25 October 2020

Book: Philippians

We Rejoice Together

Bible Passage: Philippians 4:4-13

If you were to put together a top 5 list of the top five attributes of Christians what would you put on that list. Topping that list would be something to do with a confession of faith. The person relies on and trusts in Christ. Maybe someone who continues to grow in theological understanding. Maybe someone who loves God. Maybe someone who loves their neighbor. 

I wonder, though, if we would include rejoicing on that list. An attitude of rejoicing is not easy to come by. The Apostle Paul seems to think that it is a pretty important aspect of Christians life. Again and again the Apostle Paul encourages Christians to rejoice. In fact he encourages rejoicing going back all the way to chapter two and then brings it up in each of the following chapters. 

He is unabashed in his encouragement to take on the attitude of joy, and lest the Philippians begin to think that he is needlessly repeating himself he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”

Have you ever tried venting or complaining a bit to someone and the person you were venting to was a really optimistic person and in the moment maybe even irritatingly so because they stopped you from venting or made you feel bad for doing so. Maybe that’s what the Apostle Paul is like here. Maybe he is excessively cheerful or optimistic. 

Well, let’s consider Paul’s situation for a moment. As Paul is writing this letter he is suffering greatly. He is in prison and he fully expects that his prison stay will result in his death. He is writing this letter as if they could be his last words to a group of people he has grown to love. He is not unaware of how difficult life can be at times. In fact later in this section he said, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.”

So no Paul is not overly optimistic rather as he says, “I have learned the secret of being content.” Paul is speaking about attitudes: contentment, joy, gentleness, thanksgiving—these are all attitudes which persist in spite of how we may feel. Paul could very well be sad, but he is content. Paul could very well feel frustrated, but he has joy. Paul could very well be downtrodden, but he is also thankful. 

Do you wonder how Paul does it? Even the most upbeat person isn’t always content or joyful. In fact, lately, it has been rather difficult to be content, to have joy, to be gentle, and to be thankful. If we are discontent it is difficult to have joy. If we think we are always getting the short end of the stick it is difficult to be gentle with people. If we are discontent we will believe we have little for which to give thanks.

There was a conscientious wife who tried very hard to please her ultracritical husband, but failed regularly. He always seemed the most cantankerous at breakfast. If the eggs were scrambled, he wanted them fried; if they were fried, he wanted them scrambled. One morning, with what she thought was a stroke of genius, the wife fried one egg and scrambled the other and placed the plate before him. Anxiously she awaited what surely this time would be his unqualified approval. He peered down at the plate and snorted, “Can’t you do anything right? You’ve fried the wrong one!”

Of course, the husband seems to be a bit of a tyrant. He is overbearing. He is discontent, he is not gentle, he is lacking in joy. It’s so easy to see in other people that the problem is not the things the people are receiving but the person themselves. If I am discontent and joyless the problem isn’t my environment, the problem isn’t the people around me, the problem is me. 

We fail to let our kids ponder the peace of God and his presence in our lives, so we begin to think that we are free agents who must fend for ourselves. We think that God is not doing what he needs to be doing. We allow our outward experiences to affect our internal selves, as if God’s nearness has nothing to say to us.

So what is Paul’s secret? It is the nearness of God. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” The Lord is near in time. We look forward to the day when Christ will return and our salvation will be fully known. That day is closer today than it was yesterday and closer than when we first believed. In addition as we wait for that day, we also have Christ’s promise to us, “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” 

This joy is rooted in our salvation and it comes from the hope we have for the fulness of salvation. Just as joyfulness flows out of our salvation, so also gentleness flows out of God’s nearness. Because God is near I know that all injustices will one day be reconciled. So then gentleness does not need to demand what it is entitled to or insist on its rights.

Certainly the nearness of God is profound, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t in a sinful world and that won’t affect us. That is why then Paul says, “6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Prayer demonstrates a humble and total dependence on God. The thanksgiving which Paul is speaking about is not just for material blessings but especially for God’s grace given to us in Christ. It is knowing that because of Jesus we are at peace with God. The peace of God is the peace which comes from knowing that we have been reconciled to God and the peace of knowing that he will return to bring the fulness of our redemption as well as the redemption of all things. There could be plenty to fear about a holy and righteous God, but because of Christ creating peace between us and God we need not fear. 

This peace which Christ himself is and brings is what protects our anxieties within and the doubts we ahem from without. His peace protects us and buffers us. Our entire life, our feeling, thinking and willing, which is so vulnerable to attack is being protected by God’s peace.

So where can you find God and this peace? Paul says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” These are the things of God. The only thing which fits all of these categories is the revealed Word of God. But spending time in his Word is not just a matter of obedience, but is so that God can open our eyes to the way he is working in our world. And when that happens, we don’t have to be told to rejoice we just do.

Because it is then that we realize that God’s peace is not only guarding us but that it is with us, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” This isn’t just a repetition of God’s nearness, but it is a different way of speaking about it. God’s peace and his nearness has collided upon you. These at one time were separate things. God was a God to be feared, but in Christ we need not fear. The greatest fear that we could have, whether we realize it or not, has been answered by the love of God. If we have God/s peace with us, then we need not fear anything.

God’s nearness is the secret to contentment and to rejoicing, to gentleness. His nearness is not contingent upon what we might feel or think or what we might see and hear around us, it is contingent simply on his grace. And as he is near us he hold us tight to himself and he sees us through so no matter what may happen we rejoice.

This is what Paul says, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” In the face of all circumstances we are strong because we are in God’s peace and that peace is sufficient for us as he provides us with contentment, with joy, with gentleness, with every reason to give thanks.