It is almost a year since the world was confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic. For many of us the past months have been gruesome and horrific. Others were able to adapt to the new normal, but the majority of people are now getting COVID-19 tired. It is not easy to feel or be joyful these days.
In spite of the gloominess that tends to overwhelm us I believe that the apostle Paul is guiding us towards a more joyous mindset. In Philippians 4:4 we hear Paul say: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
Philippians is a short book in the New Testament – only four chapters long. But in these four chapters Paul says, “Rejoice… Be joyful” at least sixteen times.
The amazing thing is that Paul, while he was in prison, wrote this book which can be viewed as the most positive book in the Bible. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is something of a missionary thank you letter, but I find it to be much more than that. It is the sharing of Paul’s secret of Christian Joy!
It is obvious that many of us have allowed “thieves” to rob us of our joy.
I would like to name four:
1. Our Circumstances.
Have you ever stopped and considered how few of the circumstances of life are really in our control?
We have no control over when we are born, we have no control over who our parents are, no control over the weather or over the traffic or over the things people say and do to us.
However, even when things go wrong, we can still have joy.
The person whose happiness depends on ideal circumstances is going to be miserable much of the time. When you expect too much, you get disappointed easily.
The secret of joy is finding another keyword that is also often repeated in Philippians – and that’s the word “mind.”
Our joy is found in the way we think – what is our attitude towards our circumstances.
Our filter to view our circumstances is often our own attitude or our thinking. Proverbs 23:7 says: “Be careful how you think, your life is shaped by your thoughts.”
All of us have lost our joy because of people: What they are, what they say, and what they do.
And no doubt we ourselves have contributed to making somebody else unhappy. But we have to live and work with people.
I for one, if I was given a choice between working with people or working alone, I would choose for working alone.
I can be alone for hours working on something, because I have experienced that people sometimes causes delay (but of course that is wrong thinking).
We cannot isolate ourselves and still live to glorify Christ. We are a church, the body of Christ, we need one another. The church is all about people. Like it or not!
The church will not grow without people. That’s why we need to handle people with care.
In Luke 12:15 we read: “Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’”
I truly believe that God wants us to be blessed materially. We must see our blessing holistically: Spirit, Soul and Body…so this means everything.
But Jesus warns us: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”
As we are blessed, we need to share our blessing and not store them up. Because storing them can rob us of the only kind of joy that really lasts.
This is the worst thief of all!
If Paul had wanted to worry, he had all the occasions. But in spite of all the difficulties he faced, Paul does not worry! Instead, he writes a letter filled with joy and tells us how to stop worrying.
The Bible clearly teaches us to avoid worrying.
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.” —Philippians 4:6 (New Living Translation)
The Greek word for worry (merimnao) is formed by two root words “divided” and “mind.”
To worry means to be pulled in many different directions.
The simple truth is that worrying doesn’t ADD to your life, it SUBTRACTS from your life.
It can subtract hours from your day, but even more it can subtract days, months, and years from your life.
Worry is a bad investment of time and energy no matter how you look at it.
Research has proven that 97% of what we worry about, never happens.
Philippians is a book that explains to us which mindset we should have if we want to experience joy during these troubled times.
Over the past year you and I had to deal with the thieves I have mentioned. We were not always able to guard ourselves against these thieves. In our endeavor to remain joyful during the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to re-vision our outlook towards the future let us take in these words of Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
—Rev. Diana de Graven
Pastor at the Morgensterkerk
Reformed Church in Suriname
In the church where I am a pastor I have earned the name "loving hands and divine feet" because if something does not fall out of my hands, I hit it with my feet. That clumsiness has been the occasion for little courage, a few fears, and a lot of laughter. That "nickname" is based on a beautiful hymn of yesteryear, which is precisely entitled: Manos Cariñosas (Caring Hands). Its first verse goes like this:
Loving hands, hands of Jesus, hands that bore the heavy cross. Hands that knew only how to do good, Glory to those hands! Alleluia! Amen!
