Advent 4 Sermon, 2018
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
I have regularly attended—and I mean, over a period of at least several months, I have attended weekly—services in churches of the Lutheran confession in Sikeston and Fayette, Missouri; London, England; two in Fort Wayne, Indiana; one in Mobile, Alabama; Golconda, Illinois and now, Girard, Illinois.
I have visited, for a service or two, many and various Lutheran churches in California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Texas.
I’ve seen what’s called contemporary worship. I’ve heard a sermon—in a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod church—delivered by a woman. I’ve seen a corps of acolytes who enjoy talking about how to hold their hands during certain parts of the service. I’ve heard terrible two minute sermons and outstanding forty-five minute sermons—and vice-versa.
I don’t know if my experience is similar to your experience, but I have observed in a short time an obvious disparity in what we call “synod,” which means something like “walking together” or “together on the way.”
There’s a lot of walking. And many ways. But perhaps not that much of it “together.”
And here’s one argument as to why that is.
From those who desire uniformity of doctrine and practice, I’ve heard arguments like this: “It was done this way here, here, and here in history, and there’s no reason for it to be different here. So we’re going to be the same.”
And, from those who argue that doctrine divides and love unites, I’ve heard: “It’s true that Scripture speaks that way. It’s true the Lutheran Confessions speak that way. It’s true that it was that way there and then. But—that’s only descriptive of then—not proscriptive for now.”
The difference between “descriptive” and “proscriptive” is easy if you compare it like this:
If you describe a way to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you’re neither saying “Do it like this” nor “Don’t do it like this.” You’re simply describing a way.
But if you proscribe a way to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you are, by definition, excluding some options. To proscribe is to forbid some things and require others.
So, for example, in Article XXIV of the Augsburg Confession, On the Mass, it’s written: “No noticeable changes have been made in the public celebration of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung alongside the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people. For after all, all ceremonies should serve the purpose of teaching the people what they need to know about Christ” (AC XXIV, 2-3).
Some will read that and say, “Good. Let’s do away with all the frivolity and get back to how it was and should be.” And some will say, “Not so fast, this describes how it was then, but it doesn’t proscribe how it should be now. This doesn’t require of us anything.”
Hopefully, you see the problem.
And hopefully, you see how ludicrous it is to argue that Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions are only descriptive.
If it’s descriptive of what is meet, right, and salutary, then it is proscriptive.
But the Epistle lesson tonight gives us a more specific example of what I mean. From Philippians chapter four: ”Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4:5).
Before you get the idea that Sts. Paul and Timothy not only want you to be reasonable people but that your reasonableness be known to everyone, realize that this Epistle wasn’t written to you but to the Christian church in Philippi.
Chapter one, verse one: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers, and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:1-2).
(And you can be sure that they all said “Amen!” when this was read to them.)
But did you hear it—this wasn’t written to you, so not only do you have to bother reading it, you don’t have to be reasonable people, and you certainly don’t have to let your reasonableness be known to everyone.
Right now’s not a good time for anybody to leave, tune out, or fall asleep, because—so far—what I’ve said is not true, but I’ve said it that way so you can hear how false it sounds to argue this way.
You know, just as well as I do, that what is true is true for all. 2 + 2 = 4. And that’s true everywhere, everywhen. And anyone can do that. Nothing has to change for that to be true. That’s Truth according to math.
Here’s Truth according to nature: marriage is the union of one man and one woman, for the procreation of children, for life. That’s true everywhere, everywhen. And anyone can get married. Nothing has to change for that to be true.
But “homosexual marriage” is not marriage, because you have to change all the parameters. Two no longer equals two, but we’re still told that —2 + 2 = 4. It lacks the necessities of marriage: it’s not male and female, it doesn’t exist for the procreation of children and, as has been seen since legalized, it’s hardly ever for life.
That’s the truth according to nature, and, of course, there’s the truth according to the Word of God. Jesus defines marriage as a man being joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh (cf. Matthew 19:1-12).
When Paul writes to the church in Philippi, he does address them directly. They are peculiar in their reasonableness, and he exhorts them specifically to be reasonable to everyone.
But you know as well as I do that the Epistles were read and passed around. What’s true is true, whether St. Paul writes to you from prison himself or you hear it from a child years later.
If you read a newspaper and share the news with your friend, what’s true in the paper is still true.
So when we read St. Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi—or the Lutheran Confessions, or the newspaper—what was true for them is true for us.
You’re to be reasonable—not unreasonable. You’re to listen to reason. And not be swept along by emotion or inertia or apathy.
We can go through the entire Epistle lesson and take each verse as an exhortation to Christian living:
You are to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say it, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
You are to “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4:5).
You are not to “be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
And that’s remarkable.
Be not anxious.
And the difference there is that prayer is to God alone and supplications can be made to God and man. So we pray to God for our salvation. And we, supplicants, ask for help from each other and from God. But we do not ask our friends for salvation. We do ask our friends for bread. We do ask our God for salvation. And we do ask our God for daily bread. He gives us friends, sometimes, to provide our daily bread.
It’s as if St. Paul says, “Don’t be anxious because God has seen to it that you will have everything you need for this body and life. But by all means pray, that your Father in heaven sees and hears your faith. And by all means ask your friends for help, that they may see what good, Christian, and pious humility looks like so that when they’re in need, they can turn to you for help and to Christ.”
And always with thanksgiving, whether your have what you want or only what you need.
That verse is remarkable. And it’s true for us just as much as it was true for the Christians at Philippi.
And finally, “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
This is not a “will..eventually” but a “will…certainly”.
We’re not waiting for the peace of God.
We have it.
Grace to you all, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord, Jesus Christ.
To which we reply—amen! Indeed.
But let’s ask the tough question.
Let’s ask the doubter’s question.
How do you know that St. Paul, who writes to the church in Philippi, how do you know he means these words for me?
If these verses are only descriptive, who cares? They may as well be marked as fiction.
And if they’re proscriptive, how do you know? He doesn’t make that clear.
Oh, but he does.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:4-5).
The Lord is at hand.
The Lord is near.
This is both a warning and a promise.
Why should we let our reasonableness be known to others? Why should we supplicate our friends for bread?
The Lord is near.
You can’t do it yourself, whether it’s salvation or bread, you can’t.
And when you ask for help, when you admit you don’t know, when you seek to learn, when you don’t insist on your own ways, when you sit at the feet of some or admit to standing on the shoulders of others, you serve as a good and godly example.
The Lord is at hand is a warning for us not to think too highly of ourselves. Don’t overestimate your own importance. That’s kind of a downer way to say it, so how about: The Lord saves.
The Lord alone saves.
And if that’s true, and the Lord is at hand, that’s a warning to straighten up. To be ready. To believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
But “The Lord is at hand” is also a blessing.
It answer the question “why” to all of the other verses.
Why rejoice in the Lord always? The Lord, Jesus the Christ, is at hand. And for all who believe in Him, He will lift them up, take their cross, and welcome them to life eternal.
How can we not be anxious? The Lord is at hand. “The strife is o’er, the battle done; the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun. Alleluia!”
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
This Lord and God of ours is at hand. He is near to us now to unite us in His Word, feed us with His Sacrament, and send us on our way, in peace and joy, with sins forgiven.
The Lord is at hand.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!