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“The Secret to Contentment and Joy”

Dec.16/12 Is.12; Php.4:4-13


Today is the third Sunday of Advent, traditionally nicknamed “Joy” Sunday. CS Lewis remarked, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” This world could certainly use more joy! But there’s confusion around this – people sometimes talk about “joy” when really they mean “happiness”. What’s the difference?

    The Pictorial Bible Dictionary explains, “Joy is often equated with happiness, but the two are quite distinct. Happiness depends largely upon happenings: good health, congenial company, pleasant surroundings, etc. Happiness and unhappiness do not exist together; but joy and sorrow can and do. Our Lord was ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ (Is.53:3) but ‘for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.(Heb.12:2)’”

    So, joy doesn’t depend upon positive but changeable external circumstances, the way happiness tends to. Joy has more to do with the inner state, founded upon unchanging factors beyond our immediate surroundings – who God IS, what He has DONE for us, and the love that is shared in Christian community.


The prophet Isaiah wrote during the period 740-680 BC; there was war between the northern kingdom of Israel and neighbouring Syria, then the invasion of both Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah by the conquering hordes of the Assyrian empire. When cities are destroyed and the countryside is trampled by invading armies, there’s not much to be happy about – just ask the refugees fleeing war-torn Syria today! But even in the midst of the devastation, we find in Isaiah 12 two short three-verse psalms of praise to God.What’s there to be praising God for?

    First, His greatness. In previous chapters the prophet warned that the sovereign Lord Almighty would whistle for His instruments of judgment to come and punish the people for their sins – greed, drunkenness, idolatry, revelry, and oppressing the poor. So, even when the land has been shattered, God is still in control – and after the punishment, promises restoration after disciplining His people. This world’s circumstances do not take the Lord by surprise! Hope for the future crystallizes in what chapter 11 calls the righteous Branch from the “stump of Jesse”, that is, David’s royal line - a figure we in retrospect identify with Jesus, the Messiah: “With righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth...with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.” (Isa 11:4)

    So the psalms in chapter 12 praise God for who He IS, for His unchanging GREATNESS. V4, “Give thanks to the Lord...proclaim that His name is exalted.” V6, “Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”

    Because He is so great, He is worthy of our trust – quite unlike man-made tottering idols. V2, “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” We can trust in Him who is the source of our strength, who has the power to save or rescue us. The repetition of His special name here, “The Lord, the Lord” or “Yah, Yahweh” emphasize His role as the covenant-keeping One: He’s faithful, trustworthy, we can count on Him, He’s put His name on the contract.

    Paul writing to the church at Philippi also suggests that God’s greatness means our minds can be set at ease. 4:6f, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Because He is all-powerful and sovereign, He’s the one we can bring our requests to, then have peace instead of anxiety.

    Where does Paul tell Christians we can find joy? 3:1, “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!” 4:4, “rejoice in the Lord always.I will say it again: Rejoice!” This from a man who, when he was in Philippi, was mobbed, dragged, stripped and beaten, thrown in a dungeon and locked in the stocks. But even then he and Silas could sing hymns there in that dark dungeon, hurting, beaten-up, bleeding and bruised. Paul didn’t get joy from his circumstances, but from the One he knew. The great God who can cause earthquakes, break shackles, and bring conversion to hardened jailers.

    Because God is great, and worthy of praise, He should be made much of, not ourselves. Pride and selfishness undermine joy. The proud person makes much of themselves and figures they’re the bigshot so they can run others’ lives, control others. But they will never experience the joy of the person who trusts in God rather than their own smartness or strength or abilities. Pride nixes joy! The pin of pride pops the bubble of joy. Isaiah 29:19, “Once more the humble will rejoice in the LORD; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.” Notice what Paul adds following “rejoice in the Lord” in v4: v5, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.The Lord is near.” (Near can mean either close in time, as in the Second Coming, or in space, as in God’s presence through the Holy Spirit.) Because the Great One is near, we can be gentle, humble, not “throwing our weight around” but submitting our abilities to serve and help others.

    So, joy springs from an awareness and acknowledgment of God’s greatness, who He is, that He is exalted and praise-worthy (rather than us). Trusting Him brings joy. 1Pet.1:8, “even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy...” Evelyn Underhill said, “This is the secret of joy.We shall no longer strive for our own way; but commit ourselves, easily and simply, to God’s way, acquiesce in His will and in so doing find our peace.”


We can rejoice in who God is; we can rejoice also in what He has done, His saving acts. Is.4:4 “Make known among the nations what He has done...” v5 “Sing to the Lord, for He has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world.” Specifically, in vv2-3 the word “salvation” is repeated several times. V3 “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” What salvation? V2 “Surely God is my salvation...The Lord, the Lord...has become my salvation.” How has God saved me, rescued me? V1, “Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me.” In Isaiah’s day, that anger issued in judgment at the hands of the Assyrian army. More generally, as Christians this side of the cross we recognize our sins and rejection of God warrant His justly-deserved anger; turning to our own ways, we thumb our noses at Him and snub the glory of the almighty infinite and holy God. How then can His anger be “turned away”? Through the reconciliation Jesus His innocent and pure Son made possible by dying for our sins on the cross; His propitiation, becoming the substitute sacrifice for us, taking our punishment. Only then “You have comforted me”: God receives us as sons and daughters when we trust in Christ, and gives us His Holy Spirit, the Paraclete or “Comforter” to counsel and guide and accompany us forever. That’s the essence of what salvation’s all about.

    V3, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Got your bucket? There’s an inexhaustible supply in this well. John wrote (1:16), “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.” Jesus could say to the Samaritan woman at the well, “but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:14) At the end of time, in the book of Revelation, the redeemed have this to enjoy: “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water.” (Rev 7:17) Jesus is that Lamb: the term “lamb” is important from sacrificial terminology - Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn 1:29) His doing that is the only mechanism by which we sinners could ever be put right with a holy God.

    This internal well or fountain, springing forth from Jesus and what He’s done for us, gives us a buffer or resilience, an ability to deal with negative external circumstances. When things go wrong, or we’re facing shortages or hardships, knowing Jesus gives us a peace and contentment that may be puzzling to others. This is the apostle Paul’s secret in Php 4:11-13: “...I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. [and what is that secret, Paul?] I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Through Him who gives me strength – there’s that “well of salvation” at work, Jesus’ “streams of living water flowing from within” (Jn 7:37).


But God hasn’t just left us as remote solitary individuals; He has assembled us together through faith in Christ into His Body, the Church. So we not only get support from His Spirit internally, we also are helped by love given tangible expression from other believers. So Paul can admit he finds joy in something very simple and practical - the gifts the Philippian church has sent to him: 4:10, “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me.Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.” V18, “I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epapahroditus the gifts you sent.”

    Notice love didn’t just remain “concern”: they were indeed concerned, but when an opportunity came, love seized upon it and took concrete form in the gift of money. Love that gives joy follows through with obedience. Perhaps this is a bit like what Jesus was getting at back in John 15. We talked earlier about how the proud and selfish person will have a hard time experiencing joy; likewise, the disobedient person won’t know God’s joy, either. In John 15 Jesus talks about “My joy being in you” and “your joy being complete”: this sounds like it’s probably important for a discussion about JOY - what’s the context? Jn 15:9-11, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.Now remain in my love.If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” So the context is remaining or abiding or soaking in Jesus’ love, and giving outlet to that love by OBEDIENCE. What’s His main command that we’re supposed to obey? Very next phrase, v12: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” That love expressed in a practical gift brought Paul the prisoner joy.


It’s one of the great paradoxes of the Christian life that we can have joy even in “unhappy” circumstances, joy in times of sorrow. How’s that work? Php 4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS.” 4:12 “I have learned the secret of being content IN ANY AND EVERY SITUATION...” One of the strongest statements about joy in Scripture comes from the pen of the prophet Habakkuk, who lived towards 600 BC when the Babylonians attacked and devastated the Promised Land, demolishing settlements and exiling the Jews. But even when all is lost, Habakkuk can find joy in God: 3:17-18, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

    In Acts 5:41, when Peter and John had been flogged by the Sanhedrin for preaching about Jesus and healing a lame man, what was their reaction? Did they get bitter and mope? No: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” This ability to rejoice in spite of suffering is something remarkable about true Christian faith. The early church discovered it when they were persecuted and lost their possessions: Heb.10:34, “You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” Peter suggests our sharing in Jesus’ sufferings and scorn can even be cause for rejoicing, as it points to better things to come when He returns: 1Pet.4:13, “But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”


Our world craves joy - but we’ve been groomed to look in all the wrong places. We confuse ‘happiness’ for ‘joy’, then run around trying to assemble happy circumstances, surrounding ourselves with ‘stuff’ so we can be happy as the people in the advertisments look. But happiness just doesn’t compare with joy.

    [FLYER] A flyer came this week from a company who’s got me thoroughly figured out – all kinds of good deals on tablets and notebooks and gadgets to salivate over! But at the top of the page they’ve put, “Unwrap JOY!” Can joy REALLY be wrapped up in a cardboard box?

    I’m closing today with a 3-minute video CBS aired a couple of years ago about a little girl whose father was away in Iraq doing some reconstruction of infrastructure. He’d been there 2 years and she was missing him very much. Compare the “happiness” of the other kids receiving material presents with the “joy” she found in relationship. For me, that sums up the source of joy for the Christian: not in external unwrappables, but internal relationship with a loving Heavenly Father who is truly great, has done wonderful things for us, and has promised never to abandon us.[VIDEO - CBS Evening News - On the Road: Bringing dad home for Christmas - YouTube]

Let’s pray.