I remember when I was a young boy the women of our church used to make an advent wreath out of evergreen branches and hang it at the front of the sactuary. By the fourth Sunday in Advent it was very dry. One year a nervous acolyte accidentally set it on fire. As it burst into flame, men came running up the aisle, knocked it to the ground and stomped out the bonfire.
Using natural evergreens for decoration in churches has now been replaced with artificial greenery. It's safer that way, but it still reminds us of the life that continues to live on in the dead of winter. That's a part of the Christmas tree tradition also.
Ancient people saw that too. There is evidence of pre-Christian Germanic peoples using wreathes with lit candles during the cold and dark December days as a sign of hope in the future warm and extended-sunlight days of Spring. In Scandinavia during winter, lighted candles were placed around a wheel, and prayers were offered to the god of light to turn "the wheel of the earth" back toward the sun to lengthen the days and restore warmth.
By the Middle Ages, the Christians adapted this tradition and used Advent wreathes as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas. After all, Christ is "the Light that came into the world" to dispel the darkness of sin and to radiate the truth and love of God (cf. John 3:19-21). By 1600, both Catholics and Lutherans had more formal practices surrounding the Advent wreath.
We light each candle as the weeks progress. Advent means arrival, and we mark the days until the arrival of the high festival.
People always ask about the pink candle. Where did it go? There used to be three purple and one pink. On the third Sunday of advent, which is today, we would light that pink candle. But does anyone know why?
It's because of our text for today. Philippians 4:4: "Rejoice in the Lord always; Again I will say rejoice!"
As you know, Advent is not a festival season itself, but a preparation period to the 12 days of Christmas, which are festive. While everyone else is already singing Christmas Carols, we are singing hymns of Advent: Savior of the Nations, Come; Hark A Thrilling Voice is Sounding; Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates;and the medieval O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
There's just as much spiritual importance in the preparing as there is in the celebrating. After all, there are 39 books in the Old Testament preparing us for the arrival of the Christ Child, and only 27 books in the New Testament, telling us about its happening.
The third Sunday marked a halfway point in Advent. Two weeks behind, two weeks to go. Only this year the 4th Sunday in Advent is also Christmas Eve, so we're already more than halfway through.
Before the 1980's we were on a one-year lectionary. That's the arrangement of Bible readings that we follow at church. They used to have the same reading every year. Sometimes on the third Sunday there were sermons about rejoicing.
Now we have a three-year lectionary. There are different readings on a given Sunday from year to year, repeating the pattern every three years.
Today you can see the reason for the pink candle: rejoicing. It comes in our Epistle reading today from the fourth chapter of Philippians.
But some years ago here at the church when we replaced the wax candles with oil, we decided that the color blue fit with the new altar clothes better than purple, and that since we only have the rejoice reading once every three years, it would be okay to have all blue candles.
It never ceases to amaze me how the simple decisions are the easiest to make and the hardest to live with. For quite a many of you noticed the disappearance of the pink candle, and you wanted to know where it went! I suppose I could easier add a forth person to the Holy Trinity than take away your pink candle. So, here it is. (Light a pink candle) It's back. Rejoice!
There is much for the Christian to rejoice about.
People are somber this year. War is raging in Iraq with many people dying. People are losing hope that there can be a peaceful end to this conflict. If we stay, hundreds die. If we leave now, thousands die.
But the Christian knows this is how the world has always been since the fall of humankind into sin. Students of the Bible know how empire after empire have conquered the known world through bloodshed, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans. Later on there are names like Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin. Today we hear the names of radical Islam.
Paul lived under the tyrannical dictatorship of Caesar Nero, who is famous for his brutal treatment of Christians. How does Paul speak to his people? All doom and gloom? "Boy, it's really going to be terrible for us Christians. Did you hear how Nero blamed us for the fire of Rome last year? Yeah, he hung some Christians on poles and lit them on fire. Others he tied them in lambskin and threw them to the wild dogs."
None of that from Paul. Instead, he's encouraging his people. "Let everyone know you are sensible. The Lord is at hand."
That's good advice for us today. Yes, the world is a mess. Yes, morality is up for grabs today. Yes, our children are growing up in a world with more challenges to Christian faith than we had. Yes, there's violence all around us.
It's a tough place. It's full of sin. That's what God said way back at the beginning in the garden, "By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground out of which you were taken" (Gen. 3:19).
