Our verse for the week from Philippians 4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
Advent is a strange time of the year. Whilst regular churchgoers are familiar with it, many people in the street – even if they have heard of Advent calendars – won’t know what it means. Explain it’s the first 4 Sundays before 25 December and they’ll probably think it’s some unusual churchy name for Christmas. After all, in advent we do traditional Christmas things like sing Christmas Carols, do Christmas shopping, and complain about how the Christmas lights seem to have been in shops since October.
The word Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus – meaning coming – because Advent looks forward to the coming of Jesus. And Advent looks forward not just to Jesus coming as a baby in Bethlehem, but also to his second coming when he returns in glory to usher in a reign of peace and justice.
Because Advent is traditionally a time of looking forward, of waiting, it can seem a slightly dull time. Indeed, Advent was sometimes a time of the year when Christians would fast, and give up things as a way of preparing themselves to celebrate Jesus’ arrival. We reflect that solemnity in the church by not singing the Gloria for example. So, far from parties and presents, Advent was often a more solemn time. Whilst not as penitential a time as Lent, it was a nudge in that direction.
But in the middle of Advent we have a moment of relief from that solemnity – and that moment is today. Its official name is Gaudate Sunday – from the Latin “Gaudate in Domine semper” – Rejoice in the Lord always – the opening line from our reading from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians – and the musical amongst you will no doubt think of Henry Purcell’s anthem of the same name. It’s a wonderful passage, where in just a few short verses St Paul says:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
What a wonderful message from the solemnity of Advent, or the stresses of preparing for Christmas. St Paul encourages us to rejoice – rejoice in God always. Not to be overwhelmed with thoughts of God, but to rejoice in him. To rejoice in the God who loves us, who sent Jesus to be born to save us from our sins, and who promises Jesus will return again to usher in a world of justice and peace. We may not feel much like rejoicing at the moment – with fears of a new variant and more restrictions. But at least we can rejoice that our advert for the new Rector has gone-live. It’s even possible our new Rector is watching this service online or via catch-up – if you are, don’t worry, the other preachers are all better than me! But in all seriousness for all we may feel we have had a difficult 2 weeks, Paul is writing from jail. He knows that he will ultimately lose his life for the sake of his faith. And yet even in that difficult situation he exhorts his readers to rejoice in God.
And then Paul provides us with reassurance: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”. Paul recognises that we have worries about lots of things – it might be our health, worries about relationships or financial worries. Or, at a wider level, worries about the covid pandemic, the economy, climate change, or international diplomacy and fear of war. We can sometimes feel overwhelmed with these sorts of questions and a sense of helplessness. Paul doesn’t dismiss the fact we are worried, but tells us to transfer our worries to God through prayer – both thanking God for the good things we have in life, but sharing with him our concerns, and trusting to his wisdom and mercy. We do not know how God answers prayer – and indeed sometimes – hard though it is – we may have to accept the answer to a prayer is “no”. But we can be confident God listens, hears our prayers, and will answer them.
And the result, Paul says, is peace – real peace that comes from God. At the end of our service the priest always talks about peace. The standard wording for the blessing indeed quotes Paul’s words from Philippians. And the priest’s closing remarks are to tell us to “go in peace”. I confess by that point, having managed to keep our two children reasonably behaved for the previous 80 minutes, my wife and I sometimes exchange a raised eyebrow with each other – yes, a bit of peace sounds like an excellent idea – anyone want to look after our children over lunch? But there is a peace that comes from reflecting through prayer on the good things in your life, and sharing with God your fears and concerns. As Jesus puts it in Matthew’s gospel – and if you know Handel’s Messiah you will recognise this too – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”. God will always hear our prayers, so share your hopes and fears with him and trust in his infinite wisdom, love and mercy.
I appreciate this is easier said than done. After all, if I look at the next week the things I am thinking about are whether I will go back to the office before Easter, the huge amount of work I have to get done before Christmas, and if my parents don’t start giving clearer signs as to what they want for Christmas they are in danger of getting nothing at all! You may be thinking something similar – it’s easy to focus on the earthly, and after our Christmas plans being disrupted last year perhaps we can forgive ourselves a little focus on the here and now. But on this Gaudate Sunday – as we pause during Advent to rejoice in God – can I encourage you this week to take a moment away from the Christmas planning, and worrying whether the Turkey shortages mean the Christmas Day centrepiece will be a potato. Instead, pause. Find an opportunity to stop what you are doing. Then read again the short passage from Philippians. Rejoice in God, give thanks for his love and faithfulness, and share with God through prayers your hopes and fears. If you are scared of the new variant, share that with God. If you are exhausted by the latest restrictions and think them not justified, share that with God too. Whatever your worries and fears, share them with God. And then take time to dwell in the peace he brings before going back to your Christmas plans revitalised and refreshed.
Edward Brown 12/12/21