There are a number of different ways to view the role of preaching. Some people see it as the chance to get their own points across, while using Scripture to back them up. Some people see it as a way to point fingers at the evils of the outside world. Still others see it as a chance to raise money and gain members for the church. It can, of course, be all of those things. Ultimately, however, the role of the preacher is to carry the word of God to the people of God. The center of the sermon is not the pastor, it is God. The message of the sermon is not the pastor’s, is it is the Bible’s. The words alone are the pastor’s, and they serve to illustrate the sacred words of scripture, not the other way around.
And so, today, I bring you the words of Scripture. They are surprising words to hear in our time, and they were even more surprising at they time they were written. Our text for today comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Now we don’t know a whole lot about the origins of this letter, but we do know that Paul wrote it from a prison somewhere in the Roman empire. It is important to remember that the prisons of that era had little in common with the prisons that we know about today.
First of all, these prisons were not for convicted criminals. If you were convicted of a crime then you were punished: maybe you were killed, or beaten, perhaps sold as a slave, or perhaps banished. There was no rehabilitation, and jail time was not a form of punishment. Instead, prison was where you were kept until your trial, with the understanding that you were probably guilty or you wouldn’t have been arrested in the first place. If you happened to die there of disease or malnutrition, or of a fight with another inmate, no big deal. No one would probably notice you anyway.
Ancient prisons were places of filth and stench the likes of which, if we are lucky, we cannot imagine in our modern era. They were places of disease and desolation where hope was as rare as the rats were plentiful. And this is where we find the author of today’s text, Paul, the founder of our faith. He is writing from a place of pain and torture, where even his most basic dignities have been stripped away. And surely, writing this letter would have reminded him of happier times, exciting times.
For he was writing to the church at Philippi. This was the first church that he had founded in Europe. Writing to them must have reminded him of those early days when he watched the LORD working to shape a new community on a new frontier. Certainly this church had a special place in Paul’s heart, since it was the only one from which he would accept financial support. Things were not exactly rosy for them either, however, as Paul’s earlier comments in this letter, regarding their enemies, indicate. Apparently, they were suffering significant persecution, either at the hands of the local government or of the local temples, or perhaps both.
So as we hear Paul’s words, let us hear them with the ears of that early church at Philippi. They had been told that they could trust in Jesus and that God would take care of them. Yet the one who had told them this was in prison. Worse, they had been sending him money to spread the gospel, and now he and their money were gone, perhaps forever. To top things off, the authorities were making their lives miserable for the very beliefs that Paul had said would bring them peace and fulfillment.
Perhaps it is not such a stretch to relate to the Philippians after all. I doubt any of us committed our lives to Christ because someone told us how hard it was going to be. I know that I accepted Christ because I believed that my life would be better with Jesus than without Jesus. But anyone who has tried to follow the instruction book knows that following Jesus is not easy. Constantly we try and constantly we fall short of the mark. The world around us begs us to take the easy way out, to cut corners, to do what feels good instead of what feels right. Sometimes we even feel persecuted by a world that attacks everything that we value: God, Scripture, prayer, honesty, obedience; and values everything that Scripture teaches us to avoid: self-indulgence, power, glory, greed.
We are under attack by our magazines, by our televisions, by everything that we see and hear, everything that tries to seduce us away from God’s loving priorities and into the arms of a selfish world’s material gratification. Our persecution today may not be as physical as that which the Philippians experienced, but it is no less real.
And surely Paul knows that all of this would be foremost in their minds, as they look to him for some leadership and understanding. Surely he would be able to at least relate to their plight, to their frustrations, their desire to just quit. After all, he’s in prison. Surely Paul understands.
Imagine, then, what they must have thought when they heard Paul’s advice, “Rejoice in the LORD!” “Be happy!” he says. I’m sure that the Philippians reread that part as soon as they got to it: “What did he say? Rejoice? Is he out of his mind? Apparently Paul knew what their reaction would be, because he repeats himself, “I say again: REJOICE!” It’s as if he knows how crazy it must sound, so he says, “No, I mean it, rejoice!”
Certainly it sounds crazy to us, or at least a little idealistic. We live in a world where children kill their parents, and where innocent teenagers seem to die violently every day. Rejoice? Are you crazy Paul? In a time when being a Christian makes you, in the eyes of a world, a member of an outdated and irrelevant minority? In a time when charity and fellowship seem to be losing out to war and greed? Yet to us, as to the Philippians, Paul says, “Exactly! Rejoice!”
