Fourth Sunday in Advent - Philippians 4:4-7 - December 20, 2015
1) Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! St. Paul commands Christians to rejoice. And although the verb is an imperative, a command, this is not really a command at all, at least not a command of the Law. You cannot coerce a heart to be joyful and rejoice. It isn’t part of joy’s nature to be coerced and commanded to appear as if from nowhere. If joy is coerced by the demand of the law then it’s not true joy, but a fake joy which is done grudgingly. So Paul’s imperative isn’t to be read as a demand, but an invitation to the heart that believes the Gospel. Joy is a fruit of the Gospel in the heart of the Christian. When the heart is set free from the terrors of sin it becomes joyful. When the forgiveness of sins washes over the troubled conscience, joy emerges. The heart believing Christ’s atonement for its sins
and believing that Christ’s perfect merits are now its own, cannot help but rejoice that it is no longer an enemy of God but that God has been reconciled through Christ. Joy is a fruit of faith, a fruit of the Holy Ghost as St. Paul also says in the fifth chapter of Galatians. Such joy erupts spontaneously from the heart set free from sin and God’s wrath. The heart that is burdened with sins can’t rejoice in the Lord because it is afraid of God and runs from God. The conscience that feels the weight of its own sinfulness cannot take pleasure in the Lord because the evil conscience thinks that the Lord wants to destroy it. This is why we say that true joy is the result of hearing, and believing the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins, that God is for you and not against you, that the Lord desires your salvation through Christ.
2) St. Paul also says that the Christian’s rejoicing is to be in the Lord. There are earthly things that give joy and pleasure, and the Apostle isn’t condemning those things. The Christian takes delight in the First Article gifts of God. The husband is to delight in his wife while the wife takes joy in her husband. Psalm 127:3 teaches us that children are an heritage of the LORD which bring parents great joy. The Christian should rejoice in his vocations according to the Table of Duties and find joy in whatever work the Lord puts into his hands each day. The Christian ought to rejoice and thank God for friendships, good neighbors, good government (where it is found) and all the blessings of daily bread; food and drink, house and home, and the like. Unbelievers attempt to rejoice in all these First Article blessings but cannot because they know not from where they come. The world thinks all these blessings come from their own hard work and diligence, from their own planning and scheming and hording. Since they imagine that all these things come from themselves, they are driven to continually worry over their wealth and possessions, not truly rejoicing in them because they cannot rejoice in the Lord. The unbeliever cannot rejoice in the Lord for they don’t believe in Him. Even they think He’s “up their somewhere” they won’t rejoice in Him because they are still in their sins, since no one is justified before God and has their sins forgiven except by faith in Christ. So the Christian must be careful let he find himself rejoicing as the world rejoices, in silver and gold, wealth and possessions, wife and child, house and home, for their own sakes, and not as gifts from their loving heavenly Father. The Christian ought to always rejoice chiefly in the forgiveness of their sins every day and take heart that no matter what happens to their earthly possessions and blessings, they have a gracious God and heavenly Father.
3) St. Paul also tells us when the Christian is to rejoice in the Lord, and that is always. This is a tall order to fill, but only if we are concentrating on the changes and chances of this life rather than the Lord and His spiritual blessings to us in Christ. The Christian heart, having been reconciled to God, knows and believes that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). The sinful nature which remains in us all can only gripe and complain because the sinful nature despises God’s good gifts as ‘not enough.’ The sinful nature also refuses to believe God’s promises, instead fixing its eyes and thoughts upon the evil things of this life and the world. When St. Paul writes by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost that all things work together for good to them that love God the sinful nature in each of us is repulsed by such wonderful words, instead refusing to believe that God directs all things for the good of the Christian and the church. The sinful nature, being a spiritually dead, stinking maggot sack, can only point to trials, crosses, and afflictions and say, “See! God does not love you because otherwise you would not suffer so!” So we must suppress such temptations to see God as evil by hearing the rest of St. Paul’s words. All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:28-29) God’s desire is to conform Him Christians to the image of His Son. That’s the role of afflictions, crosses, and sufferings in this life. For the unbeliever they are chastisement to bring them to repentance. For the baptized, these trials are how God your heavenly Father is comforting you to the likeness of Jesus, teaching you to place your confidence in God your heavenly Father no matter the situation. This is what enables us to rejoice in the Lord always, not just when things are going well.
4) St. Paul also commands us, Let your gentleness be known to all men. Such gentleness only comes from the joy of the previous verse, which only comes from faith in Christ’s atonement and merits. St. Paul says in Romans 5:1, Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Because the Christian is justified before God by faith alone, he knows he has a gracious God as we’ve said before. This brings peace with God and that peace then makes us gentle and humble of heart toward our neighbors. Having received such grace and gentle forbearance from God our heavenly Father, we then possess gentleness, which is again, one of the fruits of the Holy Ghost that St. Paul mentions in the fifth chapter of Galatians. Such gentleness of spirit is also why St. Paul can say to us in the next verse, Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. Anxiety and agitation are the opposites of a gentle and humble heart. Again, the sinful nature, our Old Adam, rears his ugly, self-worshiping head. Anxiety is unbelief that God will provide. It is sin which must be fought in our flesh like other sins because anxiety does not believe that God will provide for every need that we have, spiritual or temporal.
5) St. Paul provides the weapon for fighting such anxiety and unbelief of heart, which is prayer. When the sinful nature tempts us to believe that God is not providing for our needs of body and soul, we are to fight this temptation by going directly to God our heavenly Father in prayer and supplication. Since anxiety is the fear that God is not providing something we desire, prayer is the opposite of anxiety in that prayer is simply this: letting your requests be known to God. Prayer, which ought to always be in faith, without doubting, is commanded by Christ because He wants you pray to Him. He also promises to hear your prayer and give you ever good thing. He makes this promise continually throughout the Holy Scriptures so to remind you and calm your spirit so that you will pray confidently that what you request according to God’s will for you in Christ, you will receive. He says, Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me (Psalm 50:15).
6) All of these things flow from faith which trusts in Christ’s atonement and receives His merits as your own possession. This justifying faith causes you to rejoice in the Lord always. The justifying faith, that Christ has made atonement for every one of your sins, brings forth a gentle spirit in your breast which trusts all the promises of Christ. This is the peace of God which surpasses all understanding. It is not necessarily a feeling of peace. Feelings can be understood and felt while God’s peace is not an emotion, though we may feel it at times. This peace of God surpasses all understanding, which means that it exists in your heart by faith, and faith is directed toward things we cannot feel, see, touch, or verify with the senses, it is the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). The peace of God is result of justifying faith in your heart, justifying faith put there by the Holy Ghost through the preaching and hearing of the Word of God about Christ. It is not always something that is felt and thank the Lord for that. If your justification was something that had to be felt in the heart and with the emotions that would put faith on dangerous ground and would make our foundation sand instead of the rock of Christ’s certain word. So whether you feel the peace of God or not is unimportant. You possess peace with God because of faith in Christ which justifies you from all your sins and transgressions and covers all your iniquities with the blood of Jesus. That peace is what guards your hearts and minds, not a feeling.
7) There is one sentence I have neglected in this epistle. St. Paul gives a reason for such rejoicing, such gentleness of spirit, such prayer and supplication, and our peace with God. He says, The Lord is at hand. It’s tempting to hear this on the Sunday before Christmas and hear, “Christmas is at hand” so that think the Apostle is positioning us for Christmas. But there is much more to his words than that. He speaks not of Christ’s first advent, but of His final advent when Christ will come in the clouds to judge the living and the dead according to faith in Him. Since you are justified by faith on account of God’s grace in Christ, you can always rejoice that the Lord who baptized you is coming to retrieve you from this world of sin and bring you to His heavenly banquet. Rejoice as well that the Lord is at hand physically among us again in the bread and wine of His Holy Sacrament. Dear Christians, you have so much over which to rejoiced and be glad. Your Lord is at hand to forgive your sins, to strengthen your faith, and soon, to bring us to Himself. Amen.