We have seen all sorts of really traumatic and difficult things over this past year and it would not be difficult to become anxious and depressed. Yet we have also seen things that encourage and bring hope such as the rescue of the soccer team boys in Thailand. So as the stress and hectic rush leading to Christmas begins to overwhelm us, we are reminded in scripture not to be anxious. The Apostle Paul tells us not to be anxious—not to worry—about anything. But we tend to be people who worry about everything.
We worry about what will happen if someone doesn’t show up for the big family Christmas dinner (and also about what might happen if they do!). We worry about getting into the right school or university and about the financial aid package coming through. We worry about the cancer coming back and about our company being bought out. We worry about the security of our jobs and the safety of our kids. The congregation I serve has had a difficult year with the death of a number of deeply faithful and involved members who had been part of the fellowship for 30 to 40 years and the distraction of problems with the local Council. I would not be surprised if a number of our members were worried about what the future will bring and how long we can last as an entity despite over 150 years of life as a congregation.
With so much to worry about, how is it that St Paul of Tarsus can tell us not to worry and not to be anxious? When Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in his Nazi prison cell, he penned a poem that included these words to the effect that we fearlessly wait, come what may, because God is with us on every new day. St Paul, writing to the church in Philippi from his own prison cell, says something similar. Why is it that we need not be anxious or afraid? Is it because whatever we are worried about is really “no big deal”? Or because God guarantees that everything will turn out for the best? Or even because God won’t give us any more hardship or pain than we can handle?
No. St Paul says that we need not be anxious or afraid because “the Lord is near.” That is the good news to which everything else in this text is tethered. “The Lord (our God) is near,” even while we wait for him to come in all his fullness. In fact, St Paul says, he is as close as a prayer. And when God’s children take their worries and anxieties to the Lord in prayer, he will exchange their anxiety for his peace and calm their worried hearts with his love.
The sight of a mother cradling a squirming child in her arms and singing lullabies over him until he finally goes limp may be one of the sweetest and most serene things we can witness in this life. It’s a scene as old as time, and perhaps it is what the prophet Zephaniah had in mind when he wrote one of the final (and most famous!) verses of his book: “The LORD your God is in your midst …. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). When heard in the context of the other lectionary passages for the Third Sunday of Advent, God’s often anxious and worried children can receive these words as an invitation to climb into the lap of their heavenly parent so that our heavenly parent might sooth them with the songs of his love and care.
Then, having heard these songs, they might offer him one of their own, perhaps borrowing words from the prophet Isaiah: “God is indeed my salvation; I will trust and won’t be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2). While the Apostle Paul seems to be doing everything, he can to free us from anxiety, John the Baptist seems to be doing everything he can to create anxiety in us. John’s words are so full of alarm, he seems so determined to set us on edge. For John, the news that “the Lord is near” is not only a promise that ought to comfort the afflicted. It is also a promise that ought to afflict the comfortable!