Rejoice in the Lord Always!
Fourth Sunday in Advent| Rev. Rolf Preus| December 12, 2004|Philippians 4:4-7
For many people Christmas is not a joyful time of the year and all the talk about the joy of this season only makes matters worse. So much of the joy we see expressed during December is rather shallow. It is based on little more than a vague hope that somehow, somewhere, sometime there will be peace on earth and goodwill toward men. The true joy of Christmas is seldom found. Urging people to be joyful won’t make them joyful. True joy can’t be forced. It must come freely from the heart.
This is why St. Paul says it the way he says it. “Rejoice in the Lord.” He isn’t giving us an order. He says, “Rejoice in the Lord.” “In the Lord” makes all the difference. You know what the angels told the shepherds about this Lord. They said: “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord.” Our great joy comes from the good tidings of great joy. It is the gospel of the Savior who is Christ, the Lord.
Jesus is our Lord because He is our Savior. A lord rules over you. The way he does so makes all the difference. A lord who rules over you by forcing you to do things for him that you don’t want to do will not bring you great joy. But a lord who rules over you by rescuing you from your fiercest enemies and setting you free from bitter slavery will bring you great joy. And this is what Jesus our Lord does.
Jesus the divine Lord is from everlasting to everlasting. He is God of God. He received His human nature from the Virgin Mary in time. He was God from eternity. What does this mean for you? Does the fact that Jesus is God make you afraid of Jesus? After all, if Jesus is God this means He gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai and that Law accuses you of sin. If Jesus is God this means that He is the judge and He will most certainly judge this world. If Jesus is God this means that He knows everything you have ever thought or said or done. He knows what you want. He knows what you plan. He knows what you hide from everyone else. God knows everything about you. Jesus is God. So He knows.
If you are living under the law the nearness of Jesus is a frightening thought. But when you know Jesus as your Savior from sin, His nearness is a very comforting truth. Isaiah wrote of this comfort in the word of today’s Old Testament Lesson:
“Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” Says your God. “Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
The reason we are not anxious and filled with worries is because Jesus is near. He is at hand. During Advent we celebrate the coming of Christ. He came on Christmas as a little baby born of a pure and humble virgin girl. He came in humility. He comes today in His gospel and sacraments. He comes to penitent sinners who cry out to God for mercy. He comes with the mercy that we sinners need. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Those who know Jesus in His first coming are not apprehensive, worried, or anxious about meeting Jesus in His Second Coming.
St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is God’s word for you. In our text the apostle argues that we should rejoice because Jesus is at hand. He is near. He will return at any moment. Rather than making us anxious, this puts our souls at peace.
But if Jesus had not come as He came we couldn’t find any peace at all. Imagine trying to get to know God apart from Christ. Could you love God if He did not love you first? Could you rejoice in God if you did not know the “good tidings of great joy” the angels gave to the Shepherds? No, you could not know God, love God, or rejoice in Him if you did not know Him in the person of His Son, Jesus, the Child of Mary.
Jesus is God. This means that He is almighty. He is holy. He must judge and punish those who disobey his holy law. But Jesus did not come into our world to judge us or to accuse us or to punish us. In fact, He didn’t come to demand anything from us. Jesus came only to love us, and by that love to rescue us from the punishment we have deserved.
Rejoice in the Lord. That is, rejoice in Jesus. When you have Jesus you always have reason to rejoice. If you do not know that you are forgiven of all your sins because of what Christ has done for you; then you cannot rejoice in the Lord. If you are trusting in how good you have been, how successful or popular you are, how healthy, how wealthy, how wise, you cannot rejoice in the Lord, and whatever joy you have is quite shallow indeed. True joy comes only from true faith and true faith comes only from the true gospel that reveals to you your true God. That is why we come to church. We come here to receive the true God: the God who become flesh in the Virgin’s womb; the God who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and put in a manger; the God whose flesh was nailed to the cross to remove our sins. In this God we can rejoice.
