“Singing may be the most remarkable thing Christians do together.”[i]
We don’t just sing because we like the music or even because it taps into memories that make us feel warm and loved – singing is an act of defiance, of lifting our voices to God in the midst of a world that doesn’t believe. And there does seem to be more singing going on during the Advent Christmas season. It’s more than just the music playing in stores to encourage shoppers to spend a bit more or even the music on the radio we play in the car or Pandora at home. We may enjoy them, but Deck the Halls with boughs of Holly, Fa la la la la, la la lala and Have a holly, jolly Christmas, it’s the best time of the year are not deeply significant songs. We may find ourselves singing something a bit different after we leave the car or the store. We might find ourselves singing the songs that we WISH had been played on the airwaves – because they are some of our favorites. Not just the season to be jolly – but really the counter-cultural proclamation: “What child is this, who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping…” or the haunting Appalachian carol: “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, that Jesus the Savior did come for to die – for poor, ornery people like you and like I, I wonder as a wander out under the sky.” And perhaps, if it know it well the news of joy: “For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given. Unto us a son is given. And the government shall be upon his shoulders. And his name shall be called: Wonderful Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
We might think Paul has things backwards. His instruction in Philippians is counter-intuitive. We are accustomed to saying “Thank you” after something is given to us – but Paul says to give thanks first.
“With thanksgiving let your requests be made known.” This is one of the secrets of joy. Joy begins with Thanksgiving!
Rejoice always. Do not be anxious. With thanksgiving let your requests be known. They go together. Begin with rejoicing – it cuts down on anxiety. For some of us this may sound a bit like Scarlett O’ Hara’s announcement, “I won’t think about that now. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” But perhaps this is a clue to dealing with the high levels of anxiety in our lives. Some call this the least obeyed command in the Bible – to not be anxious – and they might be right. We certainly don’t obey it.
And we would be right in responding, “It’s not that simple.” How do we rejoice in the midst of wildfires out of control, the devastation of hurricanes, the death of a seven year old child from medical apathy and criminal neglect at OUR border in a season when we are celebrating the birth of the Christ child. Somehow, instructions to “Rejoice!” fall as short as the offer of “thoughts and prayers…” in the midst of tragedy. Of course it isn’t that simple. Here’s our reality check: Paul wrote this letter from prison. We aren’t sure WHICH prison or exactly what he was in prison for – but this command to “Rejoice” was written from prison. This command to not be anxious was written from prison – not from a summer home on the Mediterranean Sea. That should help cue us in that Paul isn’t giving an easy or trite answer.
But the fact is that we do stress out over little things – not just the major ones that really should stress us out. We put the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble. It is rarely the injustice and cruelty of life that stresses us out. It is other drivers, or insurance companies, or robocalls. Our doctors tell us this. And our doctors regularly tell us that our daily stress loads are health risks, both short-term and long-term. High blood pressure is called “the silent killer.” Our chiropractors and massage therapists tell us that we carry stress in our bodies. It would be hard to find a counter-argument on this one -- we are too stressed. And – much of our anxiety is for nothing! Most of the things that we worry about don’t ever happen, after all. We stress over “what ifs…” and are wakeful at night running through scenarios in our head that may not happen to a point that, “Do not be anxious,” actually seems like practical advice.
We might be tempted to pray, “Lord, cure my anxiety. Lower my blood pressure. That would be a blessing.” But Paul says just the opposite: REJOICE. Be not anxious. With THANKSGIVING let your requests be made know.” Start with gratitude. Being thankful is the beginning to getting back on track. Those birds of the field are our example – they don’t worry – but they sure do notice when we put up birdfeeders. They notice the blessings. We are to notice what God has done for us – pay attention to the things we have ignored. Perhaps gratitude is the remedy for our anxiety. It is hard to be grateful and anxious at the same time. Psychiatrist Martin Seligman says in his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, that studies indicate that gratitude is one of the significant keys to alleviating anxiety and depression.[ii] Science agrees with Paul. Be grateful – and then ask for what you need. That’s Paul’s secret to joy – looking at the situation differently (even from a prison cell) and starting with thankfulness.
Joy from the giving.
