Advent 3C – December 12, 2021
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Philippians 4:4-7 (8:30 service) Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (RSV)
Do you notice how today’s lectionary includes polar opposites: “You brood of vipers!” versus “And the peace of God … will guard your hearts and your minds.” It has John providing the image of unquenchable fire and yet Zephaniah, Isaiah, and Philippians call us to rejoice and sing the praises of the Lord.
This year, as I have some other years, I find myself called to ponder rejoicing and singing the praises of the Lord, maybe because each week this Advent our opening hymn has included the refrain: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel”. Not to say that I’m slow on the uptake, but I think it’s finally working its way in.
And words, texts both said and sung, are important. Now believe it or not, when I was a child, I wasn’t a keen Sunday school participant. I didn’t like being in the basement Sunday school room. I didn’t always find the other kids conducive to an environment that nurtured my soul. And I – crazy kid that I was – yearned for the more adult words of the liturgy (which for me in elementary school were the words from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer). I loved words like “to comfort and succor all those who, in this transitory life are in trouble”, or “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed” , and even the blessing, which I didn’t know was cribbed from today’s letter to the Philippians, the priest saying, “The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God.”
And this peace that passeth understanding (or to use our present language peace that passes all understanding) is central to Paul’s writing to the Philippians. This letter is sometimes called the “Epistle of Joy”.
And this passage from Philippians is a favorite one of mine, particularly as it is a good reminder that we are not to worry. About anything at all! That’s the descriptor here. So, we aren’t to worry about all those things that nag at us daily. We aren’t to worry about those things that bother us. We aren’t to worry about family, friends, jobs, climate change, politics… And, yes, I do mean that. Paul, you might remember, writes to the people in Philippi who were having challenges of their own.
And it is probable that Paul wrote this letter from jail, from being imprisoned for proclaiming good news, but also in challenging the powers that be. So, he was not unaware that people have serious problems, that life isn’t always easy. While most of us aren’t in jail – though I’ve visited parishioners in jail, met up with people wearing ankle monitors, and so on – I wonder if sometimes we find ourselves in prisons of our own makings. I wonder if we sometimes get “stuck” in a self-defined circle of despair, of being stuck in a place where we can’t move ahead, or if we find ourselves unwilling to let go.
Paul, like Zephaniah and Isaiah, reminds us that the Lord is near and we are to trust in him. But, Paul doesn’t just say to suck it up when we are worried. He says that “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” I’m guessing that was part of his practice in prison, to pray, but yet be thankful as he conversed with God. And it is from this place that we move closer to a place where the peace of God comes to us, as Paul says, coming to “guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”.
And, I confess that I’m not always the best about being prayerful. Over the years, for some bizarre reason, maybe starting with my family of origin and their practice of saying grace, otherwise known as a prayer of thanks, at meals, I’ve had a lifetime of working on saying thanks. But sometimes, when I’m worried, I don’t find it as easy to pray…to come before God and lay it all out, lay it all out with clarity and detail, maybe letting on when my heart is broken or my body is hurting, not necessarily expecting it will change – though it might – and certainly hoping that it will change me. And I’m guessing that’s what I need more than anything. I wonder if that is true for you too? Backtracking to the beginning of the Philippians passage, did you notice the words it started with: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” What a great message to hold onto this Advent and Christmas. We rejoice as we sing Advent and Christmas carols. We rejoice as we show kindness to others or have it shown to us. We rejoice as we say words of thanksgiving in prayer and just in the daily happenings of our lives. We rejoice as we hear bells ring, and as we share laughter and storytelling in the dark hours of this season.
And this Gaudete Sunday, our pink-candled Sunday in Advent, we are especially called to Rejoice. Our dark purple lightens up a bit. And except for the harsher words of John in the Gospel reading where we are likened to vipers, the other readings are readings of blessing and God’s grace, cries of joy, and messages of salvation.
So, my friends, as we barrel down towards Christmas, I would invite you to rejoice – sing, dance, give thanks. I would invite you to lay your worries – whether the world’s or your own making – before God in prayer. And I would invite you to breathe out the polluted breath of sin and shame and breath in the peace of God, which will settle in our hearts and minds.