Advent IV- A sermon by Fr. Charles Nalls
SERMON FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN ADVENT-2007
“Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. . .The Lord is at hand.”-Philippians 4:4, 5.
“THE Lord is at hand.” Today we are drawing close to the festival of the first Advent. Indeed, in this shortened Advent, we will celebrate tonight that time when our Lord came in great humility. It is a very, very, very joyful time, for soon the light will shine out amid the darkness, and the hope of the Church of the Old Covenant will become the faith of the Church of the New.
In today’s Epistle, St. Paul reminds us of two great fruits of the Spirit which are especially associated with our Lord’s birth. These are truly the two great gifts of Christmas—Joy and Peace. We see them on so many Christmas Cards and in decorations and in “holiday” messages from merchants and even in lighted yard displays. Do we really stop to think about Joy and about Peace?
The Epistle begins with the words, “Rejoice in the Lord alway; and again I say, Rejoice.” Each festival has its own joy. Easter brings us the joy of victory over sin and death. Christmas the Advent Joy, the joy of hope fulfilled, of the possession of a great gift, the greatest gift-Christ Jesus, Who is the Light of the world, and Who comes to us in our Christmas Communion to be our Light.
In the Collect for today we are taught to say, “Lord, raise up, we pray Thee, Thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us.”
It was the prayer of the Psalmists (Psalm 80:2), uttered again and again amid the gloom and darkness which so deeply enshrouded humanity. Now it is the prayer of the Church, really, of each Christian soul, that He Who did raise up His power, and came into the world at the Incarnation with great might to comfort us, would at this time come into our hearts. We are asking today on the eve of the great festival that, through our Christmas Communion, we will be helped and delivered us from those sins which hinder us in running the race that is set before us. We pray today that our Lord would not only come to visit us, but to abide with us, to run our race with us. And the effect of His Presence must be to fill us with Joy and Peace.
And so let’s look at some simple thoughts on real joy and peace.
In regard to Joy, in the Old Testament oil is associated with joy as its symbol. We read in Isaiah that the Messiah was “to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion . . . the oil of joy for mourning.” (Isaiah 61:3) Again, in Psalm 45, addressed to the Messiah, we read, “Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.” (Psalm 45:7) And we will hear this passage quoted in the Epistle for Christmas Day. (Hebrews 9)
The major property of oil is that it reduces friction. Machinery without oil soon wears out or tears itself to pieces. Similarly, in spiritual life, joy saves us from that friction which often wears down and ruins what is beautiful in Christian character.
All of us know good people who, by their spirit of complaining, rub everyone the wrong way. We also know cheerful people whose presence is like sunshine in the house. Let’s take two Christians, one who cultivates the spirit of joy, and one who does not.
The first will go through life so happily, that temptations will lose half their force, and trials half their power to hurt. The other looks at the dark side of life, exaggerates its difficulties and sorrows, and gets out of every trial the greatest amount of friction possible. One could say they make their own hell on earth. What that second person needs so desperately is to pour the oil of joy into the machinery of life. If they did, so many things would be possible that seem quite hopeless.
And what of the spiritual life that may have grown rusty. Joy works wonders, just like the rusty piece of machinery which creaks and moves with great difficulty, if at all. But add some oil and work the machine slowly. There will be some difficulty at first, but as the oil is absorbed the rust wears off, and the machinery does its work. This is a type of human life. Joy is the fruit of the spirit which lubricates life's machinery, and makes work easy.
There are three places we especially need to use the oil of joy. First, in our dealings with those who are disagreeable or morose-it helps us and it will help them. Second, we need the oil of joy in bearing our own crosses or sorrows. Remember that our Lord promises that your sorrow shall be turned into joy; that is, if you use the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And third, in times of temptation, joy will be the great weapon with which to meet and conquer temptation.
Bear in mind that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, not a gift. Joy depends first upon our union with Christ, of being an Advent people who live in the expectation of Christ and of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When we do this, we will have a reservoir of joy to bear life’s trials, and to meet life’s temptations in a spirit of cheerfulness.
“And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” The Church has appropriated these words for the Eucharistic blessing. Peace, as a fruit of the Spirit, is the special gift of Christmas. Christmas heralds to the world the advent of the Prince of Peace. As we receive Him in our Communion on Christmas Day and at every Mass we ought to be filled with peace-not with the world's peace, but with the peace of God. And this, we are told, shall keep our hearts and minds even though strife and the storms of life may rage around us.
There is a picture in the gospels full of meaning if we will only look at it. It is of Jesus fast asleep on the helmsman’s cushion while the boat was almost sinking in the fury of the storm. Here is our Lord in perfect while the tempest raged without.
And that, my beloved, is the peace of God, the peace that comes to us in Christ. It does not mean the absence of all conflict. Those times of external peace, the world’s peace, may not always give the best results. Absence of conflict may be stalemate, just as worldly security, the security of things and goods we so highly value produces little of the noblest virtues of this world.
One thought about peace relates to the expression “shall keep”. The image the text suggests is of a sentry keeping guard. At first there seems to be a paradox here, when we are told that the peace of God shall keep guard over us like a soldier; but if we consider it carefully, we shall observe that the very word peace always connotes relief from war. Nations that are at peace are for the most part those which have been through times of war, and trace their peace to the result of successful struggle. And so we must face the struggles of life.
The peace of God which holds us, not away from but through, the conflict of life, is the sure knowledge, sought and grasped and grasped again, that we are held by the hand of God whatever happens in the world around us.
The peace of God which passes all understanding is the peace which does not rest on any human device like deadening down the feelings or falling back on instincts or self. The peace of God is the product of faith learned from Christ's Cross and resurrection that we are in God’s hand for good, come whatever may. When we grasp it once and grasp it again, the peace of God goes walking up and down the entrance to the courtyard of our souls, just like the guards outside the palace gates, keeping back the fears that cripple us. “The peace of God shall guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.”
And so it is with the peace of God, which is our great Christmas gift. It is, first, the result of war, for it was won for us by our Lord on Calvary. It can only be made our own by war, by successful struggle against sin, ending in the peace of forgiveness which results in the possession of Christ. Then, as the Epistle tells us, God’s peace shall stand guard over our hearts and minds, to challenge every wrong thought, word, or deed that strives to enter our hearts to crucify the Prince of Peace Who dwells there.
What a beautiful thought for Christmas—God's gift of Joy and Peace, and the assurance that God’s peace shall stand sentry over us for this is the cause of our joy. And so the angel’s message at Bethlehem was, “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. . . . And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Amen.