REJOICE

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:4-7 NRSV

I don’t think I’m unique in that when I begin sermon preparation, I go back and review previous sermons I’ve preached on the assigned scripture readings for a particular Sunday. I don’t recycle or reuse them, but glean from them some textual points that may be worth repeating.

Though I don’t preach on a weekly basis anymore, I continue that practice. However, I now use some of that material as idea starters for blog posts such as this one. It saves me precious time.

As I was browsing through my sermons for the Third Sunday of Advent, imagine my surprise when I read from 2012 and saw that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place on December 14 of that year.

In that mass shooting, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed twenty first graders and six school employees before turning the gun on himself. Earlier that day, he had killed his mother at their home.

A prayer vigil at a local church after the Oxford High School school shooting, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, in Oxford, Mich. Jake May/AP

I couldn’t help but draw parallels between that horrific tragedy and the deadly events of last week in Oxford, Michigan, in which a 15-year-old boy killed three students and injured eight others

Granted, the situations are vastly different in many aspects. However, both occurred in December, a month in which we look forward to some relief from the worries of the world.

Even more disturbing is the relative indifference that I perceive in the reactions of the greater society.  I don’t sense the extraordinary level of public outrage that normally accompanies such hideousness.

This Third Sunday of Advent churches light the third candle on the Advent wreath. On some wreaths, it is pink to signify joy. The Latin word for rejoice is Gaudete, which this Sunday has come to be known.

But the reality is that we have had little reason for rejoicing, not just this month, but for nearly the past two years. Our world is in a state of seemingly constant anxiety.  At every corner there is some new fear to haunt our dreams and burden our days.

Yet our standard response appears to be resignation. We have become numb to the violence and all that goes with it to the point that we merely accept, or tolerate it.

The effect is that we worry, we get stressed out, and we get frustrated to the point of quitting.  But none of that is going to solve anything. 

There is a better way.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians at Philippi, tells them – and us – that we have a choice. He encourages us to rejoice.

At the time Paul wrote this letter, he was in prison, and he had a choice to make. He could have chosen to be bitter, focusing on the negative, all that was wrong with his life, all he had lost, but instead he chose to focus on the positive, on all that was right, on all he still had. I imagine his letter to the Philippians is written as much to himself as it was to them.

Being in prison, he had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord Always.”

He had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” 

He had every reason to look on the dark side of his circumstances, but instead he wrote: Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

He had every reason to give up, but instead he wrote: “ And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s joyful spirit provides a path for those of us who easily fall into panic, depression, anxiety, or impatience, when we face inconveniences, small and large, and by our ongoing struggles with COVID-19, or other illnesses of body, mind, or spirit.

Paul invites us to lift our eyes from the violence, the illness, the pain, the anxiety, and the sadness we have to live with, and to celebrate the fact that these troubles are only fleeting.

Paul’s letter reminds us that when we rejoice always, our moments of deepest anguish are also moments of rejoicing. And that joy can be transforming, not just to us, but the world around us.

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RIGHTEOUS PEACE, GODLY GLORY

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
   and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;
   put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.
For God will give you evermore the name,
   ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory’.

[Baruch 5:1-4 NRSV]

Each year within the Church the second Sunday of Advent is called the Sunday of Peace.  And each year on this Sunday we read – either from Luke, or from Mark, or from Matthew – the story of John the Baptizer and of how he went out into the wilderness and there preached a baptism of repentance and the good news of the coming of the promised one of God.

The only mention of peace in the assigned readings is in the psalm, which is actually from Luke’s Gospel: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” [verses 78-79]

These words are part of the canticle commonly known as the Benedictus, or the Canticle of Zechariah, which is said or sung at Morning Prayer with slightly different wording.

However, there is also an alternate first reading suggested for today. Instead of Malachi, the lectionary also offers an apocryphal reading from Baruch (see the introductory verses above), which I have preached from on occasion. In the reading you’ll note the words, “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory,” from which I took the title of today’s post.

I lament that we don’t read more frequently from the Apocrypha. The blessed Martin Luther considered these books as profitable to be read and included them in his translations of the Bible. But that is another reflection for another day.

When we speak of peace, we often contrast it as the opposite of war.  The problem with that line of thinking is that the aim of war is not peace, but victory.  And any victory won by violence, only out of necessity leads to further violence.

But peace is so much more than that.

Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace. Shalom brings with it the understanding that peace and wholeness is not something which anyone but God can give.  From this perspective you are whole, complete, accepted, forever.  When you say “Shalom” to one another, when you use this gift, remember who you are – God’s people forever. 

Down deep inside of every human being, there is a longing, a deep God-given longing, that there would be a greater sense of peace within ourselves, within our families, within our nation, and between nations.

But where is that peace to be found?

The focus on John the Baptizer and his call to repentance is the key.

The word repentance literally means turn around – to go in a different direction, to change.  It is that simple.  And, some might say, at the same time that difficult.

It is a call that comes to communities of faith, to congregations, denominations, to families, to neighborhoods, towns, cities, and nations, to a whole world. 