The hymn highlights the love of God through the loving hands of Jesus, which only knew how to do good. Therefore, those hands did not deserve to carry the heavy cross. Those hands did not deserve such suffering and pain. The story of Jesus can help us to consider that, perhaps, people who live doing good may wonder about this global pandemic and its ravages, if most of humanity does not deserve it.
That is why on the cross Jesus asked the important question: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(reference to Mark 15:34) Yes, why? For what? Those of us who preach the Bible from the loving hands of Jesus have affirmed that sickness is not a product of divine plan or punishment. But maybe something good can come out of this dangerous situation. Everything points to that solution being in our hands.
To combat the coronavirus, among other important measures, we must wash our hands constantly. This means that prevention, health, and life are in our hands. The Bible confirms this when two of Moses' fellow soldiers held his hands so that the people could win a battle (Exodus 17:8-12). This implies that helping each other is in our hands. Prevention, health, and life is in our hands when we make use of any possible means, these days with greater emphasis on digital media, to make miracles happen. So did the friends of the man who could not walk, when they opened the roof of a house with their hands, so that their friend would receive healing (Mark 2:1-12). Prevention, health, and life are in our hands when we receive like the blind person and give, as Jesus did, the alert: "go, wash" (John 9:7). The young man in this story showed no resistance. Instead, he responded diligently to the instructions of the one who used his hands to heal him. What if we do the same and respond lovingly to the one who treats us with loving hands?
Let us emulate our Savior because, after all, we did not deserve Jesus to use his loving hands on the cross for us and yet he did. Let us do the same. Let us not respond with awkwardness, nor with resistance. Rather, let us learn to pray with assurance and faith as the psalmist did: " Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,and prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!" (Psalm 90:17). May our hands confirm that they can also be hands that are dedicated to doing good. May our hands confirm that they are hands like those of Jesus or better yet, that they are the hands of Jesus. Therefore, may our hands confirm that they are also loving hands.
—Rev. Marielis Barreto Hernández
First Presbyterian Church
Aguada, Puerto Rico
I once wrote a sermon entitled “Saving the World from the World We Live in.” Then, I never imagined that we would be in a global pandemic. But here we are. Not only must we get through this world health crisis of COVID-19, but all the other things I talked about then that it has brought to light. Racial and political unrest, ecological devastation, food insecurities, health care, economic disparity, gender inequality, are among the things that still call out for healing all around the world.
Sometimes it seems like all I can do is wait and pray, and then wait, and pray some more. Thinking, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God.” Psalm 62:5
So I do, and yet I feel this sense that we are all being called to move, especially in this time of a global pandemic. But to what? And how? When social distancing and health care measures are the order of each day. I realize that for some people, it’s not a problem. But for most, who live moment to moment, it’s quite difficult. An already hard and sometimes struggling life is made even more difficult by unemployment, by the planet crying out for healing, fear and violence, and the exploitations of others.
I find myself reaching for the words to pray and praise my way through it as I do even the little things I can to help someone along the way.
May this psalm, created in the hours and days of listening to God, help you while you wait and pray. So that we can open our hearts and minds to hear the voices of people long silenced. That we may find ways to walk in solidary with communities near and far. That we may remember that we are all created in God’s image, are all blessed by God, and are called to care for the earth. (Genesis 1:26-28)
A New Psalm of Praise and Thanksgiving
Praise the LORD!
Praise to the LORD on high
Praise creates a space for us to let go,
An opportunity to look out! To look up!
A gift to our souls to let God shine!
When we praise, we open ourselves to the
Spirit’s transforming power.
When we praise, it’s a shout in celebration
to the wonders of God
In the memories of yesterday,
We call to mind all those we have lost
We remember their gifts of laughter, love, and light.
We give God thanks that their living was not in vain.
