Monday, December 19, 2016

Sermon on Philippians 4:2-7, for the 4th Sunday in Advent, "The Lord is our Supreme Joy!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Though on Maui it might be a stretch—I want you to imagine two people huddled outside in the cold snow, perhaps under a dark shelter—but they are shivering, freezing. Then the sun breaks through the clouds with brilliant force, casting warm beams to the earth. But hidden under the shelter, the two are still frozen cold. Then one enters the sunlight, and suddenly feels the warmth soaking into all their body, face, fingertips, and toes. The other is still miserable, shivering cold in the dark. If the first simply says, “hey, quit shivering, just warm up!” but doesn’t bring them out into the sunshine, it does the person no good—they’ll still be frozen. Their words are empty sentiment. But if they’re brought into the warmth of the sunlight, they will immediately feel the chill and the cold fading away.

Another example. In James 2:14-17, James describes a faith without works. He says what if a person was hungry and lacking proper clothes, and you just said, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, but gave nothing they needed for the body—this would do them no good. Faith without works is dead. You need to actually feed or clothe them to do good.

I often wonder how you hear or even say those words in today’s reading: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice!” Do you hear them like the person still huddled in the freezing dark, angry as though someone were mocking our suffering? Or like the hungry person who is told to be filled, but is given nothing to eat? In other words, are we encircled by some sorrow or suffering, so that we hear these words as being empty of comfort? Perhaps, but only if we miss the heart and center of words.  

You see, when St. Paul writes these words, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice!”, the joy and comfort all flow from the Lord. The point is, the Lord is our Supreme Joy! To use our examples, Jesus is the radiant sunlight that dawns upon us, giving warmth and light, as we have long been in the cold darkness and winter of our sins. The prophet Malachi told of Jesus’ coming, that the “sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” Joy comes from the radiant warmth and light of the Lord, and all His gifts. And to give someone joy, we must give them the Lord! To know joy ourselves, we must know the Lord! It’s not insignificant that Jesus also teaches us that we are the light of the world, and that our good deeds give glory to the Father. We transmit and reflect the light of Jesus when we show kindness and do good for others—showing His care, love, and forgiveness.

I included some extra verses in our reading from Philippians, to show that Paul understood that joy doesn’t exist in a vacuum, or only when life is all coasting along easily. Verse 2 Paul appeals for two Christian women to resolve their conflicts by agreeing in the Lord. This is followed by the command to rejoice in the Lord always, and a reminder to be reasonable to everyone. The thoughts are obviously linked, as being UNreasonable or stubborn, makes it almost impossible to resolve conflict. But sandwiched between is the command to rejoice. And joy is an honest result of people making amends—coming together by agreement in the Lord, and putting hurts, wrongs, and disagreements behind them. Conflict and division, especially in a church, are sure to rob us of joy—but seeking agreement in the Lord and finding unity, is a sure way to restore joy!

Paul gives one person specific instructions on this in verse 3. It may be the pastor or a significant leader in the Philippian church. Paul says, “Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life”. There are many interesting things about this verse. Four times in the Greek, he use the prefix “with” on several words. He’s appealing for unity, based on “agreement in the Lord” from the verse before. The first word, translated “true companion” is more literally, “true yoke-fellow”. Paul is writing to a friend, who has labored alongside him in the gospel, like two oxen, or two cattle, pulling a yoke together. A yoke, if you don’t know, is a heavy wooden bar that rests over the back of an ox pulling a plow or cart. It symbolizes teamwork, combined effort, and that pulling in the same direction is the only way to get the job done! In their conflict, Paul calls Euodia and Syntyche, the two women, to “agree in the Lord”. This is their Christian duty, and it’s the way they’re going to “pull together in the same direction” and get the job done!

Paul calls his “yoke-fellow”, his trusted laborer, to come alongside them and help them do this. These women were precious to Paul also, as he remembers how each of them had previously labored side by side with him in the gospel. He knew their Christian character and heart from their service with him in the Gospel. He therefore knew that it was not impossible to overcome their conflict, but that they had to refocus on the Lord—agree in the Lord!—to overcome it. Isn’t that just like life in our Christian congregation, or among our Christian friends? How easy is it for little matters to separate, divide, create conflict or disagreement. It robs us of joy. But like Paul, we should know the heart and love for Christian service in our brothers and sisters, and seek to bring resolution, agreement in the Lord, wherever possible.

And certain of this outcome, Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand”. Joy comes from the Lord. It comes from realigning our thoughts and hearts to His Word, His gracious will—which creates agreement, unity, the ability to work together and accomplish much for the gospel, and this is joy! The Lord is at hand, is a reminder not to delay. We also should not miss that this letter of joy that Paul penned to the Philippians, was written while he was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel! Paul was no stranger to suffering, and he certainly doesn’t imagine that we can only know joy when life is all easy.