It calls us to turn from lives of self-interest to lives in which God’s interest in the well-being of all, in the “salvation” or healing of all, becomes our interest as well. 

God sets all of this in motion through Jesus Christ, and God makes it happen through the Holy Spirit.

It is deliberate that we hear this call in Advent, as we begin the new liturgical year. And we repeat this call each year – because it is the truth we need to hear.

Howard Thurman

I close with a prayer from Howard Thurman which was written sometime in the 1950’s. Thurman was a product of his time, which explains the absence of inclusive language. But even today the prayer speaks to that longing for peace and the call to repentance on which we focus this second Sunday of Advent.

A Prayer for Peace

Our Father, fresh from the world with the smell of life upon us, we make an act of prayer in the silence of this place. Our minds are troubled because the anxieties of our hearts are deep and searching. We are stifled by the odor of death which envelops the earth because in so many places brother fights against brother. The panic of fear, the torture of insecurity, the ache of hunger – all have fed and rekindled ancient hatreds and long-forgotten memories of old struggles when the world was young and Thy children were but dimly aware of Thy presence in the midst. For all this we seek forgiveness. There is no one of us without guilt, and before Thee we confess our sins: we are proud and arrogant; we are selfish and greedy; we have harbored in our hearts and minds much that makes for bitterness, hatred , and revenge.

While we wait in Thy Presence, search our spirits and grant to our minds the guidance and the wisdom that will teach us the way to take, without which there can be no peace and no confidence anywhere. Teach us how to put at the disposal of Thy Purposes of Peace the fruits of our industry, the products of our minds, the vast wealth of our land, and the resources of our spirit. Grant unto us the courage to follow the illumination of this hour, to the end that we shall not lead death to any man’s door, but rather that we may strengthen the hands of all in high places and in common tasks who seek to build a friendly world of friendly men, beneath a friendly sky. This is the simple desire of our hearts which we share with Thee in quiet confidence.

Source:
The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations
[p. 152]

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

[John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

[Luke 3:3-6 NRSV]

Today is November 30, the final day of the month. The Church commemorates St. Andrew, the brother of Peter, but more importantly, the first apostle to follow Jesus.  

On a personal level, I have been retired exactly one year today.

If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me, “How’s retirement going?” or an equivalent question, I would have quite a nest egg built up by now.

The truth is, the last twelve months have been strikingly similar to my final eight months in active ministry, minus, of course, the daily Zoom meetings, and the administrative challenges.

But beyond that, my lifestyle is remarkably comparable. COVID-19 has seen to that.

To think that I’ve spent my entire retirement under the restrictions of a pandemic is incredible. All the plans, the dreams, the vision of a life of leisure have been torpedoed by this public health crisis that refuses to go away.

As I studied the readings for this coming Second Sunday of Advent, the Gospel lesson resonated with me in an odd way.

The words of the prophet Isaiah, as echoed in Luke, speak of preparing the way of the Lord, filling in valleys, leveling mountains, straightening out what is crooked, and making rough ways smooth.

I’ve used the following illustration in many previous sermons, and not just at Advent.

It was a well-known political practice of the ancient world that when a king was travelling his empire, the roads were upgraded and improved prior to his arrival.  It was particularly common during the expansion of the Roman Empire. Wherever Caesar travelled, road gangs preceded him making sure his travel was smooth and direct.

It may also surprise one to know that here in America, one motive for building the interstate highway system was to provide access to the military in order to defend the US during an attack.  Other than 9/11, that attack has not yet happened, at least not in the form initially feared.

Yet we keep the highways under constant maintenance.

I couldn’t help but make the comparison to these past 20-months or so, when, like highway construction, we have had to make quite a few alterations in our lives.

This week many preachers will undoubtedly talk about how emotionally difficult it has been for those of us who are accustomed to worship on a regular basis. And BC (Before COVID) worship was something that many took for granted. We would worship when we got around to it, until we couldn’t.

Our indifference mirrors in many ways Israel’s relationship with God.  As a nation, for many years they had closed their hearts to God’s Word. John’s metaphorical image of a highway in need of repair was his way of calling Israel to repentance, to look at what was going on in their lives and make whatever changes necessary, in order to welcome the Lord.  Their highway of faith was in need of major road work.

Likewise we are called to live lives of preparation for Jesus to come to us and live with us, not just during Advent, but every day.

Our Gospel encourages us to do some road-building, to repair our highway. We are invited to prepare the way of the Lord. We are reminded to consciously work on our Spiritual lives, and take responsibility for them.

There’s an important distinction to be made at this point.  

God is no bulldozer!

We are saved by God’s unconditional and undeserved grace in Christ; we live in the confidence of the pure Gospel.  Everything we do as a Christian depends on the fact that God has already forgiven us because of Jesus’ death; it is to the cross that we need to return again and again.

God loves us, saves us, and calls us, but this is an ongoing and growing relationship.

The highway is kept in good repair by Word and Water, Bread and Wine, God’s construction tools that strengthen us to live in God’s grace, and live out God’s grace.

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