Sermon preached at St. John’s Lutheran Church on Thursday, December 13th and Sunday, December 16th, 2012 for the 3rd Sunday in Advent. Sermon text: Philippians 4:4-7
Rejoice! That’s what we’re supposed to do at this time of year, right? After all, it’s most wonderful time of the year! It’s the hap-, happiest season of all! We’re supposed to have a big, goofy grin plastered on to our face at all times. We’re supposed to be humming the most obnoxious Christmas carol possible constantly. We’re supposed to be buying the stores empty and going to every party we can. Because it’s almost Christmas! We’re supposed to be happy! So rejoice!
But we don’t always feel like rejoicing. Sometimes the “happiness” and “rejoicing” all around us can just serve to point out the trouble inside. A smile might only be a mask to hide how much we’re hurting, either in our body or in our heart. Then we turn on the news and our hearts are shattered. We can’t imagine how anyone can rejoice with all the trouble in this world. The joy and mirth of this time of year might be a pleasant distraction, something to take our mind off our troubles for a few more hours or days. But this time of year doesn’t exactly make the troubles go away. It can even seem to make them worse.
So what can we do? Well, rejoice! No, seriously. Rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord. I don’t mean plaster on a fake grin or hum a tune to somehow artificially make you feel better. No, I want you all to truly rejoice from the heart. And that only comes when we rejoice in the Lord. That only comes when our source of joy flows through our faith and our relationship to God and his Son.
Jesus, whose birth is approaching, whose promise to come on the last day is again one day closer, he gives us something to really rejoice in. He gives us forgiveness that lasts forever. He gives us a home in heaven prepared just for us that will never disappear.
I don’t mean a rejoicing that sighs and says, “Well, at least I’ve got my faith, I guess.” No, I mean a faith that, even through tears, looks up and sees and relies on our God and his goodness, and that looks for reasons and ways from him to express that happiness in our lives. You can do that, too. So rejoice! No, seriously. Rejoice in the Lord!
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is sometimes called the “letter of joy.” It’s not hard to see why when we read the first verse of our text. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Phil. 4:4) It’s worth reminding ourselves here that Paul is not encouraging us to a fake joy, or rejoicing just because it’s a certain time of the year on the calendar. He’s encouraging us to a real, living joy in our Lord.
I say that because of where Paul was when he wrote Philippians. He was in jail! As he described it, he was in chains as he wrote this letter. That gives us some insight as Paul talks about rejoicing here. He’s not saying, “Wow, this prison isn’t too bad! Three square meals a day, and the guards are nice. I’m really rejoicing at how easy being locked up really is! You guys should really rejoice, too.” No! Prison was probably not easy; I’m pretty sure there was no cable tv. Paul wasn’t rejoicing because things were easy for him.
And things aren’t easy for us, either. You don’t have to be in prison to suffer. We all know that. And sometimes our troubles and pains can sting that much more this time of year. When we look around at people that all seem a lot happier than we feel, then our hurts seem to be that much worse. So what can we do? It’s pretty simple. Rejoice! No, seriously. Rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord.
It’s our connection to our God, our bond to the Lord that really allows us to rejoice. The Lord Jesus loved us enough to endure many more problems and struggles than we could ever imagine. He endured hell itself on the cross, for us! So eternal punishment is not in our future, no matter how much we deserve it. Instead, we get eternal life in heaven that we could have never deserved. That’s grace! And that’s a reason for us to rejoice!
And Paul goes on to explain what our rejoicing should look like. He says we want to rejoice with gentleness. Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (Phil. 4:5) As we rejoice, we want to be gentle about it. Now, this word “gentleness” in our text is a word that’s kind of hard to translate into English. When you hear that you want your gentleness to be evident to all you picture someone tiptoeing around, walking on eggshells, allowing themselves to be walked all over, and just being generally weak. That’s not what this word means. It means not making use of all your rights. It means not looking out for yourself first but looking out for others.
Let me give you an example. People around here like watching football games, and I have no intention of mentioning the name of any teams, either the team that I like or the team most of you like. There’s no need to mention names. But here’s something we can all relate to. When your team loses; it’s no fun. And the only thing worse than your team losing is a fan of the other team getting in your face about it. “That’s right! Who’s number one?! You guys looked awful out there!” Those fans are rejoicing in their team, but they’re not exactly being gentle about it.
Our rejoicing is different. As we give thanks for God’s gifts to us. As we rejoice in our salvation and forgiveness, we’re not getting in people’s faces about it. We’re not out to get the most for ourselves, or to rejoice at the expense of others. Instead, we rejoice in the Lord even as we put others and their needs before our own. We rejoice in the Lord’s salvation by helping others. We find joy in bringing God’s comfort to someone else who’s hurting.
And why do we want to live this way? The Lord is near. Even as Christmas gets closer, we know that the day of Jesus’ return is getting closer too, whenever it may be. If we’re rejoicing in the Lord, because the Lord has won us our salvation, then everything we’re doing is keeping in mind that he’s coming back. Our gentleness and selflessness shines through in our rejoicing as we reach out to others to get prepared for Jesus’ coming. Whenever it might be, Jesus is coming soon. That makes us rejoice.
