As we’ve been making our way through Advent these last four Sundays we’ve heard again and again that great theme of the season: Christ is coming, indeed he is at the door! It’s time to wake up, be sober minded, be alert. The kingdom of God is at hand, prepare your heart and mind and soul to welcome him.
This morning, on the precipice of Christmas, that same theme reaches its crescendo. “The Lord is near,” says Paul. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” says John. Here he comes.
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” says Paul, “again I will say, Rejoice.” Rejoice in the Lord when? Always. Rejoice in the Lord. Not just when things are going my way, not just when I feel like it, not just on the good days, not just when I feel in control of my life, always. Rejoice in the Lord, always.
And as if to make matters worse look what he says next. “Do not worry about anything.” Anything? Rejoice in the Lord always, and do not worry about anything. These two go together, rejoicing and abstaining from worry.
Remember your verb tenses from English class? These verbs are in the infinitive. In other words, this is not a suggestion. This is not good advice. Paul is not saying, “Hey, maybe consider this as an option, if you feel like it.” No, this is an exhortation. A command. Rejoice in the Lord always, and do not worry about anything.
Let me tell you something, this is not some cheap, shallow, trite, saying for Paul. This is not coming alongside someone who is suffering and putting your arm around them and saying, “Don’t worry about it.” You know how I know that? Because Paul is writing this letter from prison. He isn’t writing this from his warmly lit study at the Rectory in a quaint and snowy village. He is in chains, and yet he rejoices.
How is this possible? How is it possible to live in this world and not be overcome with worry? How is it possible to rejoice even in the face of great suffering? He tells us, did you catch it? “The Lord is near.” Paul was convinced and convicted about the presence of Jesus and that transformed his life so that even from a prison cell worry had to give way to rejoicing.
The presence and the experience of the risen and living Jesus can totally transform the way you live in this world also. Let me give you an example. If my children are fighting with each other (which of course they never do) and I walk into the room, let me tell you things change pretty quickly. Or if one of them is sad or angry or worried and I lay down beside them on their bed and I take them into my arms and hold them tight I can feel all of that pent up anxiety begin to leave their body. You see even as an imperfect father my presence changes my children.
How much more true this is with Jesus! Apart from an awareness of his presence the world can be a pretty scary place. We could all think of a thousand reasons to worry, and good reasons too. And make no mistake about it, following Jesus is no guarantee against sorrow and pain and suffering. But, when I know that Jesus is risen and living and that he is near and that he has filled me with the Holy Spirit and that he has promised to never leave me, and that I can trust him with all of my fears and anxieties then I can rejoice, always. Because I know that he is ultimately in control. Because I know that no matter what comes, no matter my lot in life, I can never be separated from him. That’s his promise to us. Do you believe that? Paul did.
And this rejoicing that overflows into prayer that overflows into thanksgiving, it shows up in two ways. It shows up externally and it shows up internally. Internally it shows up as peace. “And the peace of God,” says Paul, “which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Externally it shows up as gentleness. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” says Paul. Gentleness. Not weakness. Gentleness. Gentleness is patience, gentleness is self-control, gentleness is restraint, gentleness is a quiet confidence.
If it’s not obvious already this is clearly not the way of the world, but it is the way of our Lord and his kingdom. And if we’re not aware and awake we can start to become like the world. So Advent is as good a time as any to check in with myself. How’s my soul? Is the way I live in the world, my interactions with others, the way I carry myself, the way I speak and act marked by gentleness? Is my interior life, the way I think and move, my mind and intellect, my spirit, characterized by a deep and abiding peace?
I don’t know about you, but me? Not so much. But the good news is that the Lord is near and he is making us ready. The good news is that the Holy Spirit is at work in us, making us more like Christ, and that even now joy is beginning to rise because the light of Christ is coming and is here and the darkest night cannot stop it.