This is the sermon for Advent 3. The scripture readings are: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7 and Luke 3:7-18
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (Philippians 4:4-9)
It was the phrase ‘The Lord is near’ that drew me to this particular scripture reading this morning.
‘Well, of course, the Lord is near’ you might think ‘After all, it is Advent, when the Church celebrates the nearness of the Christ-child on Christmas morning.’ There are all sorts of reasons for rejoicing at the arrival of the Christ-child, all sorts of reasons for rejoicing at Christmas.
What really strikes me about these sentences from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, though, is the context in which they were written. Paul himself was in a Roman prison when he wrote these words, and he was facing execution. And the church to whom Paul wrote was a church that was encountering persecution.
You might very well expect this letter read something like: ‘Times are difficult, we are all suffering hardship, pain and persecution, but the Lord never told us that things were going to be easy.’ However, instead of taking a sombre tone, Paul uses the word ‘rejoice’ 14 times in this very short letter. Knowing this information, we can either admire Paul or we can think him foolish. The one thing that we can’t do, however, is to disregard these words as being written by someone who did not have experience of life or who didn’t know pain and suffering.
What was it that gave Paul this extraordinary perspective? How did Paul acquire his ability to rejoice in the face of prison and death? I think there are two key phrases in this morning’s Epistle reading. The first is ‘The Lord is near’ (verse 5) and the second is ‘In everything, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God’ (verse 6).
In fact, I’d like to argue that the statement ‘the Lord is near’ is a prayerful statement
Prayer as Relationship
I want to put forward the idea this morning that ‘Prayer is a relationship with God, not an audience with God.’
I almost hate to use the phrase ‘a relationship with God’ because it’s become so over-used in Christian culture. But I think the idea of ‘relationship, not audience’ is helpful, and I’d like to spend some time unpacking that idea this morning.
Now, I have to confess that I’ve never had an audience with any dignitary I’ve never had an audience with the Queen or an audience with the Pope. I imagine that, before the actual audience, something formalised has to happen, such as receiving a letter from the Queen's staff or perhaps approaching the right people to join in with an organised audience with the Pope.
But whatever happens in an audience, you don’t form a relationship with that person whom you have gone to see. You don’t become the person’s friend and you definitely don’t become part of their life.
I suspect that most of us – myself included – have had experiences of treating our prayer-lives a lot like having an audience with God. We kind of ‘check in’ with God at the formal times. Maybe that’s Sunday morning church service, house group or our personal devotional times. (And there isn't anything wrong with that, per se) Then we sit and [gesture] ‘say’ our prayers to God. Most of us probably thank him for things and ask him for things. Maybe we also spend some time praising God. And then, like having an audience with the Queen, we finish our prayers with God, leave God and get back to our ‘real lives.’ Does any of this sound familiar?
But what about a form of prayer that focuses on the nearness of God? It seems to me that, in order to have a relationship with someone, that person has to be near. The person has to be present with us in our ordinary lives and he or she has to share our everyday concerns. The Queen doesn’t get a look-in here. Neither does the Pope. When was the last time you and the Queen commiserated together about British Gas’ price rises? I don’t think so.
I suspect that the apostle Paul knew something about the nearness of God in prayer. If Jewish prayer in the first century was anything like Jewish prayer today, everything that Paul did would have been an occasion for blessing God in prayer. Small, mundane things like opening one’s eyes in the morning, washing one’s hands, putting on one’s sandals, all required a prayer of blessing. And the prayers themselves would have focussed on God’s presence in those daily tasks.
As an example, here is the modern Jewish prayer that takes place when a person washes his or her hands before eating: ‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to wash our hands.’
I think that, even though these prayers are formalised, they certainly do bring God into a person’s everyday life. Whatever else one can say about such prayers, they are not the prayers of a person having a formal audience with God. They are the prayers of an every-day relationship.
I’m not recommending that we all adapt the prayer practices of Orthodox Jews. I am, however, suggesting that we might not go too far wrong in considering whether the everydayness of such prayers might give us some inspiration with respect to being aware of the nearness of God.
Prayer as Listening
There is another aspect to ‘prayer as relationship’. This aspect is ‘listening’. If we are going to have a relationship with God, doing all the talking ourselves is not necessarily the best way of going about it.
As Christians, we say that we believe that: 1) God the Creator is everywhere holding us in being; 2) that we meet Jesus – the Son – in the people around us and that 3) through the Holy Spirit, God is in our own spirits. If we truly believe that God is to be found everywhere around us, then it is helpful to practice the mindfulness of God’s presence. It is incredibly helpful to listen to God. To be quiet and ‘just be’ with God.
Prayer is a relationship with God, not an audience with God.
The Peace and Joy of Prayer
Paul suggests that there are great benefits to having a prayer-relationship with God. 'And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.' (Philippians 4:7)
Again, I think that the analogy of ‘relationship’ is incredibly helpful here because we’re not talking about ‘prayer as magic’.
In my years as a Christian, I have heard a number of people complain that they didn’t feel that they could go to church anymore because their lives weren’t particularly happy or peaceful. These people sometimes felt that to be a “real” – or a “successful” - Christian, they had to be happy all the time. They felt that their troubles would be seen by the Church as some sort of a spiritual failure. Or maybe it was just that they themselves felt that they were spiritual failures.
I don’t think that an unrealistic happiness is the sort of peace that Paul is talking about – nor the sort of joy that he’s talking about either. And I don’t think it’s the sort of the joy that Zephaniah had. His was the joy of a Jerusalem retaken after destruction by an occupying force. This is a bittersweet joy, not a Pollyanna joy that refuses to confront suffering.
Consider what it is to have a relationship with someone who you trust. Perhaps it is a spouse, or maybe a long-term friend. Someone with whom you do not need to put on masks. Someone who you can trust to accept you as you are – neither over-dramatising your pain nor brushing it away because they are afraid of it. It is in such a relationship that we can experience peace and joy even in the middle of hardship. It is in such a relationship that we can let ourselves go in the good times, knowing that our friend will be happy for us.
But relationships take time. They take commitment. They are about giving and receiving, about speaking and listening. Prayer is a relationship with God, not an audience with God. The Lord is near and constant mindfulness of the presence of God is the way that we can increase our experience of his nearness to us. Such a relationship can be a source of strength, of joy and of peace, even in difficult times.
In this third week of Advent, we draw ever nearer to the coming of Christ into our world.
Here and now, we also prepare our hearts to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion as we draw near to the Lord at his table. We are mindful of the God who is near to us. We are mindful of the God whose Spirit is in us, the God who holds us in being and the God who meets with us in our brothers and sisters in Christ.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
We pause now in silence to be mindful of his presence.
(Note to readers. I always leave a minute or two silence after every sermon.)