December 10, 2018
The Advent 3C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 3:7-18 from the Lectionary Gospel; Zephaniah 3:14-20 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Isaiah 12:2-6 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Philippians 4:4-7 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 110 (Lord’s Day 42)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Well what did you expect John would say? His preaching was getting through to the people. Bigly. 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.
Please Note: Advent and Christmas 2018 Resources are now available on CEP: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/advent-2018/
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: Stan Mast
As I read Zephaniah, the memory of a bumper sticker came back to me. It said, “Jesus is coming soon, and is he ever ticked!” (It actually used a more vulgar term that gave the sticker more punch, but you get the point.) That is exactly the mood of most of Zephaniah. Indeed, if our Lectionary reading for today didn’t focus on the very last verses of Zephaniah, this minor prophet would ruin Advent. This Minor Prophet is filled with anger, fear, and judgment. And there is no mention of a coming Messiah. Our reading from Jeremiah two weeks ago focused on the Righteous Branch and our reading from Malachi 3 last week promised a coming messenger of the covenant. Here there doesn’t seem to be even a hint of the Messiah.
But there is a strong note of joy, and that is traditionally the emphasis for this Third Sunday of Advent. Israel is called to sing and shout for joy. Indeed, even God “will rejoice over you with singing.” After two and a half chapters of unrelenting judgment, this grim little prophecy ends with a call to overflowing joy. That is such a jarring contrast that some scholars think these last verses were added later. I disagree; rather, the darkness that precedes our text is precisely what makes this ending so joyous. And that is the connection to Advent. God is going to do something so marvelous that his people will sing with joy unbounded.
What made the world so dark in Zephaniah’s day? Well, the world as they knew it was coming to an end. The northern kingdom of Israel had been wiped off the pages of history two generations before and there was danger in the air in Judah. True, King Josiah was trying to reform Judah before it was too late. But was it too late? An army of wild Scythians from southern Russia were sweeping down from the north and, while that army was stopped by Egypt, the thunderstorm of Babylon was building off in the distance.
Zephaniah announces that the storm is going to break, not in spite of God’s intervention, but because of it. God’s people had hoped that “the day of the Lord” would come soon and they would be delivered. But here in Zephaniah, God’s prophet says that the coming day of the Lord would bring judgment not only, or first, on the nations, but on Judah. “The great day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly (1:14).”
Yes, Yahweh will gather the “nations… to pour out my wrath on them—my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger (3:8).” And that will include Judah. For them, too, the day of the Lord “will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom….(1:15).”
But before that terrible day of the Lord comes, God invites his people to return to him. “Gather together, gather together, O shameful nation, before the appointed time arrives and that day sweeps on like chaff before the fierce anger of the Lord comes upon you…. Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility, perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger (2:1-3).”
Not exactly “have yourself a merry little Christmas,” is it? This is not the kind of stuff people want to hear two Sundays before Christmas. I mean, the world is dark enough. We come to church looking for a little light, for a break from the cycle of bad news. Well, that is exactly what makes Zephaniah such a great text for these dark days. In our text the cycle of bad news that has run for two and a half chapters has been broken. In a dark world, God’s people are invited, no, commanded to sing for joy.
Why? Because the God who threatened to come upon the world and his people in wrath has come in a very different way. Yes, he did come upon Judah exactly as promised here in Zephaniah. They were dragged off by Babylon and scattered among the nations. But that wasn’t the end of the story. He brought them back to their land, to God’s land. But that wasn’t the end of the story either, because it wasn’t the same as before. Life was still dark and difficult. “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17)
There must be more than this. There must be another day of the Lord. Will God never come to make things right for his people and his world? Isn’t there a happier end to the story? Well, that is exactly what Advent is about. In Advent we wait with eager expectation for the happy ending. In one sense, we already know that ending because the day of the Lord has come. In another sense, we still await the day of the Lord. That is the irony and complexity of Advent. As we celebrate the coming of Messiah, we wait for the coming of Messiah. We can celebrate the way Zephaniah calls us to celebrate, but our songs will sometimes be sung in a minor key because we still await the complete fulfillment of the Messianic promises of God.
