to God.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote in his letter, (James 1:2–3)
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,

Despite our best efforts to be optimistic and think positive thoughts, we live in a world of suffering. Suffering is not equally distributed across the world. There are some countries that experience more suffering than others. You might think that if you had more money, a better job, a car and a house – then you would be happy. But even in the wealthiest countries there is suffering.

Each year the United Nations ranks the countries of the world in a report called the Human Development Index. The rankings take into consideration life expectancy, education, and income per capita of the people in that country. The top ten countries in the latest list are: Australia, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Singapore, Netherlands, Ireland, Iceland, and Canada and the US are tied for tenth place.

Where do these countries rank on a list of suicides per capita? Does the wealth of these countries translate into happiness?

Out of 183 countries, ranked from highest suicide rate to lowest, the US ranks 48, Iceland 65, Ireland 75, Switzerland 82, Australia 87, Canada 87, Netherlands 98, Norway 102, Germany 105, Denmark 105, Singapore 112. None of the top ten countries in the Human Development Index have low rates of suicide.

The six countries with the lowest suicide rates are concentrated in one part of the world. Any guesses? Bahamas, Brunei, Jamaica, Grenada, Barbados, and Antigua and Barbuda. People living in the Carribean appear to be happy people. (And with all those beautiful beaches, why not?)

My point is that suffering is experienced by everyone in the world, even the more developed, wealthier nations. And joy is not confined to the people of one country or another. Joy does not come from having a higher standard of living. Joy does not come from having more education. Joy does not come from living a longer life.

The angels announced in Bethlehem that the birth of Jesus is good news of great joy to all in the world. The joy the gospel brings endures through the good and the bad, in celebrations and funerals, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in poverty.

Joy is precious and needs to be protected and encouraged. Paul writes:
Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.

Paul did not get tired of talking about joy. He mentions joy or rejoice 42 times in his letters. Why did Paul talk so much about joy? He wrote that “it is a safeguard for you.” Joy keeps us safe. Joy guards us. But what does joy keep us safe from? From what does joy guard us?

Paul continues in verse 2.
Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh.

This is not an abrupt shift in what Paul writes. This is not an unconnected interruption in the letter he is writing to the church in Philippi. “Those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh” attack the joy Paul encourages us to have. Who is Paul referring to?

For ten years Paul has been doing battle with the Judaizers. The Judaizers were Jewish followers of Jesus who attempted to impose Jewish customs and practices, primarily, the 613 laws taken from the Law of Moses, on Gentile followers of Jesus. The issue that concerned Paul is not simply whether or not a person follows the Jewish way of life, but whether that person thinks that observance of the law leads to salvation.

In our modern world the most prominent Christian denomination that makes observance of the Law of Moses a central part of their practice is Seventh-Day Adventists with their emphasis on Sabbath regulations and dietary restrictions.

What does observance of the Law of Moses look like? Jews identify 613 laws in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Each of these laws had subsets so there were actually thousands of laws to be obeyed.

For example, the law not to work on the Sabbath has a subset that you should not start a fire on the Sabbath because that is considered work. Modern orthodox Jews interpret this to say you cannot turn a light on or off on the Sabbath. If you open the door of the refrigerator and the light in the refrigerator comes on, you have violated the command not to do work on the Sabbath. So, before the Sabbath begins, the lightbulb in the refrigerator is unscrewed so it will not come on when the door is opened.

It was not permitted to walk more than 2,000 cubits on the Sabbath, about half a mile or a kilometer, unless you went from house to house and then that distance could be extended. In Rabat you could walk across the city by stopping in the cafes along the way.

The most conservative of Jews prohibit dragging a chair across the floor on the Sabbath because it might form a rut, which would be digging. Certain Jews have ruled that on the Sabbath a radish may be dipped into salt – but not left there too long, because this would begin the pickling and preserving process – which is work. Orthodox Jews will not carry a handkerchief or eyeglasses on the Sabbath, nor wear anything that might need to be taken off later in the day, and have to be carried home from the synagogue. If the weather gets warm, for example, it is forbidden to remove one’s jacket to be more comfortable. Some sects forbid taking out or putting in of false teeth on the Sabbath.

These laws covered every area of life and consumed the behavior of the Pharisees from the time they woke in the morning until the time they went to bed at night.

Why was Paul so strongly opposed to the Judaizers who wanted the Gentile followers of Jesus to obey the Law of Moses?

Paul knew what he was writing about. He had been a Pharisee, and not a casual Pharisee. He was a zealous Pharisee who had excelled in his knowledge of the law. Paul had lived a life of devoted observance of the Law of Moses.

When Paul met the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, his life turned upside down. He had been zealous for the Law and now he became zealous for Jesus and his call to bring the good news of Jesus to the Gentile world. He had been zealous for the Law and now he wanted nothing more than the heart of Jesus for the world.

In his earthly ministry, Jesus continually confronted the Pharisees about their rigid observance of the Law of Moses. It was because Jesus openly challenged their observance of the Law of Moses that they tried to find a way to kill him.

Matthew 23:25–33
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?