But Paul encourages us to rejoice in the midst of it. This is because He knows Jesus is coming again. His ADVENT is near.
So we are in the midst of preparing. How does a person get ready for the Lord?
1. Be on your guard against the devil. He likes to sneak around.
Have you heard of the phishing scheme? You get an email or letter from someone in Africa. They say something like, "I've been driven out of my country, and I have all this money, and if you give me your bank account number and let me put all the money in there, I'll make you rich. It's all legal."
Sound too good to be true? Right. Next time you go to the bank, it's you who made the other person rich. Rightly so. He played on your greed.
I had an email account that I had to abandon because it was overwhelmed with spam like this. Dozens a day.
The devil works like that. Plays on our weaknesses, greed, need for immediate comfort, laziness, pride. Then he lays a trap for us.
Watch out for him. Stay awake. Examine yourself each day. Confess your sins. Call upon Christ for the forgiveness only He can give. Only he took your sins upon himself, offering up a perfect sacrifice that you couldn't. He declares you not guilty before Father God in heaven.
2. Rejoice! Don't go around all doom and gloom. We get so caught up in how bad things are.
"Oh, my loved one is so sick they are going to die. What am I going to do? I can't live without them."
It's not that bad. If you loved one is a Christian, they are going to be with the Lord. If not, your duty is to tell them about Him.
I think even John the Baptist fell for that one, sending his disciples to Jesus, and asking, "Are you really the messiah, or did I just think you were when we had that baptism thing in the river?" And now I'm here in prison, and I'm going to die, and you're not doing anything to get me out."
It's going to happen that we will doubt God's plan. John did. He had other expectations for Jesus.
Don't be all concerned about how bad your life is. What do you expect? Heaven on earth? No, that's coming later.
This place is cursed. We're blessed just to make it through this day.
Instead, Look ahead to what's going to happen when you leave this world. God's got a great place prepared for you in heaven. Jesus said he was going ahead of you to prepare that wonderful place for your arrival. All your loved ones who died in faith will be there to welcome you in the front door.
REJOICE in that picture. Remember that pink candle, and thank the lord.
3. Pray. Paul says, "In everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be make known to God."
If we spent half as much time praying to God about the things that trouble us as we do worrying about them, we'd spend more time in prayer than all the pastors in all the churches on earth combined.
We've got this great opportunity whenever we feel overwhelmed. All we have to do is remember who's in control here. "The Lord is at hand" (vs. 5). That means the person we're praying to this morning is omnipotent. God created the world. Don't you think he knows what's going on in it, what's happening in your life?
He sees what troubles you. Maybe he wants you to trust him. To experience suffering so you can encourage someone else. To find a solution to help others. Or simply to get you to spend some time praying to him and depending on him to answer. God has his reasons, but he's not telling you.
One of the great passages of the Bible that always can calm me down is Psalm 46:10. Know what that is? "BE STILL AND KNOW THAT I AM GOD. I WILL BE EXHAULTED IN THE NATIONS. I WILL BE EXALTED IN THE EARTH.
Christian, you can be still because you know more than that. You know how much God loves you, that He would send Jesus here into this dark world on a rescue mission just for you, to take your sins and disbelief on himself, and give you his holiness and acceptance before the Heavenly Father. That's comfort, and that's reason for true rejoicing.
One more thing. Paul ends this section with a blessing. For centuries Lutheran pastors have ended their sermons with this phrase. As a kid I always knew it was the end of the sermon and Dad would be passing the offering plate by for me to put my quarter in when I heard these words,
THE PEACE OF GOD, WHICH SURPASSES ALL UNDERSTANDING, WILL GUARD YOUR HEARTS AND YOUR MINDS IN CHRIST JESUS. Philippians 4:7.
Pastors say that at the end because they want you to remember that you've just heard the word of God and you can rest peacefully, for if you heard what was said, your heart will trust in Jesus, and you really don't have anything to worry about anything. You can go about your life, your work, your sufferings, and your trials. But know one thing: Jesus goes with you.
So, Christian, rejoice, for in one week we will gather again to celebrate the birth of Jesus, when God became one of us, to bring us back to himself. Rejoice and open your heart up to that peace that he gives.
I'm not bringing the pink candle back, for we don't rejoice only on the third Sunday of December. We rejoice in the Lord always.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Copyright © 1998-2011 James F. Wright. All rights reserved.
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