The Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 21, 2014
“The Lord is at Hand!”
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
The Lord is born of a virgin. He is a baby boy. He depends on his mother for food and shelter and care. He nurses at his mother’s breast, relying on her for his life, yet he is the Author of life. He is a little baby. He is the eternal God. He is the Lord. Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice. As we sing in the Christmas hymn:
Oh then, rejoice that through his Son
God is with sinners now at one;
Made like yourselves of flesh and blood,
Your brother is the eternal God.
There is temporary joy and there is eternal joy. There is the temporary joy of sensual or bodily pleasure. There is nothing inherently wrong with sensual pleasure, as long as it is enjoyed within the boundaries God has established. As the hymnist writes:
Hast thou not seen
How thy desires all have been
Granted in what he ordaineth?
Food and drink in moderation is no sin. Gluttony and drunkenness are sins. Sexual intimacy within marriage is not a sin. It is a blessing from God. Outside of marriage it is a sin against God. The sensual joys of life are not bad. But they do not serve as ends in themselves. We rejoice in transient pleasures knowing that they are fleeting. They cannot satisfy our deepest needs. As the hymnist reminds us:
One thing needful! This one treasure
Teach me, Savior, to esteem;
Other things may promise pleasure,
But are never what they seem;
They prove to be burdens that vex us and chafe us,
And true lasting happiness never vouchsafe us;
This one precious treasure, that all else succeeds,
Gives joy above measure and fills all our needs.
That one precious treasure is the word of our Lord Jesus in whom we rejoice. We rejoice that we are at one with God. We rejoice that all our sins are forgiven. We rejoice that our lives have genuine value and purpose. We rejoice that our future is secure. We rejoice that the Creator of the Universe joins us in our weakness and raises us up to heaven.
The Lord is at hand. He is not far away. He is not confined to a space way up above us where he, in his transcendent sovereignty, imposes his inscrutable will upon us poor mortals here below. He is Immanuel! He has joined us.
God is man, man to deliver;
His dear Son now is one with our blood forever!
The incarnation of the Son of God means that God is with us. The Son of God did not borrow a human nature; he became a man. The Lord Jesus is always at hand. This is why we can rejoice in any circumstance of life and why we can treat others with a spirit of gentleness, fairness, and patience. In short, we can imitate him who has become our brother.
Care, anxiety, and the worries of life become burdens that often translate into harsh treatment of others. If a happy home makes us happy outside of the home, how much more does the joy we have in our Lord Jesus result in showing kindness toward others! The apostle joins showing gentleness to others with bringing our needs to God in prayer. Prayer is the exercise of faith. We pray for what God promises. We know that God won’t promise us something and then fail to provide it. So we pray with confidence. We add thanksgiving to the prayers and supplications because we know that every good gift we have is from him.
Jesus is known for his gentleness. He was harsh in his criticism of hypocrisy, false doctrine, pride, and self-righteousness. The gentleness that Jesus showed during his thirty three years of walking this earth was shown to folks who were in need of God’s grace. He treated the woman at Jacob’s well with respect, even as he corrected the false teaching she had learned from her Samaritan religion. He was gentle in his treatment of sinners caught up in the failed lives that manifest and impenitent sin produces. He never turned away the penitent. He did not come into this world to judge anyone but to save sinners.
Jesus sets us at peace with God. This is the source of our gentle spirit. This is the source of our confidence in prayer. It is the peace that exists between God and us. It is the peace the angels proclaimed to the shepherds out in their fields that first Christmas over two thousand years ago. This peace bears fruit in our lives, as St. Paul writes in Romans 5:
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
The troubles of life make you bitter when you are at odds with God. The troubles of life can strengthen you and confirm you in your Christian hope when you are at peace with God. When you know Christ by faith you know you are justified by his blood. God reckons to you his righteousness. When God clothes you with the righteousness of Christ you are indeed righteous, for Christ’s righteousness is perfect. It renders us saints before the holy God.
This brings us peace. Forgiveness of sins and peace with God go together. If you have the one you have the other. If you don’t have the one you don’t have the other. The peace of God that surpasses all understanding that keeps our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus is the peace of sins forgiven.
When you enjoy this peace you can face down anything that would cause you distress in life. You feel you are small and without status in this world? You are at the mercy of events you cannot control? Your past sins nag at your conscience? Life is unfair? It appears to you that God doesn’t know your name or care about you? The forced cheer of the holidays only serves to highlight your own sorrow? There is no sorrow so deep that it can extinguish the joy that we have in Christ. There is no conflict we face that can break the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.
Peace on earth, goodwill toward men is a myth and a foolish hope if we think of it in terms of the elimination of crime, bigotry, hatred, violence, and war. Only a fool believes that this world, as presently constituted, can rid itself of the conflict that erupts all the time all over the place. Jesus said there would be conflict and wars in this world throughout its history all the way to the bitter end.
But there is peace between God and sinners and that peace is no myth, but a blessed reality established by none other than God himself. Jesus was not just a very special child; he was and is and will always be the mighty God, the Prince of Peace. He is at hand. He is where we are. But this isn’t just a soothing sentimental presence that brings a sense of serenity and good feeling to us when we get depressed. He is present among us with the almighty power to forgive us our sins. He who bore all our sin and suffered its guilt and punishment on the cross is our God. Immanuel doesn’t mean God was with us. It means God is with us. The Lord is at hand!
This is how we know we are at peace with God. Christ, who is our Peace, is at hand. As little as we can fathom how he can be our God and our brother at the same time, so little can we understand his peace. We feel our own sin inside and he says we are forgiven of it. We see our impending death whenever we get sick or a loved one dies. So do we believe his promises or our own lying eyes?
The peace of God that passes all understanding is the truth that defines our lives, regardless of what we see. When life seems like a victory party or when we have hit rock bottom and are still falling, the one constant in the life of every Christian is the truth of the gospel. Christ does not leave his church. He is at hand. He is always at hand. He is the faithful husband who laid down his life for his bride on the cross, washed her clean by his holy blood, filled her with his Holy Spirit, and confirms all of her members in the true and saving faith. The Lord is at hand. He has brought to us that peace that surpasses all understanding. He has given us eternal joy that no temporary sorrow can destroy.
Oh, rejoice, ye Christians loudly,
For our joy hath now begun;
Wondrous things our God hath done.
Tell abroad his goodness proudly
Who our race hath honored thus
That he deigns to dwell with us.
Joy, O joy beyond all gladness,
Christ hath done away with sadness!
Hence, all sorrow and repining,
For the Sun of Grace is shining! Amen