Rejoice, Always; Really?

3rd Sunday in Advent of the Church Year (C), December 16, 2012
Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA

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““Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. [Philippians 4:4]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

What kind of response do you think I would receive from someone who just found out they were in stage 4 cancer, and I greeted them  with the word, “Rejoice!”?  What about the homeless or the hungry?  Do you think a Christian parent worried about their young adult  child and the life choices they are making would appreciate me telling them to rejoice?  Probably not, but that is because they are  living in the right now, a bad right now, and in their minds the time of rejoicing is something that perhaps will come in the future, a  very distant future, if at all.  For now, all they can see; all they can think about is that dark right now.  And yet God’s Word does that  very thing; in all three of our readings, God’s people are encouraged to rejoice in the middle of a dark right now.

In our society, we let our joy, or our rejoicing be dependent on external things like our health, wealth, and relationships.  Or another  way to say that is, that our peace seems to be dependent on how we feel.  Whenever our health, wealth, or relationships are threatened,  we will immediately shift from being happy Christians to fearful and unhappy children of this world.

But the prophet Zephaniah in our Old Testament reading (Zephaniah 3:14-20) never lost sight of God’s promises to His people of faith as they waited for deliverance out of their bondage in Babylon.  So God spoke another Word of promise, of deliverance to Zephaniah; it was a Word of hope that he was to speak to God’s children of faith who were losing hope: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!  The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies.”  In other words, even when you think all is lost, look to the Lord and the promises of His Word and shout, “Glory!”

As St. Paul sat in a dark and dank Roman prison with a death sentence looming, wrote to the brothers and sisters in Philippi (Philippians 4:4-7), Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. But wait a minute there Paul, you are experiencing seclusion, hunger, physical pain, and the knowledge that soon you will be put to death.  How can you be rejoicing?  Are you really rejoicing?  Why?

Yes, it is clear that people of great faith seem to be able to find joy even in the middle of suffering; even when their health, wealth, and relationships are falling apart.  But what about us normal people?  When we become afraid or worry, does that mean we lost our faith?  Does that mean God has given up on us?  Well, let’s look at someone who fits that description, and let Jesus speak to that concern.

In our Gospel lesson (Luke 7:18-28) we find John the Baptist in the middle of Herod’s prison.  He also was experiencing fear and worry.  What was he afraid of?  He was afraid that Jesus, the Son of God no longer cared that he was wasting away in his cell.  Day and night after lonely night, John was alone in Herod’s prison.  He seemed to be living in a time of perpetual waiting and uncertainty.  John knew that Jesus was the Christ, the Savior of the World; in fact He had been preaching that very thing before Herod had him arrested, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

But John also knew that there were certain prophecies that must be fulfilled by the Savior.  He knew that the blind would see, the lame would walk, the deaf would hear, the lepers would be cleansed, the dead would be raised, and those in prison would be set free.  And to John’s knowledge, it seemed that all of them had been fulfilled accept one; John was still in prison.  So, yeah, John is a little impatient, maybe even a little peeved.  He’s watching, waiting, and enduring.  He knows the time is right and He knows that the Word of God will always be fulfilled so, so… WHY IS HE STILL IN PRISON?   With that question looming in his heart, he sends a delegation to Jesus to ask a stupid question that he already knows the answer to; he asks it because it expresses his fear and worry; he asks it so that words of faith can be spoken by Jesus to take away his fear and worry.  “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Can you hear it in John’s words?  It is really a prayer: “How long Lord will you wait?  Come to me quickly and comfort me.  I need you; the one you love is afraid and alone; I might even be dying!”

And to John’s prayer, Jesus speaks Words of life; words that create both faith and joy.  Jesus speaks to John and all others in prison; He speaks to the elderly person dying all alone in a nursing home, seemingly forgotten by his family and church; He speaks to the addict who just wants to be free of the addiction; he speaks to the homeless and hungry; he speaks to the cancer patient and all those who are sick; and he speaks to the Christian parent who worries about their adult child and their lack of faith.  “I am He who gives sight to the blind, causes the lame to walk, cleanses lepers, gives hearing to the deaf, and raises the dead.  You have the good news preached to you; you know that I have taken away your sins.  You are blessed if you will concentrate on this truth and not lose faith in me; you will be blessed with eternal life.  So hold onto my Word and do not stop coming to my church where I will continue to strengthen your faith.

St. Paul, this morning gives us the same Word of encouragement.  He says that “the Lord is at hand”.  Your time of waiting, your time to be comforted and assured that all is well here.  He comes to you in His Word.  It is the same Word that told the waters, “Peace, be still!” and they were.  It is the same Word that called Lazarus out of the grave and brought Him back to life.  It is the same Word that promised Zephaniah and his countrymen that their bondage was soon to end, and one day they would celebrate in front of, and with God Himself.  It is the same Word of peace that spoke new life into us at our baptism.  It is a Word that says continuously, “The Lord is near.”

He comes to you in His Word and He fills you with faith.  He reminds you that you are forgiven and all is well with your soul.  He comes to you in the Word at His table, and He says, “Take eat; this is my body.  Take and drink; this is my blood.  I come to you in these things; these means… the Word, the water, the bread and the wine.  I come to you, as your brothers and sisters speak forgiveness to you and you speak the same forgiving Words back to them.  But soon and very soon, I am coming in the flesh again, to set you free from the prisons that this sinful world has built to hold you captive.”

What is it that holds us in bondage?  Isn’t it our fear and worry?  Isn’t it our sinful flesh?  Isn’t it our flesh that is in the bondage  of sin?  But our spirit is free; it was created to be free!  It is your spirit that hears the Word of God and rejoices.  It is your spirit that looks at temporary things like health, wealth, and relationships and knows that these are not what define your future.  It is your spirit that remembers the promises of God and waits for them to be fulfilled.  It is your spirit that knows that it is “He who began the good work in you who will complete it, on the day of Christ’s return.” [Philippians 1:6]

The Lord did not forget His promise to Zephaniah and the children of faith who were in bondage in Babylon.  He did not forget His promise to John the Baptist or St. Paul as they waited in their prisons.  He spoke to them and reminded them that He was there with them.  They were not alone, and neither are you.  He knows you are waiting.  He knows that you are patiently enduring attack after attack upon your health, wealth, and relationships.  He does see how dark and lonely you can be.  He sees your sadness and knows your pain.  He understands your worry and even your doubts.  He hears your prayers and supplications and he remembers your prayers of thanksgiving.  He is not silent; He has not forgotten about you.  He is answering the cry of your heart even now!  But to hear Him speak, you must be still and silent.  You need to look only to the means that He has given to us to hear Him and experience Him.  You must receive Him by faith in His Word and in His sacraments.

This morning, God wants you to know that the heavens and earth will pass away but His Word will never pass away.  The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord will always be with you.   Turn your eyes to the Word of God in human flesh.  Look to Him and no other for hope and peace.  Listen to Jesus speak to you and hear His promises of eternal blessing.  Watch and wait for the one who has come and is coming again.  Receive His coming now in His Word and in His body and blood, in with and under the bread and wine.  He comes to comfort you in the middle of your sadness and depression.  He takes away your sins, gives you peace and a clean conscience as He removes all fear and worry from your heart.  In the middle of uncertainty, he gives you assurance; a blessed assurance.

In this season of Advent we wait together in joy.  The joy of being certain; we wait for He who has come and is coming again.  We wait for a God who always fulfills His promises.  Let this season of waiting be a time of peace, and faith-filled confidence that comes always and only through the mighty Word of God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  AMEN!

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