Pastor Joel Leyrer - The Third Sunday in Advent - Sunday, December 12, 2021

Text: Philippians 4:4-7

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Dear Friends in Christ, Embedded within this text is a short four-word sentence that summarizes the entire message of Advent. This is it: “the Lord is near.” That statement is kind of like the sun in Paul’s inspired thinking, with everything else he says revolving around it.

If we want to develop that thought farther, we can actually and accurately talk about three “advents” of Christ; three different ways in which the Lord, indeed, is near.

First, he is near to us as the newborn Baby of Bethlehem, a fact we will celebrate two weeks from today. Secondly, he is near to us as the soon-to-be returning King of Kings who could come at any time. Lastly, he is near to us now in a very personal way through Word and Sacrament.

Today we’d like to talk about the impact all the Lord’s various advents have – or are intended to have – on us. What does Jesus’ nearness mean to us? The Apostle Paul has something to say on this subject.

Let’s start with this thought. If someone asked you what you were giving up for Advent, you’d probably correct them. You’d tell them that the concept of “giving something up” is associated with the season of Lent, not Advent. And yet, in this very timely text, the Apostle Paul is telling us

WHAT TO GIVE UP FOR ADVENT

What is it? He is urging us to give up anxiety.

In the original Greek language, the word for “anxiety” most often indicates the same understanding we have of it in English. To be “anxious” means being unduly concerned about something or being filled with a sense of dread of what might happen, or being excessively worried about a given situation.

Note: Some forms of anxiety we bring upon ourselves through our own poor decisions or procrastination or running off our mouths. Paul is not talking about that. He’s talking about anxiety over the kind of things that are generally beyond our control.

Another way to define this kind of anxiety as it applies to Christians would be when we as believers look into the future as if God were not in the picture.

The very fact that Paul addresses this would indicate the Philippian congregation had some things they were anxious about. This is both interesting and instructive, because sometimes we have a tendency toward an almost mythical understanding of first century Christians, as if they were spiritually bigger and stronger than believers today.

The fact of the matter is they were sinful and sometimes fearful human beings, just as we are. They understood what God had done for them in Christ, and Paul often speaks of their lives of faith in complimentary terms. Nonetheless, they still carried around the weakness of their flesh. And at times they got anxious.

In other words, they were a lot like us.

What do you think produced anxiety for the members of this First Century Philippian congregation? We can’t know for sure but based on some of the things Paul addresses in this letter we can get a pretty good idea of at least some of what was on their minds.

For instance, in chapter one Paul tells them about his personal circumstances. Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison. He was awaiting trial for events connected to his preaching of the Gospel. He talks openly about not knowing whether he was going to live or die.

We can imagine the effect this had on the Philippian congregation. They loved Paul very much. He was their spiritual father. But now the dark clouds of uncertainty were looming on the horizon. What was going to happen to Paul in the future – and what their future might be without him – no doubt caused them anxiety.

In addition, Paul indicates they were starting to feel the sting of persecution and suffering for nothing other than their allegiance to Jesus Christ as Savior. They were living in a godless world that not only challenged their faith and morals, but now seemed intent on eradicating them as a species. And this was frightening to them. This no doubt caused them anxiety.

Not only that, but there were also false teachers trying to sway them from the truth of the Gospel message that Paul had given them. Would the individual members of the congregation be strong enough to resist, to make the right spiritual choices, to discern truth from error? Paul was concerned about this, and so were they. This no doubt also caused them anxiety.

If attacks from the outside weren’t bad enough, there were also problems on the inside. The unity and harmony of the church was threatened by a spirit of contentiousness and competition among fellow believers. Earlier in chapter four Paul even addresses by name two members who had such a sharp disagreement and (reading between the lines) such a personality conflict that their inability to work things out was beginning to have a negative effect on other believers, not to mention those watching from the outside.

For those who were trying to hold things together and keep the peace and live out their lives to the glory of God but then found themselves being assailed and troubled by those who were supposed to be their allies – this must have caused them anxiety.

