St. Paul lived in Rome for two years under house arrest. He had been arrested in Jerusalem, accused of starting a riot. When he learned of a plot to assassinate him on the way to his trial in Jerusalem, he invoked his rights as a Roman citizen and appealed to Caesar, meaning that he would be tried in Rome. While in Rome, though technically in prison, Paul had some degree of freedom, and was allowed to receive guests and to send letters that he had written. He wrote letters to the Churches in Ephesus and Colossae, and to his friend Philemon. When a priest of the Church in Philippi brought a gift of support to Paul, Paul sent back a letter of encouragement to a church that Paul himself had founded some ten years earlier in the chief city of Macedonia, making the church in Philippi, the first church on European soil. We read of this in the Acts of the Apostles. There Paul had been severely beaten and thrown into a jail in chains along with Silas after they cast out a demon from a slave girl who had been making her owners money by telling fortunes. Paul and Silas converted and baptized the whole family of the jailer after the doors of the prison were opened by an earthquake, yet Paul and Silas remained in the prison singing hymns and praising God for his goodness. Paul obviously had strong and fond memories for his friends in Philippi. His epistle to them speaks of the power of our ongoing life in Christ, an experience that is corporate, shared among those who strive to follow Christ. Paul urges those who read this letter to be unified in our life in Christ, he urges us to be humble, to give generously to those in need, and he urges us to be joyful, to rejoice and to rejoice always.
Paul endured great difficulties throughout his life, yet he says rejoice always. Paul often uses the word always in conjunction with prayer, and the ability to rejoice always is a fruit of perseverance in regular, daily prayer, a result of spending time with God. We rejoice because we are with God. Paul then goes on to speak about dealing with the difficulties of day to day life and here we all need to pay attention. First, we are to live by faith that the Lord is at hand. He is always with us and He is coming soon. These are basics facts we are to live by and which help to put other things into perspective, and we all need to keep things in proper perspective. We are all relatively healthy, relatively safe, relatively prosperous. We have food, shelter, family and friends. We have our faith and most importantly, God is with us. Then, we are to be careful or anxious for nothing – and this is so very difficult given the realities of our lives – difficult when you are watching your retirement fund disappear, worried about political transitions, or dealing with whatever other problem is at hand – but we are not to worry, Paul tells us, for ultimately God is in charge and He is with us. And then, we are to live by prayer – giving thanks to God and asking for what is needed and this may certainly include praying for what is needed to face the trials at hand.
Paul continues in the next two verses after our passage to encourage us to meditate on, to think about, what is good and virtuous, to imitate what is godly – to imitate what is of God. He says Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. These things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you. Paul encourages us to live as he has lived, and thereby find the peace of God, and this reminds us of the importance of setting a good example for others who may pattern their lives on the way we live.
Throughout the year we remember the lives of many saints who are examples for us; during Advent the church often focuses our attention on St. John the Baptist. John was sent by God to prepare the way for Christ. John was a rough and outspoken character. He had an absolute commitment to truth, whatever the cost. He lived for God alone. Our Lord called John “the greatest of those born of woman.” He was the prophet foretold by Isaiah – the one who came to prepare the way of the Lord. John was the herald of our salvation, the friend of the bridegroom who did everything possible to prepare for Christ’s coming. John was not the Christ, but was sent to bear witness – as we hear week after week in the last Gospel. The Advent emphasis on John is a further reminder that Christ is coming soon – therefore we rejoice!
Our lighter colored Rose vestments and our introit this morning are further reminders that the church calls us to rejoice and celebrate the coming of our Redeemer. Many people either fail to truly celebrate or they celebrate all the wrong things and then wonder about the true meaning of Christmas… where it has gone, why it is missing. We too can get so caught up in these distortions or in the commercialism that we miss the point. Let us rejoice and celebrate rightly, not focusing on the failures of others, but focusing on God – on his mercy, his love, his love for this world! and we need to focus on preparing ourselves…
St. Paul reminds us to rejoice in all things – this is not easy – to rejoice and give thanks for both the good and the not so good. St. John Chrysostom: tells us “It is comforting to know that the Lord is at hand… here is a medicine to relieve grief and every bad circumstance and every pain. What is it? To pray and to give thanks in everything. He does not wish that our prayers be merely petitions but thanksgiving for what we have received… how can one make petitions for the future without a thankful acknowledgment of past things? So one ought to give thanks for everything, even what seems grievous. That is the mark of one who is truly thankful.”
When we are able to rejoice and give thanks for all things – the peace of God which passes all understanding will be with us. How are we to rejoice when things around us go very wrong? Paul, himself, was in prison when he wrote these words and just two years later he was put to death. He knew many difficulties, yet he rejoiced in God. We can strive to follow Paul’s good example. We do what we can and focus on the things that are truly important – and pray for what is needed, including the ability to be and to do our best. We will do what we can with the trials at hand, but meanwhile we rejoice because the Lord is at hand – because Christmas is coming soon and because our preparations are so truly important. Let us watch and prepare. Let us go forth to meet Christ with rejoicing, with prayer, with thanksgiving, and with trust. The Lord is good, loving and merciful. Let us rejoice, for the Lord is at hand.