Scripture: Philippians 4:4-7
From October 22nd until now if you ended up on the Hallmark channel then there was most likely a Christmas movie on. Christmas movies has kind of become “their thing” after all and they have really invested into them. This year alone, the Hallmark channel is premiering 41 new Christmas movies, which is intentionally one more than the 40 new Christmas movies they premiered last year. Here’s the thing though: It does not matter if you are watching Christmas in my Heart, Gingerbread miracle, or a Royal Queens Christmas. You are kind of watching the same movie. A man and woman meet under awkward circumstances, stumble slowly toward romance, somehow a complication interferes or tries to tug one of the characters away, before they kiss under the glow of a thousand Christmas lights to live happily ever after.
Formulaic plots, over the top dialogue, and sappy happy endings are the hallmark of Hallmark movies. Despite being so predictable they are also wildly popular. In 2019 NBCnews ran an article where they interviewed a behavioral scientists. In the interview Pamela Rutledge from Fielding Graduate University pointed out that our brains like seeing familiar tropes play out on the screen. We naturally recognize and enjoy falling into patterns, so when we see the formulaic plot we jump to the happy ending in our minds and then we enjoy watching that happy ending play out in front of us the way we predicted it would. So Hallmark movies make people feel happy because they know it will have happy ending from the first moment the busy career woman returns home to her family’s Christmas tree farm in Connecticut.
The question this raises for me is why are these type of movies popular as Christmas movies? I looked it up, Hallmark actually makes sappy over the top movies year round. Yet it is the Christmas ones that more people watch than any others. I suppose the answer is somewhat obvious. These Christmas movies are shortcuts for our brains to get a little happy feeling, and people need that feeling more this time of year than any other. In part due to the physical darkness that is prevalent with short days and long nights and in part due to the fact that it is easier to feel the loss of loved ones during a time of the year with such a large emphasis on family, it is easier to feel a little blue this time of the year. For some people formulaic, sappy, Christmas movies meet a real emotional need and help them feel a little happiness when it’s otherwise hard to do so.
Hallmark movies can bring good feelings when someone is not feeling that great, and that makes me think of this morning’s scripture. Its directive is very clear: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, rejoice!” What about when we do not feel like rejoicing? How do we rejoice always when it feel hard to do so? As we reflect on this morning’s scripture I think we can find just like Hallmark movies can give a shot of Christmas cheer when someone needs it, this scripture points how we can rejoice in the Lord no matter what.
This morning’s scripture from Philippians was written to encourage the church in Philippi. Paul’s missionary journey to found this church was an eventful one. It was in Philippi where Paul made the wrong people mad by casting out a spirit that he and Silas were arrested, flogged, and thrown in prison before God sent an earthquake to release them. Paul had some trouble in Philippi and in Philippians 1:29-30 Paul states he is aware that the church is experiencing similar troubles. The Christians of Philippi are experiencing social pressure and possibly even persecution, and so this morning’s scripture was written to encourage them to find reasons to rejoice in the midst of the trouble they were going through.
That is the context of this morning’s scripture. Just like we might find it hard to rejoice at times, the scripture was written to believers who also may have struggled to find reasons to rejoice. Despite all that they are going through, Paul gives one reason why the Philippians should still be able to rejoice and that is because “The Lord is near.” Today, that is still a valid reason to rejoice, which is precisely why this passage from Philippians is this morning’s scripture. In Advent we are reminded of our reasons for joy. This morning we have already heard the reason for great joy from the prophet Isaiah and we have lit a candle to symbolize our reason for joy. Advent is a season where we prepare to celebrate the first coming of Christ, anticipate the second, and rejoice that the Lord is near. Through this is a reason for great joy, it is a reason to rejoice, that doesn’t mean we always feel like it does it? We can cognitively know and acknowledge something while still not feeing it in our hearts.
To better live into this morning’s scripture there are a couple of hurdles we need to get over. The first hurdles is I am not sure we always think about rejoicing in the right ways. Rejoice is a verb that means the act of expressing joy. The issue is that we can treat joy like a synonym for happiness. When we consider the idea of joy biblically, it is much more than that. Happiness is fleeting, it is highly impacted by our momentary experiences. Joy though is deeper rooted. Joy is not necessarily blown away by a wind of ill fortune. The bible mentions joy quite a bit. It is listed as a fruit of the Spirit and the bible often mentions joy as a response to what God has done. I think we get a good encapsulation of a biblical idea of joy from a peculiar phrase. In the whole of scripture there is the phrase “your joy will be complete” that shows up twice. The first is in Deuteronomy and talks about how God will provide for and bless the harvest of the Israelites so that their joy is complete. The second is in John during the last supper, and Jesus tells his disciples their prayers in Jesus name will be answered so that their joy is complete. Joy is possible because the Lord provides, the Lord cares, and the Lord is near. Joy is a satisfaction, a centering peace, and a sense of completeness that comes from relying and trusting in God. This means we can feel sad, we can tired, we can feel a little blue and still be able to express our joy that God’s goodness and love is never failing. The fact that we can do that when we are not at our best is what makes joy, joy in the first place.
