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Rejoice, the Lord is near

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. {5} Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. {6} Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. --Philippians 4:4-6

The nearness of God can a source of comfort or terror. There have been times, some are described in the Bible, when the nearness of God made people afraid. Could it be otherwise? Can you think of meeting God without any sense of fear? There was something quite special about that experience of people who could be at peace with the announcement, The Lord is near. Paul writing to the believers at Philippi is offering words of assurance: don't worry, do not be afraid, you have no need to be anxious, the Lord is near. You can take your concerns to him in prayer. Let him know. Do it with thanksgiving and you will receive a blessing. Here Paul gives us words of blessing that the church has used in worship ever since:

The blessing, which is a prayer, that the peace of God may guard your hearts and minds will be my prayer for you today. It is an inner blessing. No matter what is going on around you, that inner peace can be yours. It is a gift of God, and there is no magic formula which can produce it. The difference between prayer and magic is that in prayer we do not attempt to manipulate, but we make our requests and trust God to answer. Here we hope he will touch us in our hearts and minds. That is one way in which we are aware of the kingdom of God. Because it touches our innermost thoughts and feelings we sometimes say the kingdom of God is within you: but that brings us to a nice little question of balance.

The kingdom within or among us: personal or social peace?

There is a well known text which can be translated 'within' or 'among'.

His questioners were looking for the kingdom beyond the present situation, but the kingdom has come because the Messiah is present. It is present because Jesus is among them. That presence of the kingdom of God needs to be understood both personally and socially. There is a trap in giving an entirely personal meaning to the presence of the kingdom of God. To know within your own heart and mind the peace of God, to be in personal communion with God, is to know the presence of God and the rule of God in human life. It is a great gift of the Spirit of God. To have that intimate knowledge is a great blessing, but even in the most intimate devotion, as when Jesus prayed that his disciples would dwell in God and God in them (John 17), we are not God. There is no divinity in us. There is no part of us that is God. It would be idolatry to attempt to know God by getting to know ourselves, though we may well know ourselves better if we know God better.

There is a sense in which even when the Spirit of God dwells within us and joins with our spirit, God is still separate from us. Holiness is otherness, and the holiness of God is not compromised by his communion with us. If we forget this we may be tempted to act on our own desires as if they were the voice of God, and even to act as if we were God. Too much dwelling on the idea that the kingdom of God is within us can be a great spiritual danger leading to disruption of our relationship with God, at the same time separating us from other people. The emphasis should be on our relationship with God as a separate (holy) being. The right kind of relationship with God should lead us into the right kind of relationships with other people.

The peace that is known within a person reconciled to God needs also to be known in the person's relationships with others;

We all know this, of course. What needs to be recalled is that being reconciled to God, and knowing that peace which is his gift, is both personal and social. It is a question of 'both and' not 'either or'. Neither pietism nor social activism is a full and true response to the gospel - both can fall into the trap of trusting in our own goodness. If we seek only the inner personal peace we are inclined to make our piety into a kind of good work which entitles us to the reward; and if we rely upon the way in which we serve others we can equally tend to rely upon our own goodness for the blessings of God. So we need John's warnings to people who thought they could trust in themselves.

The stark warnings of John the Baptist

So, threatened, they sought a way out:-

So justice was required with repentance. It is not sufficient to seek a personal inner peace with God. Justice too was to be expected with the coming of the kingdom. John knew the promises from the prophets who preceded him. These extend to seeing new life and hope beyond the inner life of a person, not only into the person's relationships with others and to the affairs of nations, but even to have cause for rejoicing in the gifts of creation.

Modern people often find promises about nature less convincing than those about human social and political life. I would suggest that you should not be too quick to dismiss those ideas, just as we should not try too hard to rationalize miracles. After all if the Messiah was indeed the Lord of creation and if all things came into being through him, if it is his world after all, we should be not surprised if he is able to transform the whole created world, however it might be done. Indeed, belief in the goodness of God and his sovereignty is, I believe, one of the cultural foundations of science and its fruits in productivity; and if that belief is replaced by superstition, as it is for many today, with fatalistic fear of capricious gods and powers, then science and its benefits will decline. The main point is that nature, and human affairs which remain part of nature, are both being perfected by the coming of the kingdom, although its final completion, the full establishment of the reign of God, may well take place beyond our time. The 'end', however, which is the full establishment of the kingdom of God, is not so much the end of something, the world as we know it, in the sense of its termination, as it is the goal towards which it is being moved by God.

Isaiah 35 which speaks as we have seen of singing in the wilderness, continues (4-7a)

Zephaniah 3:19 is similar

John pointed to Jesus who fulfilled the promise

John the Baptist, in the tradition of these prophets, would have looked for signs such as those they spoke of that God was acting to bring in his kingdom, his rule, of justice and peace; and he would have expected that when the Messiah came his mighty acts would produce such signs. At first people thought John himself might be the Messiah because he spoke with great power of these things of God and called on people to prepare for them. But he pointed beyond himself to one who was to come after him.

Although he is remembered as having pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God (John 1:29,36), John, at one time later wanted to be assured that Jesus was indeed "the one who was to come"; so he sent messengers to ask.

You can see the signs of the Lord's coming as Isaiah had expected them: eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; {6} then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. The miracles of Jesus and his acts of compassion are signs of the kingdom. They have already begun to affect human life and they anticipate the new order of things that is promised at the end.

Application in our day

We are called:-

1. To live in the faith that God has come to us and continues to be with us. To see the world beyond breaking into this world, and giving us hope.

2. To believe that Jesus is the Messiah, our Lord and saviour, who overcomes separation from God and our fellow human beings, who banishes sin and death and gives us life.

3. To live in this world in peace, related to God in Christ through the work of the Spirit, knowing where we belong, and expecting fulfilment in the end.

So be of good courage. Be thankful that the peace of God is with us, within us and among us, for he has come in Christ to reconcile us to himself and to each other. It is something you can rely upon. Trusting God allows us to focus on the positive things without fear. It is then that we can rejoice that God is near. It is in that faith and trust that Paul's 'final' advice to the Philippians becomes a practical possibility.

An Advent hymn [Tune: St Olave, 66 66 66. AHB 154 , or Laudes Domini 666D AHB 151 TIS 227]

The Lord's Messiah comes;
God's kingdom to announce.
He calls us to repent,
and all our sins renounce.
His conquest over sin
now gives us peace within.

He breaks into our world,
the light of God to show,
all darkness to dispel,
all evil overthrow.
Let justice now be done,
new life on earth begun.

Lord of the end to come,
your praise we will repeat,
the world you came to save,
you will perfect, complete.
There no need to fear:
Rejoice, the Lord in near.

© David Beswick 1997 This hymn may be freely reproduced locally for use in worship, with acknowledgment, but not for any commercial purpose without permission.

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