Our text in Zephaniah will help us sing for joy, precisely because they show us the coming God even as we live in darkness. No, Messiah isn’t named, but God appears here in the various roles that Messiah will fill. In verse 15, God is the pardoning judge. “The Lord has taken away your punishment” that God had so terribly threatened in prior verses. In the remainder of that verse God has come as the divine warrior who “has turned back your enemy.” And the God who seemed absent in the midst of Israel’s dark days is back. “The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you….” That image of Immanuel, of God with us is repeated in verse 17. This text ends with God as shepherd dealing with the wolves and false shepherds who oppressed his flock (verse 19). He will “rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered.” The shame of God’s defeated people will be replaced by “praise and honor in every land where they were put to shame.” In every way, God will come and “restore your fortunes… (verse 20).”
No wonder Israel is called to rejoice and be glad, to sing and shout. So are we in this Advent season, even when the world is dark. This dark little prophet helps us see the coming Messiah in brighter tones. He is the One who satisfied God’s justice, so the Judge can pardon. He is Christus Victor who has defeated the principalities and powers who ruin human life. He is Immanuel who filled the empty spot at the center of life. He is the Good Shepherd who gathers all his lost sheep into the fold. He is the creator God who will restore his whole creation, so that we can glorify God and be glorified by him.
What a great text for the dark days of Advent in a world where God seems absent and inactive. Zephaniah assures us that appearances are deceiving. “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.” Because God has come in Christ, the comforting promises of verse 17 are true for us today, even when the world is dark. “He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” No wonder Zephaniah repeats the words we hear over and over in the Christmas story. “Do not be afraid, O Zion, do not be afraid… the Lord your God is with you.”
A recent issue of Christianity Today asked the perennial question, “If God wants us to believe in him, why doesn’t God come out of hiding?” Why doesn’t God overwhelm us with a powerful appearance, so that there can be no question about his existence? It’s a good question and the discussion of it in Christianity Today is profound, exploring all the places in space and time where God hides. It ends, as you’d expect, with a reference to the cross. That is where God appeared so that we could see him and believe.
Of course, that’s not the kind of appearance most folks are seeking. They are looking not for weakness and suffering; there’s plenty of that in the world already and it usually is counted as proof against God’s existence. What we want is a demonstration of power, God coming into full view and fixing things that are wrong.
So it is ironic that when God does arrive on the scene with righteous power and removes wickedness, folks get upset at God. Indeed, many people reject the Old Testament because of books like Zephaniah, which are precisely about God showing up in power. We want God to prove that he exists and “gives a damn” about a suffering world. But we reject the very passages in the Bible that reveal the existence of an angry God who comes to fix what’s wrong. It seems as though God can’t win with some people.
But through the coming of a little baby who will die on a cross, God gives people what they are seeking. He comes out of hiding and then conquers all that is wrong by hiding on a cross.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Note: During Advent the Lectionary occasionally appoints other readings in place of a Psalm.
More than we realize, the Bible is a trove of images, similes, metaphors, and visual depictions. Throughout Scripture God describes himself through a battery of metaphors that inevitably lead you to form a picture in your mind’s eye. Many of the images are, on the face of them, contradictory, until you realize that even to begin getting at the multi-faceted, endlessly rich character of God (and of also God’s works) will require you to hold opposites in a kind of creative tension.
And so God is both a lion and a lamb, God is church and God is home, God is fire and God is water. God is a leopard, an eagle, a mother hen, a bear, a moth, a fortress, a lamp, a rock. God is father, mother, king, judge, shepherd, and lord. Go through the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and you’ll find that God is an archer, a vintner, a barber, a watchman, and a whistler. God is both the great physician and the one who was sick and we nursed him. God is both the liberator of all and the one who was in prison and we visited him. Go through the parables of Jesus and you’ll find God depicted as a landlord, an unjust judge, a farmer, an old woman in search of a lost coin, a waiting father, a banker. Jesus described himself variously as bread, light, a vine, a door, a gate, a road. Not to be outdone, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, reveals himself as the wind, a tongue of flame, a dove, a counselor. And perhaps most famously of all, though we fail to notice this due to our sheer over-familiarity with it, Jesus said that a wonderful way to remember him and to experience his power anew would come through water, bread, and wine.
And so after listing all of that for you, I am tempted to ask, “Get the picture!?” But all of that is also a long introduction to Isaiah 12 and its depiction of salvation as being like water drawn from a well. Or to be more precise, salvation is like water drawn from many wells. “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” What kind of picture does that cause to form in your mind?
If you’re like me, you maybe see in your mind’s eye a “classic” brick well, maybe with a wooden little roof built over it. The well is round, made out of gray-colored bricks. There is a bar with a handle attached and from the center of that bar there is a brown, braided rope dangling down, from which is suspended a wooden bucket. In other words, if you’re like me, you picture a well as being sort of like the one illustrators of children’s books draw to accompany something like the nursery rhyme about “Jack and Jill”!
A few of you may be old enough to remember actually using a well to draw water for your family when you were younger. Mostly, though, wells are foreign to our experience now. Even if you live outside the city or have a cottage that has a well, all that means is that somewhere on your property there is an eighteen-inch pipe sticking out of the ground that houses the wires and such of the submersible pump that, in turn, provides you with indoor plumbing. Still, I doubt that many of us would be comfortable updating Isaiah 12:3 to say something like, “With joy you will dispense water from the faucet of salvation.” It just seems less lyric somehow!
And we don’t wish to lose the lyric nature of this brief chapter. Isaiah 12 contains only about sixty words in the original Hebrew and is only six verses long. (The Lectionary once again induces eye-rolls when you notice it skips only verse 1 since, apparently, the Lectionary folks assume we cannot handle a whiff of God’s ever having been angry. Oy!) What’s more, this chapter is often ignored in no small measure because it follows hard-on-the-heels of some far more famous passages. Isaiah 9 gave us the “for unto us a child is born” passage, and Isaiah 11 just wrapped up its well-known words about “the branch from the stump of Jesse.” Given its context, it is perhaps not surprising that Isaiah 12 gets very little attention.
The words of this chapter follow on what was just promised in Isaiah 11. Someday, Isaiah predicts, a shoot from the stump of Jesse will emerge and this Chosen One is going to re-make the world. He will restore the lost fortunes of Israel. But it’s more than just a political turn-of-fortune that is promised. It’s one thing to proclaim that someday the exiles of Israel will be gathered from the four corners of the earth and re-established in the Promised Land. But it is quite another thing to say that in addition to that, shalom is going to break out all over. The shalom that this Chosen One of Jesse will bring will be so grand and so all-encompassing that wolves and lambs are going to curl up together for naps, cows and bears will graze safely together in the same pasture, babies and little children will be able to crawl around near a snake’s nest without the need for any parent to whisk the child away from danger. The work of God’s Chosen One will be so great, Isaiah croons, that there won’t be any danger, any harm, any grief anywhere anymore.
Following those grand promises, Isaiah 12 tells us how we are supposed to feel when all that happens. When that day comes, everyone is going to burst out in song. Throughout chapter 12 the name “Yahweh” pops up over and over again. The salvation that will come will be so stunning, people won’t be able to contain themselves. They will be jumping up and down for joy like a little child. Have you ever seen how a little child responds when Mommy gets back home after being gone for a few days? Maybe Mommy had an operation at the hospital or had had a business trip out of state. Whatever the cause, she’s been gone a few days but now she’s home and the little child bursts out exuberantly saying, “Mommy! Mommy, mommy, mommy! Mommy’s home! Mommy, mommy!”
