+ ‘The Lord is near, do not worry about anything’
These are worrying times, with the new covid variant about and fears for our Christmas and our lives. A number of us here, and our families, are worrying about our own health or the health of those we love, and there are those in our local area who are worrying about rising prices and how they will make ends meet.
In our second reading Paul was writing from Ephesus, around 57 AD, to the new Christian community he’d founded a few years before in Philippi in Macedonia, just across the Aegean Sea. He was in prison, he was having real troubles as a Christian preacher and yet he wrote to the Philippians ‘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’. ‘The Lord is near’, hence this bit of Philippians has always been read in Advent; and ‘rejoice in the Lord always’, in Latin ‘gaudete in Domino semper’, hence today is known as ‘gaudete Sunday’ or ‘rejoice Sunday’.
Can you rejoice in prison, can you rejoice in a pandemic, can you rejoice when you are in pain, have lost someone you love, or have a serious disease? It’s hard to be happy then, it may well be impossible. I’m now trespassing on some difficult territory. I’m beginning to wish I’d started this sermon in the traditional way, looking at John the Baptist and not Paul. It is the only day in the year when the priest can look his congregation in the eye and shout with John the Baptist ‘you brood of vipers’.
But Paul’s gentler words are even more challenging, how can you rejoice when things are tough? How can you say ‘don’t worry’ when the people you are talking to actually have everything to worry about? Worry and sadness are destructive, they sap our ability to do good, they turn our gaze from others to ourself. Superficial happiness is defeated by them. To live well we need to face them. My daughter Bess has a little picture book called ‘The Huge Bag of Worries’ about a little girl who is followed about by a big blue bag of worries that make her sad. She can do nothing about it, no one can help, until she talks to her Grannie who grabs the bag and takes the worries out one by one and deals with them.
That’s one way of dealing with things that worry you: share them, look at the rationally, put them in context. It is a human way, and it can help. But Paul, in prison in Ephesus, is telling us something more: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always… The Lord is near, don’t worry’. The key word is ‘Lord’. In Advent Jesus is near, we turn to him. We know that ultimately, he has won the victory. Even in prison, in pain, in a pandemic, this little seed of joy can remain in the midst of sadness. It can remain even if we don’t feel it.
St Francis was once asked by Br Leo what perfect joy means. Francis said it is not when things are going well, “it is when we arrive home, drenched with rain and trembling with cold, covered in mud and exhausted from hunger; and knock on the convent gate; and the brother on the door does not recognise us. It is when he goes on to insult us, and leaves us outside, exposed to the rain and snow, suffering from cold and hunger. If we embrace this with patience without complaining, even if he beats us with a knotted stick and kicks us around in the snow; and if we bear these injuries with patience without complaining; and if we think upon the sufferings of our Blessed Crucified Lord, then, most beloved Brother Leo, this, finally, is perfect joy!”
You don’t get that in the self-help books! But if we are serious about Christianity, about the cross being the gateway to life, and if we pray to God to really understand things, then it may begin to make sense. Joy comes from within, knowing we are loved by God. Unlike being jolly, joy can exist in pain. It involves not being overcome by circumstances. It involves looking away from self and looking to Jesus.
‘Rejoice in the Lord always… The Lord is near, don’t worry’. Advent is about waiting for Jesus; but it is also about joy amidst the pain. This is not easy, it’s not easy to look away from self and look to God. I find it very hard, but there are those who live it and John the Baptist in today’s gospel tells us the way, the way of the Lord: repentance. John’s message is the same as that of Jesus, the preaching of both begins ‘repent’. To repent is to turn your mind and your life from one thing to another. To turn from sin to God. To turn from self to God. To live gently on the earth. To live from the love within and not be controlled by what’s outside.
As we wait for a Christmas with whatever restrictions the experts think best, let us repent, let us turn to God and seek perfect joy. Paul ends today’s reading with words that are familiar from the traditional Anglican blessing, and let’s pray on this Gaudete Sunday that they are true for all of us this Christmas: ‘may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ Amen.