The Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 18, 2016
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7
When St. Paul says that the Lord is at hand he is pointing us to a topic of our Christian faith that we confess in the words, “From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” Jesus is at hand. He is returning to judge. John the Baptist confessed – he did not deny, but confessed – that he was not the Christ. He said that he was not worthy to unloose his sandal strap. He was unworthy to be his servant. Jesus hid his glory in his first coming, humbling himself in obedience to his Father all the way to his death on the cross. He will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead.
Jesus could return at any moment. St. Paul said, “The Lord is at hand.” Now is the time to listen to his voice. Now is the time to take to heart the preaching of John the Baptist and make straight the way of the Lord. Repent! Now is the day of salvation. It is now that we take refuge in him that John identified as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. When he returns, he will judge. It will be too late to repent.
We live on the edge of eternity. The Lord is at hand. In our text for today, St. Paul the Apostle tells us how to live, knowing that Christ could return at any moment. He tells us how we live with God, how we live with our neighbors, and how we live with ourselves. With God, we live in joy. With our neighbors, we live in gentleness. With ourselves, we live at peace.
With God, we live in joy. Just a few verses before our text are those wonderful words of this Epistle that have found their way into the graveside liturgy of the church. St. Paul writes:
This is why we can rejoice in the Lord. This isn’t a legal requirement. It is a gospel invitation. The joy of the Christian can’t be forced.
When I was ten years old, my father studied at the Menighetsfakultet in Oslo, Norway. On Saturdays, Dad would drive the whole family – there were nine children at the time – to some beautiful place or another, usually up on the mountains, in our 1963 Pontiac station wagon. Kids fight. We fought in the car. On one of these trips, Dad had his fill of our bickering. He stopped the car, turned around, and with menace in his voice, said to us: “We are taking this trip for you kids. So shut up and enjoy yourselves!” It was very quiet for about five seconds and then we all burst out laughing.
Think about this. You cannot impose joy. You cannot require that anyone enjoy anything. To rejoice in the Lord has to be an invitation. It is not, in the first instance, an invitation to joy. It’s a declaration of what it is that brings us joy. The Lord Jesus has made us citizens of heaven. Even as he lives in a body that has been glorified, so he will, when he returns, transform our sick, lowly, dying bodies to be glorified bodies that will never suffer pain or death or any other result of sin.
The Lord is at hand means that any day now Christ will bring his church into the glories of heaven where none of the troubles and miseries of this life can enter. That day will come as surely as if it had already arrived. This is why we rejoice. We rejoice in the Lord because we know that he has power over all things and he uses his almighty power for the benefit of his church – and that means us. We rejoice in the Lord because he has buried our sins in Joseph’s tomb. They cannot accuse us, claim us, or drive us to despair. We rejoice in the Lord because we are saints, a communion of saints, not because we have achieved this by our own good deeds, but because Christ has washed away all our sins by his holy, precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Not just when you’re feeling religious or pious or healthy or happy. Rejoice in whatever condition you find yourself, because when you’ve had a rotten day, your health is in jeopardy, your friend isn’t your friend anymore, and you can’t afford what you want so much, you are no less a citizen of heaven than when everything is going your way. Toward God we rejoice.
With our neighbor, we live in gentleness. The word here means living in a reasonable, moderate, gentle, fair manner. It considers not what abstract demands of justice require – as if we are our own little gods seeking to impose goodness on our neighbor, for his own good – but rather what would most benefit our neighbor. How can I live my life so that my neighbor is better off? The word gentleness refers to a reasonableness, a sense of proportion, and a desire to be fair. “Let your gentleness be known to all people. The Lord is at hand.” That the Lord is coming to right every wrong means that we don’t have to right wrongs. We let God worry about that.
It’s not just that God will right every wrong. It is that his mercy has already triumphed over justice. When Jesus met the demands of justice by perfectly obeying God’s law and suffering the full penalty for our disobedience to it, he was doing so in love. Releasing us from the demands of justice releases us from the need to demand our pound of flesh. The love of God that sent Jesus is the love of God that bore away our sin. That is the love that God pours into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us. It’s a love that does not seek its own, is not easily angered, and does not look to get even. It forgives without demanding payment. Christ provided payment. That is enough.
With God, we live in joy. With our neighbors, we live in gentleness. With ourselves, we live at peace. “Be anxious for nothing,” the apostle writes. For nothing! It’s not as if we entrust the religious stuff to God and not worry about it while we fuss and fret over our health, our money, our relationships, our job, and the fall of western civilization.
It is amazing how many Christians who face troubles in their lives seek the counsel of counselors who are ignorant of Christian theology, know little of God’s law and gospel, and are trained instead to apply the principles of modern psychology. Christians need to understand that they are spiritual beings. The spiritual medicine they need is the proper application of God’s law that exposes their sins and condemns them, and God’s gospel that brings them the forgiveness of sins that Jesus won for them on the cross. Much of what passes for counseling is nothing more than a combination of emotional manipulation and behavior modification that will leave the client feeling better for a while but in the same condition as before.
“Be anxious for nothing.” When we Christians pray, we are praying to the One who has absolved us. We are praying to the One who governs this universe. We are praying to the One who wants us to hold him to his promises. When we ask, we do so in thanksgiving, knowing that he will deny us nothing that we need.
This is what sets us at peace and takes away our anxiety and fears. God hears our prayers and answers them. He regards us with joy. He looks at us as his dear children. The secular doctrine of self-esteem, whereby we must regard ourselves as special because we are we, is, as secular creeds go, a flash in the pan. It doesn’t deal with the bitter realities of sin, death, and the power of the evil one. In the end, it’s a bitter joke. Love yourself all you want, but your love for you just doesn’t cut it when you are faced with your own sins, failures, broken promises, and foolish choices. You can be in love with yourself, but that doesn’t fix the problems that you face.
The reason Christ takes away our anxiety and fear is that he takes away its cause. John the Baptist identified him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He takes it away by bearing it in his own body. What he bears in his own body he removes from us so we don’t have to bear it. We don’t have to pretend that we’re special. We don’t have to rely on a forced kind of optimism that is always just a little bit tentative because underneath it all is our own weakness, pain, and doubt. We can rest in the peace of God that surpasses all our understanding. It is grounded in the love of God displayed for us on the cross where Jesus died for us.
John the Baptist faithfully preached the truth about Christ. He proclaimed his eternal glory and power and authority. He also identified him as the One who would suffer for the sin of the world. His preaching lives on. It is the preaching of the cross. Listen to what the hymnist says about the preaching of the cross:
The child of Bethlehem is the man of Calvary and he is our God. This is what brings us peace. Where God and man are united in one person the angels preach peace on earth, goodwill toward men. This is not just a seasonal emphasis. It is the constant theme of our lives. We are at peace with God. The omniscient God who sees into the hidden recesses of our hearts and knows every secret we hide from others is the same God who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows on the cross.
Pray to him. Don’t be afraid. Don’t doubt his word. He will never lie to you. Believe him when he tells you that he hears you and will give you whatever you need whenever you need it. The peace he gives is more than a surface feeling of happiness that is here today and gone tomorrow. It is a joy that runs deep. It will set your heart and your mind at rest. “Rejoice in the Lord, always! Again, I will say, rejoice!”
Rolf D. Preus