Advent 4: Rejoice!

Witness of John the Baptist
Cover: John the Baptist baptizes in the Jordan River while the priests and the Levites, who have come out from Jerusalem (the temple appears in the background) question him. (John 1:1-28). From Martin Luther’s Church Postils (sermons), published in 1550.

Lessons: Deuteronomy 18:15-19, Philippians 4:4-7, John 1:19-28
Hymns: LSB 354, 357, 348, 349, 334, 353

Listen to the entire service here (the sermon alone is above).

      Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

      If you notice our bulletins have Latin titles for some of the Sundays of the Church Year. This is especially true for Advent, Lent, and the Easter seasons. Here’s why. The titles are derived from the first words spoken in the Service of the Word. The Invocation through the Absolution at the beginning of the service constitute the Rite of Preparation. What comes next is the Introit, which begins the Service of the Word. Years ago, Confession and Absolution were not included as part of the Divine Service because Christians were expected to go to Individual Confession prior to receiving the Sacrament. Contrary to what many Lutherans assume today, the practice of going to the Pastor for Confession and Absolution continued for hundreds of years after the Reformation. It is good, and taught in our Catechism. Because there was no Rite of Preparation, the service began with the Introit. The pastor would enter the chancel during this portion of the service.

      Therefore, the very first words that were spoken in the Divine Service were from the Introit and they became the Latin titles for these Sundays in the Church Year. Last Sunday was known as Gaudete, which is Latin for Rejoice. Last Sunday our Introit began with the same words of today’s Epistle from Philippians 4. We lit the rose candle to reflect the special emphasis on joy. In fact, rose is a color which may be used for paraments on the Third Sunday in Advent and the Fourth Sunday in Lent instead of purple or blue.

      Today is the Fourth Sunday in Advent so all four candles are now lit. With Philippians 4 as our Epistle and “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as our Hymn of the Day, we continue to build on that theme of joy. It is certainly a joyous time. We are preparing to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ! At Christmas we hear that God becomes one of us—to save us from our sins! Such joy! What joy it is to hear that God fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies and sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord. There is much joy when sinners are baptized into Christ, confessing their sin!

      From the blessed Apostle’s words, we are taught to rejoice in the Lord. This epistle seems particularly fitting for the last Sunday before Christmas. After all, Paul writes, “The Lord is at hand” (Phil. 4:4). He is near! He is here! We not only see that Jesus is born but we also rejoice in the fact that He continues to come to us today through His Word and Sacraments. God is with us! He is our Immanuel! Such joy!

      Let’s talk a little about joy. Webster defines joy as “A) the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires; B) the expression or exhibition of such emotion or C) a state of happiness.”

      But is that all joy is? Feeling happy because of success or good fortune? Woe to us if that is all joy amounts to! If joy is reduced to happiness from good times, then many would be left without joy. And others would have a false sense of joy.

      C. F. W. Walther once said, “Pity the person who is accustomed to regarding himself as pardoned [forgiven by God] only when he is enjoying pleasant feelings.” Many think that when they are having pleasant feelings—or a feeling of joy—then they are blessed—then they stand in God’s grace—then their salvation is complete.

      Too often we turn religion into a mere emotion—a feeling—an experience. However, Christianity goes far beyond that. In Christ, we are truly pardoned by God and declared acceptable to Heaven. God sent His Son to be sacrificed on the cross so that we can be acquitted of the death sentence we deserve for our many sins. When we recognize that God gives us eternal salvation solely by His grace, then we must conclude that we get far more out of Christianity than an emotion, a feeling, or an experience.

      Clearly, then, joy must also go beyond a feeling of happiness from good times.

      If you recall, St. Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. The second fruit listed is “joy.” True joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit—something He works through the Word of God. God only works through the Word and Sacraments and does not wish to impart His gifts through any other means. Because God works the fruits of the spirit in us, God works joy in us.

      Sometimes we feel joyful; sometimes we do not. But regardless of how we’re feeling, we may still have joy, for joy is a fruit of the Spirit. Joy happens, just as good works happen. We may not feel like we’re doing good works when we’re in a job we don’t want for a boss we don’t like. But as we do that job faithfully, we are engaging in good works—fruits of the spirit. In the same token, the Holy Spirit guides to us rejoice in the Lord, even in times of need, trouble, or suffering. For our joy is based on our standing with God—we are reconciled to Him.

      When Paul wrote our Epistle, he taught how we are to conduct ourselves toward God and our neighbor. “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (Phil. 4:5). The Greek word for “reasonableness” has many meanings: gentleness, moderation, forbearance, patience, selflessness, equity, mildness. Let these things be known to all men. Essentially, put the best construction on everything. As a Christian, your desire is to be reasonable—patient—selfless—mild. All of this comes from the joy of believing. And the joy of believing is that God and sinners are now reconciled through our Lord Jesus Christ.

      Many do not want to think about these matters of faith. Our culture frowns upon discussions on religion. They say, “Don’t talk religion or politics. Instead, talk about sports and the weather.” They figure keeping things peaceful with friends or family is only done by avoiding a few topics, like religion. It is true that discussions on matters of faith expose deep division between people. God would have us discuss these matters to work toward a God-pleasing resolution. In fact, there’s nothing more important than to talk about religion.  

      And in doing so, we need to remember these words of our Epistle, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” Concerning this, Paul Kretzmann writes, “There must, of course, always be an uncompromising opposition to all that is evil and condemned by the Word of God, but this must never result in gruffness and harshness, which would be incompatible with this spirit of Christ.” When we’re truly joyful for the things of God, we will open our mouths and speak God’s truth. We will boldly testify of His Word. We will not be willing concede a single point of doctrine, and yet we will be gentle in our firmness to the Word.

      When Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always” many are unwilling to do this. Until the heart believes in God, it is impossible to rejoice in Him. When there is no faith—no trust in God—then man is filled with fear and gloom. At any mention or thought of God, he is disposed to fleeing away. Unbelieving hearts are filled with enmity and hatred against God. For in unbelievers, there’s no confidence in God’s gracious mercy (Luther’s Postil).

      Unbelieving hearts rejoice in all the wrong things—gold or silver, eating or drinking, power or honor, skills or wisdom, friendship or favor. But these are deceptive joys. They are false joys which fleet away with the changes and chances of life. They never truly stir the heart because they are not rooted in the mercy and love of God.

      Instead, rejoice in the Lord always. Not just when you’re here or around the pastor or other religious folks. But rejoice in the Lord always.

      To rejoice in the Lord always is to reject all else but the Lord. It is to trust, confide, and glory in the Lord. It is to have true joy and peace in believing.

      After all, the Lord is at hand. His advent is taking place. He has come. He’s coming to us today. He will come again in glory.

      He desires to deliver His believing children from all evil. When He returns, we will be with the Lord always. When Jesus returns in glory, all affliction—all anxiety—all troubles and tribulations of this life will be gone. And we shall always be with the Lord.

      Because Christ has rescued you from sin, death, and the devil through His crucifixion and resurrection, you certainly have every reason to rejoice. You have the greatest comfort. You have every reason for true hope.

      There is joy and peace in believing. In fact, God fills you with this joy and peace. The joy of believing is that you are set free from your sin, you have a God who can identify with your troubles and temptations because Christ became Man, you have a God who will hear your prayers and answer them, and you have a God who will bring you safely home to Himself in heaven. The peace of believing is that you are justified and that He has done everything for your salvation. The peace of believing does not mean peace with this world, but it means peace with God. Your warfare is ended. God is not your enemy. He is your friend who laid down His life for you on the cross.

      Behold, your God comes to you. You may look forward to the return of Jesus with the same joy and anticipation that you have as you look forward to celebrating His birth. Look up and lift up your heads. Your redemption draws near.

      Therefore, may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13). Amen.

      The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen