Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
December 16, 2018
Text: Philippians 4:7, O.T.: Zephaniah 3:14-20, N.T.: Philippians 4:4-7
Six years ago on Friday the terrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut remains unexplainable. Events like this defy the hope of Christmas – that Jesus Christ was born so peace would come on earth, as it is in heaven.
Peace is hard to find while living in the world, but not being of the world. That is the Christian challenge. We are surrounded by evil in this world that defies God’s promise of peace. Yet we are to live as faithful followers of Jesus.
All of us are challenged by Jesus Christ’s call to follow Him. We’re to remain faithful and confident in God’s providence despite the darkness in this life. The season of Advent is filled with petitions for God’s intervention in this sin sick world. Advent always magnifies our challenge to have faith.
Inevitably the month of December brings human despair with Christ’s promise. Advent’s parties and merriment mask anxiety that’s secretly harbored in disciple of peace. That December was no different from so many others.
This December is no different. We’re still trying to recover from what happened at Tree of Life Synagogue. What will happen to the economy pales in comparison with what Newtown’s families still feel in their loss, and what the Jewish community and Pittsburgh feels. One person’s private torment becomes a nation’s burden to carry as we struggle to understand event of this kind that happen in our country each year.
Advent is the best of times, and the worst of times. The promise of peace on earth, good will to all is threatened by the winter of discontent.
It’s common to find our thoughts divided in Advent. Our foremost thought is enthusiasm for the message of Christ’s birth. But we’re distracted from its hope and peace by the continuing tragedies that mar our journey to Christmas.
We’re drawn into the pathos of this season, yearning for peace that Christ’s birth promises. But it escapes our minds and hearts.
Give us, Lord Jesus, your peace – the peace that passes all understanding!
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians challenges us in Advent to find peace. Was it written during Advent? Probably not. But His admonition challenges the conflicting emotions we feel during this year’s pilgrimage to Bethlehem.
Rejoice in the Lord always! What does that mean?
We could mistake Paul as just saying, “Be happy!” – as if commanding people to be happy will make them ignore what’s upsetting.
Commanding us to be happy after what happened in Newtown’s elementary school doesn’t change the outcome. Telling us to be happy after the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue doesn’t bring those worshippers back. Our first inclination is to mourn for the families who have lost the precious gift of their children, their family members and to mourn for the failure of our great country to overcome hatred among us.
But our second response is to become worried and anxious about the vulnerability of our own loved ones in an insecure world. Advent is supposed to be a time of hope in the promise of peace. Telling worried people to be happy doesn’t give them peace. They know the issues upsetting them won’t go away by ignoring what has happened and trying to forget them.
Paul understood that. He was surrounded by four prison walls and an armed Roman guard every minute, reminding him of his plight. Paul could hardly forget what was right in front of him.
Despite having reasons to be anxious, Paul was filled with peace. Read his entire letter and you can’t help be struck by his sense of calm, regardless of the uncertainty he faced about the future.
Paul offered the Philippians the source of his incredible peace. Paul was rejoicing in Jesus Christ.
He was sharing with his fellow followers of Jesus the key to his sense of security and peace. Rejoice in Jesus Christ – always!
Another way of expressing it could be “Always celebrate the presence of Jesus Christ!” Paul’s peace came from rejoicing in the presence of Jesus Christ.
Many of us are stressed with anxiety at Advent. The Greek word for anxiety used in Philippians 4 is merimnao . It combines two words – merizo which means “to divide,” and nous, which means “mind.”
Anxiety means possessing a “divided mind.” Divided thinking is the tension between competing feelings – like “fear” and “hope;” “despair” and “peace.”
When national and world events cause fear and despair, we want peace. The tension between them is anxiety. When the future is insecure and we want certainty, the tension between the two is anxiety.
We are spiritual beings. But we live in a world that is very disturbing at times. Until the promise of Christ’s peace comes, life’s challenges can overwhelm our sense of His peace.
Paul teaches us that by rejoicing in Jesus Christ’s presence, God’s promise ultimately overcomes the disturbing events in life. In fact, Paul is uplifting Christ’s presence as the source of peace. Jesus’ presence is our peace.
One of the most powerful messages of the Christmas story is that Jesus came into an uncertain world that did not welcome Him with open arms.
In fact, Jesus and His parents were denied shelter. They faced uncertainty about where they could be secure while Mary gave birth. Then, the shelter they received was primitive and overwhelmed by animals – their sounds and smells. Not the peaceful, sterile environment of Magee Hospital.
Jesus’ birth didn’t attract other family members of Mary and Joseph who celebrated His arrival. It generated the interest of complete strangers – all of whom were unknown to Mary and Joseph. Any one of them could have been regarded as a threat to Jesus.
The shepherds are interesting because they were considered at that time as thieves. Their presence at the manger wasn’t without its anxious moments for Mary and Joseph.
Don’t think the shepherds arrived with just a single lamb like the Nativity scenes portray. Shepherds don’t leave their flocks. They bring their sheep with them. Try an entire flock descending upon your birthing ward with strangers who were considered thieves. It must have been an overwhelming experience of mayhem that disturbed the peace of Mary and Joseph.
And the wisemen – they were spies sent by an evil man who wanted to slay Jesus and was willing to kill all the children in Bethlehem to accomplish the task. Don’t think Mary and Joseph slept easily after they left. They didn’t.
When we say that Jesus was coming into the world to give us peace, the circumstances surrounding his birth completely contradict peace. At every moment of the Christmas story Mary and Joseph faced worries and anxieties that were real, upsetting, and challenging their faith in God.
Through it all, they found their peace by rejoicing in Jesus’ presence with them. His presence alone, was peace. Years later, after the entire Christmas message of peace was understood by Mary, Jesus’ continuing presence in the darkness of His death was her peace. She rejoiced in His presence – always.
By contemplating only Christ’s presence, we will be led by Him through today’s darkness and He will give us peace. Christ knows the challenges we face to remain faithful to God before the tribulations of this world. Christ knows how hard it is for us to find peace.
Jesus was so concerned for us to have peace that He prayed on our behalf before our Heavenly Father in the Upper Room before He died. He said.
“I’ve given them your Word. The world has hated them because they aren’t of the world, even as I’m not of the world. I don’t pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. . . . that they may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
The evil one celebrates the anxiety we experience when we believe Christ is absent in a sin sick world. The evil one is defeated when we rejoice in Christ – always.
Always rejoicing in the Lord is our witness of Christ’s presence in a world where evil stalks. Always rejoicing in the Lord is the peace that passes all understanding. Always rejoicing in the Lord is single mindedness in Christ that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Advent can be a time of sorrow and anxiety for our nation. But we can show the peace of Christ which passes all understanding is available to those who mourn in the middle of tragedy, to those who rejoice in the Lord always.
Jesus Christ’s presence will lead us through this time of darkness into a future that is our peace. Amen.