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Every church I’ve ever served at or been a member in has had an Advent wreath, with its four candles ̧ as part of its tradition leading up to Christmas. There’s a lot of symbolism in the wreath. The wreath itself, usually made of evergreens, symbolizes life that doesn’t end. That aspect of the symbol is even older than its Christian use as evergreens in the dead and dark of winter have always brought thoughts of warmth and life. There’s no shame in acknowledging that Christians adopted that part of the symbolism for our own use in wreaths and Christmas trees.
But the symbolism of the four candles of the Advent wreath is uniquely Christian. And sadly, relatively unknown. In some Advents past, I’ve made the four candle themes the themes of our whole service. This year we don’t get to do that. Instead we’re keeping our focus on the roles Jesus fulfilled when he came and will complete when he comes again. Our theme, “Come, Lord Jesus” is perfect as we think of the dual theme of Christ’s first and second coming.
But as I looked at this short and familiar text from the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, it struck me how connected the two themes really are. Today we are remembering once again that Christ is a king like no other. The Almighty Creator of all things, King over all Kings and Lord over all Lords. Yet also the humble king who disguised his power at his birth and rode into Jerusalem to the cheers of children instead of the trumpets of might. When we consider the kind of king Christ is, it naturally leads us to the four promises of those Advent candles. So let’s consider Christ our King on this first Sunday in advent and realize the truth of these candles of promise. Christ our king brings us hope, peace, joy, and love.
Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians while under house arrest in Rome. He had languished in prison in Jerusalem for two years waiting to have his case heard until he finally requested a transfer of jurisdiction to Caesar himself in Rome. As a Roman citizen that was Paul’s right. But just because it was his right didn’t make it comfortable. Paul couldn’t go where he wanted to go. He couldn’t preach where he wanted to preach. He describes himself as “in chains for Christ” whether those chains were literal or figurative.
I can’t imagine that living in a Roman prison, even “just” a house arrest, lent itself to a great deal of hope. Sure, Paul “hoped” he would be seen more quickly in Rome. And I’m sure he “hoped” that he would be found innocent of the crimes the Jews had accused him of. We know from his writings that he “hoped” he would be set free and then he could visit some of the Christians he had been writing to. But Paul didn’t know. Not for sure. If you’ve been in a desperate situation, then you know how hard it can be to hold onto hope. Will my health return? Will my family be safe? Will it turn out in the end? We’ve all had times when hope was hard to hold onto.
Learn a lesson from the Apostle. Where did Paul find hope in prison? Look at verse 6. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Now, the Christian church didn’t schedule the date of Thanksgiving,
but it sure seemed to work out. We find hope by knowing that we can bring any prayer and petition to God. And we bring those prayers to him not to nag him or annoy him, but with hearts of thanksgiving for the prayers he’s already answered.
Hope comes from recognizing that God has not left us on our own in the past, and that we can trust he will not fail us in the future either. Think of the dual “Advents” of Jesus. In the last three weeks we’ve talked about Christ’s return on the Last Day. The great King over all things will come in power and majesty, and he will destroy every evil thing. He will bring complete and total justice as he judges the living and the dead. He will be surrounded by the angels and every knee will bow down before him. Yet you’ve heard and you know that day will not be one of terror for us, but hope delivered. Our hope for that future day is built on our trust in what Jesus did in the past. A cross where our sins were paid for. An empty tomb to prove victory over death. And scores of gentle interactions with sinners just like us that show us the heart of a Savior-King.
Is it any wonder that Paul tells us not to be anxious about anything. With our greatest need taken care of and our future set in glory, all the rest is just details. Painful details sometime. Heart-wrenching and tragic details. But not hopeless. Perhaps that is what makes the theme of the second candle so beyond our understanding. The second candle stands for Peace and in these famous words in verse seven, Paul reminds us that we don’t need to understand peace in order to have it. “The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” You’ve heard me say these words or a variation of them after every sermon, and countless other pastors choose to use this verse as a final blessing too. Knowing that our hope of heaven is certain means that our souls can be at peace. There’s room for real debate about what exactly this peace is. Is God the subject or the object of the peace? In other words, is it peace that God has, which we imitate, or peace which God gives? I think, as is often the case, it doesn’t matter that much because it boils down to the same thing. God is at peace with his plan for us. He’s redeemed us in Christ. He’s called us to faith. He will hold us until the end. And if God is at peace for us, what do we have to be afraid of. It’s a peace so complete and foreign to the world we live in that it is beyond our understanding. But being at peace with God’s plan in the face of worldly busyness and temptation and sorrow protects our faith (our “hearts and minds” if you will).
In a busy season of the year, it’s a timely reminder to look for peace in the place we know it can be found. You won’t find peace at the end of a “to-do” list that always finds more to be added to it. And you won’t find peace in getting exactly the right gift or making just the right plans. Peace comes from letting go, and trusting God. If all you do to prepare for Christmas in these next four weeks is to adopt that mindset, then you got Christmas right this year. You found exactly the kind of “peace on earth” the angels sang about that first Christmas night. Not peace with others, but peace with God. Peace with yourself.
Did you ever notice that the one candle of a different color is lit on the third week of the season? That candle is different because it marks a different kind of emotion. Not the quiet strength of hope or the invisible comfort of peace. The powerful rush of joy. Paul starts this whole closing part of his letter with a call to joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he says. “I will say it again: Rejoice!” Paul wants Christians to know that the natural outflow of hope and peace is joy. And not just any joy, but joy “in the Lord.” And here we find the connection between the advent candle themes and our worship theme. That title “Lord” tells us that the God who gives us hope and peace and joy is a king who is firmly in charge. This king is interested in our welfare and because he blesses us we have nothing to fear, no reason to worry, and every possible reason to be joyful.
This doesn’t mean that life is always a party of fun, but it does mean that as long as we have our eyes on Christ’s arrivals we’ll never find ourselves completely lost or down in the dumps. Perhaps you know that Martin Luther suffered from bouts of depression. One of my favorite stories from the life of
Luther was during one of those bouts. He was irritable, and upset and just plain grouchy. His wife Katie put on her black mourning clothes and went to sit in his office. When he asked who died she said that God himself must certainly be dead if Martin was so dismal and drear. Maybe a little overly dramatic, but it makes the point doesn’t it? As long as we have this King who delivers hope and peace, joy will never be too far away. Even if from time to time we need to remind and encourage one another to remember it.
So pastor, where do we find the connect to the last candle’s theme of “Love” in this text? It’s actually in verse six. Paul says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” It’s a little difficult to translate the word “gentleness” that Paul used in this section. It means being willing to give up your rights and privileges so that others may enjoy theirs. In short a gentle person will look to serve, not be served. And isn’t that the definition of real love? A gentleness that is evident to all, whether they are loving and kind to us or not. A love that is only possible for us to show because that’s exactly the kind of love our Savior-King showed to us first.
“Let your gentleness be evident to all” Paul says, “for the Lord is near.” That last phrase can be taken in so many ways, but all of them comforting. We can love others selflessly because Jesus is near to us right now. Always with us and always protecting us. And we can also love selflessly because the time of Jesus’ second coming is near to us. Closer with every day, even more certain than death and taxes. So this Advent season, as we light the candles in worship and as you see candles decorating our stores and homes, walk in the promises those candles proclaim. Live in certain hope of your eternal future. Rest in perfect peace, knowing God has you in his hands. Rejoice in all things because our King has come. And love with gentleness to all. Yes, Christmas and all of its hustle and bustle is near but so is the Lord. Rejoice in the peace of God. Amen.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.