Advent 4 – Rejoice! The Lord is at hand

Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice.
Let your reasonableness (moderation) be known to everyone.
The Lord is at hand.

Advent has been about the anticipation of Christ’s coming that first time in Bethlehem.  It has been about Christ’s coming at the end of time.  And, it is about His present coming to our souls.  That coming into our world brought with it then, and brings even now to our souls judgement –not to condemn us but to make us ready for that final judgement at the end of time.  Our love, or hope, our faithfulness, comes under scrutiny when Jesus draws near.

__Miriam
Miriam, rejoicing at God’s deliverance at the Exodus

But Jesus comes to us more than to prepare us for the final judgement.  And that final judgement is not somehow disconnected from God’s greater purpose: God has created us that there might be more joy in the universe, lasting joy.  This is why we have been made and it is the end to which God is leading us.

Jesus said, more than once, that our sorrow will be turned into joy. [John 16]

Jesus, on his last night before the crucifixion, speaking to his disciples, said, These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full. John 15:11

And his disciple, St. John, who knew this lasting joy, says, following his Lord, in one of his letters to us, I tell you these things, that your joy may be complete.

We begin to know something of joy in this life naturally as creatures as we experience the pleasures of this life – through taste, touch, smell, sights and sounds – as we gather for feasts and enjoy the embrace of family and friends.  All of these experiences can bring joy.  And this is God’s intention.

But we want a more stable and permanent joy than we know from outward things which are changing – we want joy that lasts forever.

As we mature, the quality and source of our joy changes.  We recognize that the source of lasting joy is found in our union with God through Jesus Christ.

True and lasting joy comes, when we have a real certainty that God exists, that God is engaged in our lives in a real and tangible way, that there is a purpose in the midst of our suffering.  True joy comes to us when, in our continual looking up for help, we are met by an answer from above.

The Jewish people who suffered for centuries under various occupations, and then under the Romans, longed for a Saviour – they knew this joy at Christ’s coming.  Watch in the Christmas Gospels – for all the references to joy.

When Mary meets Elizabeth, the babe in her womb (John) leapt with joy!

The angels announce to the shepherds that they have – tidings of great joy!

When the kings saw the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy!

In all of these situations – a long-suffering and tested hope is met suddenly by a fulfilment; the expectation of more, of so much more than we experience now, is fulfilled and in ways far beyond our expectation.

————

St. Paul today in the Epistle reading (Philippians 4:4-7) can say in two sentences what seems at first to be a contradiction:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice.  And then, Let your reasonableness (or in the KJV, your moderation) be known to everyone. 

At first we might think it is as if to throw a damper on our feast! and yet he is saying that moderation in outward things is what happens as we come more and more to rejoice in the Lord.

As children, we just kept eating what gave us joy – and sometimes ate until we were sick.  As young adults we may remember other indulgences that made us sick.  As adults, if we are not reasonable, we still can get lost, distracted, in seeking joy in outward things – wealth, ambition, worldly fame and so on.

But as we mature as Christians, we realize that the joy we seek comes to us only as we exercise self control in worldly or fleshy desires.  We in no way despise the goodness of food and drink and the other earthly pleasures, we don’t disengage in the world, [we love them “in God”, as signs of God’s goodness, not as an end in themselves] but we are moderate in our relation to these outward things, having begun to discover and remembering always a new kind of joy which is inward and spiritual.  We are moderate in the outward pleasures because we know if we are immoderate, the inward spiritual joy can be overthrown.

This true and lasting joy comes about through the union of our soul with Jesus Christ – joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, it is known deeply in the soul and it cannot be overthrown – even if for a time we have sorrow, our sorrows are turned into joy.

Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice. 

  • we rejoice in God who brings our sins to light that we might return to the truth, who cleanses our conscience, reconciles us with Himself and our neighbours, and makes us able to do what is good.
  • and in time we rejoice in God, not only because of what he does for us, but simply because of who God is – Light, Truth, Beauty, Wisdom, Unfathomable Love…
  • we find joy in resting with others in the worship and the adoration of God, which is the life of heaven.

At first these joys are milder, weaker – than what came to us externally through our bodies or the world, and yet these inward spiritual joys build as we come to know them more and more.

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Our Gospel this morning (St John 1:19-28) speaks to us about how to know more of this true joy.

We are brought to think again about St. John the Baptist and his ministry.  Joy comes about in us, by following John in two ways.  First, through a steadfast denial – by admitting, especially to ourselves, that we are not the Christ.  And second, by looking to the one who is the Christ – Jesus, whose birth we will celebrate later this week.

The first may sound obvious – surely none of us think we are God?  But remember that Adam and Eve’s fatal mistake was deciding for themselves what is the cause of their health, of joy, and of knowledge.  They saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise – and despite what God said, they ate.

But joy comes to us as we stop making this same mistake.

  • Joy comes to us as we admit that we are not our own Saviour, we need help beyond ourselves – we don’t have the answers, we need the Wisdom of the Word made flesh.  A sure sign that we know this is when we pray about everything that worries us, when we find ourselves on our knees a lot.
  • Joy comes to us as we admit that we are not the creator of our own joy.  We can try to stir up good feelings, we can turn to the world to give us a temporary relief, but our attempts do not last, and in the end it is not what we really wanted – so we look up to God who alone gives us the joy as our lives are sanctified, as we follow the hidden and humble path of love that Jesus shows us.
  • As we follow that path, Jesus meets us again and again – we begin to see his involvement and JOY is the consequence!  [Merchant of Venice]
A4 - Behold the Lamb of God - Dieric Bouts the Elder - 1462
Behold the Lamb of God, Dieric Bouts the Elder, 1462

John the Baptist tells the Pharisees, who ask him, Then why do you baptize?

I baptize with water: but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.

I baptize with water…But, what is unspoken, shouts out to us – Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit.  And truly it is in the pouring out of His Spirit that we know God’s joy in us, Christ in us.

I have visitors coming on Wednesday, and I don’t know if you are like me struggling at this late time trying to think of gifts to give to others this Christmas.

But God is ready, this Christmas, with the highest, with the spiritual gifts: the gift of visions and dreams, with the gifts of prophesy, of miracles, of healing, of wisdom, of understanding, of spiritual strength, and, most importantly, of a loving heart.  We are promised inwardly His Spirit, Christ in us, the wellspring of true joy.

In this season full of holy days set apart for worship, and of feasts with loved ones, let us remember to Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.  Let [our] reasonableness, our moderation [in outward things], be known to everyone.  [Because we trust] The Lord is at hand.  [he is in our very hearts to bring the lasting joy and rest we long for]  In nothing be anxious but [because we know that we are not the Christ] in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, [we] let [our] requests be made known unto God. 

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Amen.