THE Prayer Book Epistle reading for today, the Fourth Sunday in Advent, is a beautiful exhortation to faithful Christian prayer.
It comes from the Apostle Paul’s New Testament letter to the Christian church in 1st century Philippi:
‘Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing [translated in the 20th Century Revised Standard Version as “Have no anxiety about anything”]: but in every thing by prayer and thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4v4-7 – King James Version).
Fear can hold churches back in their calling to proclaim, live out and stand up for the biblical message of eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. So, Paul’s exhortation to the Philippian church to say No to fear and persist in faithful prayer with thanksgiving as he concludes his letter is consistent with his earlier command to them to ‘stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; and in nothing terrified by your adversaries’ (Philippians 1v27b-28a).
The Christians in Philippi were a persecuted minority in that overwhelmingly pagan city in Roman Macedonia. Paul himself was writing to them from prison where his faithful proclamation of the gospel had landed him.
But his attitude to his circumstances was exemplary. Paul had urged his Christian friends in Philippi: ‘But I would ye should understand, that the things which happened to me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; So that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places; and many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear’ (Philippians 1v12-14).
The word translated ‘palace’ is from the Greek for ‘praetorium’. In the city where Paul was imprisoned, possibly in Caesarea in Judea, hard-bitten Roman soldiers in the governor’s garrison had found out that the Apostle to the Gentiles was in prison because he was a servant of Christ, not for any crime.
If I lived in a country where Christians were imprisoned for their faith, I would struggle, perhaps especially on Christmas Eve, to follow Paul’s example. That is why I would need to turn to prayer with thanksgiving, as the Apostle exhorts, and rejoice in the promise that the peace of God which passes all human understanding will protect the Christian’s heart and mind through the Messiah, made known in the gospel as Jesus.
Although the churches in Britain face nothing like the brutal persecution Paul and the Philippian Christians experienced, fear seems to be at the root of the spiritual and moral weakness of the older Protestant denominations. Since the 1960s, when the political and cultural establishment unleashed the permissive society, the leaders of the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church, like salesmen who are missing their targets, seem to have become ever more desperate to appease the ascendant revolutionaries by forsaking traditional Christian beliefs.
The author and campaigner Louise Perry, who in her work fearlessly exposes the damage that aspects of the sexual revolution have caused in the West, related in her Telegraph article on December 16, ‘Woke Christianity will kill the Church of England stone dead’, how St James’s Church in Piccadilly earlier this year hosted a drag queen event titled ‘Preach!’. The audience were promised ‘lip syncs galore . . . hilarious comedy routines, plus dancing-in-the-aisles, singalongs, cocktails and mocktails – all under the roof of this historic Grade 1 listed church’.
She pointed out the fundamental difference between conservative churches and liberal ones: ‘The former focus on spiritual succour – communal identity, tradition, ritual, and purpose – while the latter focus more on political causes.’
She wrote: ‘Given that the political itch can so easily be scratched within secular institutions, these liberal churches tend to lose congregants as the years go by (why go to a drag queen show in a church when you could go to a drag queen show literally anywhere else?)’
She concluded: ‘Christianity is not dying – rather, it is becoming more conservative. Congregants don’t want to be preached to about politics, and they certainly don’t want drag queens. What they want is the full-fat version of faith.’
The Collect for today is a prayer suffused both with the reality of human sinfulness and with godly confidence in the Lord’s powerful love for his Christian people:
‘O LORD, raise up (we pray thee) thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through the satisfaction (the sin-bearing death on the Cross) of thy Son our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be honour and glory, world without end.’