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 Nearer Than You Think

Sermon - 12/16/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Philippians 4:4-7

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 like this?

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 well.

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 Empire.

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 near.

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:


May your joy this season be that kind of joy.


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