December 5, 2021 / 2nd Sunday of Advent / Richard Holmer
First Reading Malachi 3:1-4 / Second Reading Philippians 1:3-11 / Gospel Luke 3:1-6
Sharing in the Gospel
“I thank God every time I remember you.” So Paul begins his letter to the Christians at the church he planted in the city of Philippi in northern Greece. Scholars have described the Letter to the Philippians as the happiest and most personable of all Paul’s letters. It does not read like a sermon or a lecture on Christian doctrine and morals. Instead it is full of warm affection, expressing Paul’s care and concern for his brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison, awaiting trial. Yet the tone of his message does not reflect any stress or anxiety in Paul’s heart. Instead, it is an epistle full of joy. The words “joy” and “rejoice” appear more in the four chapters of this brief letter than in all of Paul’s other letters combined.
If that congregation was not Paul’s favorite among all the churches he planted – it certainly seems to be less troubled than all the others. So it is that Paul rejoices with them and for them – and encourages them to rejoice always. You can feel the warmth of Paul’s affection in the way he speaks:
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” (Philippians 4:1)
ul is grateful to the Philippians for the support they have provided to him during his imprisonment – and also for their generous offerings for the needy Christians in Jerusalem. He commends their faithfulness, and encourages them to persevere in the way of Christ. Some of his closing words to the letter are the words that were shared on the plaques given to all of you this fall:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious – if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
Paul recognizes many commendable virtues in his Philippian friends – and he urges them to continue to lead lives that are true to the gospel of Christ. As I read this passage, it dawned on me that Paul’s words to the Philippians express how I feel about all of you, the people of St. James. I thank God for you! For your faithfulness, for your generosity, for the kindness you have shown to me and my family. Over the past twenty years, we have experienced many joyful moments together.
Ten years ago the theme for our Stewardship Emphasis was J.O.Y. – the three letters standing for Jesus, Others and You. That banner still hangs on the wall just outside the sanctuary. J.O.Y. is very much the spirit of St. Paul. For Paul it always begins with Jesus. Christian life is rightly centered first of all on Jesus – both what we do and why we do it. Paul once wrote: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2) And in this same letter to the Philippians, Paul says: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
You can’t spell JOY without Jesus. Our love for Jesus inspires love and care for OTHERS. And over the past two decades you have extended significant and consistent support for those in need: for the homeless, for the hungry, for refugees, for students, for the unemployed, for immigrants.
Prioritizing Jesus and others over your own needs is a sign of genuine humility. You don’t thi
nk less of yourselves – you just think of yourselves less, and focus on how you can serve others. The JOY of loving Jesus, others and yourselves is expressed in the vitality of our worship, in the marvelous music that enriches our praise and thanksgiving.
Paul liked to use the word REJOICE. REJOICE was the theme for our celebration of the 50th anniversary of St. James. In keeping with the spirit of this congregation, the decision was made to celebrate our anniversary not by doing something for ourselves – but by doing for others. We chose to celebrate 50 years by raising $50,000 to support the work of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. A generous member promised to match that amount if we were able to raise it. In the end, we were able to send over $107,000 to extend the good ministry of LSSI.
What a blessing it is to be part of such a generous, giving community of believers! Truly, we are blessed to be a blessing.
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Paul expresses his gratitude to the Philippians for their partnership in the Gospel – “sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” This has been our common experience as well. I look back with profound gratitude for what we have been able to accomplish together, by the grace of God. In good times and in challenging times, St. James has been faithful and devoted.
Two months after my arrival on July 1, 2001, came the devastating events of 9/11. The world changed overnight; our nation was in shock. Yet on that night we gathered in this sanctuary to pray – and we leaned on the promise expressed in Psalm 46: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear . . . "
Another change came in 2008 with the Housing Bubble that led to a major downturn in the economy. Many were unemployed. Housing values plummeted. Portfolios took a major hit. Yet together we persevered.
For the last twenty months we have had to cope with the challenges of the worldwide pandemic. We have adapted as best we can. I will always remember celebrating Christmas Eve outside last year when it was just 14°. We rejoiced! And despite the challenges these past two years, your giving has exceeded our budget by tens of thousands of dollars. I am amazed by your generosity!
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In Philippians 1:27, Paul says: “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel.” This verse is the source for the final line in our mission statement – words which send us on our way each Sunday: Live the Gospel. And so you do. In your devoted serving, in your joyful worshiping, in your faithful teaching, in your generous giving, in your warm welcoming, in your commitment to be a blessing. Together you embody the themes:
Love Gives – Faith Leaps – Hope Perseveres
More than once I have heard from members who have relocated to another place: “It’s hard to find another church like St. James.” It’s true! This is a special community. I’m not aiming to flatter. Instead, I remind you of the great blessing we enjoy together – I encourage you to cherish and to nurture the goodness of this community. The church in Philippi was by no means perfect – and neither is St. James. We are still a club for sinners – not a museum for saints. We have shortcomings and problems to overcome.
ny good things have been accomplished by the grace of God. Much good work remains to do. Paul understood this, and so he wrote: “I am confident of this, that the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.” What a marvelous vision for the church! God is not finished with St. James – or with any of you who call this church home. We are all works in progress.
God will bring the good he has begun at St. James and in each of you to completion. This is the hope-filled message of Advent. We hear God’s promise of redemption, a promise to make all things new in Christ. This work is well underway. It began in history with Christ’s coming. It continued in each of us with the gracious gift of baptism. It will be brought to complete fulfillment when Christ returns in glory. The story of salvation is not new – it continues as we live between two Advents – and it is sure to end well.
My time as your pastor is drawing to a close – but the mission and the ministry go on. St. James is not my church – though it has been a great privilege to serve as your pastor. St. James is not your church – though without you, it would not be what it is. St. James is, and always will be, Christ’s church.
It is our calling and our true blessing to keep following where Christ is leading, to keep making new disciples to be His hands and feet in this world, to keep living the gospel that sets us free.
Thanks be to God.