Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
|Text: Philippians 4:4 -7 (NIV)
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
“Rejoice in the Lord always!”
Have you ever struggled with that piece of advice from the apostle Paul?
Is it possible to rejoice even when you’re having a bad day?
Can you really rejoice even when you’re in pain, when you owe more than you own, when you are worried as you sit by the sick bed of someone you love?
Is it possible or it is just whistling in the wind to say “Rejoice” when others attack you, criticise you, and you feel as though you don’t have a friend in the world?
Can you really rejoice when your body is full of aches and pains, and old age has brought with it frailty and health complications?
The old song from “Bye bye, Birdie” tells us “Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face. … Wipe off that ‘full of doubt’ look, Slap on a happy grin!”
We all do that. When things are going all wrong, we “put on a happy face” for a while at least (as pastors we develop this technique quite well) but no-one can keep it up. We look happy on the outside but inside we feel awful and eventually it shows.
How real is Paul being when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always” not just some of the time, or when things are going ok, but always, all of the time? Paul was in prison when he wrote these words and had been very cruelly treated by his enemies and yet he is able to be so christlike, so caring and gentle with his jailers. It’s not hard to conclude that the apostle is one of those really annoying people who is always happy and always sees a silver lining in every gray cloud and is not frightened to tell people to not worry about anything and to be happy. When you’re down and the umpire is about to count, “One, two three, you’re out!” the last thing you want to hear is “Don’t worry, be happy”.
The writer and theologian C.S. Lewis once bluntly said, “As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go become a Christian to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that”. Happiness is a human emotion that relies heavily on the circumstances we find ourselves in. It is very much focussed on ourselves. When things are going well we feel happy. When we feel badly treated by others our sinfulness kicks in and instead of being a peacemaker or offering forgiveness we worry how we can fix things and that might include getting back in some way. It’s not hard to feel sorry for ourselves and so become unhappy.
So what is Paul really trying to tell us when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always”? (And to make sure we get the point he says). “I will say it again: Rejoice!”
Take note of the words “in the Lord” – “Rejoice in the Lord”. Paul is telling us that true joy does not rely on positive thinking, looking for the silver lining in every dark cloud, having a day of retail therapy, or slapping on a happy face when it’s clear that everything is not all right. True joy is found “in the Lord”. He insists that regardless of what is going on in our lives trusting “in the Lord” enables us to rejoice even in the face of the worst difficulty.
As I indicated before Paul was writing his letter to the Philippians in a cold and dirty dungeon uncertain about his future. It would have been easy to despair in such circumstances. But he insists that regardless of what he is going through he could be joyful and encourages his readers to “Rejoice in the Lord always”.
Paul had learnt a very valuable lesson through all the trials that came his way. He had learnt that regardless of what happened in his life, he had learnt to be content. Listen to what he has to say on this, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learnt the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil 3:11b-13).
And what is of great importance
for us is to note why Paul could be so contented in the face of everything that
was happening in his life. It
wasn't because of some, strong inner force, his self-discipline, or because he
was able to control his life better than anyone else.
The reason he could be content is that he knew that no matter what trial
or need came his way, God was always near.
He knew that in the face of every soul destroying disaster that came his way, God was there giving him the strength to enable him to see it through.
He doesn’t have to rely on his own strength and ability to survive these troubles; he trusts God's strength and God's love for him that will only want the best for him.
He knew that if his life on this earth came to an end, his Lord would take care of him and take him to a glorious life in heaven. So what did he have to worry about? He had every reason to rejoice. In spite of the circumstances, he was always a winner so why not rejoice.
As you might well know Paul had something that distressed him, probably some kind of physical illness or disability, we don't know exactly what it was. There were times when he was utterly and unbearably crushed by it. He called it a “thorn in the flesh” and he begged God to take it away. God in his wisdom didn’t remove Paul’s problem but in spite of this Paul could still say, “Rejoice in the Lord always”. The apostle knew that God had him in his safekeeping and with God's power and strength he would be able to endure that “thorn in the flesh”. As he said, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength”.
So when Paul tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always” he knows what he’s talking about. He might be a superman of the faith in the Bible but he is also a human just like you and me. He felt life at its lowest and experienced the worst that others could do to him. He had his own personal health issues; he struggled with all the things we do including temptation, sin, guilt and despair and yet he is able to come up smiling because he is “in the Lord”, he truly believed “the Lord is near”, and trusted Jesus’ promise, “I will be with you always”.
It’s interesting that Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always” and “The Lord is near” in almost the same breath. Whether you take Paul’s words “The Lord is near” meaning that Jesus is coming soon or Jesus is always nearby it doesn’t make any difference (I believe he means both), he is telling us to relax Jesus is journeying with us. He invites us to call on him, tell him our needs, let him shoulder our pain, our frustrations, our sicknesses and our worries.
When we’re overly concerned about our problems, about the people around us, or about our situation in life, he encourages us to take our needs to him in prayer. If we keep all our problems and worries to ourselves, they grow and multiply and threaten to suck all the joy out of our lives. In this sense, worry is like a contagious disease that spreads through every corner of our lives and takes away all our reasons to rejoice. The antidote for worry and anxiety is prayer.
Paul urges us today, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”. God cares. There is no need for anxiety and worry. He is waiting to hear from us, he is waiting for us to take every situation to him and unload every burden and trouble that comes our way on to him.
We can’t wish our worries away through wishful thinking or the power of positive thinking, but when we bring them before God in prayer, he gives us his peace. Notice we are given God's peace, which is far better than any calmness we could ever achieve by our own reasoning. God fills us with his peace; peace that comes from knowing and trusting that everything is in his almighty and all-knowing hands and that he cares so much for each of us that he we have nothing to worry about. Our focus has shifted from our problems and troubles and even though our outward circumstances may not have changed, we can be joyful because we are one with Christ, we are “in the Lord” to use Paul’s words, we are uniquely and especially loved by almighty God.
We are just days away from Christmas when we are reminded that the baby born in Bethlehem is Immanuel - “God with us”. He came to bring reconciliation, forgiveness and peace. He came to show us the love of God and how through his death and resurrection we are adopted as his own beloved children and can walk confidently in peace and joy.
Martin Luther's daughter, Magdalena, died when she was fourteen years old. As they laid her to rest, Luther said, “Oh my dear Magdalenachen, you will rise and shine like the stars in the sun. How strange to be so sorrowful, and yet to know that all is at peace, that all is well.”
The strange combination of sorrow on the one hand, and peace and joy on the other, is only possible “in the Lord”.
Finally, Paul uses a military picture. He says, “The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”. Like a guard or sentry on duty, God’s peace watches over us and keeps us from all harm, including eternal death. In God’s peace, we can be joyful in all things.
And so I say to you, “God's peace, which is far beyond human understanding, keep your hearts and minds safe in union with Christ Jesus.”
© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
16th December 2012