Readings Malachi 3.1-4.4, Philippians 4.4-7
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
This evening’s rather pithy second reading is supplied by Paul’s equally pithy letter to the Philippians. At just over three pages long (compared to, say, the fifteen pages of his letter to the Romans), it’s recognisable as a letter, something that a modern letter-writer (if any still exist) might conceivably write. Who is Paul writing to? To a church in the Roman colony of Philippi, in northernGreece. Where is he writing from? From a close reading of this and others letters of Paul’s, and with a bit of educated guesswork about how fast people could travel in those days, we can say the postmark is probably ‘Ephesus’, in modern Turkey, where Paul has time to write because he is in prison.
Now if someone writes to you from prison, their words have a certain weight. Paul finds captivity a place in which to put into words what ultimately matters in life, and what words they are. Tonight’s are poetic. They have been set to music, and they supply the words of the blessing at the end of this service. As ever, though, Paul sets his ‘timeless’ words in the middle of very practical advice, directed here to a church that is in danger of splitting over a number of issues. The whole letter stresses the provisional nature of this life. I’m in prison, says Paul at the start, but that doesn’t matter, because I know Christ; in fact I’d rather die and be with him, though the Lord may have other plans for me here; and for us all, our citizenship is in heaven (this, mind, in a place where Roman citizenship is prized) and it is from here we await the coming of our Saviour (1.21-24, 3.20). What does he think is about to happen that makes everything so provisional? It seems that Paul thinks that, because of Jesus, the decisive intervention by God (prophesied by Malachi in our first reading) is now very close: you can endure all sorts of things because ‘the Lord is near’ (4.5), just as a prisoner might put up with all sorts of things because the day of release is close.
Now imagine Paul somehow propelled through time from his prison cell to this church. What will he make of us? I fear he will find us lukewarm (who of us can say, ‘I would rather die and be with Christ’?), and he’ll be shocked that most of us don’t write letters anymore. But I think he’ll be more shocked by the discovery that, in our world, people are still getting sick and suffering unfairly, that wars still happen and disasters still strike. He will see that, between his time and ours, history has gone on without that decisive, so-big-you-can’t-miss-it intervention from God, the hope for which gave such voltage to Paul’s own faith. In the light of that, he might salute us for still being followers of Jesus in such confusing times.
‘The Lord is near!’ Paul’s terrific words are one of the refrains of this season of Advent but, nearly twenty centuries later, we don’t hear them as his first readers did. So should we just junk them, because we’ve been waiting a long time and the Lord still hasn’t arrived? No; for at least two reasons. First, a lot in the New Testament suggests that counting the days and hours is not the point: ‘No-one knows when it will happen,’ says Jesus in the passage we had on Advent Sunday (Mark 13.32). Secondly, discard these awkward verses, and you cut the nerve of Christian urgency. And anyway, how does Paul advise his readers to wait for the coming of the Lord, who he thinks is so near? Not by behaving like some loony cult, but by cultivating the things that help you live well at all times: being joyful and gentle; not getting sucked into anxiety; praying – talking and listening to God – when in need. And the fruit of this cultivation, says Paul, is peace (4.4-6, 7).
There’s a way we talk about peace which suggests that it is brittle, easily shattered by ringing telephones, grizzling kids or your neighbour’s devotion to Death Metal music. We talk about ‘peace and quiet’, which you find by getting away from the world and its goings-on. Paul’s peace is tougher. He says it can ‘guard your heart and your mind’ (4.7): it can defend you from the assaults of an unpeaceful world. Good stuff, then, and worth having in the middle of an anxious world like ours; it sounds like peace that indeed ‘passes all understanding’ (4.7), a peace which is a gift from God.
Christian urgency. The big themes of Advent – death and judgement, heaven and hell, what we hope for in God, what God is trying to achieve in us – these get no less urgent as time goes by. And God wants us to face our crises, the times of judgement in our age, with that same strong peace. Yesterday I was speaking to someone who recently came to faith. He runs a scaffolding firm, and it was doing really well a while back. Now the bad times have come to us, however, the firm is not immune. ‘I used to live for the business,’ he said, ‘but since I found God, though the busines has got tougher I just don’t worry so much.’ Strong peace.
And what of the public crises? People in Brussels have been labouring and wrangling over how to save the Euro and the livelihoods of the millions it affects, while others in Durban have been doing the same over how to save the planet from overheating. You may have noticed how many have forgotten about ecology in worrying about the economy, a piece of folly described by one commentator as stooping under an oncoming steamroller to pick up a five-pound note. Of course, the imminent prospect of losing job or home is mesmerising, it crowds out all else; and it is easy for me to talk like this, when I have perhaps one of the more secure jobs in Richmond. Yet Paul the prisoner will tell us that it is precisely at the moment of imminent danger that you need to ask yourself what ultimately matters. If we look at things with Paul’s bifocal vision, it may even help us to see that these two concerns – economic meltdown and a melting planet – might be peas in the same pod, symptoms of the same thing: living on the never-never, a culture of debt (some of it good and necessary, some of it toxic), with borrowing not just from banks but from the planet itself. Paul will urge us to wrestle with all this, but he will add: ‘and you can do it not with anxiety at your core but peace.’
Where does this sense-defying peace come from? Jesus, the Prince of Peace, has it. You see it as the gospels tell the stories of his life and ministry. It comes from a radical trust in the one he calls his Father, the one he sees at all times, even in terror and death, even in the despair of a failure’s death on a cross. This peace of Jesus is ‘an anchorage, a firm point, a still pivot’, an immoveable core of life that comes from being sure; not sure of yourself, but sure that God says Yes to you, sure that nothing, now or in the future, can cancel that simple word of love and welcome. Jesus has it intrinsically, and somehow he passes it on to Paul. So, earlier in his letter, he can write,
To me, living is Christ.
I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ…because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(1.21, 3.8,12, 1.2)
These are just words, or course. Yet when someone speaks to you from prison, their words have a certain weight.
An anchorage…: Rowan Williams, The Truce of God, 1983 edition, p.76.