Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
So the text for this 3rd Sunday of Advent, Joy
Sunday, denoted by the pink candle and the purple banner, is Paul's
letter to the Philippians. We looked at the first chapter last week. The
text for this morning comes from the 4th chapter, verses 4 through 7:
Rejoice in the Lord always;
again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to
everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in
everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your
requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which
surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds
in Christ Jesus.
You know, sometimes nearness is a good thing.
Sometimes not so much. On your car, if you drove here this morning, on
the left side, is a mirror. And in that mirror, it says what? "Objects
in mirror are closer than they appear". Cartoonist Gary Larsen, who has
a twisted mind anyway, used that for one of his cartoons:
Depicting this woman looking at her mirror with this giant eye-ball that
fills up the entire mirror :) If you Google that phrase, you find all
kinds of things in mirrors.
Like a 747:
A black-hawk helicopter:
What you really don't want to see in your mirror -- a T-Rex:
Or that terribly, horrifying image that will give you nightmares -- a
2,000 pound gerbil :)
Well, we assume, as does Paul, that nearness of the Lord is a good
thing. And aide to the Pope came rushing into his chamber all out of
breath: "Your Holiness, Your Holiness, I have good news, and bad news!"
The Pope says: "What's the good news?" "Jesus has returned, he's on the
phone, and he wants to speak to you!". "Wonderful! Well, what's the bad
news?" "He's calling from Salt Lake City!" :)
So, we have at last reached that fateful day on the calendar when the
end is near (according to the Mayans), time runs out on Friday, so you
better get your Christmas shopping done early, right? And we make jokes
about that, and rightly so, as we look forward to the big event for
which we'ev all been waiting, for which we've been preparing for -- you
know, the Fiesta Bowl that's coming :)
It's in the midst of all this joy and the music and the spirit of this
season that we always look forward to that life and death came crashing
down upon us this week, shattering our sense of peace and security. In a
Clackamas shopping center and a Connecticut elementary school. And it's
jarring. "Our hearts are broken", a visibly shaken President proclaimed
on behalf of an emotionally shaken nation. That something so horrendous
could happen to children so innocent, at this time of year, seems so
harsh that it defies comprehension.
Those who send their sons and daughters off to war in Afghanistan or
Iraq, they have to face that possibility, that their children may not
come home. But sending your child off to school? I mean, who can live
How can we possibly speak of a season of joy in a sea of violence? How
can we create a culture of peace in a culture that is awash in guns?
Paul's words this morning strike us mockery. Rejoice? Do not worry about
anything? I want to cry out to Paul: "Are you serious?!" How can we help
but not worry? The world has gone mad, news of climate change grows
steadily worse, our leaders are engaged in this high-stake game of
fiscal chicken with devastating potential consequences, and now we have
the 7th -- the 7th -- mass-shooting of this year alone. Worrying is just
the least of our worries.
You may recall that Paul is writing this letter
from prison. He possibly is facing a death sentence. I mean, he should
have worries of his own. And Paul's antidote to worrying is strikingly
simple, maybe too simple to satisfy many. But given that it worked for
him in his situation, it is worth a look for us in ours.
First, he says turn your worries into prayer. Give to God that which you
have no control over anyway. Jesus asked in the Sermon on the Mount:
"Can you by your worrying add one hour to the span of your life?" No. In
fact, we know if anything it's the reverse -- worrying just gives us all
kinds of health problems, stomach ailments, hypertension and the like.
Worrying that does not lead to some active deed for a positive change is
apt to do more harm than good.
And so the first thing to do with our worries is to pray them away. Pray
that you will overcome them, instead that they will overcome you. Pray
that God will transform those worries into something positive, something
that you can do. Pray for hope that is stronger than your fears. Pray
for faith that is greater than your doubts. Pray away your worries.
And secondly, Paul offers the nearness of Christ as the solution to our
worries. Now, because Paul elsewhere speaks of the coming, what we call
the second coming, the return of Christ, and because this is Advent when
we focus on the coming of God into our world in a new way, we tend to
read this notion of nearness in temporal terms. Just wait, hang-on,
things wlll get better. The Lord will soon come, just wait, all will be
Hope is never far away for those who hope in the Lord. The prophet
Isaiah says it so well in chapter 40: "Have you not known, have you not
heard, the Lord is everlasting. God, the creator of the ends of the
earth, he does not faint or grow weary. He gives power to the faint,
strengthens the powerless. Even you will faint and be weary, the young
will fall and be exhausted. But those who wait for the Lord shall renew
their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall
run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint".
