December 07, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Well what did you expect John would say? His preaching was getting through to the people. Big time. His “in your face” approach to getting a message of repentance across was succeeding and before you knew it, John’s got people of all sorts asking “What should we do?” And in response to this earnest query, what do you think John would suggest?
Should he tell people to become ascetics, moving out into the middle of nowhere so as to meditate and chant mantras and offer prayers day and night for the rest of their lives? Should he tell folks—especially the soldiers who were armed in the first place—to go launch a revolution and found a political movement (“The Messiah Party” or some such thing)? Should he tell ordinary working folks—carpenters, bakers, tax collectors—to go and establish some huge social service agency to reach out to lepers and to other marginalized people in the culture of the day?
Let’s admit that any of those possibilities would have some merit. No one should want to knock the meditative life, those who try to do good for society through government, or those who reach out to the poor.
Mostly, though, John recommended no such grand things or practices. He basically sent every person who came to him back to his or her regular life, regular activities, regular vocation and then told each person, “Do what you’ve been doing but do it better, do it more honestly, do it as an act of service for others.” Share what you have, John said. Be honest and above board in your work, John said. Be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform in life, John said.
In a way, John’s words boiled down to, “Be nice!”
Is this the message that presages the advent of the Messiah?!
Well, yes, as a matter of fact it is. The coming of God’s Christ and of his salvation and reconciliation of all things entails and involves a nearly endless list of things. Ultimately we believe that no corner of the cosmos will go untouched by the renewal project that just is salvation through Christ Jesus the Lord. The Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper is famous for many things but in the Reformed circles in which I mostly run, few things Kuyper ever wrote garner as much attention as his comment that “There is not one square inch of this universe about which Christ cannot say ‘That is mine.’” True enough.
But although such a sweeping claim involves all sorts of really big things—powers and principalities, nations and kings, planets and star systems—it also involves all the not-so-big things like cooking spaghetti and working on Excel spreadsheets and volunteering at the homeless shelter.
Jesus was coming to change the whole world, and few people sensed that better than John the Baptist. Mostly John’s sermonic rhetoric ran to the hot side of things. Jesus was coming to upend everything, and few saw that better than the evangelist Luke, who alone preserved for us in the New Testament young Mary’s “Magnificat” in Luke 1 in which the young mother-to-be chillingly sang about sending the rich away empty handed and exalting the humble.
But even so here at the outset of Luke’s Gospel and in the key part of Luke that records John the Baptist’s ministry, when people come to ask John what the coming of all this change means for them in their ordinary lives, John sends them back to those ordinary lives as changed people. He sends them back not necessarily to try to change the world on their own and not necessarily to assume a new set of spiritual practices and ambitious projects the likes of which they’d never dreamed of before. Nope. John just told them to do what they had been doing all along and do it better, to do it all in ways that somehow color inside the lines of God’s good Creation in ways that—little though they may seem to be—will be part of that grander work of cosmic renewal.
So often people don’t think they are very spiritual. They don’t think that what they do at the factory, in the classroom, around the dinner table matters much or has much by way of spiritual implications. But they are wrong. If even a preacher as radical as old John the Baptist was could dole out the advice he did to people who wondered what active repentance would look like in their lives, then everything we do is profoundly spiritual and profoundly important.
“And with many other words . . . John preached the good news to them.”
That’s how Luke sums up John’s ministry. It was the Gospel somehow. It was Good News to be told both to repent and shape up AND to be told a little bit about what the result of such repentance would look like in action. The Gospel will change the whole world, including that little corner of the world where you and I live and work every Tuesday morning and Friday afternoon.
Advent has become such a “special” time of the year that preachers and those who listen to preachers alike can too easily forget that this ostensibly special time of the year is not so very special at all unless it has a profound effect on all the ordinary, non-special moments of our lives as well.
