December 24, 2017
A self-proclaimed atheist once told me, "I don't need religion to be happy." Which I thought was a strange thing to say, because I'm not a Christian in order to be happy and there are many unhappy Christians. And an unbeliever can be happy, I suppose. Well, it depends how you define happiness. If we are talking about the Epicurean principle of pain being bad and pleasure being good, then sure, an unbeliever can be happy for a while. They can enjoy good food, spend time with friends, be healthy, wealthy, and safe. Of course, all this only lasts for a while, and is very temperamental and subject to ruin even at the slightest disruption.
St. Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord always. This is where people get the idea that Christians have to always be happy or that one is even a Christian, so that he can be happy. But such people are missing an important modifier: rejoice in the Lord always. Do not rejoice in your money or your job or your healthy relationships or your home or your freedom. No, rejoice not in these. Rejoice in the Lord always! This is not to say that you should not thank God for these things when God blesses you with them. But do not base your constant rejoicing in them.
St. Paul was in prison when he wrote these words, "Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice!" Is that surprising? Well, I suppose it would be if Paul rejoiced in his freedom from prison. But Paul rejoiced rather in the Lord. Did prison take the Lord away from Paul? Certainly not. So, prison also didn't take away Paul's reason for rejoicing.
Paul's rejoicing is in the Lord, who has saved him. He rejoices in Jesus Christ, who bore his sins on the cross and won peace with God our Father in heaven. No loss of property or friends or freedom here on earth can take that away. The unbeliever's rejoicing is dependent on things going well in this life or at best having an optimistic attitude when things go bad. The atheist told me she didn't need religion to be happy. In many ways that statement was truer than she knew. Will God make you happy? Unless you know God's mercy through Jesus Christ, no, he won't make you happy! Instead, God will terrify you! Can you imagine an all-powerful judge? And you don't know what he thinks of you? What a relief it would be for him just to go away. So, the unbeliever finds temporary happiness by hiding from God's presence and pretending that he doesn't exist.
Paul does not want you to rejoice in temporary happiness, that depends on ignoring God's wrath and focusing on fleeting pleasures. Paul wants you to rejoice that the God who is your judge has shown mercy to you. Rejoice that God loves you and forgives you all your sins. Rejoice that he has given you a Savior, who will not pass away forever. Jeremiah the prophet writes, "Thus says the LORD: 'Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.'" (Jeremiah 9:23-24) In short, St. Paul writes, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." (2 Corinthians 10:17) God wants your rejoicing to be in Jesus, who will never pass away, no matter what trials you might go through on this earth.
Can you rejoice if you lose all your money? Not if your rejoicing is in your money. But if your rejoicing is in the Lord, you can rejoice whether you are rich or poor. Can you rejoice when you are sick? Not if your rejoicing is based on your health. But if your rejoicing is in Christ, then surely you can still rejoice. What if your husband dies? Or if your wife divorces you? Or when you die? Can you rejoice in the Lord even then? Yes, for the Lord does not stop being your Savior when sickness, death, or tragedy hit. If these things cease your rejoicing, then your rejoicing is not in the Lord, but in your wealth, health, good relationships, and life. But Scripture promises that losing these things cannot take Christ away from us, as St. Paul writes, "For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39)
Now this is not to say that a Christian can't be sad. Jesus himself wept. The apostles mourned. You can mourn the death of your spouse, feel the emotions brought upon by the devastation of divorce; you can weep and even have righteous anger, all while being a Christian. St. Paul is not telling you that you cannot be sad and be a Christian. He is telling you not to let your sadness bring you to despair. Rather, at all times let the truth that Christ has redeemed you rule your heart and mind.
"Let your reasonableness be known to everyone." That is, let your gentleness, your equity, your meekness be known to everyone. Do not try to defend your honor or make yourself greater than another. Treat everyone with fairness. Do not worry about losing; your property, your social standing, your pride. Why? Because the Lord is at hand. There is nothing man can do to you that will take away your reason for rejoicing. So, do not worry about getting even, be generous, put the best construction on things, you are not jeopardizing your reason to rejoice.
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplications with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." "Do not be anxious about anything." That means, no matter how badly you need something or how serious the situation is, or how dire it looks, do not be anxious. There is nothing that you need that the Lord will not provide for you, no matter how big. "But in everything.... let your requests be made known to God." There is nothing so insignificant that you do not need God to provide it for you. St. Paul is teaching us to depend on God for everything, both great and small. No matter how big it is, do not doubt that God will provide it for you. No matter how small it is, do not forget that even that depends on God's goodness. And if you rejoice in the Lord always, because of his eternal blessing, you also know that you can trust in the Lord for your daily bread.
"And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." We're not talking about a peaceful afternoon nap or even peace between warring nations. We're talking here about the peace that confounds the entire earth. Jesus says, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid." (John 14:27) This is peace that cannot be achieved by any human effort, and so also it cannot be lost as earthly peace so quickly passes. Romans 5 states, "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." There it is! We're talking about peace with God! This is not something we can achieve with our works. This is something that is given to us as a gift, as the angels proclaimed on Christmas night, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace good will to men!"
The angels didn't tell the shepherds that wars would cease or even that they would have a quiet night. They told the shepherds that Jesus, the Savior of the World was born. They told them that wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger was the source of God's peace with each of us sinners. Jesus, our God is now a man forever and he has come to pay our debts and set the score between God and sinners by becoming a sinner in our stead. (Not that Jesus himself ever sinned, but he bore our sins for us). This is peace that will cause rejoicing throughout the generations, which will not be silenced by wars and pestilence.
This peace surpasses all understanding. This means that we cannot acquire it through our reason. We must receive this peace through faith. And so, this peace can only come to us through God's Word. And it comes to us today, just as it came to the Shepherds through the voice of angels. This peace was shared by Paul to his hearers and readers. This is why the pastor shares this peace after every sermon, because it is peace that comes to you through the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins won by Jesus for you, which should be the focus of every Christian sermon.
This peace will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Not, "may this peace" as if we give a request or hope that this peace will guard your hearts and minds. No, this peace will guard your hearts and minds. That's what faith delivered through the Gospel does. It guards the hearts and minds of the Christian. This peace is a fruit of the Spirit, as St. Paul writes in Galatians 5, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." (vss. 22-23) When Paul tells you that this peace of God will guard you, he is saying that the Holy Spirit, whom you have received through the Gospel, will work in you and through you to live as a child of God. This means you will be gentle to your fellow man. This means you will not be anxious, but in all things with prayer and supplications you will make your requests known to God. When you do such things, you know that the Holy Spirit is working in you through the peace you have received in the Gospel.
This peace of God was won by Christ Jesus for you. And it is this peace, which is the source of your rejoicing. It is peace given to you by the Lord himself coming to you. Tonight, we celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus, who came to make us right with God. And Jesus has not left us. He is still a human being, just as he was as he lay in the manger. He is with us through his Gospel of peace. And he will be with us in heaven for all eternity. Our Lord Jesus will always be with us. And so, God's peace will always be with us. And so, we will go on rejoicing, through sin and temptation, sickness and death, even in eternity. Amen.