Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (NRSV).

Always joyful!

What is it that makes you happy?
When is it that you feel the happiest?

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 depression.

I recall the time when I had to deliver bad news to an elderly couple. I knocked on their front door and they greeted me with warm smiles, a joke about the pastor checking up on them since they had only seen me the day before, and an invitation to come in and have a coffee. They could tell from my lack of responding smile and laughter that something was wrong. I told them that I had just come from the hospital where their baby grandson had suddenly died. Their smiles gave way to disbelief and then 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 sadness.

Chances are that you have come to worship this morning with some kind of stress, worry or sadness in your life. If you are fortunate enough not to have any personal stress or sadness at this time, maybe you are worried about the stress and sadness that has overcome someone you know.

Christians are not exempt from the same worries, pressures, and tensions that affect everyone else in the world.

A very wealthy man rang his minister at 2 in the morning. "Pastor," he said, "I lost everything on the stock market yesterday. But what bothers me the most is the 2 million dollars I had promised the church building fund."
"Don't stress yourself over it," replied the pastor. "The Lord will take care of everything. He'll provide a way for us to build the new church."

The once wealthy man thanked the pastor, and soon fell asleep.

The pastor, however, didn't sleep another wink that night!

If you are like me there are some nights when worries and stress keep you awake at night, or at best you toss and turn unable to fall into a deep sleep because of what is turning over in your mind.

Today, St Paul comes along in our text from Philippians and tells us to rejoice not just sometimes, or when we donít have any pressing worries, or even after a couple of stubbies. He tells us to rejoice always.

Now that seems just a bit excessive. Doesnít he have any idea what is going on in real life, in your life and my life right now? I was on a plane a couple of weeks ago sitting next to a person who coughed all the way. I was not happy when the next day I started feeling lousy and began coughing. Being happy is associated with those times when everything is going well in our lives. How can we rejoice at all times when there are so many things upsetting us?

But Paul is firm in this and even repeats it to make his point: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! The apostle isn't making a demand that he knows nothing about. This isn't just wishful thinking.

In fact, Paul isnít talking about happiness at all. Happiness is an emotion that comes and goes depending on the circumstances. Paul is talking about joy, something that is always there deep down inside.

With this in mind, notice he says: Rejoice in the Lord! Paul knows that true joy is not something that
relies on positive thinking,
looking for a silver lining in every dark cloud,
escaping from our troubles by going shopping
or pretending that everything is okay when itís clear that things are not all right.
Joy in the Lord doesnít even depend on everything going smoothly or everyday being filled with nothing but smiles and success.

Paul is saying that true joy can only be found in the Lord. He knows that faith in the Lord enables us to rejoice even in the face of the worst difficulty.

You and I know very well that Paul experienced some mighty difficult times. In fact, he is writing this letter to the Philippians in prison, not a modern day prison with its comforts and conveniences, but a cold and dirty dungeon type of affair. Being in jail was not a pleasant experience, nor could he be certain 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 doesnít have to rely on his own strength and ability to survive these troubles, he trusts God's strength and God's love for him Ė love that only wants the best for him.
He knew that if his life on this earth came to an end, as it almost did on numerous occasions, his Lord would take care of him and take him to a glorious life in heaven. So what did he have to worry about? No matter what the circumstances, he had every reason to rejoice.

Even when he was plagued by what he called "a thorn in the flesh" Ė some kind of physical ailment that really distressed him. Even when God didnít heal him in response to his many prayers, he knew that God had him in his safe-keeping and with God's power and strength he would able to endure that "thorn in the flesh". Paulís life was anything but a bed of roses so when he calls us to "Rejoice always", he is talking from experience.

That's all right for an apostle, a superman of the faith, but what about me? What about those times
when I feel as if I am as low as anyone can go;
when illness is getting me down;
or when everything I try ends up in failure.
What about those times when I do nothing but worry;
when I am completely helpless to change anything and the future really scares me.

Those words "Rejoice in the Lord" remind us that in Jesus we have peace. That Jesus died on the cross for all sinners including you and me. Jesus went to all the trouble of becoming human, suffering and dying for us. He makes us his own through Holy Baptism and promises that no matter what life may throw at us, he will always be there to give help, comfort and strength.

Paul put it so well: If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things.... (Romans 8:31b,32). In spite of his situation which may have tempted him to think otherwise, Paul was sure beyond all doubt that God was on his side.

And what is more, 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. When Paul was burdened by his "thorn in the flesh" he prayed and he prayed. He talked it over with God. And even though he didn't get the answer he wanted, he ended up with the peace of God that transcends all understanding.

In short, with the gift of Jesus, with a God who stood by him through thick and thin, Paul knew he had everything. So what was there to threaten his joy? He knew that in the Lord he had everything he needed and nothing could separate him from the love of God.

When Martin Luther's daughter, Magdalena, was fourteen years old, she fell ill and lay dying. She passed away his arms. As they laid her to rest, he 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."

On this day of thanksgiving itís easy to focus on the food and the clothes, our homes and our friends, our beautiful and peace-filled country. And itís good to give God thanks for all these things because we often take them for granted. But what if all these things were taken away, would we still have a reason to rejoice and give thanks today. Would we still have this thanksgiving service this morning?

Even though Paul found himself in need and in danger, hungry and in prison, he still had every reason to rejoice in the Lord. There is one thing that is far more precious that cannot be taken away - the love of God as we see it in Jesus and his sacrifice for us on the cross. We heard Jesusí words in the gospel reading, "I am the bread of life. Those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:35). This is something to really celebrate and give thanks. To use Paulís words, "In the Lord" we have true joy and peace. Amen.

And now, the peace of God which is greater than all human understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
17th October, 2004

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