Pastor Asafa Rajaofera


4 mins
December 14, 2021

Today we lit the candle representing Joy. Isaiah wrote "Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel." 

Note that not all the psalms in the Bible are located in the Book of Psalms. And not all the good news in the Bible is located in the New Testament. Today’s “psalm” is a song of good news located in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah wrote this Psalm to the Israelites in exile in Babylon. For most of the exiles, the fire of faith had gone completely cold. The prophet’s task was to preach a word so clear so that faith could be reborn in the hearts of a people whose faith had died. To preach a word that could raise the dead. To create this faith, Isaiah uses the psalms. He calls the faith-empty exiles to praise God. Amid exile, with all its physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma, the prophet invited the exiles to sing the familiar songs that celebrate Israel’s repeated experiences of God’s deliverance. 

As we prepare ourselves for the coming of the King, we too are invited to sing of the coming of the Immanuel, of joy to the world, of the baby tucked away in the manger, of shepherds keeping watch by night, and angels from the realms of glory. In the singing, we come to believe what the songs say. In singing, our faith is rekindled. In retelling the old, old stories, our trust is renewed, our faith is strengthened. 

Paul writes in Philippians, chapter 4, " Rejoice in the Lord always again I say rejoice." We might think how can we possibly rejoice and have joy with everything that is going on in our world, in our lives. We can't really ignore the anger and hurt and pain that wraps our nation. Where was God? Where is God? There are no easy answers to this question, but I do believe that God walks with those who grieve and will walk with us as we seek answers to these difficult questions as well as solutions to the problems that afflict our lives and the lives of those in our communities. 

In the midst of all that, we hear Paul’s command: “Rejoice in the Lord – Always!  Again, I say rejoice” This command may sound flippant and unrealistic at a moment like this, but if not now, when?   

 Maybe the reason why we struggle with this command is that it sounds like Bobby McFerrin singing: “Don’t Worry, Be happy.”  That sounds too much like living with your head in the clouds and seems to ignore the enormity of the problems that press in on us, whether it’s a fiscal cliff or struggles with illness, injury, or the loss of a job.  When we read a passage like this, we want to ask – How do you find joy amid all of life’s concerns? 

When Paul wrote this letter, this command, he was in jail and yet he had the joy of the Lord. Not happiness. Happiness comes from outward circumstances. But joy comes from that deep well inside of you. Joy that only God can give despite what's going on around you or happening to you. Though Paul was in jail, nothing can steal away the joy he had inside because of the joy of knowing Jesus, the faith he had in Jesus. How do you find joy in the midst of all of life’s concerns? Perhaps we can find the answer in the message of Advent. This message is one of anticipation and expectation. Advent points us toward the coming reign of God. Although, it’s difficult to find joy when we get stuck living in the past or when present realities weigh us down, Advent challenges us to lift up our eyes and behold the work of God in our midst.

But, according to Paul, not only should we rejoice in the Lord, but we’re supposed to let go of our worries and our anxiety. Now, if you’re like me, anxiety is part of life.  We all worry about things – big and small. When we live this way, however, it’s difficult to find joy in life. But Paul offers us a way forward.  He says: instead of worrying pray.  Bring your requests to God with thanksgiving. Yes, lay your burdens down before the Lord, and come find your rest in Jesus.  

St. Augustine put it well – “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”  Augustine, like Paul, knew that freedom from worry and anxiety requires us to lay down our heavy burdens and take on the yoke of Christ, which Jesus says is easy and light.  It’s this yoke that binds us together with God (Mt. 11:28-30), and as we’re yoked together in Christ, we discover the value of community. Too often anxiety and fear take hold when we think we’re alone, but when we’re in community we find strength to move forward in life.

 Paul’s words seem to echo those of the prophet Zephaniah. This prophet, about whom we know little, speaks to people living in exile. They’ve suffered greatly living in a foreign land, knowing that their Temple had been destroyed. It seemed as if they’d lost everything. Hope had long since disappeared, and yet just when everything seemed hopeless, the prophet offers this word: 

 “Rejoice, Daughter Zion!  Shout Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart Daughter Zion.  The Lord has removed your judgment; he has turned away your enemy.  The Lord, the King of Israel, is in your midst; you will no longer fear evil” (Zephaniah 3:14-15).    

Advent calls out to us, inviting us to rejoice because Emmanuel, God with us, is near at hand.  We have hope, we have joy because God is in our midst. 

Paul’s words might seem naive, but he knew what it was like to suffer.  After all, he wrote these words from a jail cell, and he wrote to a community in conflict.  They were anxious about their own future, but Paul directs them to God, telling them that their hope lay in their relationship with God. 

If they could take hold of this joy that is found through prayer, then they could live together with gentleness.  Or as Martin Luther put it: they should be “lenient” with each other. When we live with fear and anxiety, we find it difficult to be gentle. Anxiety and stress cause us to become cranky with each other and then we snap at each other.  That’s what was happening in Philippi, but Paul knew a better way, and he offers us that same better way.      

 Pray, Paul says, and lay your burdens down before the Lord, so that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This peace isn’t the kind of peace that the world gives us.  It’s not an absence of conflict or problems.  It’s a sense of calmness in the midst of the storm.

Yes, the future may be uncertain. The conversations we need to have as a congregation, as a community, as a nation, and even as a world might be difficult. Indeed, they may even seem frightening. We can go forward into the future, by taking hold of this promise, that God will bring peace to our hearts and minds, and with this peace comes joy – always and forever.  

This article was orginally reported by
Pastor Asafa Rajaofera

Rev. Asafa Rajaofero was born in Madagascar and serves as pastor of the United Church of Christ parishes in Greenwood and Owen, Wisconsin.