Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon on the third Sunday of Advent 12/13/2020. The service was broadcast live on Facebook at 11am, and is now available on the FLC youtube channel. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: Advent3 Bulletin
The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the third Sunday of Advent, click here.
Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice! Philippians 4:4
These words from St. Paul to the church in Philippi are the first words sung in today’s Introit. The Introit is a short liturgical element, usually from a Psalm and /or another part of the Bible, placed at the beginning of the Service of the Word. It’s called the Introit because of what’s actually happening at the time. When the Introit is sung, the Pastor and others serving at the altar enter into the chancel.
And as we did that today, as we entered close to God’s altar, the word resounding in our ears was “Rejoice in the Lord, always.” But we don’t want to rejoice in the Lord, always. There are many times when rejoicing does not quite feel like the thing to do. And so, this encouragement from St. Paul may feel like one more person telling you to cheer up; because it’s Christmas, or it’s the New Year, and if you don’t start smiling, you’re going to ruin it for everyone.
But let’s deal with the very real possibility that you might not feel like rejoicing always. And let’s be more specific. Let’s deal with the very real possibility that you don’t feel like rejoicing today.
Because lots of people are sick and dying, and you might be one of them; because you can’t see your family and your friends; because you’ve lost your job or some of your income; because you’ve gone months without coming into this church; because you’re mocked for being a Christian; because you didn’t get the president you wanted; because your kids are driving you mad; because your parents are driving you mad; because your sister died; because your father died; because you’re anxious, stressed, and stuck; and for crying out loud, if He wants us to rejoice always, shouldn’t Jesus do something about it?!
You are in good company. On the long mourners’ bench of history, You are seated right next to the greatest of all the men born of women: John the Baptist.
At great risk of sounding cliché, John is not having a joyous Advent; nor is he excited about the chances for a merry Christmas.
Every moment of John’s life, from conception until now, has been aimed at preparing the way for the Messiah. And John just knew that when that Messiah came, then he would rejoice in the Lord always and forever.
But John is not rejoicing today. He is suffering today. Because of his faithfulness to God and His Word, all of a sudden, John’s world has become quite small.
The voice crying out in the wilderness is now muffled and confined to a cell. His congregation also has diminished: from the once many thousands flocking to the Jordan River, to the prison guards and Herod. And as if that were not enough, The One Whom he so recently proclaimed to be the Messiah, seems to have gone soft.
So, John is not in the rejoicing mood either. And it would be nice if he could figure out if all this suffering is for nothing. Because if it were, he could let Herod off the hook, get out of jail, find a comfortable job, change his diet, and settle down.
Here, John serves as a model for the Christian. In the midst of everything, John turns to the Word. This is what happens when John sends his disciples to Jesus. If Jesus will confirm that He really is the One, John will stick it out.
And, yes, Jesus does that; but not in the familiar way of cold self-assertion. Jesus points John back to the Word of God, back to the prophet Isaiah. And by faith John hears and sees that this Word of God points right back at Jesus.
The rest of John’s story you know. He was comforted by the Word of God, which confirmed Jesus to be the Messiah. And that, quite simply and starkly, was enough. John did not shrink from his proclamation or from his worship. And for that John lost his head. Like later disciples, rejoicing that he was found worthy to be persecuted for the sake of Christ.
Today we also commemorate another beloved child of God: St. Lucia, who is the namesake for our own daughter. Though she came from a family of great wealth and privilege, she generously gave away her dowry, refusing to be married to an unbeliever. For this she was executed under the emperor Diocletian, being martyred on the island of Syracuse in the year 304.
But the suffering of this world does have limits. They could not rob Lucia of her wealth, since she had given it away. They could not rob her of her life, since her life belongs to Jesus. They managed to take away her eyes, but they failed to rob her of her vision. Lucia died rejoicing in Jesus.
You probably do not have the heroic faith of John the Baptist or Santa Lucia. But you will share in their suffering, because we all share in Jesus’ suffering. There is one Christ and there is one cross, and every Christian is eventually pressed into it.
And when you are pressed into it, as you suffer and struggle and mourn, your own flesh will rise up against you and say: You’re not faithful enough. You’re not strong enough. You don’t even love Jesus. Because if you did, all of this wouldn’t be a problem.
And it’s all nonsense of the highest order. If John the Baptist, the greatest of men born of women, can struggle in the midst of suffering; if Santa Lucia can wonder how God is glorified in her death, and wonder if there might be another way, you are not a lesser Christian for the same.
When you scream in anguish from your confinement; when you plead with God for a reason why: why your loved ones had to die; why you’re so anxious and stressed; why you can’t seem to be happy; why Jesus hasn’t fixed it all; why you seem unwilling to suffer for the sake of Christ; why you can’t seem to rejoice always…
You are not a lesser Christian for these things. Your struggles are not different from those who have gone before you: John the Baptist, Santa Lucia, Melissa, Peter, Jane, and all the saints. And your comfort is not different either.
Like all of them, your comfort is nothing less than the sure and certain Word of God. The Word that speaks comfort to the captives, proclaiming that their warfare is ended, and their iniquity is put away; the Word of the Lord which endures forever. The Word that reassures John that Jesus is the Messiah, the glory of the Lord revealed; the Word that Mary ponders in her heart; the Word made flesh for you; the Word joined to Water, baptizing you into His death and resurrection. The Word joined to Bread and Wine, feeding you in the wilderness.
Today, again, we approach the altar of God, rejoicing in the Lord. Because come what may, we are in His hands: hands that have lifted the valleys and lowered the mountains; hands that have leveled the ground and made the rough places plain; hands that have been pierced with nails; hands belonging to the Shepherd who gathers the lambs in His arms, and carries them in His bosom.
It doesn’t mean you have to be happy all the time. It doesn’t mean you have to smile. The joy of the Lord transcends all of that. It is big enough to soak up all of the world’s sadness and anguish, and still be joy.
Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice!