Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent, December 24, 2017
“ Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
THE LIGHTS sparkling at the eaves of the house across my street glow in jewel-tone shades of red, yellow, green, and blue. A snowman inflates on a front lawn, wishing me the joys of the season. Malls shine red and silver, offering exciting choices in gift-giving. Children-oriented movies debut in theatres where horror movies showed last month. Everywhere you look this season, the world is decked out for its Christmas celebration. A primitive man stumbling upon this scene would think we’re a people who haven’t a care in the world.
He would be wrong. Anxiety during the season of joy is rampant. People worry. Can we afford it? Did I get enough for him? Will she remember me? Did I get the right cards out? Am I going to get all this cooking done in time? What if Santa knows how bad I’ve been? If I can’t find the Fingerlings Interactive Baby Monkey, will the kids be devastated? How much do you suppose they are on the black market?
Anxiety, depression, over-stimulation, excessive eating and drinking, exhaustion: we celebrate ourselves into a mental health collapse. Can Christmas be just a little more sane? Is this what our newborn Savior sees in 21st century Christians?
In a mere lifetime or two, the world has sped up politically, economically, technologically, and scientifically, with all the advances and the unforeseen problems attending these explosions of new tools, information and societal features to which no former age of mankind can compare. The invention of fire or the wheel can’t match the changes we’ve seen with our own eyes in recent years. We imagine changing our global weather patterns, inadvertently or advertently, and the flip-side to losing the ice caps may also be to open agricultural lands to the North never before farmed. We may soon send mining missions to our Moon, and a Mars landing may be in our lifetime. The depths of oceans are only now being explored for their vast resources. The genetic code has been broken and we seem able to engineer life itself. What if we lived to be 200?
Christians have a biblical GPS for the future. Wars and fear of wars, disasters, plagues and famine will not be neatly engineered out of our world. As in the time of the tower of Babel, mankind again attempts to overthrow heaven by the things we build and what we think we know. Instead of liberating us from toil, the technocratic achievements will only create greater oppression of people and the earth until heaven cries out, “No more!” And Jesus will ride a white stallion.
If these fearful images have you in a fetal position half the time, well, no wonder. To these we add the drug culture, STDs, cyber-crime, identity theft and computer viruses, gender confusion and a crisis of leadership: we may have much to worry about. But then, it’s all in how you see it.
St. Paul wrote the church at Philippi, on the Greek coast, one of his first church plants on the European continent, “Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing.” Phil 4:5-6 That’s our familiar King James, but it’s one of its dimmer moments for modern ears. Moderation? Careful for nothing? Let’s hear a few other versions of the same verse. “Let everyone know how considerate you are. The Lord is near. Never worry about anything.” GW “Let your gentle behavior be clear to all men. The Lord is near. Have no cares.” BBE “Let your forbearance be known to all men; the Lord is near; for nothing be anxious.” YLT “Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing.” NKJV “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything.” ESV There are a lot of tries at this, but in the multitude of voices, you may get the point. Moderation, meekness, reasonableness, forbearance, gentleness: these are character traits you need in good measure, and it’s good if others recognize them in you. When they come to you in need, you exude calmness and strength of mind with a servant’s heart. Why? You know that Jesus is near. Instead of instilling fear in you, the coming of Christ to set things right in an otherwise wicked and fear-filled world, gives you power to overcome uneasiness at the prospect of the end of the world. Then, you can be without anxiety about anything.
I know anxiety. A former police captain said that I’m a ‘responsibility junkie:’ I take on so much. Well, I confess I do. Once, in a pastor’s group, everyone was asked how he deals with stress. One after another spoke of his quiet time, special place of solace, bible passages that comfort, a favorite chair. I was last in the circle and, wearing my police uniform shirt and badge, I said, “I eat stress for breakfast. It’s what makes me get up in the morning and get going.” That was a dozen years ago. I was only half-joking. I am hopeful that I deal better with it today—at least a little better. One of my greatest sources of tranquility is a peaceful home and a wonderful wife. Without those, I’d be a basket case. I am very blessed. Anxiety gets us chewing our nails, breaking out in hives, losing our hair – oops! – daring ourselves to take up scary hobbies, climb ladders, or self-medicate on alcohol and drugs. It’s time we got a handle on our fears and realized we are the only people who have the answer to fear and anxiety. Not even fear of death can shake our resolve. I know who my Redeemer is.
