Philippians 4:1-9 10.11.20
There is a song that I learned as a child that continues to ring in my head. I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart to stay. If you go looking for joy, you will notice that joy is found deep inside of you. It is not dependent on your outer circumstances. It is what bubbles out in humming a song while you work. It is what creeps out in a smile at nothing in particular.
We have a choice as to how we respond to this strange time that has stretched for months and has months more to go. We have a choice as to how we respond when things don’t go our way, when life seems to be dishing out lemons right and left. Do we remain in lament and frustration, or do we look for the joy that exists despite our current circumstances, the joy that we belong to God, the joy that we belong to one another?
Paul is summing up his letter to his dear church family in Philippi. He indicates that he loves them and misses them. They are described as his joy and his crown, or wreath, like the wreaths given to the winner in an athletic contest. Their faith brings him joy and a way to celebrate like a community would celebrate their gold medal winners or their super bowl winners or their world series champs. Who would you describe as your joy? It is a term of endearment, indeed. Perhaps your child or your parent. Perhaps your spouse. The ones who are your joy are those you are proud of, celebrate with, appreciate, love.
He hits on themes that he has already mentioned in this letter. I invite you to take some time to read the entire letter in one sitting—it is only 4 chapters. Then you can see how it all hangs together. You will hear repetitions of joy, thanksgiving, prayer and peace. Ringing loud and clear in this summary is the word REJOICE. Despite the conflicts within the congregation– he points to a very specific situation between two of his co-workers in the gospel, Euodia and Syntyche, who seem to be in conflict with one another. Despite the dangers from outside of the congregation—they live in a very pluralistic community where being a Jesus’ follower can get them in trouble. Despite threats from inside and outside, the command is to rejoice. He even repeats it. Rejoice. Paul means rejoice together as a community. It is a plural word, not singular. Rejoice, all of you, because you are a part of a church family. Rejoice, all of you, because Christ gave his life for you. This joy is connected then to their modus operandi. It feeds their actions, their thinking, their choice of words. Rejoicing in God’s love and care for them pushes them to live with gentleness. Another translation of that word is forbearance… meaning patient endurance or self control or restraint. Our forbearance should be evident to others. We’re encouraged to bear up under the trials we’re enduring. We’re encouraged to find new ways to rejoice in God’s goodness even in the midst of the pain. We’re encouraged to keep trusting God with our worries and needs, even when no obvious answers appear.
Living with forbearance is possible in Paul’s mind because the Lord is near. We find an ability to keep on keeping on when we can keep in mind the close presence of the Lord. We do not face these times alone. I find great inspiration in the words of those who are struggling with physical or mental illness, financial or family stress who can say, “I am not alone. God is at my side.” Perhaps that is enough of a prayer of confidence that we can repeat as we breathe in and out: The Lord is near. The Lord is near. The Lord is near.
Prayer is next on Paul’s list—praying instead of becoming anxious over the issues we face. Do not worry. That is so much easier said than done! We all carry around worries, sometimes about little things and sometimes about very big things that hang over our heads. Paul encourages the Philippian Christians to not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. It is the anxieties that plague us, it is the concerns about our own selves, our not measuring up to our standards or the standards of others, our fears of letting someone down or not doing a good job, our anxiety over not being perfect or right. Then there are the worries we bring home from work, the worries about our children or grandchildren, the worries about decisions or plans. We have to be careful about using this text to get us off the hook regarding how we interact with those around us: Oh, I am not going to worry about it. “Do not worry over anything” is not a blanket endorsement of indifference to the needs of others. Paul is more talking about setting aside the worries regarding our actions, our decisions, our relationships. We find that the anythings and everythings of life can be sources of endless worry or the stuff of prayer. What keeps you up at night? What brings that big sigh? Can we bring it to the Lord in prayer? Don’t worry about anything, Paul writes. He knows the human characteristic bent to worry and fret. Not worrying is a way of dumping our concerns in God’s lap. Daily. Maybe hourly if we need it.
In Guatemala there is a Mayan legend about a princess who was given the power to take away anything that humans could worry about. Small, colorful worry dolls are made as representations of the princess, and children tell their worries to the doll and put her under their pillow at night. Sometimes they are created in bunches, recognizing that often we have more than one worry at a time! The idea of dumping their worries on someone else frees them to sleep in peace. When they wake up in the morning, they find they have wisdom and strength needed to put the worries aside and deal with what is in front of them. I am not advocating that we trust in a Mayan princess, but that we trust in God. Paul places his worries before God. Worries are twisted into prayers and bring peace.
What would it look like for your worries to be twisted into prayers? It might help to take out a pen and paper, or a paintbrush or colored pencils. Take something you are worried about…. Maybe the upcoming election, maybe finding a job, maybe decisions you have to make. Get it down on paper in some form or fashion. It could be an image of a face with a frown or lots of blue for anxiety or red for anger, or you could use words to list your worries. Then take the time to reframe them into prayers of petition, thanking God for being near, trusting in God to work through you to do what you can do and have the wisdom to know what you can’t do. Worrying does not get us to solutions, but only stress. Worry clouds our ability to experience the joy the comes with following Jesus. Twist your worries, turn them inside out and turn them into prayers. Perhaps, O God, help me to trust your sovereign hand even over this contentious election. Lord, bring peace to our land. Lord, fill my heart with joy even now.
Prayer leads to peace. Have you found in the seasons of your prayer life that as you focus more on connecting with God that you experience a deeper peace? I know in my life when I am missing that strong connection I am less at peace. Paul describes it as a peace that passes all understanding, a peace that we can not manufacture, but a peace given to us by God. That is actually the second verse of the song I remember.. I’ve got the peace that passes understanding down in my heart, down in my heart to stay. It reminds me of Jesus’ words to the disciples in the gospel of John: My peace I give you, my peace I leave with you. Not as the world gives. God’s peace is different.
It is almost like a concluding blessing that he offers here, like an ending to his letter, but then he keeps going. The peace of God will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. Guard, like keep sentry watch, a military image! God’s peace is keeping watch over us like an armed guard keeps watch over the tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington cemetery, or maybe like the guard who watches Paul while he is in prison in Rome. Keeping watch, staying aware of our movements and our still times, protecting us, comforting us, filling us with power and strength.
Finally think on the things that make for peace and joy. Paul offers a list that would have come from the Greek philosophers and ethicists, but he connects it to the Christian life as he describes the way he has lived and taught the Philippians. Follow me, he says, for I have learned to think on the things that are true, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, or praiseworthy. What about writing those words out and putting them on your bathroom mirror? Or by your coffee pot where you will see them in the morning? Or as a note on your phone? Where are my thoughts going? What am I dwelling on? What am I worrying about?
As we focus on these things, the God of peace will be with us. Another blessing, much like ones we use at the end of worship. May the God of peace go with you today and always.
My prayer for each of you is that even in these days you will find joy deep down. That you will twist your worries into prayers and experience the peace that only God can bring. And that you will never forget that God is near. Amen.