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 Meditations for Advent: 3. Moving Toward Joy

The third stage of our journey toward joy is more difficult than what has gone before. Last week we focused on practical things we can do to strengthen our relationships. In Philippians 3, the Apostle Paul calls on us to examine ourselves, to use our discouragement and grief to mature and grow with purpose and joy—to move forward from where we are today.

While it would be easy to turn this week’s meditations into a political post, the goal for the Christian is not about winning, it’s about answering the “heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul has much to say about the heavenly kingdom to which Christians belong, and perhaps the best way to claim joy during this Christmas season is to focus on heavenly things, not the pandemic and politics that discourage us so.

This week’s study includes seven Meditations, and you can choose whether to reflect on the entire chapter at once or carve out a few minutes each day to meditate. You might like to keep a journal, jotting down your thoughts. As you read each passage of Scripture, ask yourself:

  • Which keyword or theme speaks to me today?
  • What lesson can I learn from this passage?
  • What can I give over to God?
  • Whom do I know—family members, friends, famous people, even literary figures—who model the character trait or attribute I need today?
  • What am I thankful for today? What were my moments of joy?
1. And Again, Joy, Philippians 3:1

Paul assures the Philippians that it’s no trouble for him to take the time to advise them on how to find joy in the midst of their suffering. Throughout his letter, he says Rejoice! He wants them to find the same joy that he has in spite of his imprisonment, and he wants them to celebrate that joy in community. Perhaps we need to look more deeply for the “quiet joys” of Christmas, as George Mason, senior minister at Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas, describes them.

Paul sees the external and internal threats to them—a tiny, poor, persecuted community of Christians in a pagan Roman colony. If that wasn’t bad enough, the congregation is riddled with dissension and disagreement. Divided, they cannot find joy; and they lack the unity that would give them strength in the face of their enemies.

Finding joy is difficult, especially when Christmas comes as an unwelcome intruder to remind us of our losses and of unwanted changes in our lives. While it normally calls for careful advance planning and enlisting family and close friends for support, this is by no means a normal year or a normal Christmas, and we can’t count on any of our plans and expectations coming to fruition.

Each December I take an afternoon off to clear my mind and heart of the clutter and clamor of the Holidays. I turn off my iPhone and iPad. I brew a pot of tea; and if it’s cold, I light a fire. Then I sit in silence to listen to The Messiah and read the Christmas story from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I rewrite this 2017 Meditation in my hotel room in Covid-riddled Dallas, and I will return home on the 22nd to a quiet holiday. I can think of no better way to spend Christmas Eve than with the joy of Messiah. Hallelujah!

 2. Beware! Philippians 3:2–6

After reminding his readers to find joy in the midst of adversity, Paul issues a stark warning: Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh.

Paul is referring to Jews and to Christian Judaziers who insist that all believers be circumcised. They are examples of the wrong kind of role models. The only circumcision God cares about is spiritual, not physical. (Garland, 236) Who are the wrong role models in your life today? Those who ignore pandemic warnings? Those who continue to agitate about an election that is over? Look for a positive role model—someone who radiates quiet joy in the midst of all that is dark in our country today.

Paul proceeds to offer himself as a proper role model. He can match the Jews in lineage and in service to the temple. However, when he became a believer, he renounced all that and became an imitator of Christ. Rather than boasting about himself, he now boasts in Christ—giving all the credit to Him. It’s time to give God the glory for the things He is doing, even when we can’t see the results yet. That is what faith is.

This reinforces what Paul says earlier in Philippians, the theme of last week’s Meditation: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Philippians 2:3 NRSV

With God’s help, we can find the wisdom and discernment to recognize the “dogs and evil workers” and the courage to resist them, while not allowing them to make us bitter or untrusting. My prayer throughout Covid has been the same as it was after Lev died—for wisdom and discernment to make the right decisions.

3. Priorities, Philippians 3:7–11

Paul continues his personal testimony. All that mattered to him in his life before Christ, he now sees as rubbish. He had placed his confidence in his heritage as a Jew and in his Roman citizenship, but now he understands that his only hope is in Christ.

David Garland explains, “Right conduct derives only from serving God by the spirit. Faith is the admission that one cannot earn God’s approval but can only accept it by grace as a gift…. Knowing Christ is not some sublime, cerebral enlightenment but…loving others as Christ did, and giving of himself as Christ did.” (242)

Paul expresses his hope that through the power of the resurrection, he can be Christlike in his suffering with the hope of eternal life. As believers, we are not exempt from suffering; but we count on Christ to be with us in the midst of it. That’s what joy in Christ means. Am I, are you Christlike in the inconveniences, illness and losses due to the pandemic? I keep asking myself the question, Can others see Jesus in you? Too often, I am afraid the answer is no.

Shortly after Lev’s death, a more experienced widow told me, “Since losing my husband, I am a better person. I am kinder, nicer, sweeter. I have my priorities in order. I know what matters.” Her example gave me hope.

Hardship teaches us lessons that we seldom learn in the good times. For that, Thank you, God.

4. Maturity, Philippians 3:12–14

What is Paul talking about? Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal… What is this? What is Paul’s goal?

The King James Version gives us a clue, even if 17th century English is archaic. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect Paul’s goal was Christian perfection, an impossibility in this imperfect world. My Bible concordance lists almost 100 references to the different forms of perfect and perfection. I used to call this call to perfection—Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect[1]—the Christian dilemma. We are commanded to be perfect, yet doomed to failure.

Imagine, then, my relief when Dr. Vernon Elmore, a biblical scholar and my pastor for 24 years, explained that the Greek word for perfect means to be complete, to be mature. “A perfect pitcher is one that holds and pours liquid as it was designed and created to do.” Most modern translations reflect this meaning.

Paul is saying that he continuously strives to reach the goal of moral and spiritual maturity, recognizing that he will cross the finish line when God calls him home. The Christian life, then, is not about what we have become but what we are becoming.

My very personal interpretation as a widow is that we become the mature Christians God intended us to be when we refuse to linger in the past but move into the future with optimism, courage, wisdom and confidence. This applies when “post-Covid” seems very far away, and it applies to all our concerns about the immediate future of our country.

5. Confidence, Philippians 3:15, 16

Commentaries usually include these two verses with the preceding three about Christian maturity. In the New Revised Standard Version, the word maturity appears here for the first time. Let those of us who are mature be of the same mind…

Paul writes that if we have Christian maturity, we will have unity. Where we disagree, God will reveal His will. The inference is that dissension and infighting are evidence of spiritual immaturity and self-centeredness.

In my own journey from loss, I felt that God answered my persistent prayers for wisdom and discernment in a situation where I had to make an enormously important business decision that would impact the whole family. As we attended presentation after presentation and listened to all the pitches about why each company was best for us, I suddenly had a moment of complete clarity and peace. I knew, with no doubt whatsoever, which direction we should go. I was confident that God had revealed His will to me.

From that moment on, I began to acquire confidence. As my confidence grew, so did my willingness to let go of trying to manage everything myself. I learned to trust my instincts, my advisors and my children; and my children learned to trust me. The experience proved to be a turning point in our family’s life. As we matured in our new roles, we began to acquire the wisdom and unity needed to work together for the good of the entire family.

Our country is at an all-time low of trust in one another. I am adding that to my prayer list. Lord, bring us together.

6. Role Models, Philippians 3:17–19

Paul continues to contrast positive and negative role models as he encourages the Philippians to move toward joy. Rarely is he prescriptive. He doesn’t offer a long list of do’s and don’ts. He offers examples for them to imitate, advising them to observe those who live according to the example you have in us—believers like Timothy and Epathroditus, whom we read about last week.

He contrasts them with those he describes as enemies of the cross of Christ…. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly [physical gratification]; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. He does not suggest that they change the culture of the larger secular community in Philippi. They are to set themselves apart from that community by their Christlike lifestyle.

We would be wise to do the same. I am reminded of David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character, which contrasts the world’s secular values—résumé virtues—with more lasting eulogy virtues, what people remember about us when we die.

I did not know how to “do” widowhood, so I looked around at widows I knew—those who moved with grace and dignity toward the future and those who continued to mourn their loss forever. My positive role models accept the fact that Option A is no longer available, and they choose to find joy in Option BForgetting what lies behind…

7. Anticipation, Philippians 3:20, 21

Now Paul tells his readers why they should live Christlike lives in a pagan culture—our citizenship is in heaven. And that is where we need to place our hope. When my dad was dying of cancer—too young, too good to deserve such a painful death, I thought—I said to Dr. Elmore, my pastor, “It’s not fair!” His response seemed cold and harsh then, but almost 40 years later, I recognize his wisdom and honesty. “Ella, life’s not fair.” Perfection comes not in this world but in the next.

So much of life in our country in 2020 is not fair. Dr. Elmore’s advice holds true. Life is not fair. But surely our goal as Christians should be to work for the ideal, even when we know that perfect is not within our grasp.

To understand better what Paul is saying, we need additional background on the situation in Philippi at the time. The Apostle repeats the same Greek terms first used in chapter 1: conduct yourselves [as citizens]…stand firm…contending as one. Our earthly residence is an outpost of God’s kingdom. Caesar is not our Savior. Our eternal heavenly citizenship is far more important than our temporary earthly one. Our allegiance to the Lord God must outweigh all other commitments. “Christians are not to imitate the crucifiers but the crucified one. They are to accept suffering rather than to inflict it.” (Garland, 248)

Anticipation is an essential component of joy. I find that the lack of anticipation, the inability to plan events that bring me joy, is the most difficult part of this pandemic. I have to work harder than any time since the immediate aftermath of Lev’s death to find joy in every day. At times like this I cling to the promises of Scripture like a lifeline.

Where do you find joy this Christmas?

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If you missed the introduction to the Meditations, “Moving Toward Joy,” click here for background to the Scripture.

  • December 3—Love Overcomes Fear, Philippians 1
  • December 10—Unity Strengthens Relationships, Philippians 2
  • December 20—Maturity Brings Wisdom, Philippians 3
  • December 25—Peace Leads to Joy, Philippians 4

Resources for additional Scripture study:

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Author’s notes:

If you are not currently worshiping on Sunday mornings, I invite you to participate in today’s Advent service at Wilshire Baptist Church on livestream here, available beginning at 8:30 a.m.

Since June I have had the privilege of writing monthly opinion pieces for Baptist News Global, a national moderate Baptist news service. You may read my essays here.

Portions of these meditations are adapted from my memoir, RECLAIMING JOY: A Primer for Widows, published by 1845 Books, an imprint of the Baylor University Press, in 2018. To learn more about the book or to order a copy for yourself or a friend, click here.

[1] Words of Jesus, Matthew 5:48