“Our Theme is Joy”
As noted in our Advent Candle lighting this morning, the theme for the third Sunday of Advent is joy. Actually, a major theme of our faith at all times is joy. However, it is not a mere giddiness that is unaware of the realities of our human existence. Instead, it is a deep assurance that our Lord is near, which brings us peace and contentment to hold with us in whatever circumstance we are encountering.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians was written from jail, and it was written to a people who knew suffering and pain. Yet they were told to rejoice. Is it possible to experience joy while there is pain and suffering at the same time? Joy is always possible when we realize that the Lord is near.
I have shared with many people something that was shared with me during a time of illness. You can pray for an illness to end and for pain to go away. In fact, it’s good to pray for healing. But often healing takes time, so if you are suffering, you can always ask Jesus to come experience it with you until it passes. When Jesus is near, it makes a difference. The person who first witnessed this to me was my mentor who, years ago, suffered a broken back in a car accident. For three months he had to lie flat. What got him through that painful and frightening time was the presence of Jesus with him in the suffering. Healing came, but not suddenly. We face times when the promised healing takes a good deal of time and a lot of patience.
Related closely to the kind of joy Paul was describing is Peace, or Shalom as we talked about last week. Joy and Peace are often companions. I wonder how many of you remember the old vacation Bible school and camp song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart…” Paul would have loved that song. Remember the verse that says, “I’ve got the peace that passeth understanding down in my heart”? To know the nearness of Jesus in all circumstances is to encounter the peace that surpasses understanding. This is a sense of peace that is not based on logic, but rather on relationship.
This is evident in our passage from Isaiah 12 as well. To a people languishing in exile from their homeland, Isaiah, in chapter 11, prophesied of a peaceable kingdom, where the lion would lie down with the lamb, and the child would safely play over the adder’s den, and danger would be no more. To those defeated and oppressed people, Isaiah gave a song, a psalm in today’s passage which they could memorized and call to mind often: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”
In a few minutes we will sing these words to a tune that I hope you will find catchy and memorable. Anything that helps us recall the promises of Scripture is a useful tool.
Paul’s instructions begin with rejoicing, but they go further. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone… Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Let’s begin with gentleness. It’s not always easy to show gentleness to others, lest we be perceived as weak.
Our culture seems to reward assertive and bold more than gentle and meek. But we can learn that it is not either/or but both/and. Paul could be quite assertive and bold when the situation called for it. Yet he was also gentle. He did not go over the top with his assertiveness and into aggression. Some of Paul’s characteristics needed to be tempered by gentleness, and I think this is something he learned over time.
How do you get there? How do you mature to a point where you can rejoice in all circumstances and let your gentleness be known to all? Paul’s next instruction provides an answer. ”In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” For my friend in recovery from his broken back, much of his saving prayer was a little repetetive breathing prayer: “Jesus… Mercy.” The words needn’t be profound. It is not based in language, but rather in relationship.
Supplications is a fancy word for requests. “Let your requests be made known to God.” We do this when we pray for ourselves and when we pray for others. In my first weeks here as pastor, I have come to appreciate how this congregation values prayer. Our supplications are made known to God in worship, at rehearsals, at meetings, through the prayer chain, and on the evening prayer call. But there is always more than our supplications, as Paul points out. We surround all of our requests with thanksgiving.
You can’t express thanksgiving without acknowledging joy. Thankfulness is not a feeling you can manufacture. It rises up within you in response to your blessings. Joy cannot be manufactured as well. It comes most deeply when we accept and understand that the Lord is near.
In listening to Paul’s instructions, we are assured that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” When I pray before the sermon, I will often pray for understanding. However, I always pray more that we trust. Because the greatest aspects of our faith will seldom lie within our understanding. They will often come to us in ways that go beyond words’ ability to describe or convey.
Such is the case with Shalom, or the peace which surpasses understanding. It is the peace that lead Paul to sing songs of joy in jail. It is the peace that lead my friend and mentor to endure his months of bed rest. It is the peace that lead Mary to say to the angel, “Let it be with me as you have said.” It is the peace that lead Jesus to say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”