So, the Apostle Paul is in prison and he writes to people who care about him and know that he's getting a bum rap. I hear him saying, "Rejoice with me. Not because I think I'm getting out soon. I may die in here. The food here is consistently awful. It's damp and there are rats. But, Rejoice. Why? Jesus is near. And Jesus is coming again soon. And because right now in my prison cell he is near to me. I can rejoice even here." This is the deep message of Advent. One that so often gets lost in the tinsel and jingle of our holiday preparations. Jesus hasn't magically made things better. In fact, Paul was much worse off for having come to know Jesus. But, Jesus being near is our joy, our light in the darkness, our hope even in prison.
This is the deep message of life. It is not our circumstances that make us joyful. It is our connection to what is life-giving, eternal, and true. When we find Jesus -- that is, really find Jesus, then our hope becomes real, even in a prison cell. We hear this in the prophets of old, a voice cries out of the dry, desolate, isolated, wilderness saying, "Comfort, comfort my people, God is near." That passage in Isaiah chapter 40, speaks of a road being built, a highway for our travel with God. It doesn't say that this smooth road already exists for us in our lives. We are still broken, desolate, separated from the things we think we need to have. We are still refugees in this world. But, God is near.
And again, "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned... [and they] rejoice." (Isaiah 9:2, 3). Paul has to acknowledge the reality of his prison cell. Isaiah has to admit that God's people are in darkness. We have to say that this is for many of us, the most depressing time of the year -- at least I find it the most inconvenient and disruptive time for my attempts to live within my means. Our spiritual lives are under brutal attack in these weeks before Christmas. But... Rejoice, Jesus is near. God is building a highway for us to travel with together with him.
Got that? Then you are ready to hear what Paul says next in Philippians 4. He says that we should become gentle people -- the Greek word here means to be persistently kind and compassionate. The kind of goodness that doesn't rub off no matter how badly people treat you. Why should we be this way? Paul says because, "the Lord is near." One translation puts it "at hand." So hold out your arm. Look how close that hand is to you. Jesus is at your hand. Rejoice. Be unstoppably gentle.