a sermon on Philippians 4:4-7 for the Third Sunday of Advent
preached on December 16, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The past two days have been an incredible mix of emotions for me. I spent Friday as a somewhat usual day off—until I heard of the horrific events of the school shooting in Newtown, when I then tried to follow the news as best I could without becoming engrossed in the sad and difficult news of the day. Then, as many of you know, I spent all day yesterday on a very quick trip to Washington, DC, where about thirty members of the choir I sing with sang at the White House to provide entertainment for the public holiday tours.
It was a strange mixture of two days. Friday, nothing seemed right. Christmas seemed an eternity away, with some twenty children killed mercilessly in yet another incident of gun violence that for some reason we are unable or unwilling to do anything about. Then yesterday, within seconds of walking into the White House, Christmas came into sharp view, with some of the most beautiful decorations I have ever seen and the scent of pine and fir all around. I told one of my fellow singers that I felt like Christmas had finally begun! Several of us noted how it seemed quite strange to sing about joy and happiness after Friday’s events, but the eventual decision was to set aside the horrific events of Friday and try to set a celebratory mood for the day, and I think it worked.
The past two days have felt very much like a strange mix of joy and sadness, but that’s also what we face today in our worship. Today is the third Sunday of Advent, the time each year where we light the pink candle of the Advent wreath and celebrate the joy that comes when Jesus is born. The texts appointed for this day talk about the joy and hope that comes in and through the birth of Jesus, and so we normally think about how this season is filled with great joy and hope and promise, and we finally get to sing one of the great Christmas carols, “Joy to the World,” because it fits with Advent as much as Christmas.
But today, the joy and hope and promise of Advent and Christmas seem to be left in the midst of the horrors at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Rejoice in the Lord always, even in the midst of this?? Paul couldn’t have meant that we have to rejoice today, could he? If we take our last song seriously, do we have to be thankful for this? In the face of such tragedy and death, what are we to do? Celebrate?
One option for rejoicing that I hear a lot in times like this is to be thankful that it wasn’t us, that no one we knew was killed, or that the violence didn’t get any worse. In the face of such suffering, I don’t think it is our place to rejoice that we aren’t as bad off as those people over there or to thank God that we haven’t faced such loss ourselves. As Christians, it is our call to stand with those who face this kind of immense, real, deep loss and pain and to do everything we can to embody the love, grace, mercy, and justice of God in Christ each and every day.
So in the midst of such a challenge, I am grateful that this text says that there is more for us to do. Some days we just can’t rejoice, but since there is more to do, we can move on for now and come back to rejoicing on another day—or maybe even later on in this sermon! So when Paul suggests that our gentleness be known to everyone, I think we might have something that seems doable in a moment like this. We can be gracious and understanding to those who approach these difficult days from very different perspectives. We can respond to such heinous violence in our world not with more violence but rather with a generous and gentle call to peace. And we can listen and hear in such a way that those who suffer pain and loss in the midst of this and so many other moments of violence know that we stand with them and will join in God’s work to make all things new.
After we start down the path to gentleness, Paul challenges us yet again to trust that the Lord is near. On days like yesterday for me, that felt entirely possible. Amidst the beautiful holiday decor of the White House, amidst the pageantry and majesty of Washington, DC, amidst the presence of my fellow singers and in the beautiful music we created together, God felt very near. But on Friday, God didn’t seem very near but in fact felt very much absent—not because there was no prayer in the school as some have suggested but because the horrific things that happened there were so far from what God intends for creation. Yet the Lord is still near. In the life and death of Jesus, we see that God has experienced the full breadth and depth of human life even as he conquered the fullness of death and destruction, and we can trust that he will return to make that victory full and complete and joyous for all. In moments like this, in joy and sorrow, we can be confident that the Lord is and will be near to make all things new for us and all creation.
But then Paul continues with another challenge: “Do not worry about anything.” Have you ever tried not to worry about anything? It’s not easy, and I’m not sure I know anyone who has been able to pull it off, because when I try, I all too soon start to worry about how much I worry! Paul certainly tempers this perspective with an instruction to be faithful in prayer, but it is nonetheless incredibly difficult to set aside all the things that make us worry even when we can turn to God in prayer.
And finally, Paul tells us to trust God’s peace: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” If this peace can come, then send it our way, O God! It sure would be helpful in the Middle East these days, and Newtown could use some of it, too. But while this peace will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Paul says it also surpasses all understanding—so sometimes we may have it when we don’t even know it.
But amidst this peace that surpasses all understanding, alongside all the pain and sorrow and sighing of these days, along with the joyful expectation of Christmas, we might finally be ready to embrace the fullness of this joy. Real and true and complete joy comes not from imprisoning ourselves in deep sorrow, not from taking pleasure in the pain of others, not from always having everything that we need and want, but from a way of life that shows deep and real gratitude for the gifts we have from God, for God’s presence with us in the midst of every storm, and for God’s gift of new life that emerges in the face of death. This joy is not about us and our happiness, about smiling faces or simple laughter or even safety amidst great peril. Joy is not about escaping the pain of our world with a holiday that doesn’t deal in the real here and now, for if Christmas is anything, it is a celebration of our God who came into our midst to dwell in the dark and painful stuff of our world. This joy that is solely about our happiness, this joy that simply wants to escape the real things of life—these are the forced cheer and shallow celebration that we confessed earlier today, things that we too often claim are the fullness of what God intends.
Instead, the deep, real, true joy that God gives us may not always be cheerful or happy, but it does show us how God can transform us and our world through justice, mercy, and peace. It helps us to see how the world is about more than our own happiness. It reminds us that God has broken into our world in Jesus to feel the joy and sorrow of the human experience. And it promises us that there is something more in store for us than what we can see in the here and now.
So in these days when joy may seem so far off and yet so near, when our lives and our world are touched by pain, violence, sorrow, and confusion, may God open our eyes to the One who comes to bring us real and true and deep joy, to the One who transforms possibility into promise and pain and suffering into new life, to the One who breaks into our world to bring us wonder and peace and hope so that our joy might be all the more complete and real and deep and true when we welcome Jesus on Christmas morning and when he returns to make all things new.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.