Isaiah 12 is a little like that when it comes to the name of Yahweh. “I will praise you, Yahweh,” Isaiah writes in verse 1. Then in verse 2 he explodes into still more bursts of praise. “God is my salvation! Yahweh! Yahweh is my strength and song.” The divine names gets repeated twice in a row, as though, like an excited child, he just can’t say the name often enough. He is that thankful, that happy, that overwhelmed.
In this same context, then, come the words about finding delight and joy in drawing water from the wells of salvation. Again, though, this is an image that is doubly foreign to our experience. It’s not just that the very notion of using a well seems old-fashioned to us, though that is part of it. We may regard drawing water from a well to be quaint, maybe even charming in its own way, but we’d be hard-pressed to feel joy over it.
But this image is doubly foreign to us because it’s not just the literal lack of wells in our lives but also the fact that we probably cannot appreciate how precious water was for people who lived in hot, arid climates. We open our faucets thoughtlessly. We waste no small amount of water, letting the shower run for a few minutes so the water is nice and hot even before we get in, flush the toilet just to get rid of a single kleenex, and so forth. Most of us have never known a truly thirsty day in our lives. True, sometimes we have a medical procedure coming up at 10:30 one morning and so the doctor orders us to be “NPO after midnight,” meaning no food or water until the test is finished. In the grand scheme of things, those few waterless hours are nothing and there is not even a remote chance we will become dehydrated. Yet even so we can complain loudly about how thirsty we are and oh won’t it be great to get a glass of ice water once that ultrasound is finished!
But the people in Isaiah’s world did know what real thirst was like. They didn’t buy bottled water, couldn’t open any taps, didn’t have an icebox with a pitcher of nice cold water in it. They had wells, and if the wells went dry, the danger was real. So in that era if you could find a reliable well from which you could draw good drinking water, that was potentially a source of joy indeed.
But in this chapter, the wells are not just sources of water but are the very “wells of salvation.” This was living water. This was saving water. This was the fountain of life. But even so, we may still have a hard time accessing the full joy of this because perhaps we’ve never been thirsty enough for salvation, either.
Not only have we rarely, if ever, experienced truly life-threatening physical thirst, we’ve also maybe never experienced genuine spiritual thirst, either. How many of us can honestly say that the lyrics of a hymn like “Amazing Grace” really describe our past? Have any of us ever felt genuinely lost only to discover the joy of being found? Have any of us really felt spiritually blind only to discover the joy of being given our sight back? And how many of us have felt so parched, so bone dry in our souls, that the sudden upwelling of salvation’s waters revived us into a rapturous joy we didn’t even think was possible?
Some of us maybe can answer those questions by saying, “Yes, that was me once upon a time. Been there, done that.” But for a goodly number of us, we have been raised with access to the waters of salvation just as surely as we were raised with access to water from the tap. So is there any way we can appropriate the joy of Isaiah 12 for ourselves?
We should surely hope that we can gain access to this joy, if not fully now then most certainly when the kingdom fully comes. In the meanwhile, perhaps we would do well to think long and hard about the great gift of salvation, find real comfort and joy in it, and then celebrate that with the kind of exuberance we find in Isaiah 12. Somehow we can and must find a way to tell the nations, tell all peoples, that in Christ Jesus all of Yahweh’s plans have marched forward decisively. God really is our strength, our salvation, and our very song.
Because one day the promised world of shalom will be the home of all creatures (if they have a home anywhere, that is). That’s another interesting aspect of this image of the well. Wells don’t create water, they tap it. If you need the well-drilling people to come out, what they will do is plunge their auger into the earth until they hit a water-bearing stratum and they will then sink the well down right there to draw up out of the earth what is already there. But that means that if one day there are wells of salvation available for all, that will be true only because the creation of our great God will be so complete at last, so shot-through with mutually edifying inter-relationships of shalom, that the sustenance we need to nourish us for eternal life will, by grace, be contained right in the very soil beneath our feet.
Creation itself, reconnoitered by the Chosen One of Jesse’s line, will finally become a source of life in the dearest, most permanent sense–which is the purpose for which God made creation to begin with. Gone will be the days of entropy, decay, death, and diminishment of all kinds. Gone will be the days when the stuff of creation could threaten life or when even the cells of our own bodies can turn against us in cancer. The day will come, Isaiah says, when the living earth will be a living source of eternal life.
In this Advent Season, we can see the first indication that all of that is not just a pious wish but the gospel truth. Because where do we Christians say salvation is to be found? Where did it come from? Are we saved the way some of the Eastern traditions claim; that is, by transcending this world, rising above the tawdriness of flesh and bone, soil and air by working ourselves up into “higher” realms of pure thought and ethereal energy? Does salvation get beamed to us from almost another planet, another world, delivered to our doorsteps by some wildly non-human creature like an angel?
No, Advent says that salvation emerged from the sod of this earth. However it was that a virgin conceived a child, the fact is that it was a human egg that got fertilized and it was a human uterus that bore within its tiny confines that Lord of Life for nine months. It was a human larynx that eventually said things like, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” And it was a human body that emerged alive from a tomb on a Sunday morning in Palestine. This creation, and our lives in it, are what need saving. But thanks be to God that he has found a way to save this creation from within this creation. The very method God used to save us tells us that picturesque descriptions of lambs and wolves lying down together are not mere symbols of what will one day be just a wispy spiritual idea but a literal description of what will happen to this very creation because of what has already happened within this same creation into which God’s Son has already advented once and into which he will advent yet again.
Author: Doug Bratt
The Bible is full of commands to “Rejoice.” Yet they’re not always calls to God’s people to just “be happy.” After all, the Scriptures’ calls to rejoice sometimes seem to come in the context of the least happy times and places.
For example, the Paul who writes the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary assigns for this Sunday doesn’t seem to be in a very happy situation. He’s, after all, alone in prison, awaiting a trial that he at least almost certainly fears will lead to his execution. The apostle also worries about the spiritual health of the young churches he has started. So we can’t simply assume that he’s particularly happy.
Yet Paul fills this short letter with 14 references to joy and rejoicing. So though he is deeply threatened by powerful people, the apostle can be joyful. He’s joyful whether he lives or dies, whether he’s well-fed or hungry, whether he’s safe or in danger – in fact, always (4). What’s more, Paul is also able to call the Philippians to rejoice with him in whatever circumstance they find themselves.
So how can Paul call people to “Rejoice” in the face of such great adversity? How can God expect those who struggle with mental and physical illness as well as other problems to rejoice? The theologian Karl Barth once called joy a “continual defiant ‘Nevertheless’.” It suggests that the kind of joy to which Paul invites God’s adopted sons and daughters isn’t based on our circumstances.
Of course, a number of people who proclaim and hear Philippians 4 are very happy. Some of God’s people are preparing to celebrate their first Christmas with a new family member or friend. Others celebrate these holidays with family members and friends in good physical, mental and economic health. So some of us can fairly easily rejoice in the good things God has graciously showered on us.
Yet those who proclaim Philippians 4 will want to be honest about people’s circumstances at this time of the year. We don’t want to add to the burden that is the expectation that everyone be merry and happy that our culture dumps on hurting people. It is, in fact, a “blue” Christmas for some who hear Philippians’ gospel.
Some who preach, teach and hear this Sunday’s Lectionary lesson have serious doubts and fears. Others face uncertain medical, financial or employment futures. So does that exempt them from Paul’s call to “rejoice in the Lord” this week? The answer is no. The imprisoned apostle and suffering Christians can rejoice.