There’s a Christmas story, a true story, that comes from a family in the heart of New York City. Ursula had recently come from Switzerland to live with a family here as a servant in their home in order to improve her English. She acted as secretary, helped watch the children and helped out wherever she was needed. As Christmas approached, she looked at the wealth of the family and wondered what she could give them for Christmas. She decided to go to one of the large department stores on her day off, and moved slowly through the store until she found the perfect thing. She had it wrapped in bright paper and left the store. She approached a doorman and asked him where she could find a poor street. He told her in Harlem, or maybe the lower east side of town, but she didn’t know how to get there. As she walked along she saw a Salvation Army kettle and ringer. She asked the man if he could help her find a poor family. She had a gift for a baby – a little dress – for the poorest baby she could find. He told her that there was a family with a new baby on his block and they needed everything. If she would wait until his replacement came, and had a dollar for a cab, he would take her there. In the taxi she explained what she wanted to do. When they arrived at the dark forbidding tenement, the Salvation Army man asked if she was ready to go up to the third floor where the family lived. She shook her head. They would try to thank her, she explained – and the gift was not from her. “Take it up for me, please. Say it’s from…from someone who has everything.” As the taxi carried her back to the apartment house where she lived, she tried to imagine the family’s surprise and joy. On Christmas morning, she thanked the family for each gift she had received. And when the unwrapping of gifts was all done, Ursula explained why there were not presents from her. “When she finished there was a long silence. “So you see,” said Ursula, “I try to do a kindness in your name. And this is my Christmas presence to you…”[iii]
This story is written by Norman Vincent Peale. He shared it because it was his home in which Ursula lived. He said that they “were like many Americans, so tichly blessed that to this child from across the sea there seemed to be nothing she could add to the materials things” they already had. “And so she offered something of far greater value: a gift from the heart, an act of kindness carried out in our name.” She was a shy, Swiss girl..”You would think that nothing she could do would affect anyone. And yet, by trying to give away love, she brought the true spirit of Christmas” into their lives, a joy in selfless giving. True joy shared from a thankful heart.
Joy will be our true home.
Many of our Christmas carols talk about home. “I’ll be home for Christmas…” “There’s no place like home for the holidays…” When we think about special celebrations, our longing for home increases. Even in our society that seems almost rootless and home might be hard to define, we have a longing for home. But perhaps the home for which we long isn’t just the old homeplace. The words of Zephaniah come as a promise: “I will bring you home.”
It’s not that all the problems will go away – but rather that God is close to us in the midst of them. And our troubles don’t have the last word. This is not the end of the story – we are somewhere in the middle where the conflict is real and complications look overwhelming. We haven’t reached the resolution yet. And God is with us in the middle of the story. We have not been abandoned.
God is our home. SING. There’s a Daniel Gardiner song that goes, “My life is in you, Lord, My strength is in you, Lord, My hope in is you, Lord – in you, it’s in you…” Perhaps we should adapt it a bit and sing, “My home is in you, Lord…” And home is near – God comes among us at Christmas. SING: Love came down that the world would know as the wise men knew such a long time ago. I believe that angels sang that hope had begun…when the God of glory who is full of mercy, when the God of glory, sent the son…”
SING: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice….”
(BUILDING) Perhaps only at Christmas with its wonder and mystery, (pause) only at Christmas when we hear that God the Logos who was the power of creation took shape in human form and lived with us, only at Christmas when Love comes down, when Immanuel is named as “God with Us” – can we begin to realize that the home for which we long isn’t on earth at all. Our real home is in God. We yearn for a sense of God-with-us that names us and claims us and provides us a home. Not with walls and a roof, even if it comes complete with chimney and fireplace with stockings – but a home of welcome and love where we are truly known and loved anyway. For love came down at Christmas and made a home in our hearts. Let’s sing, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” and mean something a bit different than the popular song this year.
Rejoice. Be thankful. And then ask for what we need. It may seem backwards – but there is a fundamental truth here that Paul is sharing. Rejoicing and being thankful has a way of changing our hearts. Maybe it will change our requests too. Perhaps we will ask for others instead of ourselves in honor of the child of Bethlehem. May the Joy of the
[i] James C. Howell “Weekly Preaching: December 16, 2018” on Ministry Matters. MUCH of this sermon was influenced, or points taken from James C. Howell’s “Weekly Preaching Notions,” reprinted in Ministry Matters. He had this one done well. We ALL benefitted!
[ii] Martin E. P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press, 2011.
[iii] Norman Vincent Peale, “A Gift from the Heart.” Reader’s Digest, January 1968. Copyright ©1968 by The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. Reprinted by permission in Christmas in My Heart, compiled and edited by Joe Wheeler. New York: Doubleday, 1996.