September 12, 2021: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Carolyn Eklund

Year C; Advent 3; 12.12.2021

Philippians 4:4-7

“Rejoice!” is the word for today. We are rejoicing in our reunion. I’ve missed you!

We are rejoicing as we worship indoors. Thank you, Katie and our leaders for making that possible. Thank you for making my time away possible.

Traditionally, the Third Sunday of Advent is called, “Rejoicing Sunday” after that wonderful passage St. Paul wrote to the beloved community of the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord. Always, I say rejoice!”

As these late autumn days continue to darken, the brighter theme of this third Sunday of Advent gives us a glimpse of light and joy. We are invited not to lose heart as the pandemic continues to claim more infections in people. We are invited not to lose heart in the face of unspeakable loss from recent tornadoes. There are always many threats on the horizon, it seems.

It doesn’t help that the literal darkness of late autumn comes rapidly upon us in in Maine. You may know that I just returned from living in a cottage Downeast, not far from Machias. My sister who visited me from San Diego discovered how quickly the sun sets this time of year in Maine. Each day I drove us to a new, beautiful area in Maine, Cadillac Mountain, Bar Harbor and Quoddy Head Lighthouse. And each day, we joked about how panicked we began to feel when the sun was too low in the sky way too early for it to be getting dark.  We would laugh as we headed home at 2:30 in the afternoon in “mock panic,” still knowing that hours of darkness at the cottage waited for us before bedtime!

We Episcopalians light candles for our weekly observance of Advent as we make our hearts ready for God in Christ to come among us on Christmas. The weekly candle lighting helps us hope in the darkness. I think it’s worth asking, as uncertainty and darkness threaten to take hold these days, “Can we hope for joy, even in darkness, even in hard news and future fears?” “Are we being silly to have a tradition of ‘Rejoicing Sunday’ even when we may feel sad, uncertain, overwhelmed and threatened?”

The Apostle Paul could have asked himself the same questions as he wrote his Letter to the Philippians. “Am I being silly to write ‘Rejoice in the Lord…?’ when I know that there are real threats of division and bad actors trying to undermine the good news of Christ I’m teaching?” On the surface, it might seem that his command to “rejoice” isn’t much. Like the way we might say, “Have a nice day.” But there is more heft behind his command to rejoice. He is writing “Rejoice” from prison. Indeed, he has been imprisoned multiple times, rejected, betrayed, beaten and shipwrecked.

He writes, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”

Some scholars believe that he wrote this letter from prison in Ephesus where scholar N. T. Wright suggests that he received a terrible personal blow and likely a threat to his life. And we know from Acts chapter 16 that he was thrown into prison in Philippi with his companion Silas after the first few months of his preaching and teaching there. Philippi was a Roman province of mostly military families who had been given land and homes there in Macedonia for serving Rome.

The Philippians were not wealthy. They were not arrogant. They were one of the treasured communities Paul founded. That’s why I loved visiting the ruins of Philippi in Greece as part of my pilgrimage in the “Footsteps of Paul and John.” The World Heritage archaeological site of Philippi is now unearthed. It looked like rubble until our guide showed us the outline of many of the structures from the Roman era. We sat in the ruins of the “theater” where I’m sure Paul spoke to the people. We took out our devices and turned to Acts 16, the story of Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi. Paul cast out the divining demon from the slave girl. Her owners were furious because that meant a huge loss of income for them.

So, they had Paul and Silas beaten. Then they dragged Paul and Silas before the “magistrates.” Our Greek tour guide took us to the ruins of the agora and showed us the exact place where Paul would have been grilled by the “magistrates.” Our guide said that this particular Roman province was probably run by the generals of the Roman army. As we read Acts 16, our tour guide instructed us to read “generals” instead of the word “magistrates.”  That made Paul’s prison sentence in Philippi seem even more ominous in our reading.

Our guide pointed out the traditional place in the side of the hill where there was a sign that read, “Paul’s prison.” This is the prison that Paul and Silas joyfully sang hymns all night until an earthquake shook the prison doors and opened them. They had been beaten and dragged before the generals before they were thrown into prison and they still sang hymns!

With the prison doors open, the guard assumed that they had escaped, and prepared to kill himself. Instead, Paul called to him and shared with him the hope, forgiveness and joy of the gospel of Christ. That Roman guard asked Paul to baptize him and his family.

So, Paul’s command to “rejoice” is not empty, shallow or sentimental. It comes from the depth of experiencing God’s power in suffering and then trusting in that power. One scholar observes, “Paul writes from prison and is uncertain of the outcome for himself. The themes of opposition and the possibility of death are therefore prominent. Yet in the midst of suffering and uncertainty, [his] joy emerges quite clearly and remarkably.”

My friends, we can trust him when he commands us to “Rejoice!”

During my stay at the cottage Downeast, my dear, darling dog Sophie suffered a catastrophic neurological incident from which she couldn’t recover. I found a veterinary clinic in Milbridge and made an appointment to have her euthanized. I held Sophie in my arms and cried all afternoon while I waited to carry her to the car for the appointment. It was the first week of Advent and I had watched Washington National Cathedral Advent Lessons and Carols that Sunday. I sang every hymn with the choir.

Over the course of the afternoon, Sophie began to moan in pain. I held her tighter and tighter. Nothing calmed her or me. Then, I remembered how much I loved singing those Advent hymns. I sang, “Come thou long expected Jesus.” I sang, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending…” Finally, I sang my favorite, “Comfort, comfort ye my people…” And, at that hymn, Sophie stopped moaning and began to rest calmly. She and I were at peace when she died in my arms that afternoon at the vet clinic. Calling on Jesus in my hymn singing to “come” brought light into my sadness.

We believe the truth that God IS near, and that God answers our prayers. “Comfort, Comfort ye my people…comfort those who sit in darkness, groaning from their sorrows load.” For this comfort, we rejoice. And today, I rejoice in our reunion and give thanks to God for the love we share at St. Paul’s.