Philippians 4:4-7: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The third Sunday in Advent is known as “Gaudete Sunday.” “Gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice,” and the service for this day traditionally began with singing a chant based on this passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (example: https://youtu.be/sTGik1NcTws). That’s also why the third candle in the Advent Wreath is typically colored pink for this Sunday, to indicate joy.
It’s important to know that when Paul was writing this he had every reason not to rejoice. He’s in prison (1:13, 17). He knows he might be killed (1:20). He knows that some of his coworkers are actually delighting in his imprisonment (1:17). Sometimes it feels as if he is being “poured out as a libation” (2:17). And yet, repeatedly and inexplicably, he finds himself full of joy (1:18; 2:17). Obviously, this is the sort of joy that, like the peace of God, “surpasses all understanding” (4:7).
Paul has found joy where, earlier in his life, he never would have looked for it, precisely because Paul has found God where he never would have looked for God. (Or rather, the God he was not looking for found him!) He has been captivated by his own awakening to the story of God’s very life being poured out as a libation in the life, death, and mysteriously risen life of Jesus (2:5-11). That story is beginning to overturn his very idea of God and of how God works. The God who lives as Jesus lives is not the all-controlling power but the all-suffering power whose relentless love wins by refusing to be driven away even by rejection and execution. Paul has come to realize, “in fear and trembling,” that this all-suffering power of God is inescapably at work in all of us (2:12-13).
Joy, suffering, fear and trembling, peace—they all flow together in the incomprehensible intimacy of Immanuel (“God-with-us”). So when Paul says, “rejoice,” he’s not just talking about a passing mood. He’s asking us to open ourselves to an enlivening power already at work in us, not separate from the messiness and even devastation we might be undergoing, but relentlessly here, right now. It surpasses all understanding, but are we surprised? If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be God.