Sermon, December 13, 2015

Rejoice Always: Christ Is Near    
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
December 13, 2015   Third Sunday of Advent, Sunday of Joy, Pageant Sunday
Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-9

Last Sunday I talked about how refuge is at the heart of our religion. Refuge is a place where we are free from the pursuit of danger or trouble and can live in peace.  Mary and Joseph were refugees the night Jesus was born. Today there are Syrian refugees and many others, including neighbors in Bradford seeking refuge from the ravages of war, addiction and poverty. The truth is, we all are refugees. We all seek peace from whatever threat or trouble pursues us. To feel we have found refuge is to feel deep joy.

Brother Lawrence was the 17th Century working class Frenchman who developed the practice of the presence of God. Here is one of his Spiritual Maxims: “The greater the perfection a soul seeks, the more dependent it is on grace, and the help of God is more necessary for it each moment for without it the soul can do nothing; the world, human nature and the devil together wage a war so fierce and so continual that without this actual help and this humble and necessary dependence, they will carry the soul away in spite of itself; this seems hard on human nature but grace makes it acceptable and a refuge.”

Brother Lawrence offers this counter-intuitive wisdom that the farther we go on the spiritual path, the more dependent we become on taking refuge in God’s grace. This is the opposite of the kind of progress or success we have been taught.

My mother was a baseball fan. A ball would take a bad bounce and someone on her team get on base and she would gleefully say, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Yet what she taught her four boys was to practice, practice, practice. She wanted us to be good first and then lucky, too.

To be good at baseball means mastering the skills of hitting, base-running, catching and throwing. The closer we get to perfection, the less we need luck because we have the ability and honed reflexes we earn through practice. It is the same in school and our jobs. We are trained to become strong, capable, independent people.

But in the spiritual life, this is reversed. Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the realm of God. Whoever becomes humble like a child is the greatest in God’s realm.” (Matthew 18:3-4)

Brother Lawrence was just a kitchen worker and shoemaker in a monastery, he was not even a monk. His child-like humility and simplicity made him one of the great spiritual teachers of all time. This is what he has to say to us: the more you try to be like Christ, the more you depend on Christ’s help doing every little thing, because you see increasingly how imperfect and weak and prone to wrong you are.

People often learn this humility when they suffer a terrible loss or sickness or any struggle that threatens to defeat them. It is harder to learn our dependence on grace when we are at the top of our game. Proud, rugged independence is an obstacle to spiritual growth.

The Apostle Paul suffered in staggering ways in the course of his ministry—shipwrecks, floggings, imprisonments and deprivations. He learned that God’s strength is made perfect not in our strength but in our weakness. He learned something else that Brother Lawrence found, too. The humbler and more dependent on God’s help we become, the more we experience joy.

“Rejoice in the Lord always!” Paul insists in Philippians, and he means always, even when we are struggling or painfully aware of our faults. In the next line he says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Gentleness means humility.

We can rejoice when we are humble because, “The Lord is near.” Christ is near whenever we are suffering, struggling or doing wrong. These are the conditions he came to transform. They are the people he came to serve. He is especially present to us in those times because they are when we are most in need and potentially open to him. Ask anyone in a Twelve Step program who hit rock bottom and discovered a higher power waiting there, and who now relies on that higher power’s help every moment of every day.

Paul says, “Do not worry about anything.” Do not worry because Christ is near. Grace will support us when we are humble and weak. We can learn to trust in that.

This is the secret—to rejoice when we are weak and struggling because we have faith that Christ is near and we can experience grace most powerfully in those moments. We cannot understand how unconditional God’s love is until we reach that place of dependence on it to survive. In the refuge of that saving love is where true joy begins.

But it is not where it ends. Once we experience God’s love pouring into us, we find love overflowing out of us. We feel compassion toward all other weak and imperfect people. We learn to love as unconditionally as God, and our giving of that love is the source of the greatest joy we can ever feel.

My mother used to say as we headed out the door to play baseball, “It isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” Advent reminds us that the way to play the game of life is to practice the presence of God, waiting and trusting that the help we need will come if we humble ourselves and depend on it. Christ was a model of this dependence on God’s grace from his birth as a refugee, to his being Spirit-led in the wilderness, to his miracles of healing, to his death on the cross, to his resurrection Easter morning. Christ’s coming at Christmas shines like a star to lead us on the same path to a joy that nothing can take from us. So let us prepare our hearts to follow that star.

Let us pray in silence…