The Lord is at hand, St. Paul says. The Greek is literally, the Lord is near. We can think of this in two ways. First, that Jesus will soon return to judge the living and the dead, as we confess every Sunday. He is near, He is coming, we will see him soon with our own eyes. Second, it means that Jesus is now near to us, He is with us always, even to the end of the age. St. John the Baptist when he confessed and did not deny but confessed that he was not the Christ spoke of this same nearness of the Lord. First that He would come to judge – “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees,” he said, and he asked the Pharisees, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” But at the same time he preached the nearness of Jesus, that he was with them, “There stands one among you whom you do not know.” He stands among them. They can’t see His glory. They don’t even know who He is. But John knows. He points to him – in the very next verse right after our Gospel lesson ends – points to Him and says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John says Jesus comes before him even though he comes after him, because Jesus is the Word who was with God and was God and through whom all things have been made. John says he is not worthy to touch the sandals of his feet, unworthy even to act as a slave to this man, because God has come to visit His people, that’s who Jesus is, God now stands among them in human flesh. And so these two nearnesses belong together. Jesus is near to us. He is with us. It has happened. God has become a man. He has lived for us and died for us, taken away the sin of the world, opened heaven to us, is with us in His Church, feeds us with His body and blood. And therefore the Lord is near, He will come to us, we will see His face in glory.
This nearness of the Lord determines everything in life – our relationship with God, how we treat one another, how we live with ourselves. These three things, St. Paul tells us, mark the Christian life. First, we rejoice in God. Second, we are gentle toward one another. Third, we live our life in peace.
Toward God we rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord always. And again I will say, Rejoice. This is not a command, in the sense of some legal requirement. “You’d better rejoice or else.” That’s absurd. You can’t force joy. Not even God can do that. When we call God almighty we’re not saying He can do things against His own nature. He can’t sin. Sin is the deprivation of good, and God is completely good. And God can’t force joy or force love. He is love and He does all things freely, not under coercion. He is joy and this joy is absolutely free, not forced. God can’t contradict Himself. He can’t force what is free. We all know from our own experience that joy can’t be forced. If my child genuinely dislikes broccoli, I can certainly force him to eat it, but there’s no way to force him to enjoy it. And if my child is sad or angry, no command of mine, no threat of mine, will make him happy. I can’t just say, You’d better be happy or you’re not going to get any supper. That’s just going to make him more sad or more angry. What will make him rejoice is only persuasion, only love shown to him, only taking away what grieves him or hurts him.
So when Jesus, through His apostle, tells us to rejoice, he’s not trying to force anything out of us. You can’t force joy. He’s inviting us instead to recognize the joy we have in Him already. What is our relationship toward God? Think of it. It is a relationship of joy, pure joy. He is not angry with us. The sins that deserved His anger He no more will see nor heed. He is near us as our Brother. He is no stranger to our sufferings and to our weakness. He is the Christ-child of Bethlehem who was laid humble in a manger, who felt our human woe. Our Creator has come near to us. He has not cast us out of His presence. He has sought us out, joined our human race, , hidden His glory to bear our weakness and shame, borne our sins to the cross and buried them in the tomb, triumphed over death itself in His resurrection. This Lord, our Lord, is near. He will soon come to take us to be with Him forever, will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body, and put an end to all that grieves us in this life, our sins, the pains of our bodies, the fear of death.
And this joy is constant. Because He is constantly near us who trust His word. Rejoice in the Lord always. What we are about to celebrate on Christmas is not a seasonal joy, a joy that we get a few days a year during the holidays, an emotional high fueled by sentimentalism and sugar. No matter what the condition in your life, no matter whether you’re feeling particularly religious or particularly happy or whether it’s quite the opposite and you feel dirty or crumby, or your health is failing, or your friends have let you down, or you’ve made bad mistakes that you regret, the Lord is still near, He has still pledged Himself to you, and His love for you is not determined by the changing circumstances of your life or your fickle emotions. No He has already committed Himself to you, already drawn near, already named you an heir of heaven in your Baptism, promised to work all things, even the bad things, for the good of His Christians. So rejoice, and if you don’t feel like rejoicing, don’t worry, it can’t be forced, it won’t be forced, only sit down and read His Word, think how you are a citizen of heaven, think how dearly God must love you since He whose sandal strap you are not worthy to touch comes near to you and feeds you with His own body and blood. Don’t try to cheer yourself. Let this Word rejoice your soul, even if for a little while you have to feel this world’s sadness. This is nothing compared to the things your Lord has prepared for you, His beloved.
Rejoice in the Lord. But to others, those around you, let your gentleness be known to all of them. Our translation says, “Let your reasonableness be known to all.” That could give quite the wrong impression, as if you’re supposed to show people how logical and well-reasoned all your decisions are. That’s not the point at all. The word is translated “gentleness” in the King James and that’s better. The Greek epieikeia means actually a sense of mercy, a kindness toward others that doesn’t appoint ourselves as their judge, doesn’t insist on our own right, doesn’t demand strict and unbridled justice, but is always more ready to forgive and cover up faults. Because the Lord is at hand. The Lord who has forgiven me. The Lord who has not held my sins against me.
The picture is what Jesus paints with the unforgiving servant, who is forgiven a ridiculous debt of 10,000 talents, billions of dollars, and then goes and demands a measly debt from his fellow servant. This is impossible for the Christian. If we live in joy toward God, we necessarily live in gentleness toward our fellow Christians. This is why Paul can tell husbands to love their wives and wives to submit to their husbands. Why he can tell masters to be kind to their slaves and slaves to respect their masters. This is always because we have all been bought at the same price, we are all equal inheritors, heirs of God, and no matter what other distinctions may mark us in this life, still there is this basic equality before God our Redeemer. So just before our epistle reading, Paul reminds us all, man, woman, child, free, slave, Jew, Gentile, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” This is what we all look forward to. Together. The Lord is near. Our goal is not glory on earth, not to get more and more wealth, not to assert our right and our privilege over others. Our goal is to see our Savior. It is our common goal. In heaven I will not assert my privilege over yours but will instead find my joy in your joy, in your advantage, will love you truly as myself as we love God above all things. And heaven is my citizenship now, and yours, now. So we are gentle toward one another. Between Christians there can be no lasting animosity, no nurtured hatred, no thirst for vengeance. We are children of God. Children may bicker, but at the end of the day they are brothers and sisters, they kiss and make up, they forgive and encourage, they are marked by the joy of knowing the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And we live in peace. Not only with God and with others, but with ourselves. The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. The peace of God keeps, it guards, it protects our hearts and our minds, our very thoughts. What does this mean? This peace is a precious thing, worth more than all the treasures of the world. You can have the money of Bill Gates, have everything this world has to offer, and yet live with a scarred conscience and an uneasy mind, not only not right with God, and not right with your closest neighbor, but not even right with yourself. And here I’m not talking about learning to forgive yourself or learning to love yourself and accept yourself as you really are, all the pop psychological advice of our time, which is popular now but will be replaced with the next hip trend in the years to come.
I’m talking about real peace of conscience and real calming of our troubled thoughts. I’m talking about the worth God Himself puts on you, the love God Himself has for you. The Lord is near. He’s really forgiven you. Don’t worry yourself over any past sin. He is sincere and serious. It is drowned in the depths of the sea, paid for with the blood of God. The Lord is near. He is in control of everything, nothing happens without His permission, He is abounding in steadfast love, and will work even evil to good, as He has shown you by His crucifixion, the greatest evil ever committed, God tortured and dead, yet the greatest good imaginable, the love of God that bought our happiness and communion with Him and gives us life, true life, forever. Let this give peace to your mind whenever the evil of this world troubles your heart and your thoughts. The Lord is near. He wants to hear your prayers. If you have cares and if you are anxious about anything, give them to Him, let your requests be made known to Him. He is near. He was serious when He said, Ask and you will receive that your joy may be full; serious when he said, My peace I give to you.
Because the Word of Christmas is not weak. No, our God became a weak little baby. And in that little bundle of human flesh and blood was held all the hope of all the world. As soon as he showed his precious little face to the world and the angels sang his birth, it was all as good as done, because God’s purposes never fail and His promises are always kept. This is why Christmas is so precious to us. That God came to us then, that He drew near then, means without any doubt that He is near us now, as He promised, and the time is near that we will see Him face to face. Already we are citizens of heaven. Already He is nearer to us than we can understand. Already we are one flesh with Him, one body with one Head. His peace surpasses our thoughts and so it will guard and keep our hearts in devotion to our Lord and Savior and in gentleness as we bear His yoke. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, Rejoice. Amen.