Saturday, December 12, 2009
Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent (December 13, 2009)
“The Joy That Leads to Peace” (Philippians 4:4-7)
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Paul says in today’s Epistle reading. “Rejoice.” That sounds like a command. Can you command someone to “Rejoice”? Can you command someone to “Be joyful”? I suppose you can, but does it work? Can a person be joyful when their life is full of anxiety and apprehension; depression and difficulties; sickness, stress, sin and shame? We hear Paul’s words to “Rejoice,” but as Christians we don’t often feel very joyful, and that makes us feel even more guilty. Welcome to another vicious cycle.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was a member of the U.S. Supreme Court for 30 years at the beginning of the 20th Century. He was known for his keen mind and his quick wit. At one point in his life, Justice Holmes explained his choice of a career by saying: “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers.” (Today In The Word, June, 1988, p. 13 at http://www.christianglobe.com/Illustrations/) Apparently, the clergymen whom Justice Holmes knew were not very joyful individuals.
But does “joy” always cause you to “put on a happy face”? Or is joy something deeper, something that is not always expressed in a smile? It IS something deeper, and you can have that kind of joy, as you will hear from the rest of our text this morning.
Today’s reading from Philippians is a suitable Advent message. It’s suitable for this Third Sunday in Advent, which is all about “Joy.” It’s a suitable Advent message because Paul also reminds us that “The Lord is at hand.” He is near to us today through His Word and His Holy Supper. And His Second Coming is near, too … nearer today than it was yesterday.
As we wait for the coming of Jesus, we can have joy. Moreover, we can have joy that leads to the peace “which surpasses all understanding.” You can know what it means to be truly joyful and peaceful as you sing “Joy to the world” and “Peace on earth” in our Christmas hymns, and the real meaning of those words will fill your heart.
First, maybe we ought to answer the question, “What is true joy?” That’s hard to answer. Philosophers have been trying to answer that question for centuries. Joy is much more than fun or pleasure or happiness. These things only last for moments at a time. Joy is a much more deep-seated sense of well-being even when your life is not always full of fun or pleasure. A person may be able to have joy even while experiencing a measure of pain and suffering.
Where do you find joy? Our joy-seeking desires seem to be strong, but sometimes those desires lead us in the wrong direction. C.S. Lewis felt that our joy-seeking desires in this life leave much to be desired. They are not as strong as we think. He wrote: “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (From “The Weight of Glory,” quoted at http://www.christianglobe.com/Illustrations/)
But we don’t always find joy in wrong places. There are good things in this world that give us a measure of joy and that God wants us to enjoy. Perhaps you get a sense of joy when you see a beautiful sunset. Maybe it’s when you look at the detail in a little flower and you marvel at God’s creation. Perhaps you feel joy when you look at an adorable baby sleeping in her mother’s arms. A person can feel joy when their favorite sports team wins a championship game. We can certainly be joyful when we experience good things in this world. But these are only a shadow of a deeper joy that God offers to us … an “infinite joy” as Lewis called it.
The key words in Paul’s command in our text today are these words: “IN THE LORD.” “Rejoice IN THE LORD.” This is similar to the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 37, “Delight yourself in the Lord,” and also in Psalm 73, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” Nehemiah encouraged the people in his day with these words: “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh. 8:10)
But it’s hard to “Rejoice” when your sinful nature and this sinful world get in the way. Right after he says, “Rejoice” Paul says, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” Other translations, in place of the word “reasonableness” use the word “gentleness” or “kindness.” Is your gentleness or kindness always evident to all? Sometimes we are not very gentle nor kind. We get impatient. We can be inconsiderate. We demand our rights when something does not go our way, and we let the offending party know in no uncertain terms!
Likewise, the cares and concerns of our day to day life keep us from being joyful and at peace. Paul writes, “Do not be anxious about anything,” but we often get anxious about EVERYTHING! We fret. We worry. We stress. It seems like there are too many things to do and not enough time in which to get them done. Especially at this time of year when there are family obligations and parties and shopping to do and holiday events, it’s easy for us to fly through Advent and Christmas, and when it’s all said and done, you don’t remember feeling very joyful. It’s joyful when it’s OVER!!!
Bottom line, all this worry, anxiety, stress, and impatience shows a lack of faith, a lack of trust, the feeling that things are hopeless or out of control, and that God really can’t do much to help.
But Paul gives us the antidote. “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And remember where the Apostle was where when he wrote this. He was in a Roman prison under the threat of death. Even in the face of his impending death, Paul could say, “Rejoice in the Lord!” The Lord was near for him because he figured he could very well be in heaven soon. And our Advent Lord is near for you, too. He is near to hear your prayers, to hear your repentant cry, to forgive you, to love you, and to bring you safely to your heavenly home when that hour comes.
So don’t carry your burdens around. “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Unburden yourself. Jesus bore the burden of your sins at the cross, the burden of your lack of trust in his care, the burden of your being impatient, inconsiderate, not very gentle or kind. Unburden yourself through a faith-filled prayer of repentance. Unburden yourself with a faith-filled prayer of thanksgiving for God’s care and concern for you. Know and trust that He has you in his hands and that you really don’t need to worry about a thing.
Then will follow “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.” Not that you will automatically get everything exactly the way you want it when you present your requests to God. Instead, having laid your burdens at the throne of heaven, with the burden of your punishment for sin removed at the cross of Calvary, God will grant you peace. Jesus promised this peace when he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) It’s a peace whether we feel it or not. It’s an objective truth … you are reconciled to God through Christ Jesus. The prophet Zephaniah proclaimed this very thing when he said in today’s OT lesson: “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you.” The punishment for our sins was taken away from us and laid upon Jesus at the cross. Therefore, we are at peace with God. Therefore, we can rejoice.
What’s more, this peace will guard your hearts and your minds. It will guard the joy that God has placed in your innermost thoughts and your innermost being … deep down inside of you … the joy “in the Lord.” When Paul wrote “guard” here he used a military term. It’s like a soldier who stands guard at the gate. He makes sure that no one enters or leaves without authorization. Those inside are safe. The enemies outside are not allowed in. God’s peace is like that soldier standing guard. The peace of God stands as a sentinel over your heart and your mind. Those who want to take that joy away from you—the devil, the world, and your sinful nature—are not allowed to enter in and steal it away.
As we prepare our hearts and minds this Advent for a proper Christmas celebration, we remind ourselves of the real meaning behind those words we will sing: “Joy to the world” and “Peace on earth.”
Joy to the world—the Lord has come. Joy to the world—the Lord is near to us today. Joy to the world—the Lord’s second coming is near.
Peace on earth—God and sinners reconciled. Peace on earth—peace earned through Jesus’ death and resurrection, peace declared in the Words of absolution, peace distributed in your Lord’s body and blood, peace that will guard the joy of the Lord in your hearts and your minds as you wait for the coming of Jesus.
So, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”