John’s words and what Jesus would preach in the course of his ministry had many similarities. Still, we all know that the day came when John the Baptist had cause to wonder if he had pegged the right man in Jesus after all. “Are you the Coming One or should we await another?” That was the remarkable question John sent to Jesus after John had been rotting in prison for a while. Maybe a partial clue to John’s later doubting can be found in the imagery in Luke 3. John liked to talk about axes being laid to the roots of trees, about winnowing forks and fiery baptisms. And, of course, it’s not as though John was wrong about all that in terms of who Jesus was and what he came to do, it’s just that the way Jesus brought in the heavenly kingdom was through meekness and sacrifice. But the seeds for John’s apparent disillusionment get sown here. It’s instructive for the church even today to notice the perennial temptation to want to get out in front of Jesus in ways that tend, as often as not, to veer toward the violent and the aggressive. If even John the Baptist could get derailed by this kind of thinking, it’s no wonder that many others in history have fallen prey to a similar temptation.
In one of his fine sermons some while back, I heard Tom Long tell a story about the church he joined when he moved to Atlanta a while back. At a new members’ dinner, the pastor had people go around the table to introduce themselves and say a little something about why they had joined the church. Some noted the good children’s programs that gave their kids something to do after school and for a week or two in the summer—that kind of thing helps out Mom and Dad, you see. Some noted the convenience of the church’s location, the proximity to their home, the good parking. Still others appreciated the organist and the lovely music. Finally it came around to a man who told the group that for more years than he could remember he’d been a crack addict, a boozer, and a derelict but that through this church he found the power of Jesus to turn it all around and that’s why and how he became a member.
As Long tells it, there all those new members sat, feeling sheepish. “We came for the good parking. He came for the salvation!”
It’s so easy to forget that at its core, the mission of the church is to see lives changed one at a time. People who had been walking nothing but zig-zags get the grace to walk a little straighter. People whose lives have been pock-marked by nothing but endless questions find a few answers that may not address every last query they’ve ever had but that answers enough to let them go on with hope. Salvation and the announcement of it is what the church exists for. And as Luke 3’s simple message reminds us, that salvation reaches down into the most ordinary of lives and transforms those lives not so as to make each saved person a superstar or an endlessly blissful person but to make the person they are and the gifts they have to shine more with the radiant hope that just is Christ Jesus the Messiah and Lord.
Author: Scott Hoezee
I used to watch a TV show that was quite compelling and enjoyable but it did have one feature to it that I did not much like: on some episodes the show’s characters would find themselves sunk very deep down into dreadfully complex circumstances. The episode would devote something like 92% of the time to digging the hole deeper, to making the circumstances look even more imposing (if not impossible). “They’ll never get out of this jam,” you’d say to yourself. But then of course they always did, and what was a little annoying at times was the fact that the enormously prolix problems that had been so painstakingly developed throughout most of the episode suddenly evaporated and were too-easily resolved after all in the final six minutes. You just didn’t see that coming after all that had built up to it. It looked a little too convenient.
The Book of Zephaniah is kind of like that. If you were dipping into this book for the very first time and read no more than these seven verses assigned for the Old Testament lection for the Third Sunday in Advent (Year C), you could never guess that a book that wraps up this lyrically, this gorgeously and so utterly redolent of hope could have built up to this soaring crescendo of a climax with some of the grimmest, saddest, more frightening stuff in the whole Bible. Most of Zephaniah is doom-and-gloom defined. And some of the worst of it is aimed squarely at the people of Judah.
It’s really no wonder this is paired with John the Baptist’s fiery rhetoric in Luke 3. Or maybe it is a little surprising given that John never quite turns the corner from his fire-and-brimstone broadsides against the people of his day to the kind of upbeat future hope that Zephaniah finally holds out here. But maybe the combination is supposed to remind us that at the end of the cosmic day, God’s purposes will always be on the side of life and flourishing. We might pass through dark times, have to endure dark prophecies, have to have the roof blown off from over our heads the way Zephaniah did for Judah in his day and the way John the Baptist did for the people around Jerusalem in his day, but in the end, life will return because it is not God’s purpose just to punish or to lament or to be sad.
In fact, the closing verses of Zephaniah reveal God’s truest purpose by showing us a glimpse into the divine heart. And along those lines, it is Zephaniah 3:17 that is the kicker. Years ago I preached a sermon on this text. I entitled the sermon “The Divine Delight.” I remember the sermon less for what I said (typical!) than for the reaction it elicited from quite a few people in my congregation who found the concepts detailed by Zephaniah to be among the most moving things they had ever heard in terms of their relationship to God.
Because in that 17th verse God is almost giddy with glee. He says that his dearest wish is to take delight in his people. Have you ever seen people waiting at an airport, literally hopping up and down with eagerness to be reunited with someone in whom they take delight? They stand on tiptoes staring up into the gate area, they crane their necks, the shake their hands with anticipation. They cannot sit still. And when the loved one appears, the dam breaks and all the love and delight comes gushing out in a spectacle of giggles, tears, laughter—everything all rolled into one big burst of exuberance.
That is God vis-à-vis his people in Zephaniah 3’s prediction of the future restoration of God’s people. God will take delight. He’ll carry little pictures of us in his wallet, eagerly and gladly taking them out to show to anyone who will look. He’ll brag on us and be thrilled with every encounter he can have with us. He will quiet us with his love. What an image! This is a picture of being drawn to someone’s breast, smothered with an embrace and with a snuggling-up that is sheer bliss for both parties. When you are curled up with someone you love on a sofa or lying on a picnic blanket, there is no need for conversation. Words won’t add anything to the delight of just being there with one another. It’s simply one of those moments when, having been “quieted by love,” the best response is a sigh so deep, it becomes a semaphore for joy.
But maybe the silence will be broken as the one lover starts to sing, quietly and with a big goofy grin on his face, the beloved’s favorite song. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine you make me happy when skies are gray . . .” he will begin to croon and next thing you know the couple is rocking in rhythm to the tune. “[God] will rejoice over you with singing” Zephaniah says. This is a portrait of bliss, love, and delight with few peers in the Bible.
But surrounding it are all the reminders we need for what makes it possible. This kind of reunion does not come cheap. It is not the result of Almighty God’s merely waving off human sin or winking at wanton evil. No, real forgiveness has to happen. God has to find a way to put aside all that comes between these would-be lovers; all that could drive them apart all over again. That’s a hard work—so hard that it will land the Son of God on a cross eventually.
John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for that one. Zephaniah anticipated the whole of that salvation centuries before. But the Good News of it all is that when God’s Christ comes, when sin and evil are finally dealt with in the way they must be dealt with, God can say what he does in fact say through Zephaniah at the end of the passage: “I will bring you home.”
“In my Father’s house there are many rooms . . . I go to prepare a place for you.” He goes to prepare a home for us. A home!
It is a tired truth but a real truth nonetheless that the Christmas season has become clogged and clotted with saccharine sentimentality, with more vapid forced coziness than you could shake a stick at. All true. And some of the real power and punch of the gospel gets lost in the midst of all the glitter and tinsel and such. But Zephaniah is here to remind us that when it comes right down to it, the salvation we receive—the reunion we will have with God on account of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God’s Son—cannot finally be exaggerated. You can’t get quite lyric enough to capture the joy of what Zephaniah sketches when our God finds in us a source of unending delight and snuggles up with us in the shalom of love and flourishing he had envisioned all along. We will go home. And what a home it will be!
Please Note: Advent and Christmas 2015 Resources are now available on CEP: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/resources/advent-2015/
“Are you going home for Christmas?” What question is more commonplace in December? You are at the store paying for your groceries when a cashier glances over to the bagger to ask, “So, you going home for Christmas next week?” Two older couples meet up in the dairy section: “Hey, Charlie and Doreen! Are your kids coming home for Christmas?”
