The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Third Sunday of Advent
December 12, 2021
“Rejoice in the Lord, always. Again I will say, Rejoice.” I love this passage from Saint Paul in his letter to the Philippians. These words are stitched in our minds as Episcopalians as the words of blessing at the end of our services. “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ.” In the midst of all the dire Advent warnings, with John the Baptist talking about broods of vipers and cutting down trees, these words of Paul are quite refreshing. Rejoice in the Lord, always. Again I will say, Rejoice. Let you gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.
This theme of gentleness, of humility doesn’t square with many of our thoughts and feelings toward Paul. As a church, we’ve been reading through the letters of Saint Paul and we’ve wrestled with Paul’s anger and arguments with other Christians. We’ve struggled with Paul’s description of household duties. But this bit from Philippians, and really the whole letter, provides a different perspective. Rejoice. Gentleness. Do not worry. Peace of God.
But like anytime you read something from the Bible, you have to know its context. And here, context is critical. Paul is writing this letter to the church in Philippi from prison. Paul has been imprisoned for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Imagine that in your mind – Paul is manacled, chained, in prison for his dangerous proclamation that Jesus is Lord. Most likely, the prison he is in was some sort of a cave. The authorities were not required to feed him, he would have depended on his friends and other Christians to provide his daily bread. Imagine that – imagine the dankness, the smell, the hunger, the thirst; imagine committing your life to the Lord Jesus only to be thrown into jail for it. Imagine not knowing if and when you would ever be released. And still, still being able to say, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice.” Imagine that every time you woke up in that cave you could still say, “do not worry. The Lord is near.” Imagine receiving a lashing and still being able to say, “let your gentleness be known to everyone.” While this might be one of the happier letters of Paul, I think it is one of the most revolutionary. It’s revolutionary because it shows us the true measure of faith. Faithfulness is being thrown into a cave for the Lord Jesus and still, still having the courage to say, “rejoice in the Lord always.”
But I think this says a lot more about God than it does about Paul. See, one of the things we modern Christians have to learn all over again, is that God is not contingent upon us. Think through this with me – even if every church closed its doors, even if every Christian stopped praying today or was thrown into jail like Paul, God would still be God. One of the things we can glean from this letter is that God does not need our protection. I mean, seriously, if the Lord God is the One enthroned upon cherubim and seraphim, if the Lord God has created the heavens and the earth, if the Almighty has trampled down death and the grave, then surely God does not us to keep him safe. Notice that Paul doesn’t bellyache about being thrown into prison, he simply accepts it as part of his discipleship. Because Paul knows that God is bigger than he is. And if God does need our safeguarding, if God is that fragile, then either God isn’t who we say God is, or we’ve been worshiping an impostor and we better find a new deity quick.
So I stand with the robust, radical Christian proclamation. God is One, God is the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen. His Son overcame death and the grave and his Spirit dwells in our hearts. God is the Almighty. This is the good news of Jesus Christ for which Paul was thrown into prison.
This, of course, has tremendous implications for our modern Christian life. God is God, the Lord is near, even in prison, even at the cross. Whether Starbucks puts a snowflake on its Christmas cups or not. I know that sounds like a cheap shot, but that whole conversation about artwork on coffee cups is symptomatic of how shallow our theological discourse has become. Again, this God we’re talking about, this God we worship, is the One and Only God. This is the God who bled and died on Good Friday. This is the God who trampled down death and the grave. We’re making ourselves awfully high and mighty if we think that God needs us to worry about a disposable coffee cup. Paul gets thrown into prison for his faith in Jesus and can say, “rejoice in the Lord always.” If someone says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and we lose our minds, I wonder what Paul, from prison, would have to say to us? It probably wouldn’t be as kind as his letter to the Philippians. Because if we learn anything from this letter, it’s that God doesn’t need our protection. God is absolutely free, whether we are free or in prison.
Now I’ve got one last thing I want to say about the context of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And I hope it sheds some light on where I’m coming from. Paul’s church plant in Philippi is the first church planted in a city without a significant Jewish population. When Paul gets to Philippi and starts preaching, the first people who hear him are Gentiles, they are not Jews (Wright and Bird, The New Testament in its World, 438). And since they are not Jews, they have a different set of principles and morals. Meekness and humility were not virtues for the ancient Romans. Their virtues were power and authority. Again, Paul is revolutionary here. How strange his message of calm and peace and joy must have sounded to those Roman Philippians.
And you really can’t blame them, can you? I mean, who in their right mind would worship a God that died on a cross? Wouldn’t it make more sense in a world of military power, in a world of violence, to worship a god who was strong and terrible? And yet, Paul humbles himself in jail, even as Jesus humble himself upon the cross. God stooped to our level and lived and died as one of us, God does not need our protection. That’s where meekness come in, that’s why a Christian lives a life of humble gratitude, and that’s what must have sounded so bizarre to the Philippians.
Let anyone with ears to hear listen. Christianity’s natural habitat is a pagan world. Our faith experienced its most tremendous, dynamic period of growth and ministry when it was actively oppressed; when we were living, preaching, and praying in a world set against us; in a world that thought we were strange for our humility; in a world where we would rather be fed to the lions than pick up a sword. Christianity came into its own when its chief apostles were in prison.
I say our current cultural context is an opportunity for us to return to that kind of life and ministry as Christians. We may not have the same power and authority as before, so be it. In many ways, our modern world looks much more like the ancient, pagan world than the world as it was one hundred years ago. Fewer and fewer people go to church nowadays; fewer call themselves Christians. While some of us might wring our hands about this, I think back to Paul. Locked in a dingy cave telling those new disciples of Jesus to rejoice. Our current time is an opportunity to proclaim the gospel. Because the Lord is near.
My prayer for us, for the church in the twenty-first century, is that we sound as bizarre to the modern world as Paul must have sounded to the Philippians. We, too, will make the bold proclamation that God is free, that God does not need our protection, that God does not need us. And yet for some reason God does want to be near to us. And we will also say, even in this power dominated world, that meekness and humility are Christian virtues.
You’ve heard enough of my preaching by now to know that I find the gospel challenging. Even here, in one of Paul’s most serene passages, I hear the call to pick up the cross and follow Jesus. To follow him into the caves, into prison, all the way to death. To freely give myself to the God who freely gives to us.
And so this week, in a spare moment, close your eyes and put yourself in that cave, in that prison with Paul. Smell those smells, feel his hunger, take on his anxiety and meditate on these words. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”