Jesus comprehended our fears. He had some of His own, and doubtless struggled with them, and He won. The night He led His Apostles out to Gethsemane, He told them, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” John 14:27
Some Christians like to give little books titled, “God’s Promises,” or something like that. I have a resistance to “Precious Moments” Bibles, and the use of verses to stave off dark thoughts, because the whole of Scripture contains both light and dark sayings, identification of sins, God’s wrath and the reality of hell. Not that such troublous verses make me a Fire and Brimstone kind of preacher, but I don’t feel honest editing the Bible to promote it as a “feel good” book. It’s not a placebo, a tonic for assuaging our fears. Nevertheless, when we admit the depths of man’s evil and God’s avenging justice, we do have an answer to these problems. Biblical authors, who faced terrors we will never see, wrote things like, “Trust in the Lord, and do good… Delight yourself also in the Lord, And He shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord… He shall bring it to pass. He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, And your justice as the noonday. Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him… Do not fret—it only causes harm.” Psalm 37:3-8 “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:6-7
With the simple technology of the 1st century, a little family greeted Jesus and His disciples with a meal and fellowship. One sister ran about, fixing dinner, cleaning and fussing with the idea that her anxiety for her guests and her hard work made her more virtuous than her younger sister who was sitting with the guests at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him with admiration. Jesus gently told this young woman, Martha, “You are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41-42 Mary later anointed Jesus with perfumed oil, making Him literally Messiah, the anointed one. She got the job done that no one else had bothered to do.
Christianity is not a panacea. You don’t claim Christ and all your life’s injustices and bad mental habits are transformed into health and wellbeing in a snap. It may happen, and for some the new life is so different that, like the mad demoniac on the Gadarene shore, we are unrecognizable to others, now that we are clothed and in our right minds. But for most of us, we still have things to deal with. The circumstances don’t change. The world doesn’t change. Our attitude should change, and we now have the reason for a new attitude and tools to attain it. Your blood pressure will thank you.
May I try a new translation of the Epistle for today? I will write it as we might hear it spoken by someone a coffeehouse. “Get happy and stay that way. Enjoy your life. Let everyone see your peace of mind and your willingness to share yourself. The Lord is very near. So don’t worry or be afraid at all. Just pray to God and tell Him what you need, thanking Him for all He has done for you already. If you do, God’s peace and wellbeing that goes beyond logic, argument, and reason, will stand firm in you, will protect your hearts and your minds, all because Jesus the Anointed One lives.” The New Hansen Version.
I’m still working on myself. Stuff we learned early in life was often wrong. There were lies told about us, the world, life in general, our value as people, and what we supposedly can’t do: lessons we need to unlearn. Question certain old adages, and forgive the generation that taught them.
We are truly free from all of mankind’s dire or haughty predictions. The terrorist we should resist most of all gives us our evening news. News reporters really don’t know most of what they’re saying. How often do weather predictions fail to come true? Even when they tell you accurately what happened today in Washington, Moscow, Baghdad, or Tehran, they don’t tell you the million times people acted courageously, selflessly, lovingly and gave life, love, and faith to those who were struggling. The Iraq War ended in 2003. What’s happened there since has been the defense of a new Iraq against ISIS, and the rebuilding of their nation. And it’s finally working. Good news never makes the news. Don’t believe headlines. Some things are worse than reported. But many things are far better, and the best is yet to come.
Be careful for nothing means don’t worry. Enjoy your Christmas with your loved ones. Worship the God who gives this story a happy ending. It really has a happy ending and you get to be part of it. Between now and that day, there are bound to be heartbreaks and heartaches, scary and tragic news of the day. But there will be a day when all that ends and we go on, in complete and lasting joy. It’s His promise. That’s the precious treasure we have stored up. Hang on to it, believe the One who made the promises and let anxiety go like a breath you exhale. Rejoice. Be calm. Pray. Give thanks.
I thank you for your prayers for me through the years. We’re all going to be just fine.