A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Third Sunday in Advent – December 14, 2003
Text: Philippians 4.4-7
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are, it seems to me, two pictures that come to people’s minds, two main ways that the world has for thinking about faithful Christians. These two images are stereotypes, but like every good stereotype, their roots go back – if you dig far enough – to some tiny grain of truth. Stereotypes require that tiny grain of truth in order to win people’s minds. The grains of truth that feed these twin Christian stereotypes can each be found in our scripture readings today. That makes this Third Sunday in Advent an opportunity either to correct the myths or to entrench them further into our own hearts and those of the world. Let us do our best to confront our two stereotypes and put them to bed this morning.
The first stereotype we need to address is that Christians are dour, surly people who are unpleasantly obsessed with rules and legalisms, and have a peculiar and disagreeable fascination with hellfire and the end of the world. According to this common image, faithful believers are rather joyless creatures, living each day as if burdened up with the knowledge that God hates everything about this world and is looking forward to destroying it. At the very deepest, darkest part of this stereotype lies the unspoken assumption: that these Christians also secretly hate everything about this world, and that they’re looking forward to God destroying it.
The tiny grain of truth in this that I mentioned can be found in our gospel reading, where we find John the Baptist, the granddaddy of all saintly sourpusses, dispensing such cheery sayings as, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” and, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” and, “[The messiah’s] winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
A smelly, poorly clothed killjoy out in the desert, damning everyone who doesn’t behave and believe to unquenchable fire, and quite possibly enjoying the work; that’s how John comes across. And so the stereotype is fed and nourished.
Let me tell you something about John. The very earliest mention of him in scripture, before he is even born or given a name, we find him jumping for joy. John is leaping inside his old mother’s womb because of the nearness of the messiah to whom he must point. John was not all gloom and doom. He did not take joy in pointing out the sin of humanity and the judgment of God; rather, from the very beginning, before he was even old enough to understand why, John found the greatest of joy in the presence of his Lord.
If John cared about rules, it was because right and wrong were obviously important things to God. John loved the God who made the law, and not the law itself. If John cared about judgment, it was because he hated to see any of God’s creatures go unwarned and unhindered into any kind of fire, unquenchable or not. If John comes across as stern and unpleasant, the kind of fellow you wouldn’t want to bump into downtown, perhaps the truth is that a prophet’s job description often calls for his natural joy to be tempered with seriousness, and for a pleasant, cheerful nature to be undercut by the gravity of the prophet’s message.
In other words, John the Baptist was a complex human, every bit as complex as every person you’ve ever met. He was no stereotype or caricature. In the same way, faithful believers since John are complex humans, every bit as complex as every other person you’ve ever met. Although there are certainly straight-laced, serious-faced Christians, even the straightest and narrowest of them experience moments of joy, and those straightest and narrowest certainly do not necessarily represent the best of what faith in Jesus Christ has to offer, or even what most faithful people experience when following Jesus most days. Despite the stereotype, Christians aren’t inherently a sour and self-righteous bunch of people, either as a group or as individuals. If the pains of this world or the burdens of living faithfully cause us to become sour or self-righteous, then it is all the more evidence that the God we serve desires something else for us entirely.
The second stereotype you might find if you ask around is the image of the Christian as a cheerful, smiling person in perpetual and chattery motion. After all, didn’t one of those great Christian saints, Paul, tell us always to be happy? “Rejoice always!” That’s the stuff. Those who subscribe to this stereotype imagine Christian life to be all about putting on a happy face and squeezing out a “Praise the Lord!” through clenched teeth, no matter what life sends our way. In fact, some of those who believe the myth of the eternally cheery Christian might just secretly also believe that those who follow Jesus Christ don’t suffer pain at all – not the way the rest of us do, anyway. A Christian, so the stereotype goes, is looked out for by God in such a way that tragedy very seldom ever enters into her life. When it does, God provides such an abundance of grace that the Christian hardly even feels the pain at all, but instead cruises blissfully through to some even greater bliss the other side of tragedy.
But let us go back to those words from Paul I tossed out so casually there just a moment ago. Did Paul really tell us we should always be happy? The quote is, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” The thing is that many people can’t tell the difference between joy and happiness, couldn’t tell the two apart if the world depended on it. Fact is, most people assume that joy and happiness are just two different words for exactly the same experience. But if there’s anything Paul’s life teaches us, it is that great joy can come in the places one would hardly expect happiness to blossom and grow at all.
Paul had been beaten. He had been locked in more jail cells than anyone could count, and he fully expected to see the inside of one again before long. He had traveled hundreds or thousands of miles on foot, through harsh lands, and had been shipwrecked at least once. Paul was a bachelor, wandering the land without the happiness and comfort of a family close at hand. Paul had lost friends and colleagues in horrible, unthinkable, unspeakable ways, and understood implicitly that if Jesus Christ did not come soon, Paul himself would almost certainly share in their fate. On top of all that, Paul was a leader of not one or two, but handfuls of churches, with all of the stresses that go with that responsibility.
In other words, everything we know about Paul suggests that his life was not one of great happiness. But, as Paul himself would be the first to point out, it was one of almost constant rejoicing – rejoicing in the Lord. Joy is a more complex emotion than happiness; deep down, in fact, I suspect joy isn’t so much an emotion at all. Really, joy is a way of living. Joy isn’t about putting on a happy face when life dumps a load of manure in your yard; joy is about knowing that even amid the stench of the manure pile, the Lord is near. At the bottom of things, joy is what you get when, in the midst of all the pain and sorrows of life, you realize that as great as these things are, God himself is greater still, and as hard as life can be sometimes, God has gone to the greatest possible lengths to ensure that it will not always be that way. Joy recalls the life of God triumphing over the grave of men, and hopes for the coming day when God’s life will triumph over all our graves.
When a person has joy and is constantly rejoicing in the Lord, as Paul urges us, such a person sees with clear eyes and a broken heart all the broken things of this world; yet at the same time sees with the eyes of faith a world that is yet to come, where all the broken things will be mended by God’s skilled hands. True joy is much closer to hope than it is to happiness. Christians are not expected to laugh when they wish to cry or to put on a smile no matter what the situation; but we have a great storehouse of hope that allows us to rejoice constantly, following Paul’s example.
The fact is, these two stereotypes capture the tiniest grain of truth about the Christian life. But the real stories of John the Baptist and the apostle Paul point us to the deeper truth that the Christian life encompasses all of the experiences we believers have, and understands them in the light of the resurrection. May that resurrection light shine in every corner of your life today; may it bring you the very truest kind of joy. Amen.