December 10, 2015 by jmar198013
My sermon for this upcoming Sunday, December 13, 2015. Third Sunday of Advent, Year C.
The soundtrack for my sermon composition this week included: Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Joybringer; Lauryn Hill, To Zion; Bob Dylan / the Byrds, Lay Down Your Weary Tune; Pete Seeger, Ode to Joy; and the Band, Christmas Must be Tonight.
Audio version of this sermon may be accessed at the link below, for those who’d rather listen:
Again I say, rejoice!
Paul wrote the words we heard in our New Testament lesson today— Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice—from inside a prison.
We don’t know which prison Paul was writing from, or when. Scholars have guessed Rome, Caesarea, or Ephesus. Sometimes it seems like Paul was locked up more than he was free.
The important thing to know is that Paul was locked up in prison. And bad as our prisons are now, back then they were pretty much rat- and mildew-infested holes in the ground, where you only got fed if you had friends to bring you food. And from those conditions, Paul was telling a bunch of disciples in Philippi to: Rejoice in the Lord always.
It makes me think of the author Anne Lamott talking about her preacher. Her preacher would come to that verse and say: If you’re gonna re-joice, you got to have some ‘joice to begin with.
You must have some reserve of joy to draw from in order to rejoice. The catch is, that thing called joy does not come from within us. You cannot manufacture joy. You can’t buy joy. You can’t bottle it up. It doesn’t come in pill form. It must be discovered. Reached for. Anticipated. Leaned into. C.S. Lewis nailed it when he said: All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be’. And elsewhere, when he wrote: All joy emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.
We must understand, Paul does not tell us to always be joyful. That is impossible. Even Paul was not always joyful.
Paul does point us to the source where joy can always be found: in the Lord.
In Jesus. For Jesus always beckons us to follow him. Jesus always awakens desire in us. For that which was longer ago, and further away—a garden where humans lived in harmony with God’s good creation. And for that which is about to be—a new heavens and a new earth, where God dwells among the nations. Pain and death—and prisons, like the one Paul is in—are no more. And God wipes the tears from every face.
And Jesus bridges the two. In his incarnation. His life. His death. His resurrection. His glorification. The promises God has made to this world and the people that dwell on it through Jesus.
The coming of Jesus awakens joy in us. In him, we are given truer, better, more beautiful wantings. We seek him. Reach for him. Lean into him. Anticipate him.
Joy is the light that shines in our darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish it.
Our Lord Jesus is the light that never goes out.
So Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!
Let your gentleness be known
Did you notice, as the passage was read, that it’s full of some of Paul’s favorite words? We have joy in rejoice. We have gentleness—as in let your gentleness be known to everyone. Then there’s peace: the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.
Joy. Peace. Gentleness. Does that sound like anything else Paul wrote? Right: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 3.22-23).
Let me remind us all again: Paul was telling the Philippians about joy and gentleness from prison. Roman prisons were not places of joy or gentleness. They were dark, damp pits crammed with the condemned. The guards were soldiers deemed unfit for combat, and often took their frustrations out on the prisoners. If you were in the stocks, you sat in your own filth unless you had a friend willing to go into the prison and clean and change you. People died all the time—from disease, hunger, exposure, guards letting off steam.
Surrounded by darkness and stench and filth and despair and violence—where do you find joy? Moreover, where do you find the resources to be gentle when everything and everyone around you is a threat? But Paul says—as an instruction, not a suggestion—to let your gentleness be known to everyone. And yet, we know that it is dangerous to let everyone know our gentleness. We allow only a select few to know our gentleness.
The word Paul uses for gentleness means being willing to yield. To hold back. To choose mercy over judgment. To turn the other cheek. It is a way of living in the world that requires strength. Flexibility. Generosity. Wisdom. And most of all, patience.
Like joy, this gentleness cannot be manufactured. We must choose to accept the gift of gentleness.
And we learn to accept the gift of God’s gentleness when we joyfully receive his Son in a manger. This vulnerable baby. The Word become flesh. When we can receive that Word become flesh dying on a cross rather than calling down twelve legions of angels to slaughter his enemies. The day God turned the other cheek. When we trust that the empty tomb is God’s promise to save not only us, but all of his creation.
When we can receive those gifts with joy, we learn that we can afford to be gentle, because in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has already made his gentleness known to everyone.
And because of God’s gentleness, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not extinguished it. That light was even shining for Paul in the darkness of his prison.
And so with Paul, I invite you—I invite us all—to Rejoice—be glad—in the Lord always! For he has given us the means to be gentle in an unforgiving world.
The Lord is near
From prison—from the chambers of his earthly hell—Paul assures his friends at Philippi that they can rejoice and be gentle because: The Lord is near.
In the Greek Paul wrote, it’s just three words: ho kyrios engys. But my, are those three words loaded! Packed to the point of bursting. Overflowing. Overwhelming. Flooded with promise.
Engys is one of those fun words that carries multiple hues. A gradient word. It means drawing near. In terms of both time—the Lord is nearly here—and space—the Lord is nearby.
Thing is, Paul probably meant it both ways.
