“Rejoice in the Lord always!” Rejoicing may seem easy during the holiday season. So many things cheer our spirits and put a smile on our faces.
Sometimes things that cause us joy are based on empty sentimentality. Often the implied message of the season seems to be that we are supposed to be happy, so we had better make ourselves happy. We may work ourselves into a sort of giddy joy just because it is Christmas, not for any particular reason. That God’s Son became Man and was born for us may not be on our minds.
Empty sentimentality cannot cause deep or lasting joy, despite what Hallmark movies say. Superficial joy often feels good and right. That is not necessarily bad. God has created many good things for us that we call First Article gifts. They are meant to cheer our hearts. If you drive by a colorful display of lights and it makes you feel good, it may remind you that God wants your heart to be happy. The devil wants you depressed most of the time. Should you enjoy a little more of His gifts, perhaps food and drink, this Christmas? Why, certainly! God wants you to be happy, although not excessively indulgent. Overindulgence is not true happiness, but idolatry. First Article gifts must not be our gods to which we turn for joy. Always, we go to God in thanks for each gift He gives, and always practice moderation in our enjoyment.
The problem with Christmas cheer based on First Article gifts is that it is not a profound and lasting cheer. Superficial joy comes and goes so quickly that people may fall into sadness when life gets back to normal after the holidays. Or they try to hold onto gifts too long, which is drunkenness or gluttony. Sentimentality can be an idol.
For many people, the holidays are a time of deep depression. First Article gifts hardly seem to lift their spirits at all. Life has beaten them down too many times, and they cannot seem to find joy. Such people seldom reach out for help. Although they desperately need compassion and aid from others, they do not seek it. Often they hold the pain inside and few if any people know that they suffer. It is as if they have given up on joy.
We Christians should not suffer this way, in isolation. If one suffers, all should suffer. We should lift each other up when we fall. In companionship and brotherly love there is much healing, and even more healing in the sweet Gospel of Christ.
Saint Paul says, “Let your gentleness be known to all men.” The translation in our bulletin, “reasonableness”, may mean the kind of reasonableness that does not rush into a harsh response; in other words, gentleness.
Gentleness gets harder when the holidays become stressful. Nerves start to fray, especially when others act grouchy around us. How much more difficult it is when we have a long list of things that need doing but that GUY (Perhaps we have a less kind name for him in our minds.) is taking up all our time and would he just get out of the way! Perhaps unkind names do not stay in our minds, but we yell them in our car when somebody cuts us off. I think we all have experienced the fact that as patience runs thin closer to Christmas, driving skill and courtesy often proportionally decrease.
Gentleness is hard when you are pushed hard, under pressure. You are trying to do nice things for others, and somebody gives you a rough time. How hard to answer impatience with a kind word. How hard to be forgiving when THEY are being JERKS and you are simply attempting to be nice.
May we be patient enough to be gentle this season.
Some Bible versions translate this word as “moderation.” The Greek word can mean that, and it is a timely word for our holiday season. As I mentioned, we may go to excess in eating, drinking, and spending. Sometimes this is our attempt to feel the “Christmas spirit” by overindulging. “I believe in Christmas, because I spent so much on my family and friends!” But that is not really the Christmas spirit. Generosity is a virtue, but sometimes we make it an idol. Thus we can turn what is good into a cushion to prop up our self-righteous ego.
The true Christmas Spirit, who is the Third Person of the Trinity, guides us to practice self-control. He leads us to not simply throw all control to the wind and make ourselves sick with what we shove or pour into our mouths. He leads us down the path of moderation where we enjoy the gifts and share them without making the gifts into an idol in our hearts.
Paul says, “Be anxious for nothing.” Oh, boy. How many reasons for anxiety are there? There are so many troubles and demands on time and energy. So many preparations beg us to worry over how we can possibly fit everything in. Family problems can arise with the holidays. There are worries about how we will pay off the gifts we have bought. There can be anxieties related to work, health, relationships, the future and what it may bring. Many of these things may come to a head during this time of year.
Don’t be anxious – but how can we not? This life is not always easy or comfortable. So much can potentially threaten our well-being.
