The Fourth Sunday in Advent
+ IN NOMINE IESU +
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. . . . Do not be anxious about anything.” Easier said than done, we think, especially as Christmas approaches.
Expectations are high during Christmas. We want our celebrations to be perfect—the perfect tree with perfect decorations, the perfect meal with the perfectly set table, the perfect gift, the perfect Christmas service with all the perfect hymns. This desire isn’t helped by Pintrest, made-for-television Christmas movies, mommy bloggers, Martha Stewart and Norman Rockwell. And if that weren’t enough, the empty seats, the people who won’t be celebrating with are enough to bring the Scrooge and Grinch out of us all.
So when we hear St. Paul instruct us to rejoice always, we think, what does he know? He was never married. He has never had to endure the loss of a spouse or a child. He’s never suffered the pain of empty seats and Christmas let downs. It’s easy for him to say.
But if we think about it, it’s actually quite remarkable that St. Paul can write this at all. For this is the man who penned these words in prison, on his way to Rome where he would be martyred for preaching that Jesus is the Christ. This is the man who was shipwrecked twice. This is the man given the forty lashes less one; the man stoned, thrown out of synagogues, whose life was in danger every time he stepped forward to preach Christ and Him crucified. This is the man who saw many of his fellow Christians endure the same, and killed by those who thought they were offering service to God.
And despite all this, St. Paul, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice. . . . Do not be anxious about anything.” How can this be? How can St. Paul so confidently, and without irony, say this?
He says these things because the Lord is at hand. Jesus is born of the Virgin Mary. God has become man. He has clothed Himself in our flesh. More than that, He has clothed Himself with our sin. He has taken up our cause. He has submitted to sin’s wages, lived our life, suffered the wrath of His Father, endured our suffering, and died our death, in order to redeem us from sin and death, to set us free, break the bonds and shatter the shackles of sin, our enslavement to this fallen world, to give us back to God, to grant us peace in the forgiveness of sins for a life lived in eternity, where every tear will be wiped from our eyes and the peace of God reigns. He knows the end of the story. He knows what His final destination will be. He knows the end, the goal, of his future and that brings joy even amid sadness and suffering, even though he knows not all that will be in between.
That is not say that St. Paul doesn’t feel pain, or that he knows no sorrow. He does. His joy isn’t merely sentimental. He’s not putting on airs. It’s reasonable, tempered, fitting the circumstances he faces, but always with the knowledge that the Lord is at hand, the through prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving for what God has given and the final glory that will be his. This is the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, which guarded his heart and mind in Christ Jesus. This is why St. Paul could rejoice. This is why he could set aside his anxiety. For the Lord was at hand.
And perhaps this why we find is so difficult to rejoice. Perhaps this is why the coming of Christmas is so riddled with anxiety. Perhaps it is that our own self-imposed, unrealistic expectations have misplaced our focus. Perhaps we have lost sight of what St. Paul held so closely and clearly in his mind: that the Lord is at hand. We know the end of the story. We know what our future holds, what our final destination and the goal of our faith is. Like those who are comforted by know the end of a suspenseful movie or book, which allows them to enjoy watching the rest of that story unfold, we, too, know what our future shall be. Sure, we, like St. Paul, do not know all things that shall happen in between. But we know the end. And there is joy in that so that we may enjoy living as the rest of our story unfolds into the end that shall be ours.
So rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice. For the Lord is at hand. Do not be anxious about anything. Indeed, God became man. He took up our cause. He became our brother. For Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate. He was crucified for our transgressions and was raised for our justification.
Imagine that! God is one of us. And He became one of us to save us from ourselves, from the attacks of this fallen world, from the pain of death and the power of the devil. God is a man, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. The Lord is at hand. He is with us and for us, our brother in arms.
Rejoice. For the Lord is at hand. Our joy, like St. Paul’s, is not weakness or sentimentality, but a deep joy that carries and moves us to both laughter and tears. It is the earthly working out of what we possess now by faith and on the Last Day in reality, when we see him face to face.
Do not be anxious about anything. The Lord is at hand. For the same body that was born of the Virgin Mary, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lain in the manger; the same body that hung upon the cross, rested in the tomb, was raised from the dead; the same body that ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, this same body is at hand and given to you as a feast in the Holy Communion. And this body takes away your sins, gives you His own divine life, and peace with God and one another.
So rejoice, dear Christians; again I will say, Rejoice. The Lord is at hand. And despite your present suffering, despite the sorrow you have for those loved and lost, despite the fact this time, this season, this Christmas is not the same as you always remembered, or even as you always imagined it to be, there is a fitting and reasonable joy in your midst nevertheless. Because the Lord is at hand.
And so it is that the devil and the world and our own sinful nature can take from us many things. They can spoil our feasting and sour our hearts for this joyful time. But the reality is that they can never really take away Christmas because they can never take away Christ, the eternal God who became a fact of history, who took up our flesh, died, was raised, and ascended to reconcile man to God and bring peace.
Rejoice. Do not be anxious. The Lord is at hand. And the peace God that surpasses all understanding, which He accomplished by His incarnation and nativity, His cross and passion, His resurrection and ascension, is given into your mouths to guard your hearts and minds. Amen.