Are you going home for Christmas? It seems like the question to ask, as well as the theme to play on. One major retailer has as its advertising jingle on TV, “There’s no place like home for the holidays.” The U.S. Postal Service runs an ad showing people in far-flung places opening mail to convey the idea that there’s more than one way to be home for Christmas–send the right card, and maybe your daughter in the Army won’t feel like Iraq is so far from Kansas after all. Speaking of soldiers, most of us know the well-known World War II song, “I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”
Are you going home for Christmas? Frederick Buechner has written that in mid-December 1953 he was in church one Sunday, listening to a sermon by his mentor, Rev. George Buttrick. Buttrick, too, related overhearing some people in the church narthex the week prior talking about Christmas and home. And when in his sermon that Sunday morning in New York City Buttrick asked, “Are you going home for Christmas,” Buechner says the question was asked with such a sense of longing that tears leapt to his eyes.
Home. What is it really that we mean by that word? What do retailers and the postal service want to conjure by the word “home”? Is it a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, all soft colors, crackling fires on the hearth, wide-eyed children whose eyes sparkle in the light of the Christmas tree? Is that home? Is it the sense of “Home sweet home” counted-cross stitched and framed over the mantle, or Dorothy clicking her heels together three times and saying, ” There’s no place like home”? Is that home?
Is it finally actually a place? Or is home more a longing? Or maybe I can put it this way, how many of us over the age of 20 feel like we are really “home” right now? Isn’t it true that “home” for us summons up, as often as not, a whole battery of things that are past and that cannot, as a matter of fact, be retrieved? Maybe “home” is the house you grew up in but that now belongs to some other family. But it’s not really that house, either, is it? Yes, that place, that locale, those four walls, are all important. If we concentrate, most of us can still take a kind of “virtual tour” of our childhood homes. In our mind’s eye we can still navigate those corridors, staircases, and rooms; we can still smell the mustiness of the cellar, the mothballs in the front-hall closet. Through an act of imagination, we can still open the door to mom and dad’s room and when we do, we know where every bottle of mom’s perfume will be on the bureau, where we’ll find dad’s plaid work shirts in the closet, his favorite hat on the edge of the dresser.
That’s home, but it’s still not just that. A skilled Hollywood set decorator could probably re-create our childhood homes based on photos and our descriptions. But even if someone could re-make that physical place, few of us would believe that just going there would be like going home again. Truth is, “home” is as often as not a whole set of longings, it’s a set of special people, an array of feelings that combine to make you feel safe and loved. It’s like that untranslatable German word, “Gemütlichkeit.” If something is “Gemütlich,” it’s cozy and fitting and warm and right and, well, I don’t know but if you find a “Gemütlich” place, you’ll know. You just will. You’ll feel it in your heart.
Home is like that. That’s why “home” could be experienced most anywhere so long as the right people were around. “Home” could happen in a hotel room where your family gathers because the heat is broken at the house. Many of us know full well that stabbings of home can hit you while talking on the phone with your sister just as surely as they can bubble up were you actually to journey to some piece of real estate back in Iowa.
Are you going home for Christmas? You could say that this is just another piece of sentimental doggerel, the very type of Hallmark hoo-ha that lards over Christmas and obscures its deeper meaning. “Home for the holidays” may have as little to do with the gospel as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. A theological Scrooge could say, and with some biblical justification I might add, that whatever the gospels tell us about what we now call “Christmas,” it has precious little if anything to do with being “home for Christmas.”
Are you going home for Christmas? It doesn’t matter how you answer that question, it still evokes some longing in your heart. But if you can’t go home or won’t go home; if you can go home only to regret how much it’s changed or if you’re still basically at home but you know it won’t last forever–whoever you are and whatever your circumstance, the news of Christmas Day is that the One we call Jesus understands. If he didn’t, we would not have a Christmas to celebrate to begin with. But we do.
Because the One who left home for our sakes came down here. Are you going home for Christmas? Because Jesus did not go home for Christmas, one day we all will. With God. Home. As it was in the beginning, so forevermore. Home.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Note: During Advent the Lectionary occasionally appoints other readings in place of a Psalm.
This is Isaiah’s song of praise to the Lord for being his salvation. It lies at what J. Ross Wagner calls a “crucial juncture in the book of Isaiah.” Our text, after all, ends the opening section of his prophecy in which Isaiah has spoken of God’s judgment and cleansing of Israel. It also follows the prophet’s announcement of eschatological deliverance and restoration. Isaiah 12, however, also points ahead in the prophecy. It anticipates the prophet’s message of deliverance and comfort in chapters 40-55.
