The Lord's Bright Blessing

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Advent 3
December 12, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: It's difficult to be cheerful when there's so much left to do this holiday season, especially when we're trying to make up for all we missed last year due to the pandemic. The last thing we need is someone telling us not to worry - unless it's the apostle Paul, writing to Philippi from death row in Rome - whose message of joy should serve us as well now as it did 2,000 years ago! Don't worry. Rejoice!

There are at least 135 film adaptations of Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol." The "Bah! Humbug!" of Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed to a hearty "Merry Christmas" thanks to visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. With 12 shopping days left until Christmas, a lot of us may lean closer to "Bah! Humbug!" than to "God bless us, everyone!" Who wants to hear Paul tell the Philippian Christians to "Rejoice! And again I say unto you, rejoice!"?

This is a tough Christmas. A lot of us are trying twice as hard to do three times as much in half the time to make up for everything we missed out on last year because of the pandemic.

Even so, may I suggest you make time to watch the 1962 animated version, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. It's only 53 minutes long, features an all-star cast of classic actors, with songs composed by Broadway stalwarts Jule Styne and Bob Merrill.

In one particularly poignant - and joyful - number we hear the children of the wretchedly poor Cratchit Family, including Tiny Tim, gathered around the table asking in song whether there will be meat for dinner, stockings, presents and a tree decorated with a star. Bob Cratchit, their father, admits they can't afford any of those things for now, but it will still be a magnificent Christmas because:

We'll have the Lord's Bright Blessing in knowing we're together,
knowing we're together heart and hand.
We'll make the whitest Christmas, the very brightest Christmas,
a Christmas far more glorious than grand.

Everything is not fine

It's not clear when Christians first began to observe the birth of Jesus as a holy day, so it's unlikely the Philippian Christians who received Paul's letter celebrated Christmas. They were all too familiar, however, with the extremes of poverty and wealth like that depicted in the 19th-century England of A Christmas Carol .

At first hearing the apostle Paul's encouragement - "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!" - may sound like the empty words from a Christmas card: Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! It's a great time! Everything is fine!

Everything is not fine with the Philippian house churches. Outsiders condemn them for their cultural practices. Insiders are bickering. Nor does it help when a verse later Paul adds, "Do not worry about anything ...." Are you crazy? Don't tell me not to worry. That's when I get worried. Company is coming. The house is not clean. The Christmas fudge hasn't been made, the cookies aren't baked, the beds aren't made .... I'm not making you nervous, am I?

But Paul's words will make a lot more sense when we put things in context.

This is a letter from death row. That's the context.

Paul writes this letter from prison in Rome around the year A.D. 64, during the time Nero scapegoated Christians following a great fire that destroyed much of that city. Tradition holds that Paul was eventually beheaded.

And it was clear that Paul saw this coming. That's made poignantly clear because the very word translated "Rejoice!" is also the same verb that ends most letters in that era: "Farewell!" His decision to layer his call for rejoicing in trials with a fatal farewell gives him the street cred to encourage us also to nevertheless rejoice!

A shared history

A little historical background here. You may remember that Paul was visiting various places in Asia Minor on a missionary journey when "a man" in a dream begged him to come to Macedonia. That led Paul to Philippi, a city of approximately 10,000 people, located on the major east-west road between Rome and Asia Minor. The account of Paul's visit to Philippi is found in Acts 16.

Normally on arriving in a new city, Paul began his ministry at the local synagogue, but Philippi lacked the 10 Jewish men required for a quorum. Instead, his first contact there was Lydia, a rich woman who held the monopoly on royal purple dye. He found her with several other women praying together at the river. Her villa became the site for the area's first house church.

In Philippi, Paul was followed by a slave whose owners exploited her ravings for their own financial gain. After Paul healed her by casting out her inner demons in the name of Jesus, he was thrown into jail with his friend Silas. An earthquake loosened their chains but their decision to remain in jail, saving the life of their jailer who would have suffered terrible consequences for their escape, led to the conversion and baptism of the jailer's entire household.

As a result of their shared history, there were close ties of gratitude and love between Paul and the Philippians. Now, some years later, with Paul imprisoned in Rome, those close ties made their very real struggles difficult for Paul to deal with since his bonds prevented him from coming to them. Thus, he wrote this epistle we know as Philippians.

Well, what were the issues in Philippi?

On the one hand, so-called fellow believers had traveled there to tell them they were not worshiping God properly because they weren't doing things like they were done in other regions.1 And who likes being compared? During this holiday season we're always being compared - or are comparing ourselves - to folks with longer strings of lights on their houses, who got their Christmas cards out ahead of the holiday or to anyone who for any reason seems to have all their ducks in a row. What we do may not be good enough in their opinion. And often in our own opinion as well.

Secondly, there was dissension within the Philippian church. Just a few verses before this passage Paul called upon his friend Syzygus, (translated as "loyal companion" in the NRSV) to work with Clement and the rest of his good friends in Philippi, to help two women in church leadership, Euodia and Syntyche, get along. Paul says both women "have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel." That's what makes this breach all the more heartbreaking.2

Paul's response is not to minimize their troubles in Philippi but to put them in perspective. First, he shares the teachings of Jesus. When Paul says those annoying words, "Do not worry about anything" he is echoing words from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus points to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, who are cared for by their Heavenly Father, just like us. Our daily needs are crucial - but we are in God's hands, and that's why Jesus, and I believe, Paul, want us to "strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."3

The Lord is near!

In addition Paul adds, "The Lord is near." The word "near" implies the Lord's presence both in time and space. By this Paul means the Lord is on the way and is nearly there. So hold on. But it also means the Lord is right here next to us, unseen, present and guiding us now.

Paul urges the Philippians that rather than worry during this time, they should tell God what we need through prayers of thanksgiving! And here I quote: "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

These words have special meaning for the Philippians. They are living under the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome, where competing kingdoms are prevented from engaging in warfare because they will suffer terrible consequences from the armed might of the Empire. The Peace of God, by contrast, brings peace of mind, peace of spirit and wholeness among us who share in the Body of Christ, including the besieged Philippians and the Apostle Paul under a sentence of death.

Paul's words have meaning for us as well. There's a lot we don't have and won't have either. We lost a lot because of the Pandemic, because of political instability, because of societal ills. But Paul would tell us, as he told the Philippians, that there is something happening that is greater than our problems as individuals and as a society.

In this holiday the Lord is near. The Christ child is on the way. The Christ child is among us, in every baby we encounter, in every refugee child at our borders, with every infant in our family circle. Yes, these may seem like desperate times, depending on our circumstances, but joy is present. God is with us, which is the meaning of this special child's name, Emmanuel.

So watch more Christmas specials. Laugh whether everything is done or not. Figure out what you can accomplish and what's not going to get done this year. Love more while having less, and share the Lord's bright blessing, in knowing we're together.

Don't worry. After all, the Lord is near. Amen.