Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23

Text: Philippians 4:4-7
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 every situation, 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.

“In the Lord”

“Rejoice in the Lord always!”  Paul says to us today. 
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 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?
Is it possible to rejoice when COVID19 interrupts everything we are so used to doing and interferes with our families and important events?

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!” 

Bobby McFerrin sang a song with these lyrics, “In every life we have some trouble, But when you worry you make it double. Don't worry, be happy.”

Unfortunately, neither “slapping on a happy grin” or telling yourself “don’t worry, be happy” changes a thing – the troubles and problems that we are facing don’t disappear and the reason is simple – we are looking for relief from our burdens and trouble in the wrong place  “putting on a happy face”, indulging in some retail therapy, going on a holiday, trusting in the power of positive thinking, or relying on alcohol or drugs, just don’t cut it.

Note that Paul isn’t talking about happiness here. The writer and theologian C.S. Lewis once bluntly said, “As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian.  I didn't 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.  When things are going well, we feel happy.  When things aren’t going well and we can’t fix it, we feel sorry for ourselves and we are unhappy.

So what is Paul really trying to tell us when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always”?  “Always” means all the time and in every circumstance.  Rejoice all the time and in all circumstances. 

How is this possible?  Is this simply wishful thinking or a nice but unattainable theological principle?  I’m happy to say it’s neither of these.

Paul says, 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, 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 a messenger for Christ, Paul had been imprisoned more times than he could count, whipped and stoned to the point of dying, was hungry, thirsty, homeless, and the list goes on. (Read 2 Corinthians 11). What was amazing is that in spite of all this Paul never gave up.  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 4:11b-13).

Paul is talking about what it means to be “in the Lord”. He says, “I am confident in the Lord” (1:21). He can endure everything that was happening in his life, not because he was a strong personality or self-disciplined, but the reason he could endure all things was that he knew of God’s great love for him.  He was “in the Lord”, he was in the Lord’s heart and mind – the Lord held him in his loving hand.   The Lord was always near.

He knew that in the face of every soul-destroying disaster that came his way, he doesn’t have to rely on his own strength and ability to survive these troubles; he trusted God's strength and God's love 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.  “The Lord is near”, he proclaimed. The presence of The Lord and his love for him meant he had nothing to worry about.  He had every reason to rejoice.  In life and in death, he was always a winner so why not rejoice.

He continues and he tells us how to handle the stress and trouble that come our way.  He says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 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 of love that one person can do for another person.  He knows Jesus as his very present, very real Lord and Saviour and real-life helper.  He knows how much Jesus loves him.  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, being “in the Lord” meant that he could take to him in prayer every trial, every worry, every burden and sadness and lay them at his feet.  Jesus gave him the strength to endure all things and so he calls us to rejoice in the Lord always because his love for you is certain and sure.

Can you see how being “in the Lord” makes such a difference in the way we face the difficulties and uncertain circumstances that arise in our life?

We are “in the Lord” – through the blood of Jesus we are made worthy of being in the Lord and he holds us close to him and embraces us with his gracious arms.  It is because of his unconditional love that we are given the strength and confidence that is beyond our own strength and will-power to endure difficulties and do things that many would consider too hard and too problematic. 

Being “in the Lord” gives us the vision to see beyond what is happening right now and to see other possibilities.  In the short term, we are given a vision beyond our present troubles, pain, grief, problems – that it is possible to get through this present situation with God’s help and strength.  And of course, there is the greater vision of a glorious new life in heaven where there will be no more of the troubles of this life.  And having seen the vision, being in the Lord, we have the strength and confidence to follow through and move toward that vision. 

Being “in the Lord”, quietens our anxious hearts and minds. There are times when we become frustrated and angry and upset about how things are turning out in our lives.  We even get upset with God and question why God hasn’t been a little more proactive in our lives to make things a bit easier.

Paul certainly had every reason to get stirred up with God when, after all, he was doing God’s work and yet every kind of trouble and obstacle was thrown in his way.  Surely, he might have asked, “God, I’m your chosen apostle. Give me a break!” 

We know Paul had what he called “a thorn in the flesh” – some kind of ailment that he prayed and prayed about because it bothered him so much.  But instead of taking away the problem, God gave him the strength to endure it.  Being “in the Lord” his troubled heart and mind were quietened.  He was given patience and peace.

And so Paul finishes our text today with some military terminology.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”. Peace, meaning the opposite of anxiety, worry and upset – the shalom, the well-being, the peace that surrounds God produces far better results than all our worry and anxiety, the peace that comes as a gift from God will stand guard, provide security, and protect you – like a personal body-guard.

Often we don’t understand everything about God and his plan for our lives and the world, but being “in the Lord” gives us the peace that goes far beyond human understanding and quietens our anxiety and keeps us safe in the knowledge that God’s love for us is certain and sure in Jesus Christ.

“I have everything I need!” Robert Reid said.
His hands are twisted, and his feet are useless. He can’t bathe or feed himself. He can’t brush his teeth, comb his hair, or put on his underwear. Strips of Velcro hold his shirts together. His speech is drawn out. Robert has cerebral palsy.

However, this crippling disease didn’t keep him from graduating from university and becoming a teacher.

Robert’s disease didn’t prevent him from becoming a missionary in Portugal. He moved to Lisbon, alone, in 1972. There he learnt Portuguese. He became involved with the university students, started small groups in a local church and within six years seventy people joined the church, one of whom became his wife, Rosa.

Robert’s circumstances didn’t give him any reason for happiness or celebration, but he could boldly exclaim he had everything he needed despite his disabilities because he had “joy in the Lord”.

His shirts are held together by Velcro, but his life is held together by joy.

That’s the way it is for us as well.  Our natural tendency is to go it alone, do things our own way, sort out our own problems by ourselves and when things go wrong, we complain, 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. 

We are challenged today to take another look at how well we are travelling “in the Lord”.  What does your relationship with Jesus look like?  
Does being
“in the Lord” enable you to trust God’s love even when everything is going wrong?
Does being “in the Lord” give you strength and confidence knowing that the Lord is near?
Does being “in the Lord” lead you to take all your anxieties to God in prayer and enable God to show you a vision of what is possible beyond the present?
Does being “in the Lord” fill you with God’s peace and love that quietens your anxious heart and mind?

Maybe your answers are “sometimes” or “no”.  Paul says “always” so maybe it’s time to rediscover what it means to be “in the Lord”.  Rediscover with the Spirit’s help the magnificent love that Jesus has for you and how his presence can be very real and can bring so much change in your life.

It’s a life-long journey learning how much the peace, and grace, and forgiveness of God, which goes beyond all human understanding, stands guard over our hearts and minds, over our whole lives, in Christ Jesus. Amen.

 

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
E-mail: sermonsonthenet@outlook.com

11th October 2020

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