In our text Isaiah thanks God that while God has been rightly angry with Israel, God has graciously replaced that anger with mercy. In many ways that’s the very kernel of the whole gospel. Human rebellion against God angers the Lord. Yet in Jesus Christ God has replaced God’s anger with mercy.
This offers those who preach and teach Isaiah 12 an opportunity to reflect on human perceptions of God. People, after all, naturally worship not the living God as revealed by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, but the kind of God we imagine and create. So few people naturally think that God ever gets angry. Most can only imagine that God is always merciful.
In verse 2 Isaiah affirms that God is his “salvation.” Salvation is a prominent theme in this text. The prophet, after all, mentions it three times in verses 2-3. What’s more, the name “Isaiah” essentially means “the Lord is my salvation.” So even the prophet’s very name stands as a kind of testimony to God’s amazing grace. On top of that, his patient, hopeful trust in the Lord also served as a kind of sign to rebellious Israel.
Because God is Israel’s rescue, Isaiah asserts that Israel can both trust in God and not be afraid (2). Fear is, of course, the natural human response in the face of threats. People can’t muster trust in the face of danger. So trust is God’s gracious gift to those who are afraid.
Echoing Israel’s song on the far side of the Red Sea after God caused the waters to swallow up her Egyptian pursuers, Isaiah sings, “The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” In doing so, the prophet links the salvation about which he sings to Israel’s earlier salvation from both Egyptian slavery and Pharaoh’s chasing army. This helps to draw lines from Israel’s Exodus to her coming return from exile. Isaiah basically implies that despite Israel’s chronic unfaithfulness, God will again show himself faithful by again granting her an “exodus,” by rescuing her from exile’s “slavery.” Of course, Christians can hardly hear Isaiah’s song of salvation without thinking of Jesus Christ as being our salvation.
Those who preach and teach Isaiah 12 may want to explore an interesting grammatical quirk in verses 1 and 2. We, after all, usually think of God as graciously giving God’s sons and daughters things like salvation, strength and reasons to sing. Yet here the prophet speaks not just once but twice of God as not granting salvation and strength, but of God as salvation and salvation themselves. Is there a difference, or is the prophet simply offering another way of saying God gives salvation?
In verse 3 Isaiah sings, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” It’s an evocative picture of God’s redemption being like a gift of cold water for thirsty people. God’s salvation is refreshment for spiritually parched people. A couple of things about that phrase stand out. Isaiah compares salvation to a well which offers what people can’t live without: water. That suggests that salvation is as necessary for human well-being as water itself. What’s more, the “wells of salvation” suggest not a thin trickle of salvation, but a deep abundance of it. And, of course, Christians can hardly hear this phrase without thinking of Jesus Christ, the “Living Water” (John 3:10, 13-14).
Verse 4’s phrase “in that day” links with verse 1, as well as Isaiah 10:27’s announcement of God’s judgment on Assyria “on that day” and 10:20 and 11:10-11’s announcement of Israel’s restoration “in that day.” Here Isaiah invites Israel to lift her eyes from her present misery to a coming day when God will transform and restore her. It’s a vision that grants hope to suffering Israel in the midst of her current loss and deprivation.
Modern preachers and teachers rightly shy away from the perversion of Christianity that’s all future “pie in the sky, by and by.” After all, God’s gift of eternal life begins here and now. God’s salvation already affects the whole person. Yet the fact remains that while God is already making all things new, “in that day” God will complete the creation’s transformation and restoration. Israel’s current circumstances, either in exile or on its cusp, don’t offer much reason for being hopeful. Knowing that God, not evil or misery, will get the last word gives strength to those who currently feel beaten, worn and discouraged.
And when God restores Israel by judging Assyria, the prophet announces in verses 4-6, Israel will be freed to sing psalms of praise. This mini-“psalm” echoes Psalm 105:1-2 with its call to “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done.” Here too, after all, Isaiah promises that redeemed Israel will be free to give thanks to God.