So the opposite of joy is not sadness, if anything the opposite of joy is despair. Which makes the second part of this morning’s scripture so important. Paul wrote “do not be anxious about anything.” Perhaps nothing can diminish our joy like anxiety, because anxious fears of what could happen quickly push out reasons for our joy to be complete based on what IS happening. Of course it is one thing to say “don’t be anxious”, it is another thing to actually not be anxious. Paul though continues on in this morning’s scripture, “Do not be anxious about anything but in every situation by prayer and petition present your requests to God. “ Going to God in prayer is a way to release our anxiety, it is a way to focus on that which brings ultimate joy. We often see this idea of going to prayer when our hearts our troubled simplified into the phrase “let go, and let God.”
If I am being really honest the idea of “letting go, and letting God” is something I have struggled with. On my harder days, I still struggle with it. I absolutely believe in the power of prayer, I absolutely believe that God hears our prayers, and that God is active in the world today. However, I can have a hard time letting go of the things that worry me and make me anxious. I can too easily let my anxious thoughts grow too large and push all of the reasons I have to rejoice to the side. At those times I am reminded of a story I read once years ago.
The story comes from author Mark Yaconelli in the book Contemplative Youth Ministry. In that book he wrote about a scene he observed once: Mark was out Christmas shopping trying to find the perfect gift for his wife. After a successful venture to the local mall, he sat down in the food court and noticed the hustle and bustle all around him. In the midst of this crowd one group of people stood out. Ten adults with developmental disabilities were being accompanied by two assistants with sweatshirts that read “Redwood Group Home.” The two assistants helped each person order from one of the many eateries in the food court. Except for one man with Down syndrome, he shrugged off every attempt at help. This man knew what he wanted. He got in line at McDonalds, produced a coupon made some motions, and successfully got his very own 32oz cup of coffee. He returned to his friends, his face beaming with pride at his accomplishment.
At this point Mark got up to check out one more store before leaving the mall. As Mark left the mall he found that it was pouring buckets outside. The people from the group home were taking sheltering under the eaves of the mall entrance blocking the way. One of the assistants had pulled up a 15 passenger van, and the other walked the folks with special needs from the eaves to the van. The man with the McDonalds coffee was sheltering his hard earned brew, when without any apparent direction he took off for the van. The rain was harder than he expected, and he froze unsure what to do. The assistant called him to keep coming to the van, while he looked back towards the safety of the overhang. In this motion he twisted his body and the jerk caused him to drop his cup of coffee. The coffee began to wash away creating a mudslide on the wet pavement. In shocked horror the man looked at his lost purchase and began to cry. Soon his body gave way and he collapsed to the ground sobbing. It was a pitiful sight to see this young man wailing mournfully, sitting in a growing pond of coffee, the rain soaking his clothes. Then one of the assistants left the van, sat down beside him, wrapped her arm around him, and put his head on her shoulder to cry. For several minutes she sat there just holding the young man while the rain poured down. Once he calmed down, she helped him up, took him to the front seat of the van helped him fasten his seatbelt and kissed him of the forehead before squeezing herself in the backseat.
The young woman could not fix the problem, she could not bring the coffee back. Instead she was present and she surrounded the young man with love until that became his focus. When I find myself in a place where I do not feel like rejoicing I am able to put myself in that story. My regrets, my guilt, my fear, or my anxiety are the spilled cup of coffee and I am the young man crying in the rain who cannot let go. God is the woman in the story, who is there in the rain and dirt with me, a calming comforting presence that I know will not let go and always be there for me. This morning’s scripture tells us to go to God in prayer, because as long as we need God will be there holding us through the tears until our focus is able to shift from that which troubles us to the love of God which surrounds us. Then my friends, we can rejoice in the Lord.
Sometimes people watch a Hallmark Christmas movie because it provides a little bit of reliable happiness. In the same way, prayer can reliably bring us back to our reason for great joy. So if you heave and burdened with a load of care, may you take it to the Lord in prayer. If you feel discouraged and anxious, may you take it to the Lord in prayer. If you are feeling a little blue this Christmas, then may you take it to the Lord in prayer. Doing so does not mean our troubles instantly go away, but it takes the focus of our minds and hearts and puts it back on the God who loves us, provides for us, and makes our joy complete. So may we rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again: rejoice!