St. Mark's Episcopal Church

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Advent 3 Sermon
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Rev. Bonnie Campbell

“Rejoice in the Lord always again, I say rejoice.”
 
What on earth does Paul’s letter to the Philippians have to do with John the Baptist? And what does John the Baptist have to do with joy? I couldn’t initially make much of a connection except the complete contrast between the two. William Barclay wrote, “whatever the message of John was, it was not a gospel. It was not good news; it was news of terror.” While the Jews of Jesus’ day are depicted as believing they had a gimme: a favored nation status, John told them there was no racial privilege when God’s judgment is applied. This could strike terror in some of the hearts of those listening--even the Roman soldiers. Maybe we should consider this when we think United States citizenship gives us special status with God.
 
John the Baptist told those who had come to see the crazy man from the desert, that they should share what they had with those who had nothing. How can you be content being rich and comfortable when others have nothing? John told the crowds that if they were fortunate enough to have a job they should work honestly and diligently for what they earned and be satisfied with that. He also told the crowds he wasn’t the main story but, when the real master came, they would have no fear if they had done what they could for their neighbors and had worked as honest people. John was a man who inspired people to act. He wanted people to live as God would have them live--he wasn’t into theological discussions. I also can’t remember a single story of him talking of joy--he did leap for joy once in his mother’s womb when the pregnant Mary approached. Does that count?
 
Now Paul had the advantage of Jesus’ teachings to go along with John the Baptist. Paul had his experiences planting churches in the Middle East and Europe and he had experienced joy.
 
Paul wrote to the Philippians from prison and he had hope for something better--hope for the future. Paul’s concern was that this church would fall apart out of fear for their lives. He was concerned that when bad things happened people would abandon their faith in the living Christ.
 
If anyone could relate to bad things happening, it was Paul. He even listed all the times his very life had been in danger and now he was in the hands of the Romans and things didn’t look good.
 
So, from the two--Paul and John the Baptist--we have this for living a life based on the one God. John said look to your own wealth and determine how you can share it with others to make their lives better. And, if God has placed you in a position no matter how lowly, you do the best work you can for your employer. Paul adds that a Christian would always be joyful. Even when we can see the handwriting on the wall all about gloom and doom, we can be joyful, for Jesus will never leave us.

Paul also said, “Let your moderation be known to all.”  In The Message it is translated as: “Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them.”  I think this line is talking about compassion or compassionate mercy.  I won’t try to pronounce the Greek word it is trying to translate, “epieikeia”.  It is a problematic word to translate to English. Gentleness, gracious gentleness, moderation, patience, softness, the patient mind, modesty, forbearance, the forbearing spirit, magnanimity, meet a man half way, and The Message: “you’re on their side, working with them and not against them” are all attempts to translate this word.  The Greeks said it was justice and something better than justice. They recognized that sometimes justice could be unjust because it was too general in some cases. There are times when the strict letter of the law is too much and justice must be relaxed so mercy can be applied.
 
I think of some of our secular laws of conduct and how they are applied to people who are addicted and/or mentally ill. These people are convicted of crimes and sent through the penal system only to be dumped on the street with the same coping skills they had when they started. These coping skills involve abusing drugs and alcohol to maintain some semblance of being normal--whatever that is.  And, often, abusing substances places a person outside the law. The person once again turns up in court. With a drug court in place, as our county hopes to institute soon, there are other options for judges to use. The mentally ill and drug addicted can get treatment and so long as they follow the court appointed program they can avoid incarceration and learn new ways to live their lives. This is a system of the kind of justice the Greeks valued. We could continue to apply the law with strict justice or we could consider the individual case and do something better than justice. In those cases where it seems warranted, justice can be relaxed and mercy applied.
 
Paul was telling the church members at Philippi that a Christian should be known for relationships that exhibit the ability to know when justice should be applied and when it should be relaxed. This joyful Christian lives this way because the Christ has given her many blessings and there are always more to come. The Christ is always with her. And, she wants to treat others as she knows God will deal with her--in love. It goes back to John the Baptist speaking of those who have more than they need sharing it with others. As Christians we have received so much mercy from God how could we withhold mercy from others?
 
Paul moved on to prayer. We can take everything to God in prayer instead of worrying. We can pray for ourselves: for forgiveness, for our current needs and for guidance for what is to come. And we must offer thanksgiving to God for all the blessings we have received and those we will receive in the future.
 
Here we have John the Baptist saying, “practice social justice and be a good, honest worker” and Paul is saying, “be joyful and practice justice beyond justice with your fellow human beings and pray”. All of this brings about peace. Peace with God, peace in personal relationships, peace at work, and peace in our hearts.
 
And joy-the joy of living in Christ brings about trust in God’s love. Praying helps to boost our faith that God loves us, and will care for our every need.  God loves us such that he wants the best for us. God is wise and knows what is best for us. God has the power to provide what is best for us. You can’t go wrong praying to God, talking to God, and thanking God for the blessings you have received and will receive.
 
I like the final line in the Philippians passage from The Message, “It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.” John the Baptist was compelled to say the things he did because he wasn’t worried about who was really in charge. Paul was concerned but his hope lay with the God he had always loved and the Christ he had come to know--he lived in joy.  
 
It’s wonderful what happens when Christ becomes the center of your life.
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