Yet God’s salvation of Israel also has missional implications. This is a message not just for God’s Israelite sons and daughters, but also for “the nations.” What’s the content of that message? God has done “glorious things” (5). “Great is the Holy One of Israel” (6).
In that day of salvation, Isaiah prophecies, Israel will be able to sing to the Lord because God has restored to her that for which God created all people: life lived with God in our midst. The human story is that of creation for intimacy with God against which our first parents rebelled, sending all people naturally in a dead sprint away from God. The good news of our text and of the Scriptures is that the Holy One of Israel is “among” us. This, of course, points us ahead to Jesus, Immanuel, “God with us” as well as to God’s gift of the Holy Spirit by whom God lives within God’s adopted sons and daughters.
The Lectionary appoints Zephaniah 3:14-20 for this day. Our text from Isaiah forms an appropriate response to Zephaniah’s promise to bring exiled Israel “home” (3:20). What’s more, Zephaniah 3:15 assertion that “The King of Israel … is with you” also echoes Isaiah’s insistence that God is “among” Israel.
This also provides a link to the New Testament lesson appointed for the day. In Philippians 4:5, after all, Paul invites the Philippians to rejoice because “the Lord is near.” Our text from Isaiah also resonates with John the Baptizer’s announcement of the coming of the One who will follow him who baptizes “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).
Few citizens of the 20th century modeled the kind of trust Isaiah professes in our text more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German pastor and theologian whom the Nazis imprisoned for this part in the 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
To greet the beginning of the new year 1945 Bonhoeffer wrote a poem from his prison cell . Among its most poignant verses is this (very roughly translated): “By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,/ we fearlessly wait, come whatever may,/ God is with us in the evening and in the morning,/ and most definitely on every new day.”
Bonhoeffer could peacefully await whatever happened to him because he knew that God was with him night and day. On April 9, 1945, just months after he wrote this poem, the Nazis hanged him. Yet as Eric Metaxas notes in his remarkable biography of Bonhoeffer, the attending physician said that he’d never seen anyone approach his death with such grace and peace.
Author: Stan Mast
Growing up in a family of modest means, I learned early the value of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. We couldn’t afford the real thing, those lovely complete books, so we read those abbreviated and edited versions of bestsellers and classics. They were very helpful, though not nearly as graceful as the original. You got the gist of the story, but not its full artistic beauty. That’s the way summaries are.
In the words of Philippians 4:5b, we have a Reader’s Digest summary of the Advent Gospel. “The Lord is near.” Paul uses just three simple words in the Greek (ho kurios engus), but they are filled with profound meaning in a world where God often seems absent and the future stretches hopelessly before us “like a patient etherized upon a table.” The world desperately needs to hear this simply profound summary, and it will be our task on this Third Sunday of Advent to show its full graceful beauty.
That is a truly awesome task, because if people genuinely believe that the Lord really is near, their lives will be revolutionized. They will rejoice always; they will be gentle to all; they will have an unshakeable peace of mind. Imagine a world without sorrow, without violence, without anxiety. It’s almost impossible to imagine, isn’t it? There’s so much to grieve, so much aggression, so much to fear, that Paul’s three commands in the words surrounding his brief announcement of the Gospel seem almost ridiculous. Indeed, it is ridiculous to command joy and gentleness and peace, unless the Advent Gospel is true. But if “the Lord is near,” then we can rejoice always, be gentle to all, and never worry about anything. So a lot is hanging on our attempts to preach the Advent Gospel today.
Let’s unpack those three words. “The Lord” is Jesus. That’s almost always what Paul means when he talks about “ho kurios,” and his words about Jesus in the context of this verse make it certain. Jesus is near—not just God, the invisible One, the Unmoved Mover, the Universal Spirit, the Man Upstairs, but the man Jesus who was God incarnate. At the end of chapter 3, Paul has talked about Jesus as the “the Lord Jesus Christ,” as the King in whose kingdom we have citizenship. As we live in a world where kingdoms are in conflict everywhere, it is wonderfully good news to hear that the man who was crucified as King of the Jews is coming as the King of Kings to transform the world.
