Sermon Dec. 16, 2018

“A Rejoicing Joy”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Philippians 4:4-7
December 16, 2018

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”   Philippians 4:5i

Here’s my problem – I really don’t think the return of Jesus is imminent. I know. Goes against the purpose of Advent. We are supposed to open ourselves to the coming of Christ but that’s hard to do if you don’t think Jesus is about to appear. And I think I know what Paul believed, at least at the outset of his ministry. He believed the return of Christ was so imminent that he advised his fellow Christians not to marry.

What about you? Do you, in your heart of hearts, believe the Second Coming is, well, coming? Don’t answer that. I’ll do it for you. No, you don’t. Have insurance? You don’t really think Jesus is coming anytime soon.

So, it’s not just my problem. We share it together. Does it mean that we can’t get anything out of our reading from Philippians? No. It means that we start by being honest. No amount of wishful thinking is going to change what I believe. I believe because I have experienced what I profess. I believe the Sun is going to come up tomorrow. Sure, it’s possible it won’t. Some cosmic catastrophe might alter what I take to be inevitable, but I will shape and fashion my life around the belief that that ball of fire will work its way over the horizon. I believe it because I have experienced it. So let me suggest that instead of focusing this Advent solely on Christ’s return, we instead look at what we have experienced. When we do that, I believe we find an opening for affirming our text, “The Lord is near.”

Since we are to look at what we have experienced in order to discover what we can affirm, this becomes a deeply personal process. How can I possibly know what you have experienced? Only a fool would presume to be so arrogant. Fortunately, I fit that description! Let me tell you what others have told me.

  • There are a number of you who are not too sure about this “eternal heaven and eternal hell thing.” Oh, you know Jesus talked about it. You just don’t buy it. Why? Because the belief does not match your experience. If God’s love is unconditional (and is there any hope for any of us if God’s love is not unconditional?), then haw can an unconditional love yield an eternal hell? How can the One who died on the cross be the same One who condemns the souls He said He came to save? Your experience of God’s love informs your belief.

  • There is someone in this church who offers prayers only of thanksgiving. She does not ask God to heal Aunt Flo or to lift a personal burden. She believes God is going to do what God thinks is best. So, she does not engage in giving God instructions but in giving thanks for God’s wisdom. Her experience informs her belief.

  • There is a person who believes that all of life has meaning. That means the good and the bad, that all things have a purpose. This person doesn’t think God gives us suffering and hardship, but that God can bring meaning even into the midst of darkness. For this person “coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.” This has been his experience and his experience informs his belief.

  • Several folks in this church believe that God has brought healing to them and to those they love. They can point to events that one would have to admit border on the miraculous. God has moved with power in their lives and they believe in that power because they have experienced it.

Are you with me? Experience informs our belief.

So let’s return to the second part of Philippians 4:5, “The Lord is near.” We may not be able to believe as Paul did that the actual return of Jesus is immanent. This Advent season I do not expect neither do I believe that the heavens will be parted and Christ will descend with His angles. His kingdom will, in all likelihood, not be ushered in on or before December 25th. But this I know. This you, too, know, “God is near.” You have known it because you have experienced it. God has made God’s presence known in your life. Your belief has been shaped by your experience. Is the Lord near? As near as the rising of this morning’s Sun.

In the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mocking Bird, the story is told of Tom Robinson, a Black man, accused of having raped a white woman. The story takes place in a small Southern town and Atticus Finch has been asked by the judge to provide legal counsel for Mr. Robinson, a thankless job in a town filled with racial hatred. Tom Robinson is in jail awaiting his trial. It is night and Atticus worried that the enraged white community will try to seize his client and hang him before there even is a trial. Atticus takes a chair, a floor lamp and a book to sit outside the jail cell house and stand vigil. Atticus is determined that no harm would come to his client during his watch. All is quiet but Atticus’ two children, Scout as a little girl about 7 or 8 and Jeb, her brother of about 11, worried about their father having left the house so they sneak out of the house and work their way behind some bushes in the town square to see what their father is up to. Seeing him quietly sitting reading a book, they are satisfied and are about to head back home when a caravan of cars of trucks carrying dozens of angry white men roar into the square. They leave their vehicles and armed with firearms and clubs they are determined to have Tom Robinson and lynch him. Atticus remains seated, quietly closes his book and in a quiet voice tells them there is nothing here to see, that they should go home to their wives and children. The mob will have none of it. Scout and Jeb can no longer see their father from the bushes so they run towards the crowd, squeeze their way through and stand facing Atticus with their backs to the mob. Atticus, who rarely raised his voice towards his children, sternly tells Scout and Jeb to go home. Jeb refuses and Scout stands firm. The two children turn to face these angry men and knowing most of them, begin to engage them in conversation. Slowly, these men who intended to do violence are moved to shame by the innocence of the children. One by one they return to their cars and trucks and leave Atticus outside the jail to wait out the night.

That night it was not Atticus Finch who saved Tom Robinson. It was the courage and compassion of his children who brought hatful men to shame. “The Lord is near.” Yes, yes God is as near as our eyes will let us see and as present as our hearts will let us feel. We, too, can affirm, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” Thanks be to God. Let us pray…

iPhilippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Do you know people who hoped for a better life and thought they were headed in the right direction only to discover they missed the