These are not gentle words. These are strong words attacking the Pharisees’ rigid observance of the Law of Moses.

Paul’s feelings about the Judaizers who tried to make Gentile followers of Jesus obey the Law of Moses were similarly strong.

Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh.

Dogs, in the ancient Mediterranean world were the lowest of animals. They were scavengers detested by Greco-Roman society. They were considered unclean by Jews who sometimes used the word “dog” to refer to Gentiles. Paul reversed the epithet: by trying to make Gentiles clean through circumcision, the Judaizers are unclean dogs.

Paul calls the Judaizers dogs, evildoers, and because of their insistence on circumcision, he calls them mutilators of the flesh. In his Galatians letter he writes (Galatians 5:12)
As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

Why did Jesus and Paul feel so strongly about this?

It takes a lot of energy and attention to follow so many laws and this gets at the central criticism of Jesus and of Paul. These laws did not help people draw closer to God, they were a heavy, cumbersome load inflicted on the people of Israel that took their attention away from God and put it on external behavior. They spent so much time focusing on observing the law that they neglected the heart. They focused on outward obedience to the neglect of the inner work of the heart.

It is the neglected heart that upset Jesus. What good does it do to project a good image to the world when there is sewage in the heart?

When the heart is neglected, wickedness arises and this is what Jesus saw in the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The Pharisees were like someone who puts a band aid on a little cut on their finger while ignoring the open wound in their stomach.

The problem with us is not our behavior, it is our heart. In Proverbs 4:23 we read:
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.

People in the world do not need a change of behavior, they need a change of heart. When the heart changes, behavior follows.

When you read Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, the teaching is so radical it seems impossible to obey. And when we read the Sermon on the Mount and treat it as a set of behaviors we need to put into our lives, it is impossible to obey. The only way the Sermon on the Mount makes any sense is if we see it as a teaching of Jesus that has to come from the heart. The Sermon on the Mount cries out for us to have a change of heart.

The Sermon on the Mount tells us: It has been said, do not murder; I tell you do not be angry. It has been said, do not commit adultery; I tell you do not lust. Do not judge, examine your own sin. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemy. Jesus looked past the behaviors to the heart from which behaviors come.

An outward focus on behavior is dangerous because it neglects the heart from which good and evil come.

This is the difference between religion and relationship. I went to Sunday School as a child. I was an altar boy in the Lutheran Church and then, when we moved to another state, I was a Junior Deacon in the Presbyterian Church. I learned about Jesus in Sunday School. I had to memorize the Ten Commandments. I had to know about the Bible. I did this for the first seventeen years of my life and then when I headed to university, I discarded it. I had no interest in the religion of Christianity.

But then, in my second year of university, I met people who talked to me about having a relationship with Jesus. And I discovered, over time, that God existed. I knew God was watching me. And then, over more time, I came to the point of submission and dedicated myself to Jesus. I began the process of making Jesus my Lord as well as my Savior.

The relationship we have with Jesus is precious and must be protected. The problem is that we inevitably drift to rules and behaviors. We drift out of relationship into religion.

When our faith loses touch with our heart experience with Jesus, when we settle into routines, we drift. Religious experience becomes institutionalized and that leads to a rule-driven, empty church experience.

A man works at a factory. He gets his paycheck on Fridays, heads to the bar, and spends his paycheck with his friends. He picks up women at the bar. He gambles at the bar. He comes home without money needed to feed his wife and kids. His wife is angry with him. He beats her. He beats the kids.

And then a miracle happens. He becomes a follower of Jesus. He no longer goes to the bar on Friday after work. He no longer has affairs with other women. He no longer gambles. He brings home his paycheck. The family has more money. Their lives improve. He becomes a better worker. He is promoted at work and earns more money. Life gets better and better. He goes to church. He reads his Bible and prays in the morning. He gives a tithe of the money he earns to the church.

So what does he tell his children? He tells them that to be a good Christian – don’t drink, don’t gamble, don’t have affairs. He tells them that to be a good Christian – read your Bible, pray, go to church, give a tithe of what you earn to the church.

His children grow up, impressed by the dramatic change in their father. They are good church goers. They don’t drink, gamble, or have affairs. They read the Bible and pray.

But then they have children and those children ask questions: Why not drink? Why not gamble? Why not have sexual relationships outside of marriage? Why read the Bible and pray?

What made their grandfather change was that he met Jesus. He had an experience of the love of Jesus that made him a follower of Jesus. His behaviors came out of his relationship with Jesus. But his children did not have that experience and his grandchildren did not have that experience and so they found themselves following a religion that had no foundation in their lives.

As I discarded the church when I went to university, so did this man’s grandchildren discard the church.

Have you ever met someone who is a devoted member of a church, but whose life seems empty of joy? They know the Bible. They read the Bible every day. They have memorized lots and lots of scripture verses. They can explain the doctrines of the church. They give 10% of their income to the church. They serve on committees of the church. But they are rigid in their following of a list of rules and regulations they think are required. At one time they had an experience with Jesus but that experience has devolved over the years into a lifeless following of rules and regulations.

It is much easier to follow a set of rules than it is to keep a heart that is open to God. The heart is much more difficult to control.

Paul tells us that joy is a safeguard against this pull of our human nature to reduce our religious life to a following of rules and regulations. That is why it is important to take time to sit and be with Jesus, to read the Bible, to pray, to reflect, to listen to thoughts that come as you reflect.

Some years ago I was invited to a Christmas dinner at the home of a foreign woman married to a Moroccan. There were other people from the church invited as well. Toward the end of the meal our host, who had been drinking too much wine, asked, “Why is it you Christians don’t respect Mohammed?” One of the women from the church, who had also been drinking too much wine, proceeded to say some unkind things about Mohammed.

The next day I called this man up and told him he had asked a good question and that he deserved a better answer than he had received the previous night. So we met together at a café.

I told him that from the beginning of time mankind has understood there is a divine being and that we are separated from that divine being. And so, through the ages, men and women have tried to bridge that distance. Sacrifices of grain and animals and even humans were made to try to appease the god they knew was there.

Some of these attempts became formalized into world religions. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians all recognize that we are distanced from God, however God is defined. Hindus and Buddhists want to become part of the consciousness of God. Muslims, Jews and Christians want to be in heaven with God. (Actually, for Muslims, Allah will still be distant from Muslims in paradise, but there is still a desire to live in the paradise created by Allah.)

All world religions want in some way to have intimacy with God and religions have been developed that help us to work our way to this intimacy. Follow the Eightfold Path of Buddhism and you can hope, eventually, to escape the cycle of reincarnation and become part of the consciousness of god. Generate more good karma than bad and be reincarnated in a higher life form and eventually become a Brahmin and then, Hinduism says, you might be able to become one with god. Islam has its Five Pillars and by obeying these pillars, there is a hope that a good dossier can be presented to Allah at the end of your life and you will be taken into paradise.

In Judaism there is the Law given to Moses by God. The Law is perfect and perfect obedience to the Law leads us to God. The problem in Judaism is not the Law. The problem is with us because we are unable to obey the Law in its perfection.

In each of these religious systems there is something we must do to reach to God. Each of these religious systems requires that we expend effort to reach God and unfortunately, that effort will always fail. If the task is to swim from Morocco to the US, some will drown in the first hundred meters. The best swimmers may make it to 50 kilometers but there are 7,854 kilometers of ocean between Morocco and the US. It is impossible for someone to swim from Morocco to the US. And, it is impossible for any of us to be good enough to earn the right to come into the presence of God.

And then, because we are loved by God and because God created us to be in an intimate relationship with himself, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. God became human. Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph. Jesus lived in Palestine. For three years he taught, healed the sick, fed the hungry, delivered the oppressed.

Although he did not sin, he went to the cross and paid the price of death for the sin of each of us. He died so our sins could be forgiven. His perfect righteousness is a gift he gives to those who follow him. And then he rose from the dead to give us hope that when we die, we too will rise to new life with Jesus.

God did for us what we could never do for ourselves. We do not deserve it. We did not earn it. It is a free gift. We can never repay God for this gift. We can only be grateful followers.

God gave us these two precious gifts and the consequence is that we have been set free from the tyranny of the law. We live with confidence that we will die and pass on into our eternal home with Jesus. We are confident, not because we have worked so hard, not because we have done so many good things, not because we have a wonderful dossier – we are confident because we know we are loved by our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, and he has prepared a place for us.

I told the man I was with, this is why we have a problem with Mohammed. He held in his hands these precious gifts from God – the birth of Jesus and his death on the cross – and threw them away. He discarded these precious gifts and returned his followers to the tyranny of the law. Once again, people have to work as hard as they can and try to be good enough to get to heaven.

This is the problem with world religions and this is the problem with Christianity that has become institutionalized. The free gift of salvation Jesus offers us, the abundant life Jesus gives us, the joy-filled life Jesus calls us to live loses its vitality. It becomes an empty shell.

Christian faith is a matter of the heart and joy comes from a heart that is being loved and renewed by Jesus. The treasures we hold in our hands, the gifts God has given us: Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, came into our world to rescue us – and Jesus, the Suffering Servant who for the joy set before him, went to the cross to die so we could live – these two treasures need to be lifted up, honored, protected. And the way we do that is to guard our heart relationship with Jesus and resist our human nature that drifts to rules and regulations.

Next week we will move to the following verses in Paul’s Philippians letter where he talks about his credentials. If anyone had reason to boast about their achievements, Paul did. And yet Paul considered his achievements as counterproductive to his life with Jesus. The rise of Paul’s life as he grew to be a Pharisee under the tutelage of Gamaliel is contrasted with the descent of Jesus in the poem of chapter two where Jesus gave up his heavenly privileges to be born as a human.

We hold in our hands the precious gifts of God: the birth of Jesus and his death on the cross for us. These gifts are what allow us to have the experience of joy, even in the most difficult times of our lives. Next week I will talk more about how we can protect and preserve the joy that comes from these precious gifts.

May we all grow in our experience of the love of God that will allow us to face this week and every week left to us in this life, full of joy.