Indeed, says Paul, he is near. That’s the Good News of Advent, 2015. Jesus is near. As I said before, the Greek word is engus, which could refer to spatial or temporal nearness. It could mean that Jesus is right next to me, right around the corner, in my neighborhood. As Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of John 1:14 put it, when the Word became flesh, he “moved into the neighborhood,” pitching his tent right next door. The angel told a skeptical Joseph that the child gestating in the womb of his presumably unfaithful fiancée was, in fact, Immanuel, God with us. And even when he left the neighborhood and went back home to his Father, his parting words were, “I am with you always.” He lives in our hearts by faith. (Ephesians 3:17). That’s how near Jesus is. Since humanity’s expulsion from Eden, there has been a sin caused distance between God and humanity, but in Jesus God has come close. The closeness of Christ who dwells in our hearts even as he sits on the right hand of the Father is one of the deep mysteries and high joys of the Christian faith. But that’s probably not what Paul means here.
Jesus is near in time. Scientists tell us that the earth has been here a long, long time. The human race has walked the earth for countless generations. You and I have observed many Advent seasons. “Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day.” Now, says Paul, after all that time, after all those disappointing Advent seasons, when we waited fruitlessly like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, the Lord is near in time. His coming is just around the corner in time, and “we eagerly await a Savior from there (heaven).” (Phil. 3:20)
Of course, Paul wrote this good news nearly 2,000 years ago, and Jesus hasn’t come yet. So, what possible meaning does “near” have? Well, it’s all matter of perspective. As one who grew up in the Rocky Mountains, I can tell you that spatial nearness can be hard to gauge. As you stand on one peak, the next mountain range might seem just a few miles away; a half day’s walk will get me there. But in fact that range is 50 miles away and it will take me days of hard hiking to get there. So it is with temporal nearness; it’s relative to one’s point of view. To a child waiting for Christmas, a day seems like an eternity. To her frazzled parents, the days rush by like a comet. So what seems like a 2,000 year delay to us impatient children may be a very short time to our Father and Brother. Though we can’t gauge time as God does, this Spirit-inspired text urges us to keep believing that our Advent hopes are about to be realized. “The Lord is near.”
If we believe that, we will be able to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Those central three words are all important. We are commanded to rejoice in the Lord, not in the circumstances of our lives. I have two friends who are suffering terribly right now, one from a rare form of facial cancer, another from a freak injury that nearly took her eye. They are filled with sorrow for what they have lost, with fear for what they could still lose, and with anger for the sheer randomness of their losses. It would be cruel and inhuman for me to urge them to rejoice in what they are suffering. And Paul doesn’t do that. He urges us to believe that Jesus is near even in this time and rejoice in him always.
What does it mean to rejoice in Jesus? William Hendriksen scours the rest of this epistle to give content to that idea. Paul could rejoice in Jesus always for these reasons: “that he was a saved individual whose purpose was in his entire person to magnify Christ (1:19,20); that this Savior, in whose cross, crown and coming again he glories (2:5-11; 3:20, 21; 4:5) was able and willing to supply his every need (4:11-13, 19, 20); that other, too, were being saved (1:6; 2:17,18), that the apostle himself being used by God for this glorious purpose; that he had many friends and helpers in the gospel-cause, who together formed a glorious fellowship in the Lord (1:5; 2:19-30; 4:1, 10); that God was causing all things, even bonds, to work together for good (1:12-18; cf. Rom. 8:28), so that even death is gain when life is Christ (1:12-18); and that at all times he has freedom of access to the throne of grace (4:6).” It’s not that easy to rejoice in the Lord. So Paul has to say it twice. It takes effort to focus on Jesus. No, it takes faith to believe that he is near.
