Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 23)

Text: Philippians 4:4, 6-7
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! … 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 in every circumstance

Think about this for a second, what makes you happy? 
What circumstances, people, things, occasions make you happy?
Maybe you want time to think that through as you sort through the happy moments of your life.  What is it that fills your life with so much joy and happiness to the point that everything else fades into insignificance?

Chances are that even though you may want to be happy all of the time, or even most of the time, upsets, stress, anxiety, certain events and words can instantly change your happiness into sadness or downheartedness.

It may be just a phone call that turns your world upside down.  One moment you don’t have a care in the world and the next all happiness is drained away as grief or worry or anxiety take its place.  I’m sure you can tell of experiences in your own lives when this has happened.

I recall walking down the road to the home of an elderly couple who lived very near the manse.  They were such nice people and always welcomed me with such warmth and I knew this time would be no different.  Only this time my visit would end differently.  I knocked on their front door and typically they greeted me with warm smiles, a joke about the pastor checking up on them, and an invitation to come in and have a coffee.  They sensed something was different as they sat opposite me.  I had just come from the hospital where their granddaughter had suddenly died.  Their smiles gave way to tears.  In just a moment, with just a few words, their day had taken a turn for the worse; their happiness was overcome with disbelief, sadness and so many questions.

Chances are that you have come to worship this morning with some kind of stress, worry or sadness.  It may not be anything as gut wrenching as the case I just mentioned but just small things that added together create just enough tension to make life less than ideal.
If you are fortunate enough to be stress free today, maybe it won’t be that way tomorrow.

Today we have heard those familiar words of St Paul, Rejoice in the Lord always”. In fact, he gives these words special emphases in case we weren’t listening so he says, “I will say it again: Rejoice!”

This is not a “Please, be filled with joy; try and be happy; don’t get so uptight, instead think positive thoughts and let joy fill your lives”.  Paul isn’t making a suggestion here.  The word “rejoice” is an imperative, a command if you like.  He is saying something like this, “If you are stressed and worried, grieving or in pain, rejoice in the Lord”.

He adds the words “always” in other words, “in all circumstances”.  “Rejoice in the Lord always”. In good and bad, trusting in the Lord and his love for us, will always end up filling us with confidence, strength and ultimately joy.

But let’s get real now.  Isn’t rejoicing in the face of desperation, grief and sadness too simplistic and impractical?  Paul is out of touch with how life is in the real world.  Being happy is associated with those times when everything is going well in our life.  How can we rejoice in every circumstance when there are so many things upsetting us?  This is too unreal.

But these words of Paul are God’s Word to us today and so we need to take a close look at them and find out what God is saying to us when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always!”

When trouble strikes what are some things people usually say to help us? They might say something like,
“Everything happens for a reason”.
“Every cloud has a silver lining”.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”.
“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”.

These sayings are meant to make us feel better; to take the sadness out of our hearts, cheers us up, perhaps see some meaning in what has happened and maybe see some reason to keep on going and look forward to tomorrow.  Some people may find these helpful, but honestly these is no solid basis for any of these nice sayings. 
Who cares about a silver lining when my house has gone up in flames along with every single possession that I have ever owned in this life? 
Who is looking for reasons that will make me stronger when my dear child who has barely begun life dies from some senseless tragedy? 
How can someone say that the cancer that is eating away inside me will somehow make me stronger or help me by trivialising it with a quirky saying about lemonade?

The apostle acknowledges that troubles and trials will come into everyone’s life. He isn’t exempt from life threatening trouble.  Remember he is writing to the Philippians from a jail cell.  His life is in danger.  And yet his letter to the Philippians is so full of joy and peace.  The key to Paul’s confident joy is in the next sentence of our text.  It tells us how he handles the stress and trouble in his life.  He says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”.

He prays in total and complete confidence in the love of Jesus.  He knows that Jesus gave his life for him on the cross – this was the extreme sacrifice that one person can do for another person.  He knows that Jesus was raised from the dead.  He knows Jesus as his very present, very real Lord and Saviour was the most precious possession he had in this life.  He says in the previous chapter, “Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have given up everything else and count it all as garbage. All I want is Christ and to know that I belong to him” (Philippians 3:8-9 CEV).

Knowing Christ, knowing that he belonged to Christ, meant that he could take to him in prayer every trial, worry, burden and sadness and lay them at his feet.  Jesus gave him the strength to endure all things.  He says, just after today’s reading, “I am content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little. I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.” (Philippians 4:13).

There is little or nothing we can do to stop the bad things that happen in our lives but there is something we can do in the way we handle those difficulties.  Paul says there is only one way – that is “in the Lord”.  Dealing with these things is not something that relies on the power of positive thinking, looking for a silver lining in a dark cloud, escaping from our troubles by going shopping or pretending that everything is okay when it’s clear that things are not all right.  Paul is saying that true joy can only be found in the Lord”.  He knows that faith in the Lord” enables us to find joy, confidence, boldness, strength, even in the face of the worst difficulty. 

On Christmas Day, 1974, 10-year-old Chris Carrier was kidnapped. When the boy was finally found, he had been burned with cigarettes, stabbed with an ice pick, shot in the head and left for dead.  Miraculously, young Chris survived, the only permanent physical damage, blindness in his left eye. No one was ever arrested for this crime.

Twenty-two years later, David McAllister, 77-years old, blind and dying in a nursing home, confessed to the crime.  Chris began visiting the man who had tortured him and left him for dead.  Chris prayed with and for him, read the Bible with him and did everything he could to help David make peace with God in the time he had left in this life.

Chris says, “While many people can’t understand how I could forgive David McAllister, from my point of view I couldn’t not forgive him. If I’d chosen to hate him all these years, or spent my life looking for revenge, then I wouldn’t be the man I am today, the man my wife and children love, the man God has helped me to be.” He went on to say, “I became a Christian when I was 13. That night was the first night I was able to sleep through the night, without waking up from my nightmares.  It would be selfish not to share that same peace with David McAllister.”

Chris was a victim.  What happened to him could have destroyed his life in every way and left him a wreck.  But he didn’t rely on his own strength and ability to survive the terrible emotional and mental wounds; his life wasn’t ruled by whatever long-term effects such trauma might have had on his life, instead he trusted God's strength and God's love for him.  “In the Lord” he found peace.

That leads me to the last sentence of our text.  “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”.

In prayer, we lay our needs before God.  We are empty in his presence, absolutely dependent on him, constantly thankful that we have someone we can trust completely.  When we pray with that attitude, the focus is not on what we are doing or will do, but on what God will do.  God will do something supernatural beyond our best abilities and thoughts: his peace will guard us.

This kind of peace is the very opposite to anxiety and stress. 
God’s peace is able to do far more than anyone can imagine in the trusting believer;
it protects and keeps your thoughts and feelings against worry and fear;
it guards your desires, thoughts and choices against attacks by the enemy.  This kind of peace is possible because it trusts the supreme love of Jesus to care for us in every situation.  This peace comes from knowing that through our baptism and as we celebrate Holy Communion we are “in Christ Jesus”, we are one with him, and his arms will embrace us always.

Paul is speaking to us today.  The Bible is full of promises from a God who cares about our every need, down to the very hairs on our head.  Paul calls us to rejoice in the Lord in every circumstance. We have a God whose love is undeniable and is waiting to use his power to answer our prayers and so give us peace, confidence and boldness even though the world is whirling around in turmoil.   

“Rejoice in the Lord always in every circumstance!” is a difficult thing to achieve but “in the Lord” it is always possible.  Our natural tendency is to go it alone, do things our way, use our natural instincts.  So, when something goes wrong we get angry, sad, all worked up – our emotions take over.  There’s nothing wrong with emotions, they are gifts from God, but out of control, they can blind us to God and how he can help us.  Today we are reminded that in Jesus Christ we have ongoing relationship with our heavenly Father that will never end.  Not even death can separate us from the God who loves us more than anyone else.

When life is really confusing and worries are piling up the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”.

 

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
15th October 2017
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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