If you read Paul’s letters, there’s always this sense of expectation—even urgency—for the Lord’s return. He is ready and waiting for Jesus to be back. Hastening the day, as one of Peter’s letters put it.
But I suspect Paul was also saying that Jesus is close to us. As close as our next heartbeat, the next breath we take, the next meal we eat. Like James said in his letter, Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you (James 4.8). Reach out to Jesus, and he will gather you up in his embrace.
When Paul—in prison—reassured his Philippian friends that the Lord is near, he probably had Psalm 119.151 in mind. That passage says:
The people who love to plot wicked schemes are nearby . . . but you, Lord, are nearby too.
The earliest Christians—you see this in Paul’s letters, and in the book of Revelation—took the psalmist’s words of confidence and transformed them into a motto. Maranatha! Something between a boast and a prayer. Because depending on how you split that phrase, it can mean either: Our Lord has come; or, Come, O Lord!
Jesus didn’t return as quickly as Paul anticipated. We still await his coming. That’s what this season of Advent is all about.
Meanwhile, we live in the in-between time. You know, Psalm 110 is the most-quoted passage in the New Testament. And we inhabit the time and space it describes:
The Lord says to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
… Until I make your enemies your footstool. We live and move and have our being in the until time.
Even so, Paul wants us to know that Jesus is always near.
Paul could still see the light shining that the darkness—even the darkness of his prison—has not overcome.
The light that sustained Paul’s joy and gentleness can and will sustain ours, too, as we wait for our Lord’s arrival.
Do not worry about anything
The Lord is near, Paul asserts. Even though it doesn’t look like it. Even when it doesn’t feel like it. He is not far from any of us.
And it’s that truth which connects Paul’s invitation to rejoice and be gentle to what he says next: Do not worry about anything.
We hear this all the time all over the New Testament. Expressed in a variety of ways, to be sure. But it’s definitely a refrain that’s repeated throughout.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. (Matt. 6.25)
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12.32)
Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. (1 Pet. 5.7)
Do not worry . . . Cast all your anxiety on him. It’s not a call to irresponsibility. It’s not an invitation to quit caring. It’s not about the power of positive thinking. It’s not even quite, Let go and let God.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Let’s face it. I suspect we are often afraid to let down our guards, rejoice, and let our gentleness be known to everyone.
We are worried that we will be taken advantage of. Blindsided by some evil. Maybe we are just anxious that we will give too much too soon and look foolish.
Paul—from that dark, damp dungeon full of despair—didn’t want his friends to be too worried about him to rejoice. He didn’t want their gentleness replaced by cynicism or mistrust or defensiveness. So he reminds them: The Lord is near. Near to me. Near to you. He fills the space between us. The Lord is near, so do not worry about anything.
Rather, in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Name your fears and your grief and your needs and your longings to God. It’s liberating. But then . . .
Don’t worry about anything. The Lord is near. Rejoice, and let everyone know your gentleness.
More or less, our lesson today is Paul’s version of Fernando Sabino’s famous assurance: In the end, everything will be okay. If it’s not okay, it’s not yet the end.
So even if it’s not okay—even when we surrounded by darkness; no, especially when we are surrounded by darkness—we must not worry. We are free to rejoice. And the others in the darkness with us need our gentleness. Everything was not okay when Paul wrote to the Philippians. But he knew that just meant that it wasn’t yet the end.
And so he reminds us that, no matter how dark it is in this time of our waiting for everything to be okay, the light is still shining in the darkness. And the darkness still hasn’t overcome it.
The peace of God that surpasses all understanding
Writing from prison, Paul says to rejoice—be glad, find your joy—in the Lord. In Jesus. Celebrate the promises God has made to us in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of his Son.
He says to let your gentleness—your tough, gritty, patient mercy—be known to everyone.
He says that we are able to rejoice in Jesus and live out the gentleness we have learned from Jesus because Jesus is near. He’s just around the corner. He’s as near as our prayers. Prayers baptized in thanks, to be sure. But also needy and breathless and begging and ragged and maybe even sometimes through gritted teeth, growling prayers with salty language. Any of y’all ever see that episode of Good Times when James got killed? Remember Florida after the funeral? Sometimes our prayers may come out like that.
And Paul says that when we live rejoicing and gentle and prayerful and trusting that Jesus is near, that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is not the absence of troubles. Peace is not living above the fray. It’s not leaving everything behind. Remember, Paul wrote from prison. A moldy hole in the ground full of people sitting around in the dark waiting to die.
Peace is God keeping you sane and hopeful and useful in a crazy world. In whatever hole in the ground you happen to be stuck in. God’s peace overrides the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism. Peace is God guarding our hearts and minds from hopelessness. From cynicism. From the desire to take matters into our own hands. From rage.
The peace of God is what happens to us when we can admit that everything is not okay. And we are not okay. But we are able to remind ourselves that if everything is not okay, and we are not okay, then it’s not the end.
The peace of God is what happens when we see the light shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not swallowed up the light.
And the light kindles joy in us. And we are able to rejoice in the Lord, because we know that each day brings us closer to the time when the light that’s been steady shining in the darkness will swallow the darkness forever.
That’s Advent joy, church. The joy that consumes our lives, so that we also become lights shining in the darkness that the darkness cannot put out.