May our faith have that kind of hope, especially in these times. But
nearness is not only a temporal concept, it is also spatial. As in
distance. Those that were here last Sunday, I would remind you of that
prevailing presence of the Emperor I spoke about, throughout the Roman
Empire, that was constantly there. In the statues and in the Temples and
in the inscriptions, and the coins you carried, the standards borne by
the Roman troops. Wherever you went throughout that Empire, the Emperor
was near. And so the Emperor who was proclaimed Lord and Savior of the
world may have resided in Rome, but his presence was felt throughout the
Now, Paul says here in this text not that the Lord is coming, Paul says
the Lord is near. Is that ambiguity of nearness, whether temporal or
spatial, is that accidental or is that intentional?
As I suggested last week, I think that Paul has Caesar on his mind. And
he offers Christ as the true Lord and Savior of the world, who is nearer
to us than we realize. Nearer than that omnipresent Emperor. So if the
Lord is near, then the question is: who is waiting? Are we waiting for
Christ to come in that temporal sense? Or is Christ waiting for us to
draw near, in that spatial sense?
For my way of thinking, Christian theology has focused way too much on
the transcendence of God, that notion that God is somewhere way out
there, above there, apart from us, separate from us, a great distance.
And we have this enormous chasm between us and God. Usually we call it
sin -- we're separated from God, and we cannot get across that chasm, we
are dependent on someone else to bridge it for us. And so Christ,
through the mercy of God, has enabled us to close that gap.
I much prefer to focus on the immanence of God, the notion that God is
actually all around us. God is present everywhere, in everything. That
we are created in the image of God, therefore there is a spark of that
divine in each and every one of us. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God
is near at hand. It is in our midst. It is among us. It is available to
us now. So that wall, you see, that we place, that gap, that chasm, that
is something that we put between us and God. We can take it down.
And what is shocking for many Christians to discover is that this idea
of God's immanence is just as rooted in scripture as the idea of God's
transcendence. We just haven't paid much attention to it. Be still and
know that I am God. It is there in the wind of creation that becomes the
breath given by God to every human being. It is there in the spirit of
Pentecost, in that rush of the mighty wind that fell on all of the
Disciples. It is there in the vision of the new Jerusalem, where the
dwelling place of God is on earth, in the midst of humanity.
And you see, prayer helps us to reconnect with that immanence of God
that is all around us. To stop amidst our worries and our fears and to
take a deep breath, and to feel that spirit. To be refreshed by that
breath of God.
Whatever the turmoil, whatever the crisis, whatever the tragedy, in that
moment of deepest pain and fear, to draw strength from the pulse of life
that goes on and on, like the turning of the earth. It's always there,
it's always present, available to us, to draw energy and strength from.
So Paul says that we can rejoice even when
imprisoned by the powers of this world because of the one who is greater
is near. We can rejoice even when the world weeps, even when we weep,
because the one who knows our tears, feels our grief, is near.
We can rejoice because our faith is in the one who is not defeated by
death, and will not be stopped by hatred, fear, or violence. The Lord is
We can rejoice because the goodness of life is defined by those who give
life, not by those who take it. The Lord is near.
We can rejoice because the beauty of this world is spread by love rather
than diminished by fear. The Lord is near.
We can rejoice because we are part of something much bigger than this
church, more wonderful than ourselves, we are a part of the very body of
Christ, the life of God. The Lord is near.
Rejoice. The Lord is near. Much nearer to us than we think. In every
breath you take, in every beat of your heart, God is there.
You know, the bell tower of this church was added in 1926. And I love
that for the past 86 years, those chimes have been ringing out through
our community. On the quarter-hour, reminding everyone in the heart of
Eugene, not just of the time gone by, but of the place where they are.
Near to the heart of God.
So I invite you for a moment this morning just to listen. And to find
your spot in that place near the Lord. And may it fill you with joy,
even in, and especially in, this time: