- November 8, 2020
- 09:00 AM
Sermon for 8 November 2020 (Proper 27 A revised)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Philippians 4.1-9; Psalm 70; Matthew 25.1-13
Title: The Lord Is Near
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Philippians 4.4-5).
Back in the dry heat of summer, I planned out these readings from Philippians and worked to make them fit into the Autumn season before Advent begins. A quick glance at the calendar told me that today’s famous passage would be placed before us, for our collective meditation, on the Sunday after Election Day.
And it didn’t take any special genius to realize that, no matter what transpired on November 3 and in the days afterward, a large segment of our parish family was going to be anxious and worried about the state of our nation. Given the clear and stark political divides within our land, this was a guaranteed outcome, no matter who won the Presidency.
So I have been particularly excited about reading this passage, and meditating on it, in this particular moment in space and time, because it has so very much to say to us all about how we are called to live, about where we find our hope, and about our shared destination and goal.
Let me remind you about the context of this letter.
The city of Philippi was an important Roman colony in Greece. It had been a small unimportant town until the Roman army won important battles nearby and many war veterans settled in Philippi around 100 years before Paul passed through. These military veterans formed the core leadership of the city, so you can imagine how the citizens there had a strong tradition of allegiance to Rome.
But do you know that, during the time when Paul visited Philippi and when he wrote this letter to the Christians there, the Emperor in Rome was Nero? Nero! Infamous for his reign of 13 brutal and bloody years.
Now, do you want to talk about real political turmoil and chaos? Nero came to the throne because the Emperor Claudius was poisoned by his own wife so that HER son, Nero, could rule in his place? And Nero was only 16 years of age at the time!
Perhaps it should not be surprising then that Nero suffered from a host of mental illnesses. In fact, just five years into his reign, he killed his own mother who had paved the way for him to become Emperor!
Nero’s rule became so violent and terrible that the Senate was forced to pass a resolution naming Nero as an official enemy of the state, an enemy of Rome. Soon after this, Nero took his own life. He was 30 years of age.
One more item to prove the point: the Senate named Nero’s successor to be an elderly man named Galba who went on to reign for only 7 months before he himself was murdered in a coup by the Praetorian Guard.
Now, I ask you: as loyal citizens in the highly patriotic city of Philippi, do you think these believers were affected by all of this chaos in their beloved Rome? Do you think they at times felt anxious and worried about the state of their nation?
Absolutely. I guarantee it. Paul was writing to real people who worked real jobs and raised real families in a real society that was rocked by political scandals. They were not immune to the turmoil around them.
And yet…in the midst of the reign of Nero who became a maniacal despot who burned Christians alive for entertainment, Paul writes to a small group of Christians in Philippi with these sublime words:
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4.6-7).
How is this possible? Paul himself was in prison when he wrote these words, facing an uncertain earthly future. But was he shaken by his situation? Can you sense any anxiety or anger or bitterness in his words? Not in the least. Just the opposite.
With joy and hope and certainty, Paul stood firm in the Lord and he invited his friends in Philippi to do the same.
How exactly does this happen? None of this is about logic, of course. You cannot THINK your way into the peace of God. This is about beauty, intuition, experience and love. This is about becoming so enraptured with God that everything else in the world pales in comparison.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
What an amazing thing to say! Now, does the apostle tell us to rejoice when we win whatever competition we face? No. Rejoice always.
Rejoice when we get what we want? Rejoice when things go our way? Rejoice when people finally do what we want them to do? No. Rejoice always.
Does he call you to rejoice when things finally start looking up for you and your household?
What does he say? (Pause…come on, you know it by now!) Rejoice always! But how can that possibly be?
The truth is that you and I have been trained to connect our sense of well-being and happiness to the state of the circumstances around us. That is the natural training that we received simply by virtue of being born as a human. It is normal and natural.
But God has something more in store for us. God wants to set us free from that very small and narrow and limited way of thinking. With Christ, and in Christ and through Christ, God is training us to DIS-connect our sense of well-being and happiness from the state of the world around us.
God is calling us to a SUPER-natural mode of living that springs out of an entirely different context. That context can be called the kingdom of heaven. Have you heard of it?
It’s not a place at all, of course. For the kingdom of heaven is a state of mind, a state of being in which the peace and the presence of God are far more REAL than anything that is happening in the changing world around us.
What happens when our hearts and minds are taken up and enfolded into the peace of God? The apostle has already pointed to it when he said, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (Phil 4.5). In place of gentleness, one could also translate the original Greek word here as forbearance, or even moderation.
He writes, Let everyone see your moderation. This is the practical and real-life implication of what it means to stand firm in the Lord: to be moderate toward others, to not be demanding or pushy or bossy, because, after all, the Lord is near, and in Christ we already have everything that we could possibly need.
Moderation is what we see in the apostle’s concluding exhortation, where he writes:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and anything worthy of praise, think about such things” (Phil 4.8).
These are beautiful words, but the remarkable thing about this verse is how ordinary it is. It could easily have been written by any of the popular Roman philosophers of the day. Seneca is the famous Stoic writer who served as tutor to Nero in the early days of his reign, before Nero’s madness took over. And Seneca could have easily written this very same kind of list.
You see, even while helping his fledgling churches to find their shared identity in Christ apart from the norms of the pagan society around them, Paul was never afraid to borrow what was good from those very same pagans. Here is moderation at work.
Now, a word is needed in reference to today’s Gospel reading, which certainly seems to be lacking in moderation. This is a challenging text, but it is not entirely different from the Letters of Paul in its goal and intent.
What is the oil for the lamps of the bridesmaids? One could say that this is an abiding trust in the peace of God.
What does it mean to be one of the foolish who are not prepared for the Lord’s return? It means to be distracted by the changing circumstances of the world, so that one no longer stands firm in the Lord.
To be prepared for the Bridegroom’s return is to always be looking ahead, anticipating what God is going to do next, ready for the next act in the great drama of salvation.
None of us know what awaits us in the months or years to come, any more than we could have predicted the direction of this year 2020.
But no matter what happens, each day we are invited to dig deeper, so that we can stand firm in the Lord, and rejoice in the Lord always. Each day we have the opportunity to allow the peace of God to enfold us ever more deeply until all worries and anxieties melt away.
Why would we ever choose to turn away from this gift?