But even as we know Jesus is coming, we also know he’s not here yet. We know that we have a lot of struggles and issues that we face right now, before we get to heaven. So what do we do with the difficulties until then? Simple. Rejoice! No, seriously. Rejoice in the Lord! We don’t go through life defeated and unable to overcome our troubles. We rejoice in the Lord always, even in the difficulties, even through the hurt and tears. One of the ways we do that is with prayer.
Listen to Paul’s encouragement for our day to day struggles. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Phil. 4:6) Paul — the guy in prison, mind you — says not to be anxious about anything. Anything! Prison, beatings, execution, life, and death, don’t let it worry you! Why? Because you can go right to God. You can ask him anything, you can give him your requests, you can thank him. Overall, you can rejoice because you have a direct line of communication with the holy and all-powerful God no matter what is happening in your life.
Little kids, I’m convinced, have an insight into this. I mean, you hear Paul talk about praying about everything and giving all your requests to God and you think, “Wow, that’s a lot of questions and things to ask God for.” Little kids aren’t afraid to ask questions and bring requests, are they? “Mommy, can I have this? Daddy, can I have that? What did you do that for? What does this mean? Why does that happen?” Kids are constantly asking questions and asking for stuff and talking to mom and dad with a trust that mom and dad must know the right answer and mom and dad must be able to help!
The biggest problem I’ve encountered as a dad there is the fact that I’m not God. My kids ask questions and I don’t know all the answers. My kids ask me for things and sometimes I can give them to them, and some other times I just have to say, “Can you give daddy a couple minutes? Maybe I can help you later.”
Friends, we have a heavenly Father who does know all the answers. We’ve got a dad in heaven who not only doesn’t need time to rest or relax, but who has the all-powerful ability to listen to us and help us with everything. Don’t we want to go to him a lot? A lot more than we do? Wouldn’t it be great if we could go to our God the way little kids go to their parents? “Dear God, I’m scared, will you stay with me? God, this hurts, will you make it feel better? Dear Lord, why did this happen, will you help me? God, I don’t know where to go next, will you show me? Lord, I don’t understand why people are getting hurt in our world, why violence is at the heart of so many things. Can you show me comfort from your Word?”
When we’re talking to God like that, aren’t we also rejoicing? We rejoice because we know we’re being heard. We rejoice because we know that our prayers are being answered, if not in the way we want, then in the way that’s best for us. We rejoice because God speaks back to us in his Word and he tells us everything we need. So when we’re troubled, when we’re hurting, we can rejoice! Because we have a heavenly Daddy who’s there to listen to all of it, and actually do something about it.
One of the things he does is give us peace. This is the final reason we rejoice that our text shows us, and it’s one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible. Listen to God’s Word. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7)
Friends, rejoice. No, seriously. You’ve got a big reason to rejoice, because you have the peace of God. That’s huge. It’s so huge we can never completely understand it, it “transcends all understanding.” But just think about the little bits we can understand.
We understand that the peace of God means we don’t have to be afraid because of our sins. Even though we mess up. Even though we stumble. Even though we fall and sin every single day in ways that should have God say, “enough! That’s it! You’re done! You’re not a believer anymore and you won’t be in my heaven any time soon!” God doesn’t say that. Instead, he points to his Son. He points to the cross and says. “Enough! It’s done! You’re not a sinner anymore. Jesus took it away. Heaven is yours.” Friends, you have the peace of forgiveness. Rejoice.
And when this world gets less than peaceful. When people are angry at you. When everything hurts, when everything is going wrong, we have a God who never changes. We have a God who is never going anywhere. We have the peace of his presence and love. Rejoice.
When our thoughts trouble us. When our hearts ache. When the world around us doesn’t make sense. Whatever is causing us problems, we go back to our heavenly Father and realize he’s been watching over us. In fact, we hear that he “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This word “guard” is the kind of guarding a soldier would do over a prisoner, like Paul might have been guarded by a soldier in prison. But God doesn’t have us in prison. He’s protecting our minds and hearts. He protects us from temptation. He protects us from trouble. He protects us from pain, even when we think we’ve got it bad. He protects us in Jesus Christ, in his love, in his forgiveness, in his salvation.
Yes, friends, we can’t understand it. But we’ve got it. We have God’s peace. So let’s rejoice.
And when it comes down to it, that’s what we can do at all times. We can rejoice. I’m not just saying this because I’m the guy up front in the robe. I’m saying it because God says it, and I want that rejoicing for you. I want for you what God promises you in Christ.
So, friends. Rejoice! No, seriously, rejoice in the Lord always. Whether you’re celebrating at a party with a real smile on your face or your suffering in pain with a frown that doesn’t feel like it will ever go away. Whether you’re at either extreme or anywhere in between, you can rejoice! You can rejoice because you’re connected to Jesus.
He allows you to rejoice with gentleness as you put others’ needs ahead of yours. He gives you the privilege to rejoice with prayer and go back to your heavenly Father again and again for all the help you need. Jesus lets you rejoice with peace. Not the false peace of this world, not a hollow peace, but a full peace. A peace that guards your mind and hearts. A peace that lasts forever.
So rejoice! Rejoice and give thanks in everything that happens during the rest of this Advent and Christmas season. Rejoice and give thanks over everything that life throws at you, every problem, every victory, every defeat. Because the ultimate victory if already yours. The final prize has already been won and given to you. “It is finished” has already been proclaimed. So, seriously. In everything. Rejoice in the Lord!