Sermon for High Mass – Advent 3 (Gaudete) Sunday 16 December 2018
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Zephaniah 3.14-20; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18
Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice. (Philippians 4.4)
Amid the news of Brexit turmoil there were some stories not of high political drama, or low farce (depending on your point of view) but of poignant personal tragedy.
- A father who travelled from Essex to New Zealand, hoping against hope that his missing daughter would be found alive and well, only to have those hopes cruelly dashed.
- In London, another young black lad was stabbed to death – although that got far less news coverage, so used have we become to such things.
- The murderer of two young girls in Brighton 32 years ago was finally brought to justice. A TV interview with relatives revealed lives never the same again; the memory of cruel death an open wound which has never healed.
In such cases we must wonder about Paul’s advice to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Or what of young parents who have just buried their child, or the bereaved spouse or partner who has just lost their life’s companion, or someone who has just learned they have a terminal illness. To counsel the bereaved and heart-broken relatives to what sounds like “Life of Brian,” “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,’ would be both crass and cruel.
There are times when all we can do, whether we are pastors, family members of friends, is to hold people in our arms and our hearts as they sob out their grief; as Paul says elsewhere: “to weep with those who weep.”
So what are we to make of St. Paul’s exhortation? We need to look at in context. Paul is in prison, he faces an uncertain future – perhaps even death. This is no letter penned in the comfort of bishop’s palace or even, as this sermon was in a vicarage study. The Philippian Christians are a small group practicing a religion without legal status in a city which was a Roman colony, a garrison town, an island of Roman life. They lived, as Christian communities in places like Egypt and Pakistan, China and India do today, with the threat of official persecution and mob violence which can be triggered by the some minor incident. And, as we know from the Letter, there were rivalries and quarrels among them. So this was one man, acquainted with suffering and grief, writing to people who also knew their reality. This is not escapist piety.
What Paul knows and speaks of is no superficial cheerfulness, but a deep joy in what God has done in Christ and is continuing to do through the Church. The fact that this joy is “in the Lord,” reminds us not only that it derives from the Lord, but also that it is shared by those who live in him. As some of us heard Archbishop Angelos say yesterday, preaching on the same passage the Christian’s joy is rooted in the promise and reality of God’s presence with us in Christ through the incarnation which we celebrate at Christmas.
Paul gives as the reason for our joy that, “The Lord is at hand.” He and the Philippians almost certainly thought the Lord was at hand in the sense of returning soon. All these years later, we do not have the same sense of imminence. However, “at hand” can be understood as closeness in the here and now. The Lord who had come to share our life did not lay it aside when he was raised and glorified; and through his Spirit he is present with us now: when we gather in prayer, as we listen to his word, as we celebrate the sacrament.
When Paul speaks of joy, he is not thinking of a passing emotional experience, let alone a forced one, but of a deep and lasting joy that comes through an ongoing and deepening relationship with Christ. To know that Christ is with us every day should be a comfort to us -while also being a challenge. This joy is expressed In sharing the joys and concerns of others. If we lack such a sense of joy today, it is perhaps because faith has become for us such an individual matter, that we do not see Christian life in terms of mutual respect and concern, or experience the love and support of fellow-Christians.
“Do not worry about anything.”
Let’s be honest. Most of us worry about many things; some of us worry about everything. We fret about financial insecurity – our jobs, pensions and mortgages. We worry about out health. We worry about elderly parents needing care and the time when we will need it. We worry about our children and grandchildren: What does the future hold for them? Will they be safe and happy?
We worry about our country and its future. We might even worry about the future of the Church and whether it has one.
Our attitude is the very opposite of the trust In God which Paul commends. Remember that Paul was writing from prison. He had every reason to be anxious, his chains and the uncertainty they represent do not undermine the “peace of God which passes all understanding,” and “guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” When Paul invites the Philippians and us to such peace through prayer, he does so with the credibility of someone who has ample reason to be anxious but chooses prayer and peace instead.
As well as his present predicament and possible fate, Paul also had his responsibility for the churches was a constant concern. The people to whom he writes were unlikely to be living comfortable lives. Most were poor, many would be slaves, and for most of them life would be insecure. In marked contrast, those of us who live in comparative wealth and comfort today seem to be those who are most worried and anxious. The secret of Paul’s composure lies in his reliance on God, and not on material things, as he will spell out later in the chapter. This freedom from anxiety does not imply an irresponsible attitude toward life and out obligations. The verb used in this verse is the same one used earlier to speak of Timothy’s concern for the Philippians’ welfare. It is a mark of the Christian maturity speaks of in the letter to be able to distinguish between the anxiety that cripples and destroys the individual, and the concern for others that builds up the whole community.
Paul directs the Philippians to pray, with thanksgiving, as he does, and as we do in the mass. If our prayers are just a shopping list of personal wants, without thanksgiving, our anxiety about the future obscures the blessings that have been showered on us by God.
Paul’s advice to his readers to counter the anxiety of their lives with prayer is no simple designed to mask the terror and uncertainty of their daily lives. It is a call to take those anxieties to the Lord in prayer and allow God to refashion them. This prayer is not just a wish list. It is enriched, tempered and qualified by “supplication and thanksgiving”. Supplication suggests that we come before God in prayer with humility. Thanksgiving that we come with gratitude. This gratitude does not grow out of any confidence in our own achievements but in the gracious generosity of God.
Between the calls to – to rejoice and to pray – lies a less familiar one. Paul calls on them to let their “gentleness,” their “moderation,” their “forbearance” be displayed openly to the world. This outward looking orientation “to all people” is Paul’s remedy for those embattled Christians, both spiritually and communally. If Paul has faced his chains by celebrating the Gospel’s advance among them, and by thinking of the welfare of the Philippians over his own; and if Christ had considered humanity’s need more important that his divine status; then the Philippians ought to respond to their own strife and struggle by preferring the other in the community and by keeping their collective eye on the waiting world outside. The solution to the problems of the Philippian Church, or the Church in any age, is not to be found in anxious introspection but in the will turn outwards to others.