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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
December 16, 2018 at 10:45 AM
Central Passage
Philippians 4:4-7
Advent 3C

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: December 16, 2018 – Advent 3C

Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18


Be Glad (Or Else!)


             A colleague of mine had a Facebook poll for the “Worst Christmas Song”, pitting two songs against each other each day in a bracket-style matchup. Candidates included such favorites as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, “Last Christmas”, “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, and my favorite, “Dominick the Christmas Donkey”. The matchup was fierce. It came down to the ultimate battle, between “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” and “Christmas Shoes”. And the winner (or loser, depending on how you look at it!) was “Christmas Shoes”.


            But to me, as kitschy and overly sentimental as some of these songs are, these aren’t the worst Christmas songs. The Christmas songs that have me reaching for the dial are those that order me to feel or behave a particular way. Like “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas!” or “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!” Or perhaps the worst offender, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”. “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town!” Well, bah humbug on you! Maybe I want to cry and pout!


            Now, I know what you’re thinking.  “Wow, did Pastor David get a few too many lumps of coal in his stocking growing up? What a Grinch!” Well, my Christmases growing up were good. No lumps of coal. And as for the grinchiness, I think that has more to do with how persnickety I am about Advent. You know, it’s still Advent – Christmas doesn’t come until the evening of the 24th. But believe it or not, I’ve actually gotten better about Christmas music over the last few years. I’m much more flexible in the cantatas I pick for the Community Choir than I used to be. But this is still an anxiety-producing time of the year, at least when you’re a grown-up. When you’re a kid, Christmas is absolutely magical. Santa is coming, you get to help decorate the house (or not), listen to fun songs, watch cool shows on TV, eat a lot of junk food. You also don’t really have to get presents for anybody. You don’t have to send out 200 Christmas cards. By the time you’re grown, there are far more responsibilities. And then those songs are on constant blast wherever you go. “Be merry! Be jolly! Be happy! Or else!”


            With that in mind, let’s look at what Paul tells us. In our second reading today, Paul reminds the church at Philippi to “Be glad in the Lord always!” Hmmm, I’ll just add that to my to-do list! He goes on, “Don’t be anxious about anything, rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.” It’s beginning to sound like a list of impossible commands. Be glad always? Don’t be anxious? It’s almost like hearing “you better watch out, you better not cry” again – just with Jesus in place of Santa Claus!


            But there is a depth to Paul’s words that is not immediately obvious, because we are getting only four verses. We can’t understand Paul’s exhortations, “be glad” and “don’t be anxious”, without understanding where Paul was when he wrote this letter, and what the state of the church at Philippi was. To do that, we have to go back to chapter 1.


            Paul tells the Philippian church that he is in an imperial prison, under Roman guard. He is likely close to the end of his life. And at this critical time, he writes to one of the churches he planted, a church well-known and well-loved by him, and he by them. He writes to the Philippian church in its own difficult time. Two of its prominent leaders are divided. The church itself is on the margins of Greco-Roman society, proclaiming allegiance to Jesus Christ rather than the emperor. In all this difficulty, Paul tells the Philippians to “be glad” and “don’t be anxious”. Is this a Pollyannaish denial of reality? A command to “just be happy”?


            No. These exhortations, “be glad” and “don’t be anxious”, are given in difficult circumstances that are impossible to ignore. Paul can’t wish his imprisonment away. He even admits, in Philippians 1, to seeing death as preferable to life – at least for himself – because then he could finally leave this realm of suffering behind and be with Christ. Paul is not in a joyful situation. No, Paul’s exhortations are mindful of every circumstance of one’s life – every joy, every pain. Paul sees all these circumstances as pure gift. They are all opportunities to proclaim and embody the Christ who saves. Later in chapter 4, when Paul expresses gratitude to the Philippians for supporting his ministry financially, he writes, “I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.”


            Paul isn’t saying, “Be glad or else!” Paul is inviting us to see every circumstance of our lives as an opportunity to be Christ’s body in our broken, hurting world. Paul is inviting us to live an unselfish life, a life lived out in the One who was so unselfish he emptied himself of his Godhood to take on our humanity. This invitation isn’t a command rooted in a Law we can never fulfill, but in the good news that Jesus Christ has already done everything necessary for us. He has already saved us from the powers of sin and death. He has already prepared a place for us in his presence. He has already given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to sustain us in this life. And he also helps us to be mindful of all these gifts, whenever we come to worship, whenever we hear the Word of God, whenever we receive the Sacrament. Because we are rooted in his gifts, in his love, in his strength, as a community of faith we can “endure all things through him who strengthens us.”


            There are times when we’ll be grinchy and anxious. There are times of real hardship. There are times we’ll fall apart. But Christ is there, in every single circumstance, strengthening us. Even when we don’t feel his presence, Christ is there in the community of faith, shouldering our burden. It is in him that we can truly be glad. We can bring all our anxiety and fear to him because he is ultimately faithful and trustworthy to us beyond our wildest dreams.


            Let us pray.


            Jesus, help us to trust you more. Help us to see all circumstances of our lives as opportunities to embody you in the world, giving thanks for all things. Amen.


© 2018, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given,