He is the God who comes to sinners, so you must be a sinner if He is to come to you. We receive this God in repentance, that is, in sorrow over our sin and faith in the gospel. The heart that hardens itself against God’s word finds no joy at all in God, but only His anger directed against sin and unbelief.
We must repent if we are to receive the true God with the true faith and experience true joy. But God doesn’t come to us because we repent. Our repentance is not what brings Him down from heaven. We don’t cause Him to come to us and to forgive us and to fill us with joy. He comes to us because He wants to.
So before we offer him our praise, we give him our broken heart. We lay before his throne of grace all of our sin, whatever we have done against Hs holy law, whatever accuses our conscience, whatever robs us of joy, whatever sins of commission or omission, yes, the whole rotten mess of lust, greed and all evil desire. Lay it all before Him. Don’t search your conscience to debate which things you have done that are sins and which are not. Instead, throw yourself on God’s mercy in Christ and admit that you haven’t loved God as He demands and that you haven’t loved your neighbor as God demands. Yes, we are altogether sinful and God is altogether gracious.
Rejoice in the Lord always! We never stop rejoicing because He never stops being gracious to us. He never forgets the blood Jesus shed to make satisfaction for our sins. Rejoice because God’s anger is stilled. Rejoice because the curse of the law is lifted. Rejoice because your sins are forgiven. Rejoice because the door to heaven is open. Rejoice because where your sin abounded, God’s grace abounded even more.
This is what makes us gentle and patient with one another. We aren’t at war with God. He has ended the war. So we’re not at war with each other. “Let your gentleness be made known to all men. The Lord is at hand.” Why look for arguments? Why challenge every slight and resent every insult? What difference can any of these things really make to one who has met God in Christ and has received the inheritance of eternal joy? If we need to fight, fight for the truth of God’s word! The pure gospel is what has brought us true faith, true life, and true joy. For that we will gladly do battle against every enemy of the truth. But there really is no point in fighting for our pride, our ego, or our rightness. Haven’t we already admitted, with the Apostle Paul, that all of our own goodness is worthless? We don’t have anything at stake anymore except for the truth that has revealed Christ to our sinful hearts and has blotted out that sin forever.
And we don’t have anything for which to be anxious. Why worry? Why take our problems so very seriously? Is it possible that the God who has descended from heaven to earth to be born as a baby – for us, to live in obedience to the law – for us, to suffer the guilt of sin – for us, could not know or not care about what we need? Of course not!
God invites us to pray. Not if we can summon the strength to do it right or to follow the correct formula for getting positive results, as if we have to manipulate God properly for our prayers to work. No, God invites us to pray because He is our Father and He is ready, able and willing to give us far more than what we pray for. Will He pay the price we could not pay, bear the burden we could not bear, wipe out by the blood of His Son the guilt which so burdens us and then completely change His attitude when we begin to pray? No, He will remain the same God with the same gracious will, so “in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” Prayer is talking to God as if what He promises us is true – because it is. And we don’t trust that He will answer our prayers only when we see the evidence that He has done so in the past. We know God answers our prayers for the simple reason that He tells us he does. We simply take him at his word. Don’ be shy about praying to God. Don’t think you can ask for too much.
And He will give you peace – a peace beyond all human understanding, a peace that cannot be comprehended any more than we can understand a love so deep that it would penetrate our deepest loss and give us eternal gain. In fact, He gives us this peace when He tells us the gospel, when He pronounces us forgiven, when He clothes us in the righteousness of Jesus. It is there, even when you don’t feel it, even when your worries and cares seem to blot it out. It is a peace that will keep your heart and your mind from every kind of false peace this world, the devil or your own lying flesh might want to promise you. It is the peace of sins forgiven. It is the peace that no man and no man’s work can achieve. It is yours, brothers and sisters. It is yours in Christ. So rejoice in the Lord always. I’ll say it again, rejoice. Amen.