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God with Us: Blessing

A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 16, 2012.

Third Sunday in Advent

Note: At the beginning of worship, following the greeting, I made some personal remarks about Friday’s tragic killing of twenty-six people – twenty children, ages six and seven, and six adults – at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. I referred to a sermon I preached November 29, 1998 on the slaughter of the innocents, recorded in Matthew’s gospel, the second chapter. The title of the sermon was “Rachel’s Children,” and was based on Matthew’s quote of the prophet Jeremiah…

A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation.

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled,

because they are no more

                                                                        – (Matthew 2:18).

The reference to Rachel has to do with her dying in childbirth in Bethlehem, and we asked how we might, even now, ease Rachel’s weeping. One way is to be Christ to others. There is not one of us here, not one of us, who is not aware of the pain and loneliness and suffering of at least one individual. “The least of these,” the Bible calls them. And you and I, as recipients of God’s grace and goodness, are to go to them and share his love and compassion. Doing so just may wipe a tear from Rachel’s eyes.

The week I preached this sermon, I wrote a column in our weekly newsletter offering suggestions as to how we might make this Christmas season less hectic and a bit more meaningful. One of those was to make it a point to get to know someone of a different color, or to learn who your neighbors are on your block, or befriend a homebound person. Simple acts like that can indeed slow down your hectic holiday pace, but they can also provide you the opportunity to be Christ to others. Just a small way of wiping one of Rachel’s tears.

And finally, I am convinced that despite the wonderful images of Christmases past, like that of the little boy with his nose pressed against the store window, and our sometimes rehearsed attempts at making merry, we should spend some time weeping for Rachel’s children. We should be weeping for the suffering children of our world and weeping for the sins of all humankind against God and against humankind. We should be weeping because of our lack of faith and our lack of celebrating the good news of God in Jesus Christ. We should be weeping for ourselves, not out of self-pity, but out of repentance.

This is a new day, a new opportunity, to celebrate the joy that comes even in the midst of the black side of Christmas because God is. The Herods of this world do not have the final say. The cross of Golgotha does not have the final say. The tragic events of this week do not have the final say, and the black side of Christmas is not the last word. The final resounding word is “EmmanuelGod with us.”

Like Jeremiah and Isaiah and the other prophets who, centuries before Christ, foretold his coming, the Psalmist too got into the act when he said, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

May that be true for us and for our friends in Newtown, Connecticut.

GOD WITH US:

“BLESSING”

Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7

If you were observant earlier in our worship service, you noticed the pink or rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath. Kind of stands out from the rest, doesn’t it? After all, the others are purple, except for the larger white one in the middle. That, of course, is the Christ candle, and it will be lighted on Christmas Eve. But today we lit the rose-colored candle. Have you ever wondered why this color is used… and always on the third Sunday in Advent?

We have talked about this before, but if you don’t mind I’d like to do it again, first by throwing in a disclaimer for all you born-and-bred, dyed-in-the-wool, three-degrees-from-hardshell Baptists (you know who you are!). The significance of the third, and differently-colored candle, has its source in the Latin. I know, I know, there are not a few of us here today who grew up being told that anything Catholic or Latin was verboten for those of us of the Baptist persuasion. In fact, back in the day when we received our doctrinal instruction – or so it seems – we were taught less about what we Baptists believed than what we didn’t believe. And if it had anything to do with “Catholic,” we ran from it as fast as we could go. What we didn’t believe was pretty much anything the Catholics did believe.

But we’ve softened a bit over the years, haven’t we? And for good reason. There’s a lot to be learned from that part of our heritage. And yes, it is indeed a part – a very important part – of who we are… even us  born-and-bred, dyed-in-the-wool, three-degrees-from-hardshell Baptists.

So, are you ready for it? This is Gaudete Sunday. Sounds very much like Latin, doesn’t it? That’s because it is Latin. The word gaudete means “rejoice.” The color purple, used three out of the four Sundays in Advent, represents repentance, while the rose candle symbolizes the coming of Christmas joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul says; “again I will say, Rejoice!” And that is why the passage written by Paul, that we read a bit earlier, is chosen to be included in the lectionary on this the third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday.