For years I’ve looked for a satisfactory synonym for the word “rejoice.” I think I’ve actually found two. Those who are experiencing God’s blessings can rejoice in the sense that they’re “happy.” Those who are struggling, however, can still rejoice in a way that means, “take heart” or “have courage.” So we might say that to rejoice means to “be happy when circumstances allow it, but always to have courage.”
After all, as Paul reminds the Philippian saints and us, whether we’re glad or troubled, “the Lord is near” (5b). Whether God’s people live in freedom or in some kind of captivity, we can rejoice because the Lord is near. Whether our culture is healthy or sick, we can rejoice because the Lord is near.
Whether our personal health is solid or shaky, God’s adopted children can rejoice because the Lord is near. Whether our finances are booming or busting, we can rejoice because the Lord is near. Whether we feel alone or swamped by people, we can rejoice because the Lord is near.
As David Bartlett notes, we can rejoice that “the Lord is near” in especially two ways. The God who, in Christ, promised never to leave or abandon us is close at hand, by the Holy Spirit. So Jesus’ followers can rejoice in the fact that even our most difficult circumstances can’t wrench us away from either the Lord or God’s love.
Whether God’s beloved people are trudging through dark valleys or hiking through beautiful mountains, God is right with us. Whether we have to swim through flooded waters or walk in pleasant places in the coming year, God stays with us.
The Lord is near in the comfort the Holy Spirit gives. The Lord is near in the loving prayers and presence of other believers. The Lord is also near in the trust God grants us that God is working even through difficult circumstances for good.
However, in this Advent season of waiting for Jesus to return, Paul also recognized that we can rejoice that the Lord is near because our Savior is coming again very soon. The apostle will not have to sit in prison forever and the Philippians won’t have to endure persecution forever because Christ is coming back.
Those to whom Paul writes can also take heart because when Christ does return, God will show God’s approval of those others have ignored or persecuted. Because God’s people know Jesus will return, perhaps very soon, to make all things right, we can rejoice in the sense that we can take heart even when happiness seems very far away.
While Paul didn’t write in paragraphs, he may have placed verse 4’s call to “rejoice” strategically. He follows it up, after all, with call to let the Philippians’ “gentleness be evident to all” (5), as well as with a call to pray instead of being anxious (6). Might the apostle in doing so be at least implying that the Spirit will find it easier to equip God’s adopted sons and daughters to be gentle and prayer if they’re also joyful?
The Lectionary pairs Philippians 4:4-7 with an Old Testament lesson from Zephaniah 3:14-20. There the prophet also invites God’s people to rejoice in a surprising context. After all, he writes it in a time of great political uncertainty. One of Israel’s mightiest allies is losing her power.
What’s more, Zephaniah’s Israel is full of faithless leaders and corrupt powerful people who exploit society’s most vulnerable members. God has also promised to wreak havoc on both faithless Israel and the pagan nations around her.
Yet in Zephaniah 3:14 the prophet can invite God’s people to, “Rejoice, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel. Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem.” God’s Israelite adopted sons and daughters can take heart because God has removed their punishment that is their enemies. They have can courage because “The Lord, the King of Israel is with” them (15b).
Jonathon Kozol wrote a provocative book about people in the Bronx who are materially poor called Amazing Grace. The title reflects that of the old hymn that he heard them often sing in churches in the Bronx. However, it also reflects Kozol’s amazement that even in the midst of real deprivation, something very much like joy flourished. Even struggling people were able to “take heart.”
One pastor told Kozol that the fourth stanza of “Amazing Grace” was the anthem of the people he served. There, after all, they sang, “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
One of Kozol’s students wrote a paper that described his vision of the Lord’s nearness in the new earth and heaven: “There will be no violence in heaven. There will be no guns or drugs or IRS … Jesus will be good to all the children who have died and play with them … God will be fond of you.”
That’s a vision of the Lord’s nearness in which all of God’s adopted sons and daughter can rejoice.