If we believe that, we will be able to “let your gentleness be evident to all.” The English word gentleness sounds like something from the Sermon on the Mount about the meek. But the Greek word epieikes is much richer than mere meekness. Dictionaries give an astonishing number of defining words: big heartedness, forbearance, yieldedness, geniality, kindliness, sweet reasonableness, considerateness, charitableness, mildness, magnanimity, generosity.
In a world filled with people who are always pushing for their rights, fighting to get their way, looking out for themselves, and running over others in the process (one thinks here of certain loud, rude, offensive politicians), those who believe that the Lord is near don’t have to resort to such behavior. There is a place for self-defense, of course, and for seeking justice for the oppressed, and for battling evil. But if we truly believe that Jesus is the King “who [has] the power to bring everything under his control,” then we don’t have to assume a belligerent stance toward the world. If we believe the Advent Gospel, our default position will be gentleness. The Lord is near, so rejoice and be gentle.
And be at peace in your mind. That’s the positive side of this text. If you believe that Jesus is near, you can enjoy the peace of God. Indeed, that peace will stand sentinel over your heart and mind, over your feelings and your thoughts. Yes, you will still struggle with anxiety, but the peace of God will guard you. Paul uses a military term there, suggesting that overcoming anxiety is a real battle. God will give you peace.
But we have to do our part to receive and then enjoy that peace of God. Blessedly, our part is relatively simple, though not easy. We must take the cares that whirl around and around in our minds, that shift our focus off the nearness of Jesus and onto the nearness of trouble—we must take those cares and “present them to God.” Or, more accurately, we must make them known (gnoridzesthe) to God. That’s a fascinating way to put it. Doesn’t God already know our cares and concerns? Jesus assures us that God knows long before we ask (Matt. 6:32). Well, then, why do we need to make them known? So that we can get them off our chest, out of our mind, out of the secret places where they drive us to distraction and depression.
To enjoy the peace that God gives, we must take each of those whirling thoughts and make them known to God, so that we can know that he knows. Paul uses a wonderful “vocabulary of the soul’s inner life” to help us understand how to let go of our worries: prayer, proseuche, the general Greek word for prayer; petition, deesis, a word that has a sense of need; requests, aitemata, a word that suggests the content of prayer, definite and precise petitions, as opposed to what Oswald Chambers called “sentimental mooning before the Lord;” and eucharistia, the word for thanksgiving.
Peace will come to us when we don’t just offer perfunctory prayers, but get passionate, needy, specific, and direct about our concerns, and when we thank God even as we beg for answers. By thanking God for past answers, for present grace, and for future answers that are coming even as we pray, we can let go of our worries. But none of that will “work,” unless we actually believe the Gospel of Advent. “Jesus is near.” We aren’t praying to a distant God. We are praying to Immanuel, God with us, the coming King. In our anxiety, we fear the future. If we believe the Gospel, God gives us peace because we know that the King is coming soon with “the power to bring everything under his control….”
It is ironic and telling that Paul penned these words from prison and that he wrote them to people whom he first met when he was in prison. Acts 16 shows us that Paul practiced in that Philippian prison what he preached to the Philippian Christians. Even prison, it is possible to rejoice, be gentle, and be at peace. That’s because even when he was in prison with a trial and possible execution ahead of him, Paul was first of all “in Christ Jesus.” It is no accident that Paul ends this simply profound summary of the Gospel and its attendant call to revolutionary living with those words. You can’t really believe that Jesus is near unless you are in Jesus. Unless we have deep communion with the living Christ by faith, the gospel of his nearness will seem like a fiction. So, a sermon on this text should end with a call to come to the Christ who came long ago, is near right now, and is coming again soon. Let this Third Sunday of Advent become a day of conversion and re-commitment.
Readers of this text have always struggled with “Jesus is near.” What does “near” mean? One way of helping the congregation, especially the younger members, think about the idea of the nearness of Jesus would be to recall Sesame Street. I can still remember Bert and Ernie teaching our kids the concepts of near and far by getting really close to the camera and saying,“Near.” Then they would run away from the camera, shouting, “Far!” Or you could talk about nearness in terms of time by talking about how far away a long awaited vacation is, as opposed to the next day when they will go to school.