Do you see some parallels here? What causes us anxiety today? I suspect the very same things that evidently bothered the Philippians.

When a loved one’s condition is uncertain and we think about the prospect of facing the future without him or her, or if one way or another we find ourselves physically or emotionally alone, we can become anxious.

When we stand firm in the faith or take our stand on a position that is not held by the mainstream of society; when we feel the sting of our opinions essentially being dismissed because we, in the eyes of some, are just way over the top when it comes to religion; when we as parents or grandparents or brothers or sisters wonder if our children and grandchildren and younger brothers and sisters will have the spiritual strength to confront the challenges of a world which for all practical purposes has purged the word “sin” from its vocabulary, we can become anxious.

Whether at home or on the job or even among our fellow Christians, when we find ourselves embroiled in personality conflicts or being hurt by those who are supposed to be on the same side as us, we can become anxious.

So, what do we do? We give it up. “Do not be anxious about anything,” Paul tells us. Okay. Why? Because the Lord is near. And this information has an impact on us.

In what way? His first advent reminds us of how much we are loved by him. To know that we are loved and not forgotten makes us less anxious. Because the same Heavenly Father who provided for our greatest need promises to also provide for every other need.

His second advent reminds us of what is in store for us eternally. To know that the things which cause us stress now are, in the words of Paul, “light and momentary” and although they may be real, they “are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” makes us less anxious.

And his third advent – the way in which he comes to us presently and personally through his Word – moves away from the abstract and provides us with a concrete strategy for dealing with the anxious moments of our lives now. Paul takes that up in the final words of this text.

This is the strategy: Give up anxiety and replace it with the means God has graciously placed at our ready disposal. “…but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

The antidote to anxiety is prayer. Prayer, in its simplest definition, is talking to God. Paul tells us to take up the things that worry us with God.

And not just some of the things that worry us. Notice again what Paul says: “Do not be anxious about anything but in everything…” This means as Christians we can operate under this rule of thumb: If something is big enough to worry about, it is then big enough to pray about. The reverse is also true. If we think something is not big enough to pray about, then it is certainly also too small to worry about…

Furthermore, we bring our prayers to God “with thanksgiving.” Thanksgiving, first of all, for the very privilege of prayer. Prayer is not some inalienable right. It may be an exercise practiced in some form or another by many, but only through faith in Jesus Christ are the lines of communication opened.

The privilege of prayer is one of the blessed by-products of the Gospel message. Because of Jesus Christ and his work of redemption we know God to be our loving Heavenly Father. The barrier of sin that once prevented prayers from reaching their destination has been removed through Christ’s perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection on our behalf and in our place. Because of Jesus, we are forgiven Children of God. Because of Jesus, we can talk to God. That is worthy of our “thanksgiving.”

Also worthy of our thanksgiving is the knowledge that our prayers are heard and filtered through the promise of Romans 8:28 – that God works out all things ultimately for our highest good. Therefore, we can (thankfully!) offer our prayers to God with the assurance that they are not only heard, but will be acted upon according to his divine way and will and time.

So, when it comes to giving up and overcoming anxiety Paul tells us to advance on our knees. As we do, we are given this guarantee: “And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

The peace of God is ours. It is the peace of sins forgiven. It is the peace of knowing God is in control. It is the inner quiet so many in the world are looking for but can only be found in knowing Jesus Christ. This peace, as one Christian author put it, is “the smile of God reflected in the heart of the believer.”

And just as great as what this peace is, is what this peace does. It acts as a garrison. It guards our hearts and minds. Peace and faith stand as dual sentinels in front of the door to our souls. The anxieties of life cannot harm the Christian of faith and prayer because we have entered an impregnable, guarded fortress – and the name of that fortress is Christ Jesus, the Prince of Peace. And in two weeks we will once again gratefully observe his first Advent…

Therefore, in honor of him and because of him, the Apostle Paul suggests that we give something up for Advent. This is his message to us today: “Do not be anxious about anything.” Why? Because “the Lord is near.” Amen.