These verses from Paul’s inspiring prison epistle come close to hitting just about every Advent theme there is.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made to known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Let’s just count those Advent themes, shall we?
- Joy (Rejoice)
- The coming of the Lord (The Lord is at hand–literally, ‘the Lord is near’)
Some might quibble with the inclusion of love, but Paul references ‘hearts’ in verse 7 and even uses along with ‘minds’ as two different things-cognitive and affective. This indicates he is speaking about love. The words ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ are missing, but they can be deduced through the activity of prayer, which is faith in action, so to speak. Hope is about the future, which is where the passage goes in terms of God’s peace guarding our hearts and minds.
Now, let’s make another list. Let’s make a list of the things that can make us anxious during the Advent season leading up to Christmas?
- Gift buying
- Gift receiving
- Money problems
- Health Issues
- Busy Activities
- Bing Crosby
- Elf on the Shelf
- Pressure to cook
- Weight gain
- Schedule interruption/loss of routine
- Christmas cards
- Christmas parties
- Christmas trees
- Christmas music
That is a quick list, but hardly exhaustive, amiright?
If I were preaching this passage this Sunday (I am not), the bulk of the sermon would live with that idea-what makes us anxious. I’d spend considerable oxygen on seasonal anxiety but then I would shift to anxiety in general and perhaps have our congregation daydream with me about a warm day in June and the anxieties there.
- Vacation plans
- Plane tickets
- Graduation Parties
- College Issues (there are about a hundred that go with this)
- Juggling schedules at work
- Children getting out of school
- Mowing the grass/yard work (this is a high source of anxiety for me, personally)
- Church activities
- Air conditioner broken
- New tires for the car
- Dropped phone in the lake/fountain/toilet
- Dog’s veterinary visit
- Frenemies at work (textually, this is close to the source of anxiety in Philippi, c/f 4:2)
You can see anxiety is not just a seasonal issue. It is continual and always with us. Having made that point, I would then pull from the text two different aspects that Paul seems to offer as solutions.
The first one is prayer. Whatever makes us anxious is an issue of prayer. Certainly this means focusing on these things when we pray, but it probably also means letting the moments of anxiety themselves become prayer opportunities. When the crowd makes me nervous it will help if I center myself and pray in that moment. This practice makes the awarenesses that “The Lord is near” more relevant than ever. His presence, his Immanuel, can help with anxiety.
But he seems to give us more than prayer to work with. Paul says that we should let our ‘reasonableness’ be known. The ESV chooses reasonableness as the rendering, but ‘gentleness’ has a fine tradition for interpretation, and the word could even indicate ‘graciousness.’ One of my favorite little Greek New Testament tools indicates ‘considerate’ as a baseline meaning. When you have this kind of word soup for options, I find it nice to put them in a blender and hit puree. What we get at is the concept people should not be jerks and take whatever actions are relevant to ease anxiety, whether it is their own or someone else’s. In our modern context, I take that to mean enjoying the science-based evidence that medication, therapy, a psychologist, meditation, or any other treatment that might help is in play here. It is only reasonable. Some people face anxiety in different ways than others. This could be as much biochemistry as it is spiritual. That doesn’t mean you stop praying, though. It means you let your faith and reasonable activities partner together to help you enjoy the peace that guards your hearts and minds.