Summary: A short advent message.
St. Paul was writing to a Church under pressure; and St. Paul himself was writing from a situation of imprisonment. As he composed this letter Paul was “in chains” (1:13,17); so what we find is a letter written out of circumstances that most if not all of us have never experienced, to a Church facing circumstances that most if not all of us have never experienced! However, that does not mean this letter is not for us. No, it is very much for us, because through it God teaches us to be ready for Jesus whatever the prevailing circumstances may be. They are words which bring great encouragement and hope to persecuted Christians throughout the world right now; and this little snippet which we have heard this morning is very relevant to this season of advent.
Earlier in the letter (3:20-21), Paul writes this: “Our citizenship is in heaven; and we eagerly await a saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
We live in a society which often seems obsessed with maintaining, retaining and improving the bodies we have been given. Plastic surgery, extreme fitness programmes, and countless weird and wonderful diets are all available. Of course, it’s right that we look after the gift of life that God has given us, but many people spends most of their lives trying to hold onto something which has a limited shelf-life! As I look at my own body I thank God that it will not last forever, because the Saviour for whom we wait – the Lord Jesus Christ – will one day transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body! Brothers and sisters, Jesus will grant a resurrection body to every believer! Now, that’s got to be Good News for all those fitness freaks out there!
To a Church under pressure, and to our much more comfortable situation, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice” (4:4).
We do not currently face persecution. As I sat in my study this morning thinking, praying and preparing, I faced no harassment. As we gather to worship now, there is no gunfire outside, and thank God, there are no angry mobs outside ready to torch the Church building. However, there may be other realities such as family breakdown, illness, stress at work or bereavement which can strain our relationships.
William Barclay, the Scottish Theologian wrote this: “The Christian can never lose [their] joy because [they] can never lose Christ.” Sadly in Billericay I have already met too many people who have lost, or given up on, faith in Jesus because their circumstances or life-experiences have switched from affluent and healthy to something very different. Their perception is that either God or the Church (or both) have failed them at their point of need, and so they have either ceased or put on hold their relationship with Jesus, or certainly their relationship with the Church. I say this without judgment, but observe it as fact.
In chains and facing death, looking forward to the coming of Jesus, Paul says, “Rejoice!” His words are not to individuals, they are to the whole Church, because when he says “you” and “your” they are plural. “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near” (4:5). He is near because of his promise to be with us, and he is near because he will return ‘soon’. Our gentleness is to be marked by a lack of severity and an abundance of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation – leaving behind sins or disputes or arguments of the past and dedicating ourselves to prayer – not being anxious about anything (4:6).
In 4:6 Paul encourages the Church to pray together! The Church that prays together stays together! Present your requests to God; “and the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). This is no airy-fairy peace. It is eternal peace which we cannot explain and cannot fully understand. It is a result of a personal and corporate relationship with Jesus.