About a month ago, in the middle of grading a geography exam, I was overcome by a wave of panic.
Not only was I profoundly and inexorably behind in my laundry mountain,
not only was I not on top of upcoming Christmas Pageant preparations,
not only was I not prepared for the next day of school—
either in having procured the right kind of snack to make everyone happy,
but more importantly in having made any lesson plans—
but in that moment of burden, I saw also a vision of the very few days before me slipping by So Fast that it would be mid-December and I would have made No Preparations for Christmas.
And so, as usual, the moment I turned to the scriptures to begin preparation for this evening, there was a great deal that God could teach me.
Indeed, these Ecumenical Services, for me, over the past many years, have been God’s constant and consistent Emergency Spiritual Intervention before the beginning of Advent and the chaos and stress of Christmas.
‘Rejoice in the Lord always,’ writes Paul. And, for you stubborn anxiety laden members of Jesus’ Body who are already making an excuse for why joy is impossible, who are trying to tune me out altogether, ‘I will say it again’, says Paul, ‘Rejoice!’
And if that wasn't unrealistic enough, Paul goes on.
‘Let your gentleness be evident to all. Do not be anxious. In everything, by prayer and thanksgiving, present your requests to God.’
Did anyone notice what I left out?
Exactly, verse five—“Let your gentleness be evident to all.’
‘Because the Lord is near.’
This is the hinge of the whole passage.
Rejoice, be gentle, and do not be anxious but pray are linked together by The Lord is near.
What does that mean? Near like next door? Near like right at your elbow?
Paul means something very specific.
First, he's specifically talking to those who are in Christ--who know Jesus and who are known by him. If you know Jesus and love him and he knows you, and you have the Holy Spirit living inside of you, than, the Lord is near. He is so near He is in your heart and in your mind. He is not distant, watching you wrestle with your turkey and fret about whether everyone will get along around your dinner table or if anyone will have their feelings hurt or if you got the right kind of tokenary Christmas present for your boss that says not too much nor too little also, and if your children are making the right kind of decisions and marrying the right people, and will you ever get that stain out of your favorite sweater that you’d like to wear at Christmas but the way it is now there is no way you’ll be able to…
The Lord is near! He is living inside of you through the power of the Holy Spirit so that you are never ever alone. There is never a moment when you cannot go before the very throne of God for help with whatever it is, and God, Jesus, can hear you, see you, console you and help you.
Therefore, on one hand you can be gentle.
Gentle with yourself in setting reasonable expectations for the outcome of your days and your relationships.
Gentle, most especially, with other people. Letting those around you off the hook, being very very quick to forgive, not ever taking offense even when it seems like the only reasonable thing to do.
And then, on the other hand, putting away anxiety.
Its interesting to me that Paul doesn’t start with putting away anxiety. In my human reasoning, I would think, well,
If I’m free from anxiety, then I would be able to be gentle, and then, because life was so pleasant and ordered, I would be able to be joyful—it would be natural bi-product of a well lived life.
But this is not the order Paul gives us and his order says something great and big about joy and rejoicing.
First of all, it’s a command, and therefore, to some degree a decision of the will.
Its a decision we have to make. I'm going to thank God right now instead of panicking. I'm going to pray about this and trust that God is working all things for my good rather than flying in and making a stupid decision. I'm going to forgive this person quickly and completely rather than holding on to my hurt, because I am commanded to rejoice and not to be anxious.
But like every command, everything that God requires us to do, this command is in many ways completely beyond us. I may struggle and try to have joy just as I may struggle to do good works and save myself, but ultimately, because I am a sinner, because I am small, because my mind and heart are cloudy, I will fail. I cannot save myself, I cannot just Rejoice!. I cannot always quickly forgive. Sometimes anxiety overtakes me like a wave.
No, this command to rejoice, to choose joy, like grace, like salvation itself is ultimately an alien joy, a foreign joy, a great great gift given to us when we give ourselves to Jesus.
It is the necessary mark of a person’s relationship with Jesus. It has to be there. It is both something that we struggle and strive and pray for, and, when we come down to brass tacks, it is the simple and overwhelming gift that God gives when we place our full and complete trust in him.
Are you anxious about many things? Give them to Jesus.
Is the weariness of work and family bowing you down? Offer your family and work in thanksgiving to Jesus.
Are you holding a grudge? Put that down and forgive.
The Lord is near, he is in your heart and in your mind and he loves you and he can handle everything—the tiniest most distressing details of life are within his ability to provide for and solve. Put yourself in his hands and take up his Joy.