Earl Palmer says, “For many centuries these words of Paul were treasured for their poetic beauty but hardly for their realism. But look again,” he says, “look again.”1 That is exactly what we are going to do this morning; look again at what Paul is saying.

But it’s rather odd, actually, for Paul to say this to his friends in the church at Philippi. You see, Paul is in prison. That is not a place we generally associate with joy. I’ve visited prison a few times over the years. I have not found them to be joyful places, not at all. Many, if not most, of Paul’s writings were done from prison, however. I suppose, when he was not spending time in a jail cell, Paul was too busy to write. But when you’ve got nowhere to go and nobody to see, it’s easier to settle down with pen and paper and fire off a few thoughts to your friends. That is what Paul does.

In his letter to the Philippians, he admonishes them about a few things. Paul just cannot refrain from giving advice. While this is the most positive of all the epistles he writes, things are not perfect in the Philippian church. So, he addresses a few issues, things that are going on there.

Some folks aren’t getting along with one another, and that’s causing some dissension in the ranks. Paul is concerned about that. He’s worried that they’re worried, about his being in prison and all that goes with that. The church is being challenged by forces outside the congregation. They are, after all, a minority group in a pagan city. Paul wants to send in reinforcements, Timothy and Epaphroditus, friends who can help them withstand the pressures they’re experiencing. So he tells them about that.

There’s a lot going on in the city of Philippi that could easily swallow up this little congregation, and Paul is using every opportunity available to him to encourage his friends in the face of their difficulties.

Yet, in the midst of all this concern and warning and advice, Paul begins the closing of his letter by calling on his friends to have joyful hearts. There is nothing – nothing – they are experiencing that can’t be dealt with by having the kind of joy that comes only through one’s commitment to Christ. That is why this passage is chosen for the season of Advent.

I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of this before – in truth, I never have, until now, that is – that when Paul was engaged in his ministry, and from time-to-time found himself languishing behind prison walls and writing letters to the various churches to which he had ministered, the chances are pretty good he had never heard the Christmas story that is portrayed in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Have you ever thought about that?

You see, Paul’s ministry and writing took place before the gospels were written. The gospels were penned when it was becoming obvious to the first generation of Christ followers that Jesus wasn’t going to return in their lifetimes. There was a growing concern that the stories might be lost as Jesus’ disciples began exiting from the scene. The narratives that thus far had been exchanged among the Christian communities by word of mouth needed to be written down for posterity.

When Paul wrote his letters, it was not his intent to be writing scripture. He simply needed to communicate with the churches he had served. So his epistles pre-date the gospels. Chances are, Paul knew nothing of the visitation to Joseph and Mary by the angel, nor was he aware of the journey by the Magi or the angelic chorus singing praises before the shepherds in Bethlehem. If he did know these things, he certainly said nothing about them.

What did he know of Jesus? Only what he was told. But that was enough for him to catch the spirit of the One who inspired his every move and each word with which he gave witness of his faith. And now, on this third Sunday in Advent, we consider what he told his friends in Philippi, words that were written under trying circumstances.

So there’s a sense in which the third Sunday in Advent is a time for turning the corner. The first two Sundays are kind of like Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The scriptures chosen for these days are filled with warnings and encouragements to be ready for the things that are to come… pretty much what Paul addresses earlier in this epistle. The first two Sundays in Advent, at least from a scriptural standpoint, are not decorated with mistletoe and ivy, let me tell you. Neither is Paul’s letter to his Philippian friends. But now, on this third Sunday, we do begin to anticipate what Christmas is and what its significance is for us. It is time to begin rejoicing in our faith as we continue to anticipate the birth of Christ. It is time to consider our blessings.

I’m not sure we do enough of that – rejoicing, I mean – not around here, at least, and when you think about it, not much anywhere. It is important to be about what Jesus was about… tending to the least of these (we’ve been doing that this week through Family Promise, a ministry through which we host homeless families), helping the less fortunate (we’ve been doing that by providing books and hats and coats for our ministry in the Delta), sharing the gospel (we’ve been doing that by means of our gifts to the international offerings), and certainly by praying, especially for the grieving families in Newtown, Connecticut who are even now continuing to  endure this unspeakable tragedy.