And of course, life is not easy for many. While we may celebrate Christmas in comfort and safety, there are people locally who are homeless or jobless. Internationally many are refugees from war, persecution, or famine this Christmas season. There are people whose families are not intact, or may have deep divisions. It’s well-known that for these and many other reasons, including health issues, that many people experience the “holiday blues.” Or might we better say, that we suffer under the “winter of our sins?” All the effects of sin, our own, and the sins of others, casts a frozen chill on life. But listen to these words of an ancient Easter hymn: “Tis the spring of souls today: Christ has burst His prison, and from three days’ sleep in death, as a sun has risen; all the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying, from His light to whom is giv’n laud and praise undying” (LSB 487:2).

Jesus is the radiant sun who shines down on our sin-darkened lives, frozen with the chill of our meanness, unreasonableness, selfishness, and coldness to each other. The joy that Paul knew, and that we’re invited to know, is “joy in the Lord.” His resurrection is the crowning victory over sin and death, and the warming light that thaws and chases away the long and dark winter of our sins. Where the light of Jesus Christ is shed, where the gifts of His Word, Truth, forgiveness and love are flowing down on us, there the warmth and joy of the Lord is spread and known. To call others to share in and experience that joy of the Lord, we must bring them to the radiant beams of His light. Or we must reflect that light of the Lord to them, by acts of goodness, kindness, and love, so that they are drawn into the light. The joy of the Lord is shining and giving us light, more surely than the rising of the sun each morning. To quote another scripture, written in the depths of darkness and grief, Lamentations, the prophet, saw suffering all around him, but remembers this hope: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23-23).

Since the Lord’s steadfast love never ceases, His mercies never end, we can rejoice in Him always. Later in the Philippians 4 Paul joins this theme of joy to contentment—in all circumstances, plenty or hunger, abundance or need—I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Joy and contentment are not about having everything we think we need, or being happy, healthy, and without problems—joy and contentment are seeing that the Lord, the Son of righteousness, is still shining in all His faithfulness and mercy. It is seeing that the Lord shines still in His resurrection victory that is the greatest victory of all. With sin, death, and the devil defeated, we can endure the lesser ups and downs, victories and defeats of this life, confident that all is not lost, but rather all has been gained in Christ Jesus. In fact, earlier in this same letter, Paul confesses, “to live is Christ, to die is gain” for then he would be with the Lord. The point of it is that the Christian has a unique and incomparable source of joy in the Lord, because the death and resurrection of Jesus means that whatever life brings, we have a “win-win” situation, because we have been forgiven and redeemed by the Lord. God’s Son is ever shining.

You can’t get warmed by hiding in the darkness, or staying in the cold. You must come into the sunshine of the Lord! Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice! Come into the sunshine of the Lord’s gifts—receive His Word with joy, receive His coming this Christmas with joy, receive His forgiveness in body and blood with joy, because Jesus has redeemed us from all the winter of our sins! If the cold and chill of sorrows and sins still lingers, continue to come again and again into His gracious presence! Repeat as often as needed! And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. In Philippians 4:2-7, Paul urges us to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” When is it particularly difficult for us to rejoice, or find joy? Where is the joy Paul talks about centered or found?
  2. Read James 2:14-17. How does the Christian truly bless a person who is hungry or lacking clothes? In a parallel way, how does a Christian bless someone who is suffering or lacking joy? Where does it come from, and how can we help deliver it?
  3. What challenging situation was Paul addressing in Philippians 4:2-3? What makes conflicts especially hard to resolve (contrast to vs. 7)? What is the key for finding agreement? (vs. 2).
  4. How can we come alongside or help other Christians who may be stuck in a conflict or disagreement? Philippians 4:3. What shared experiences and affection moved Paul and his companion to work for this unity? How is joy a product of true unity in the Lord?
  5. Paul knew joy, even as he wrote the letter. Where was he writing from? What circumstances? Philippians 1:7. What troubles us or steals our joy?
  6. The Easter hymn “Come You Faithful, Raise the Strain” (LSB 487:2) contains this verse: Tis the spring of souls today: Christ has burst His prison, and from three days’ sleep in death, as a sun has risen; all the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying, from His light to whom is giv’n laud and praise undying. Explain what it means for us that Jesus has risen from death.
  7. Read Lamentations 3:19-24, especially vss. 22-23. How does he find hope in the midst of despair? Why do Christians face a “win-win situation” no matter what? Philippians 1:22.

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