In the experiences of today,
We are awakened to the realities of the disparity, greed, and adversity exposed by COVID-19
We practice physical distancing in the hope to spread healing rather than hurt.
We invest our limited resources in what we need rather than what we want.
In the hopes promised in tomorrow
We gather in worship, to work and witness to the transforming power of love.
We use our hands and feet to walk with those on the margins.
We rest in the assurance that God is always with us.
Let us journey on now to the places where love reigns, courage supports our way, and the enduring promises of God guides.
Let your spirit come to us as a new song that helps us reach beyond our today to your tomorrow.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!
With our whole heart
And with every breath we take
We will praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
—Dr. Dianna Wright
Interim Director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations
In the Office of the General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church (USA)
Dianna Wright is a graduate of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Richmon, Virginia, and Columba Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia.
Text: Matthew, Chapter 3
The River Jordan is an ordinary-looking, small, and muddy body of water. When I visited Israel some years ago, my first thought on beholding the Jordan was: “But this river is not different from the Caroni!” (the biggest river in my island, but a muddy stream most of the year…)
I was just beginning to feel guilty for that thought, when I heard the Israeli tour guide actually apologizing for the smallness of the Jordan!
It all reminded me of the story of the Aramean general Namaan, in 2nd Kings, Chapter 5, who had been told by the prophet Elisha that he would be cured of his leprosy if he washed himself in the Jordan. Namaan had reacted with scorn, wondering why he couldn’t wash instead in the great rivers of his own land...
Jesus didn’t scorn the muddy Jordan. He, the only sinless person ever, queued up alongside a multitude of sinners for the baptism of repentance preached by John the Baptist...And we ask “Why?”
The baptism of the Lord is recorded in all four Gospel accounts, which suggests its significance. Bible scholars tell us that only a handful of such events appear in all four Gospels. Matthew’s account provides us with rich details. For example, it is the only account in which Jesus actually speaks. In this season of Epiphany, we seek to find God manifested in this event, and as we explore the passage, we find little pockets of Epiphany throughout.
The account may be divided into two parts. Verses 1 to 12 tell us what happened immediately before the baptism. John the Baptist preaches: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” We are told what to do, and why. The call to repent is to make a complete change—of mind, heart, and behaviour; a turning away from sin and (re)turning to God. The term “kingdom of heaven” is found only in the gospel of Matthew. It refers to the reign of God in Christ Jesus, when all evil will be vanquished, and righteousness, peace, and justice will reign. Of note also, the expression “kingdom of heaven” was used to refer to God himself, since Jewish believers were reluctant to use the holy name of God...And so, John himself does not know how near the kingdom of heaven really is, even as he preaches it!
Along with the multitudes who had confessed their sin, we read that there are “many” Pharisees and Sadducees present. John has some choice words for them.
Why are they, the unrepentant, there? Their presence tells us that all humankind is sinful, the repentant and the unrepentant. John preaches of the mighty One whose sandal he is not worthy to carry, who will judge and cleanse and save...We need this One who saves...This is the start of our Epiphany, the realization that God alone, powerful in Christ, saves us from sin. In verses 13 -17, we see that Jesus appears, in the midst of the great crowd of sinners, to be baptized.
John is utterly confused, and he too asks “Why?” Jesus gives the answer: “to fulfill all righteousness.” And Jesus is plunged into the muddy, dirty Jordan, just as He plunges into the mire of humanity’s sinfulness. The voice of God resounds, proclaiming over the waters that here is the beloved Son who pleases the Father; and simultaneously, the Holy Spirit alights. The Trinitarian God is present as the divine plan for our salvation is launched. This is our Epiphany: our God saves! Hallelujah! Amen.
Presbyterian Church of Trinidad and Tobago
Jesslyn Ramlal is an elder, a lay preacher, and the Clerk of Session for her Pastoral Region. She also serves as the president of the women’s group, the secretary of the Local Board, a choir member, and Sunday School teacher in her own congregation