December12, 2021 / 3rd Sunday of Advent / Richard Holmer
First Reading Zephaniah / Second Reading Philippians 4:4-7 / Gospel Luke 3:7-18
Rejoice in the Lord!
At our adult class last Sunday, one participant offered an interesting observation. They noted that if a visitor were to attend worship here on a Sunday morning, to their eyes most everyone they saw would appear to be prosperous, secure and full of good cheer. However, he said, that as a longtime member when he looks around, he recognizes in each person he sees a personal history that includes a measure of grief or pain or disappointment. Beyond their well-dressed appearance he knows persons whose hearts have been tested and at times broken by many and various tragedies and dilemmas.
It's true. None of us gets through life in this world untouched and unscathed. We all face struggles, both large and small. Problems can overtake us unexpectedly. Circumstances can be beyond our control. And sometimes we are our own worst enemies – we are all broken by sin. Along with our personal burdens we live in a world struggling with a global pandemic, troubled by senseless violence, threatened by climate change and natural disasters, deeply divided by many issues.
In light of all this, what advice does St. Paul have to offer? He tells us not to worry about anything. He urges us to rejoice and to be at peace. How can we rejoice when there is so much pain and sorrow? How can we find peace in such a troubled world? Paul is not encouraging us to live in denial, to ignore the very real problems that beset us, or to pretend that we are somehow immune to pain and grief. Instead, Paul points to a joy that doesn’t depend on happy circumstances, but on the gracious goodness of God. Paul tells of a joy that is based not on the absence of suffering, but on the presence of the Lord. He invites the Philippians (and us) to rejoice because the Lord is near. We know Mary experienced such joy. She could rejoice in God her Savior, despite the fact that she was pregnant without being married, in spite of being humble and of low degree.
Paul does not urge us to rejoice in our good fortune, because all is well, because things are going our way. He invites us to rejoice in the Lord – regardless of whether our situation is good, bad or indifferent.
Paul tells of a peace that is not based on serene surroundings and a world that is free of troubles and disasters – it is a peace this world cannot give, peace in our hearts, the peace of God which surpasses understanding.
In another letter Paul explains why believers do not lose heart – in spite of hardship and sorrow:
“we look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)
Worldly problems and material prosperity are both temporary – faith, hope and love abide forever, because they are from God. If we were actually alone in this world, we would have good reason to be worried – even afraid. If all we have to rely on is our personal capacities and resources, we are overmatched against a harsh and uncaring world. Yet Paul assures us that we are not alone. Our Lord and Savior is near. Paul can state with great confidence: we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.
Paul acknowledges pain and suffering yet lifts up the faith and hope that transcend immediate circumstances, and allow us to persevere, despite the challenges. Paul goes so far as to say that we can rejoice even in times of suffering,
“…knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts …”(Romans 5:3-5)
As Christians we rejoice not only in what is, but also in what will be. As we sing in Advent:
“Rejoice rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.”
Not has come, but shall come.
In the Letter to the Hebrews we are remined that it was “for the sake of the JOY that was set before him that Jesus endured the cross and disregarded its shame.” Jesus could see the cross and suffered its pain – but his hope and joy were in what could not be seen: his resurrection glory.
Friends, we can have peace in our hearts because Christ is with us now. He has promised to be with us always. And so we continually remind one another: The Lord be with you / And also with you. Peace be with you. / And also with you. The great blessing of communion is the real presence of Christ, in bread and wine – and in us God with us.
And we can rejoice because we trust that our story will end well: love prevails, God prevails. Christ’s coming is not only a story from 2,000 years ago – it is a promise of blessings still to come.
In a moment the children’s pageant will present a story that is not only about what God once did, a long time ago in a far-off land. It’s a story that reveals what a wondrously strange and surprising God we have – who would freely choose to come among us in such an unlikely and humble way: as one of us. It’s a story that fulfills a promise God made long before – so it gives us confidence in Christ’s promise to come to us again. We are reminded that God isn’t done, reminded of what God promises yet to do, assured of God’s great love for a world and for people who are not always very lovable.
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We do live in a broken and weary world. And all of you are carrying burdens: burdens of anxiety, of grief, of regret, of guilt, of bitterness, of pain. For some, this is hardly the happiest time of the year.
Nevertheless, with Paul, I encourage you to rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Truly, the Lord is near – near to you. Do not worry about anything, but pray about everything. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is most certainly true!
Thanks be to God.