Sermon for Sunday, December 13, 2021 || Advent 3C || Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Today’s lesson from Philippians begins with one of the most beloved verses of scripture: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” There’s a good chance your grandma had this embroidered on a throw pillow. Or, maybe you are a grandmother, and you do have this verse embroidered on a throw pillow. I am definitely going to mention this beloved verse during this sermon, but mostly we need to tackle a few words that come up a verse later. How we encounter these few words can completely change the way we read this passage and, indeed, our walks with God.
Those few words are these: “The Lord is near.” Now, I’m going to say them again in just a moment, but first I want you to settle yourself. Take a deep breath. Get ready to listen to your body. Here we go:
“The Lord is near.”
Chances are, you had one of two physical reactions when I said that. One: You either felt a tightening in your body, a constriction. Maybe your fists or jaw clenched or your shoulders hunched of their own accord. Or Two: you felt an expansion in your body, an openness. Maybe you inhaled deeper than you thought your lungs could go or your muscles released some chronic tension. (Or else, nothing happened in your body when I said that, and that’s okay too.)
Either way, just sit with the physical reaction for a moment. Our bodies will often tell us things our minds aren’t prepared to know. We get gut feelings. The hairs will stand up on the backs of our necks. We’ll feel either lethargic or energetic at the prospect of an activity depending on our true, if unexamined, attitudes towards the activity. Our bodies are great vessels of wisdom. They hold our traumas and our glories, our scars and our beauty. What did yours tell you just now when I said, “The Lord is near?”
If your body tightened, even if only slightly, I’d wager that at some point in your life, such a statement was not treated as good news. “The Lord is near” can certainly be deployed as a threat. In this treatment, God becomes something like Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984. In this dystopian novel, every citizen of the totalitarian state is under constant surveillance. And they are reminded of this unavoidable fact of life by ubiquitous signs that read: “Big Brother is watching you.” Take a step out of line and you disappear. 1984 is a book dripping with fear and anxiety because of Big Brother’s terrible vigilance. People do what the state tells them to do, not because it’s the right thing, but because they are scared to do otherwise.
So many, many people throughout history and today have been taught that God operates the same way. “The Lord is near” becomes a threat and a warning. Do what I tell you or God will reject you and send you to hell. God becomes a divine Santa Claus who only has a naughty list:
“He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so…”
Living under this vision of God is oppressive and shackling. It leads to psychological, emotional, and spiritual trauma. It makes us susceptible to church leaders who seek to control people for their own ends. And…(and let me say this as clearly as I can)…this vision of God as totalitarian dictator is absolutely wrong.
If you felt that tightening when I said, “The Lord is near,” then I ask you to stay with me a few more minutes and listen to another vision, the vision that leads to expansion and openness. What if “The Lord is near” were not a threat, but a promise?
St. Paul embeds these words in the midst of a series of uplifting exhortations. Rejoice! Be gentle! Do not worry about anything. Let your requests be made known to God. And God’s peace that is so present and permanent that we can’t possibly understand it will take care of your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.
Does that sound like a threat? No, of course not. When Paul says, “The Lord is near,” he means it as a blessing, not as a warning. He means these words as similar ones were meant in the Psalms:
LORD, you have searched me out and known me;
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar…
Where can I go then from your Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast. (139:1, 6-9)
The psalmist finds great consolation in knowing there is nowhere that we can go that God is not already present. My good friend, Ruby Browning, the elderly wisdom keeper that I wrote my book Letters from Ruby about, told me that when I go visit someone in the hospital, I’m not bringing God with me. God is already there. God is present – not keeping a tally of our missteps, but picking us up when we fall. That’s the good news.
Even John the Baptist in today’s Gospel, though he sounds like a fire and brimstone preacher, is exhorting the people to be the best versions of themselves. He’s baptizing them so they have a day they can mark and remember when they changed their hearts and lives. He’s calling them to turn their lives around so they will be prepared to see the God who has come near.
And so we proclaim, not a threat, but a blessing. The Lord is near, so take a chance, take a risk, take a leap of faith into an unknown future, where God will always be present. The Lord is near, so it’s okay to be vulnerable, to love without condition, to serve in ways that stretch you beyond your current comfort because God is in the beyond too. The Lord is near, so rejoice! Again I will say, Rejoice!