I preached this reflection for my Lay Leadership of Prayer and Preaching class. My group led Evening Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent (except we did it on Monday during class, so not exactly Sunday).
Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
True life confession, I find these words of scripture offensive. My high school self, on-fire with the faith for the first time, on the other hand, found them inspiring and encouraging. I reveled in the thought of a God that could take away all my anxiety, the thought of rejoicing in the Lord, always.
But not anymore. I still revel in the thought and the possibility, but now, these words mostly feel like weight and pressure, at least at first glance. The freedom in them is a bit harder to understand. The simplicity of “do not be anxious” came into question pretty quickly as life progressed after those first high school days of on-fire faith. I realized it wasn’t so simple. Life gives us too many reasons to be anxious.
I’m not a parent myself but my friends and mentors tell me it can be like your heart is walking around outside of your body. The anxiety that Nancy must have felt as she got the frantic call in the middle of the night about her daughter in the ER is not easily remedied by a Bible verse. Or I think of my friends who have partners or children in the military, who feel their precarious absence so sharply, and who pray for their safe return every day, knowing that that it is not a given. Or the parents in some areas of our own beloved city who fear letting their children play outside because the warzone is not across the pond but more like across the street. I have friends with anxiety disorders, some of the most faith-filled people I know whose brains sometimes need more than prayer to help overcome the pervasive anxiety that disrupts their daily lives. I too, have known what it means to have the anxiety get to be just too much, when my body has had enough and a sudden anxiety attack overcomes. And I have felt the failure of those moments. A warm wash of shame and failure that could potentially be compounded by a platitude. “Have no anxiety at all.”
But how to not be anxious? You see the news. You know what it’s like to wait for a diagnosis for yourself or a loved one. You have probably missed someone so much that your whole body aches. Do not be anxious? Easier said than done, Thank you St. Paul.
Is our faith just too weak? To this I want to declare an emphatic “NO.” The darkness of these winter nights during this season of Advent can all too often mirror the darkness and anxiety we live through in our lives. But. St Paul says more than just “Do not be anxious” in his letter. He reminds the Philippians that the Lord is near. He doesn’t offer a platitude like I thought; he offers a person, a relationship. The Lord is near. To the Philippians, they probably thought this meant to not be anxious about the Lord’s second coming, but here we are 2000 years later and we know that the Lord is near in another way. We are preparing again to celebrate the miracle of God with us, of God become human so as to be as near to us as our own humanity.
And how do we know this? Thanksgiving. Not our recent holiday, but the action. “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” This is how we know the Lord is with us. We count the ways daily. We don’t relegate giving thanks to that holiday to this past Thursday. Instead, we let that reminder of our Thanksgiving holiday, here in the States at least, serendipitously lead us into the Advent season, making the radical decision to choose gratitude amidst the messes and anxieties of life. It is not preexisting joy that makes us grateful but gratitude that makes us joyful. And this joy is the awareness of God at work in our lives. A God who loves us so much that he became one of us. She is a God who does not leave us alone in our suffering, but instead, becomes the light in our darkness (motion to paschal candle).
Thanksgiving is the key. Thanksgiving is the way to know that the Lord is near and we can rejoice. Anxiety does not have the final say. Thanksgiving…for everything. The good and the bad. For the smile of the baby across the church, for gentle snowfall, for your daughter’s surgeon and for your son’s safe return from Iraq or from maybe just from school. But we also sometimes give thanks for those hard things in our lives because we know that they are all areas that while God did not choose them, God meets us right there in them and they are things which God can redeem. Nothing is outside of God’s grace. Nothing—outside of God’s redeeming love. The Lord is near.
So maybe I reject St. Paul’s words too quickly. They are not an offensive platitude but they offer a relationship with a God who is with us. The two words of “thank you” keep us in relationship with the God who can handle my anxiety and yours. They keep me in touch with God, who is our peace, a surpassing truth deeper than the passing anxiety of the details of our lives. I’m sure that Mary had more than a little anxiety facing her family after becoming pregnant without being married, more than a little anxiety carrying Jesus in her womb for nine months, traveling to unfamiliar land for a census, and then unexpectedly giving birth in stable. She nevertheless knew, her Lord was near. “Have no anxiety at all” is not an impossible platitude, but instead an offer of a deeper peace and a lasting joy amidst the messes of our lives.
Maybe this is why Master Eickhart said that if the only prayer we ever said in our lives was ‘thank you’, that would be enough. ‘Thank you’ reminds us that the Lord is near. Like Mary this Advent season, we travel with wombs full of anxieties and hopes and expectations, let us say “thank you” to the One who is with us, the One who never leaves us to walk that road alone.