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Fourth Sunday of Advent

Christian Joy and Moderation

 

Text: “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men.” (Philippians 4:4).

Paul is sitting in a Roman prison with almost certain death awaiting him. His imprisonment was more like ‘house arrest’ as he was allowed visitors and Peter was but one who would visit him on occasion. The Philippians on the other hand were adopting the Christian way in great numbers and dark days, dangers and persecutions inevitably lay ahead for them. Christianity was not, at this point in time, legal and the pagan Roman rulers looked upon this movement with great suspicion.

In the face of this clear and present danger Paul says to the Philippians ‘I know what I am saying. I’ve thought of everything that can possibly happen. And I still say ‘Rejoice’! Paul confidently says this because he understands that Christian joy is independent of all things on earth. Why? Because the source of Christian joy is the continual presence of Christ.

In his book ‘Can I Have Joy in My Life?’ R.C. Sproul wrote: “The word joy appears over and over again in the Scriptures. For instance, the Psalms are filled with references to joy. The psalmists write, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5b) and “Shout for joy to God, all the earth” (Ps. 66:1). Likewise, in the New Testament, we read that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22), which means that it is a Christian virtue. Given this biblical emphasis, we need to understand what joy is and pursue it.

Sometimes we struggle to grasp the biblical view of joy because of the way it is defined and described in Western culture today. In particular, we often confuse joy with happiness. In the Beatitudes(bee-at-i-tudes) (Matt. 5:3–11), according to the traditional translations, Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.… Blessed are those who mourn.… Blessed are the meek …” (vv. 3–5, emphasis added), and so on. Sometimes, however, translators adopt the modern vernacular and tell us Jesus said happy rather than blessed. I always cringe a little when I see that, not because I am opposed to happiness, but because the word happy in our culture has been sentimentalized and trivialized. As a result, it connotes a certain superficiality. For example, years ago, Charles M. Schulz, in the comic strip Peanuts, coined the adage, “Happiness is a warm puppy,” and it became a maxim that articulated a sentimental, warm-and-fuzzy idea of happiness. Then there was the catchy song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” released by Bobby McFerrin in the 1980s. It suggested a carefree, cavalier attitude of delight.

However, the Greek word used in the Beatitudes (bee-at-i-tudes) is best translated as blessed, as it communicates not only the idea of happiness but also profound peace, comfort, stability, and great joy. So, we have to be careful when we come to the text of the New Testament that we do not read it through the lens of the popular understanding of happiness and thus lose the biblical concept of joy.” Simply put what Sproul is telling us is that happiness can be found by looking for the good in something but Christian joy can only be found through Jesus Christ.

 

Paul goes on, as the Authorized Version has it; “Let your moderation be known to all men.” The Greek word ‘epieikeia’ (Eppee -I-ki-a) translated as moderation is one of the most untranslatable of all Greek words.  The difficulty can be seen by the number of translation given to it. Wyclif translates it as ‘patience’; Tyndale as ‘softness’; Cranmer as ‘softness’; the Geneva Bible as ‘the patient mind’; the Rheims Bible as ‘modesty’; the Revised Standard Version as ‘forbearance’; Moffatt as ‘forbearance’; Weymouth as the ‘forbearing spirit’; and the New English Bible as ‘magnanimity’. In his translation of the New Testament, Charles Kingsley Williams has it meaning ‘Let all the world know that you will meet a man half way.’ I suspect you get the point. Some of these translation appear to be similar but not the same. Moderation means; restraint; avoidance of extremes or excesses; temperance and the act of moderating. Moderation is a good thing, but living a life of moderation is an uphill battle in today’s world. Much of Western culture is saturated with excess. Restaurants serve “all you can eat” of our favorite foods. Advertisements constantly push things we “need” to buy because, of course, the things we have just aren’t good enough. The Bible on the other hand teaches us that excess doesn’t work so well, and it helps us understand how and why we should live with moderation. A life of moderation is like sitting in a boat on a warm summer day while gentle waves rock you into a sleepy state. Without moderation the steep waves toss you about while you cling for life to the boat.

Moderation is the quality of someone who knows that regulations are not the last word and knows when not to apply the letter of the law. Christians, as Paul sees it, are men and women who know that there is something beyond justice. ‘When the Scribes and  Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery, they said to Him,’ “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act.” (John 8:3-4) Jesus could have applied the letter of the law, according to which she should have been stoned to death; but he went beyond the justice the law prescribed.

How many of you have ever seen the television show ‘Caught In Providence’? Judge Frank Caprio is the chief municipal judge in Providence, Rhode Island. In his municipal court he hears cases for what some might say are minor infractions such as parking tickets. In one recent case a lady who was in severe pain drove herself to the hospital. When she pulled into the parking spot she noticed the parking restriction sign that read “Parking Between 2pm and 6 pm”. As it turns out she arrived at 1:55pm and she left the hospital less than 2 hour later. Upon returning to her car she found a $25 parking ticket. She took a picture of the sign to show that the leaves of the tree were blocking the part of the sign that read “2 Hour Parking”. By the letter of the law she had parked in the parking space 5 minutes before she was allowed to. Her argument about the leaves covering the part of the sign that stated a 2 hour restriction had nothing to do with why she got the ticket. Judge Caprio explained to her why she was ticketed, she had parked in the spot before 2pm. but let her off with no fine. He knows the regulations and knows when not to apply the letter of the law.

Why should we be like this? Why should we have this joy and gracious gentleness in our lives? Because, says Paul, the Lord is at hand. If we remember the coming triumph of Christ, we can never lose our hope and our joy. If we remember that life is short, we will not want to enforce the stern justice which so often divides people but will want to deal with others in love, as we hope that God will deal with us. Justice is human but moderation is divine.

The source of Christian joy is the continual presence of Christ. Rejoice, Rejoice believers Rejoice!