So Paul says, “Don’t forget prayer. In everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”
Especially thanksgiving – God has given so much! The Lord is a generous Father. Even if we exclude all that Christ His Son has done for us, we still have an overflowing list of blessings. Thanksgiving fights against anxiety – for why be anxious when your loving Father is taking care of you? Thanksgiving calms us so that we can be more gentle. It decreases the frantic urgency that can lead to lack of moderation.
When we petition our gracious God, we should not pray as grouchy people who have a list of demands because we deserve them because of how good we have been. No, we do not need to convince God so that we can squeeze a few extra gifts out of Him. He is not a miserly Scrooge who does not want to give out blessings. While we are asking for one, He has already given us ten or twelve that we are not aware of. We do not pray to get the gifts out of Him. Instead, we pray to a loving Father. He prepared a multitude of First Article blessings for us before the first man took his first breath. Our Father is even now listening for our prayers because He delights in helping us.
“But He doesn’t always give us what we want!” we may complain; not out loud, of course, and not in church! But anxiety and lack of moderation may come from suspicion that God does not listen to our prayers and we need to grab whatever we can and hold onto it. That is not the attitude of someone who trusts a loving Father. His generosity is not like that. If He does not give a gift you ask for, it is because there is a better one or a better time. We must give Him the benefit of the doubt that He is infinitely wiser than we. We should not act like the spoiled child who cries because the gift he wanted was not under the tree among the dozens he does not like.
But we pray with CONFIDENCE that the gracious Father is listening. We are confident because we are certain that we are the people of God. We can be so sure because our certainty is in CHRIST not ourselves. His merits are perfect. His Blood, shed for us, is the Blood of God. His life purchased our lives. His resurrection shows us that God wants life for us, and that Christ is forever our Mediator and Intercessor before the heavenly throne. NOTHING can take away the certainty that Christ has torn away the curtain separating us from the Father. Our prayers fly straight up to His ears. He always, always hears our prayers, because CHRIST.
So Paul also reminds us: The Lord is at hand. He was at hand for us in the manger. He became accessible to the human race so that anyone who was nearby could reach out to feel the skin of God’s Son, could hear the voice of the Baby who was God, could see the tiny face, the hands, the feet. The Lord was at hand for us, become flesh to be our Brother and to be the atonement price for mankind.
The Lord is at hand for us in the Word and on the Altar. He is accessible to the human race now so that many people can hear the voice of the Son of God. Many can touch and taste the Body and Blood of the Man who is God. The Lord is at hand for us multiple times during these “holy days” - that is what the word “holidays” means, after all. They are holy days for us when we gather around the Word and the Sacrament of the Altar.
The Lord is even now at the door for us. He will take us home to see Him face to face. He will give us every good and perfect gift in that place where no gift is spoiled and no prayer receives the answer, “No.”
The Lord is at hand in all these ways. So be patient. Do not quickly lose your gentle spirit. Be moderate in your use of God’s gifts. There is no rush for us to seize all our gifts now. The best gifts are reserved for us after this brief life. So we can be joyful now, even though our circumstances may not be the best. In the midst of pain, we rejoice.
Rejoicing in sorrow is a sign of the peace of God that surpasses understanding. This peace is ours because the Christ Child came. The Prince of peace brought His peace on earth, goodwill to men. This peace does not mean that everything in our lives will always meet our standards. But Christ’s peace means that we are safe. We are people watched over by a loving God who paid dearly for us. We know what the future is for us, so we know that we are eternally safe in the peace of Christ.
We will sometimes forget the peace and act as if we do not have it. We may panic or lash out or allow ourselves to be downcast. But sooner or later, the Spirit will remind us, and we will remember that we have the peace. We will remember Christ and all He has done. We will remember the love of God that is constantly with us and surrounds us. Nothing can take that away, so the peace is able to endure even the worst hardships. The hardships will not last, but the peace is eternal.
Remind yourself as often as you can: Nothing bad lasts forever. The Lord is at hand so that He will soon remove all sources of anxiety. Then the last tears of sadness will be wiped away, and only rejoicing will be heard, forever and ever. Amen.
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