But there comes a time when it is right and good that we, as a community of faith, simply rejoice in the grace God has given us in Christ. This third Sunday in Advent encourages us to do that. Or, at least, this passage does.

Philip Campbell tells about his grandmother.2 Late in her life, she started attending a different church from the one in which she had been raised and had attended for many years. When he asked her about it, she said she liked her new church “because of the positive message she received.” For the first time in her life, she explained, she felt God’s loving presence. “God wants me to be happy,” she told her grandson. “I never knew that before. I thought church was about keeping me from doing what I was not supposed to do. And I never felt like I was good enough.” In other words, she finally took Paul’s words to heart and did something about it.

Is this a good time in your life to do something about your life? If so, may I suggest that you begin by rejoicing in the life you have. Until you do that, it will be hard for God to help you make your life better.

How do we rejoice? By letting our “requests be made known to God.” That’s what Paul says. At this time of year, most of our requests are given to Amazon.com or Best Buy or WalMart. While the third Sunday in Advent is a time of rejoicing, it is also a time to begin our focus on worthier things. Put in your order to any of these vendors I mentioned – or the myriad number of others available to us, especially on-line – and by paying a little extra you can have it arrive at your doorstep within two days.

It is true, we must all admit, that when we make our requests known to God, it might take a little longer than we would have hoped for our prayers to be answered. But in the meantime, please understand this. The joy Paul talks about does not come when we feel our prayers have been answered or resolved. The joy is to be found in us even, and maybe especially, when they haven’t.

Remember, Paul is writing to the church… where? Philippi. Philippi, Philippi, Philippi… Rings a bell, doesn’t it?

Sometime earlier, Paul and Silas were in Philippi, sharing the gospel, ministering to and with the small band of Christians who lived there. And what happened? They got thrown in jail! Paul got into with a group of enterprising fellows who owned a slave girl, who was said to have had a “spirit of divination.” That means she could tell peoples’ fortunes, and she was making a lot of money for the ones who owned her.

She kept harassing Paul and his small group, following them around and saying – truthfully, but also annoyingly – “These men are slaves too; slaves of the Most High God, who proclaims to you a way of salvation.” Over and over she kept saying it. Finally, having had his fill of it, Paul says, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And that is what the spirit did… “in that very hour,” we are told.

As a result, Paul and Silas were beaten severely and then were thrown in jail for their troubles. And then what happened? Well, if you’re familiar with the story of the Philippian jailer, you know that by means of an earthquake Paul is given the opportunity to tell him about Jesus, and he and all his family are baptized and become believers and key participants in the Philippian church. Chances are, they are there, sitting right up front in church on the Lord’s Day when the epistle Paul writes later, from even another jail, is read to the congregation in worship.

But let’s go back. What happened that night before the earthquake? Paul and Silas, while in the Philippian jail, being watched by the man who does not yet know how his life is about to be so dramatically changed, are praying and singing hymns! In jail! Singing hymns! Bloodied and bruised from their beating, Paul and Silas are singing hymns. Paul knows something about rejoicing, doesn’t he? Even during the most difficult of times.

I can just see what happens when Paul’s letter is read in church. The jailer stands up and says something like this… “I can attest to the fact that Paul would have us rejoice – even in the face of our difficulties – for he himself did just that the night he led me to Christ.”

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

Whatever concerns you bring to your Christmas celebration, whether you think your expectations may be met or not, let your requests be made known to God, and then rejoice that you have a grace-giving God to whom you can pray. If you will, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

What more could you ask for this Christmas? Really… what more?

Lord, we make our requests known to you this day and rejoice that you will give to us what is in keeping with your will. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

Notes

1Earl F. Palmer, The Lectionary Commentary, Roger E. Van Horn, Editor (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 2:371.

2Philip E. Campbell, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 62.