Mid-week Advent III
It’s quite a stark contrast. As chapter four of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians begins, he urges the church in Philippi to help two sisters in Christ of the congregation to “be of the same mind in the Lord.” Euodia and Syntyche are at an impasse, it would seem. They are butting heads. They are at odds with each other. Paul never says what’s gotten between them, but these ladies are mad at each other. Paul implores them to get along. He points out that their names are written in the Book of Life. (cf. Philippians 4:1-3)
And then tonight’s pericope starts. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” Wait, there’s quarreling going on...why rejoice? Because their names are written in the Book of Life. Because the Lord is at hand. Because the peace of God that passes all understanding will guard their hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Now, are we much different than the church at Philippi? In many ways, sure. But in regard to the two ladies, not at all. Now, I’m not going to air anyone’s dirty laundry, but I think that it is no secret that everyone here does not get along perfectly. At times, there have been outright disagreements and not-so-subtle displays of angst shown toward each other. While you have a history of unanimous votes at your voters’ assemblies, over many other things, you have butted heads, and you continue to do so!
It could be very innocent things, or things that should be considered innocent, innocuous, and certainly unintended. Someone said something to you that struck you the wrong way. Someone treated you in a way that put you off. Perhaps you and your fellow sinner-saint simply have personalities that clash. Perhaps there was some stressful event in your life that manifested itself in you being a little more difficult to get along with; it could even have been hormone imbalances as you age that have caused a slight personality change. Truth be told, no one here is ever completely easy to get along with all of the time.
And let it be known that the man in the pulpit is not innocent of any of this, either. There have been times when he has found it difficult to keep his temper in check. And he is more than sure that he has said a thing or two that has offended some, many, or even all of you.
But, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, so he could also have written to us. If I may paraphrase what he wrote: Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved. I implore you all to be of the same mind in the Lord. And I urge you also, true companions, help each other as those who labor with me in the gospel, whose names are in the Book of Life. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!”
“Let your gentleness be known to all men.” This is, perhaps, the tough part. But the encouragement that Paul gives the Philippians and us is to be gentle with each other. Again, the impetus behind it is because the Lord is at hand. Jesus is near. Jesus is near to you all. You are in Him; He is in you. And your names are written in the Book of Life. Now, look at the person sitting next to you, in front of you, behind you, across the aisle from you. Jesus is near them, too. Jesus is in them, too, and they in Him. How has Jesus dealt with them? Gently, mercifully, graciously. Their sins have been pardoned them, they are washed clean in Jesus’ blood, marked with the sign of the cross. They bear the same marks as you do.
You see, they know it, too. You know your lost condition. So does the person next to you, in front of you, behind you, across the aisle from you. They know the weight of their sin. Yes, I dare say they know the weight of their sins against you, much as you know that you have sinned against them. And in all of it, the words of the Psalmist ring true: “Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight—That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge.” (Psalm 51:4) Yet, all of you are gathered here, and Jesus is here in gentleness, kindness, forbearance, and grace for each and every one of you. You are one for whom Jesus died. The person next to you, in front of you, behind you, across the aisle from you is one and another for whom Jesus died. “The Lord is at hand.”
And if Jesus is at hand, then, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God....” Jesus is at hand, and He hears our prayers. He is near to you so that your requests are made known to Him. Let me be clear here. I am not saying that Jesus is some how close enough to hear you when you pray, but that His at-handedness is such that He is present to hear your prayer in addition to answering it and providing you with what you need to support this life and bring you into the next! “I am here,” Jesus says. “Pray to me.” This is great comfort—be anxious for nothing—because as the old hymn states, “Come, my soul, thy suit prepare, Jesus loves to answer prayer...”
Yes, “The Lord is at hand.” Not only is Jesus here by way of Word and Sacraments, but He is near. His first coming in the stable, born of a virgin, was anticipated with great zeal in the days of old. Prophets, one after another, foretold the birth of God, that Emmanuel was coming. For many of them, the anticipated event was thousands of years off. I mean, even Adam and Eve anticipated the seed of the woman to come and crush the deceiver’s head (cf. Genesis 3:15), and their wait was many thousands of years! Today, we anticipate the return of Jesus as the Righteous Judge. For nearly 2000 years, the Church has anticipated Her Bridegroom’s return in the clouds as the infant Church saw Him ascend into heaven.
But how do you wait? With what words do you describe Jesus’ return? The truth of Jesus’ return is this—it is nearer now than it has ever been. The Church can almost taste it. But, are you weary of waiting for His return? Does your weariness show itself in how you treat your fellow sinner-saints? How about how you speak of the nearness of Jesus. “Jesus is coming back someday.” Such a statement is borderline blasé. It expresses a lack of expectation and anticipation. True, we do not know when Jesus will return, but He has told us to watch, to be aware, to expect and anticipate. (cf. Matthew 24:42, 25:13; Mark 13:35; Luke 21:36; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Peter 4:7; Revelation 3:3) Watch; Jesus is coming back soon!
Therefore, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” The Lord is at hand! Jesus is coming back soon! And He is coming for you, dear hearers! He is coming for the person next to you, in front of you, behind you, across the aisle from you. “[A]nd the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Until that great and dreadful Day, you are in Christ, placed there by way of your baptism into His incarnation, birth, life, death, and resurrection. And by way of that, you have peace. Though the world erupts around you, though your brothers and sisters in Christ hold something against you, and you against them, you gather around His Word and Sacraments—you are brought, together, into His presence—and you have peace. You have peace with God and peace with each other through Christ Jesus your Lord, who is at hand, whose coming is cause for rejoicing!
And this because Jesus came for you once already. He was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the virgin Mary and born in Bethlehem for you. He was baptized of John in the Jordan River for you. He was betrayed, mocked, beaten, and put on trial for you. He was crucified and died for you. And He rose again from the grave for you. Therefore, for you the wrath of God has been satisfied and you have peace with God! It’s a peace that the world does not understand, because it does not understand or want Jesus. It’s a peace that surpasses all understanding, even your own, as was mentioned on Sunday. It’s a peace that guards your hearts and minds, every one of you, because it comes from the fact that you are forgiven for all of your sins.