Obviously the followers of Jesus observed Easter – Jesus’ death and resurrection – it was the story they told everyone – as the first of the commemorations that evolved into the Church Year. That is understandable. However we might be forgiven for being surprised that Advent – these four weeks – welcome to the 3rd Sunday of Advent – was not an early commemoration in light of the fact that towards the end of the 1st century – and it is a bigger issue now in the 21st century – a big criticism and challenge for Christians is the obvious fact that Jesus hasn’t reappeared. The Church had been saying ‘Come, Lord Jesus, come’ in response to Jesus’ promise to return ‘soon’ in those first decades and were now discovering that their definition of ‘soon’ and their understanding of time was not the same as Jesus’ understanding. Advent, with its message of Jesus’ entrance into the world – firstly in humility in Bethlehem and beyond, now in hiddenness through words, water, bread and wine, and one day in glory for everyone to see – might have been a good message to get out early but Advent isn’t really observed throughout the Church until the 6th century and not universally regarded as the beginning of the Church Year until the 13th century. Perhaps some felt that to mention the Lord’s return ‘soon’ would be counter productive and emphasise his apparent absence but now Advent – whether purple for royalty or blue for the sky and hope – prepares us for Christmas and reminds us that we may not get to our earthly home if the Lord returns in an hour!
From the ascension onwards, regular ordinary seeing of Jesus is confined to the miraculous. However the message of Advent is that Jesus is not absent. It is a message guaranteed by an empty tomb but it is not a visual message. We don’t see Jesus next to us. Imagine what that would be like … I could step out of this pulpit and we could all sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. Denominational differences would be clarified. Personal questions answered. The shaping of Jesus into our own image or preferred version, our use of Jesus to fit our own agendas, support of own views would be minimised – and, above all, we could point to Jesus when talking to the world and say to the seekers and scoffers, ‘See! There! Ask him yourself if you don’t believe me!’.
However we don’t have the phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for nothing because of the truth that presence requires for us more than just remembering and we would prefer more than words; just as a Christmas present in wrapping paper seems more real than a Christmas blessing. (Ask a child which they’d prefer!) The truth is that it is easy to live as ‘practical atheists’ precisely because we don’t see God or Jesus each day. It is easy to live ‘alone’ in our heads, facing the world on our own because that can be our experience. It takes effort to remember Jesus is ‘at hand’. It might take a pattern, a routine, prayers and devotions, Sunday worship to incorporate Jesus’ presence into our corpus – our body – and we can be too busy for that. If someone is visible next to us, we still have to engage, make the effort, because we could also ignore them but the visibility helps us deal with the person. And so because Jesus isn’t visible, pastors and teachers, parents and godparents, Christian friends or colleagues always in some form or another communicate the truth ‘Jesus is here’ – ‘Jesus is here with you’.
The Apostle Paul did this in his ‘thank you’ letter to the Philippians. Having received their support, Paul replied in the final part of the letter – when you want to get final messages out – don’t forget, make sure, oh by the way – Paul calls on the Philippians to live in a certain way precisely because the Lord is ‘at hand’. We can think of it as the Lord is present but we can’t see him and also the Lord will return at any moment.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious 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 ESV)
The lectionary compilers chose these verses because of the 3rd Sunday of Advent’s desire to rejoice. This desire and indeed all of Philippians is based on the truth that the God who comes is not a ‘scary God’, a terrorist, a vivisectionist, a judge but in Jesus is the Lord who serves. Faith see this Jesus with relief, with joy, with peace and I imagine us all looking at his scars with mute awe and wonder as we realise ‘he did all that for me’. This Lord hasn’t left us but uses the masks of water, bread and wine to touch us as his words speak to us. And because this is our God, Paul can remind us of what living with this God is about. Paul is talking now about our behaviour – things we can do – things we can choose to do one day at a time.
Rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord always. I’ll say it again, rejoice. This God, this Jesus is good. He cares. He serves. He never stops. He forgives. He helps us struggle, repent, serve. Oh – and did I tell you that he is good?! Why would we not rejoice at such a God?!
Be gentle. Have patience. Have forbearance. The ESV says ‘be reasonable’ which doesn’t quite grab the point for me. The world and people – family and those in the Church – circumstances – think politics, economics, work, your neighbourhood – will surround us with all sorts of things, ‘stuff’, todo lists – and we are reminded that we aren’t alone now, that we can bear the situations because they’re not going to be ‘smooth sailing’ and so be gentle and patient because the Lord is there to guide and help, sustain and serve us.
Paul then quite bluntly tells the Philippians – and just pause for a minute and think of life back then – no NHS, different levels of medical care, just imagine getting a tooth ache 2,000 years ago – and we could go on but Paul says simply, ‘Don’t be anxious’. He’s talking about how we chose to respond to the things over which we worry or have little control. Don’t be anxious.
Well, if we’re not to be anxious what are we to do? Fair question. Paul immediately answers, ‘Pray’ and he reminds the Philippians and us that when we pray we are by all means to ask for help or whatever it is that will make us less anxious but we are also to thank God – because … there are always things for which we can give thanks. This is something we mightn’t be prone to do but it is simply a truth that the followers of Jesus no matter their earthly circumstances still receive blessings from God for which we can give thanks. And when our earthly circumstances are safe and good then we have more reasons for thankfulness.
And then Paul ends with peace. This is not lack of conflict. This is not peaceful feelings. Firstly it is the peace of God – that peace that comes from knowing the nature of God – and it is love – sacrificial love – and this peace is true and real even in conflict and when it is not felt because there is a cross and empty tomb to back up this message. Of course living in this peace may certainly shape our behaviour over time as we, again and again, learn and relearn that God is faithful to us.
If we saw Jesus walking with us each day it would be easy, I think, to consider each day’s living as one of rejoicing, being gentle and patient, no longer anxious but praying and growing in a peace – maybe even a confidence – that this God is good and can be trusted.
And, I stand in a long line of preachers going all the way back to the apostles who are saying, ‘Jesus is at hand; he can be trusted; yes you don’t see him but he loves you and serves you – here with words and bread and wine – with himself – so that you can live with him another week out in the world’.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus!
- Philippians 4:4 - 7