Coming from anyone else, we might be inclined to ignore it. But Paul is not writing this from a comfortable apartment in the nice side of town. He’s writing from prison, and we know from other writings that he has been beaten and threatened with death. He has suffered and ached for his faith, and he is still suffering, yet still he says to us, knowing our own pain and fear, “Rejoice!”
What a message. Celebrate! Find the joy in where you are, because its there. Now, that does not mean that as Christians we should always be happy. As we read a few weeks ago in the book of Ecclesiastes, Scripture teaches us that our pain and our mourning have a place, and that they should not be ignored. Paul is not saying, ignore your sadness and fears.
He is saying, however, that in the eyes of God and therefore in the eyes of a believer, there is joy, even great joy, in every situation. Paul says, there is joy there, find it. And there is joy here. Amidst fear, and loss, financial woes and health problems, there is joy here in this place. There is the joy of a community of faith, of people willing to give of their time to support each other and to worship God. Look around you and rejoice, because Christ is among you and you, together are the body of Christ.
Paul goes on to say that, when we rejoice, our spirits will be a witness to the world that does not know Christ. The Greek here is a little confusing. It can mean gentleness or kindness, or even sanity. Any of these meanings fit, because looking for the joy that comes from the presence of God brings about all of those things. In a violent world, it gives us peace, in a greedy world, it inspires us to share, and in an insane world, the joy of God brings us sanity. We are transformed by the joy of the LORD, and that transformation allows the rest of the world to see the face of God in us.
But how? Where are we to find joy in such a troubled world, in our own troubled lives? Paul answers us with a few simple words: “The LORD is near.” This short phrase actually has two meanings, and both are cause for joy. The first, is that the LORD is close by.
What does that mean? It means that the creator of the universe, the God who shaped oceans and mountains using only a whisper, the mysterious God who transcends our understanding, is not in some distant heaven looking down upon us. God has taken human form, has suffered and died as we suffer and must die, and now walks beside us. You know, we say that all the time in church, but do we realize what we are saying?
God. THE God. The God who is encompasses and goes beyond everything that we can imagine, is near. Is within touching distance, is beside us wherever we go. This is what Jesus accomplished through his unselfish love. Jesus brought God near. No wonder Paul can tell us to rejoice. How could we not?
There is another part to Paul’s reminder, however. The LORD is near also means the LORD is approaching. That as why we read this text at Advent. As we turn our eyes to the Christ who is to come, the Christ who is to end all pain and suffering, the Christ who comes to bring eternal healing to this world. As we look forward with absolute certainty toward that day, Paul reminds us to rejoice. As Christians, we have cause to celebrate. No matter what is going on at the moment, we know how the story is going to end.
Of course, none of this means that our problems have all disappeared because we know and anticipate the nearness of God. Paul knows this, and (in verse 6) as he reminds us not to worry, he also reminds us to pray.
Paul isn’t just talking about every once in a while, or for the big things, Paul says to offer prayer in every thing. He has just reminded us that, as Christians, we have the privilege of an intimate, family relationship with God. Jesus has told us that we are not called as God’s workers, but as God’s children. God, like any loving mother or father, is right there beside us, eager to share in our burdens and pain.
And so Paul says Pray. Not just a little, but a lot. Do not pretend that your troubles are your own. They are not. They belong to God now, Jesus took them on his shoulders as he was being nailed to a tree. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, prayer is linked to the concept of remembering. Not only is it a way of reminding God of the promises which God has made to us, it is a way of remembering for ourselves that we have the security of those promises.
And so Paul says not only to pray so that we might share our needs with God, Paul also says to pray with thanksgiving. In advance, because we already know the answer. For us, praying to God is not like going to a bank to apply for a loan, and then waiting for days hoping that it will be approved. We already know the answer. We may not know the specifics of how, but we do know that the God who loves us enough to die for us will hear our prayers, and that same God will answer our prayers with love and with understanding.
That doesn’t mean that we will always like the answer, or understand it, or even know it when we come. We are imperfect creatures, and I know from my own experience that sometimes, when God does not meet me on my terms, I cannot see the hand of God at all. Fortunately, my inability to see does not in any way limit God’s ability to do what is best.
Here, Paul says that the results aren’t really the issue. What matters is how we handle our own sense of need, not whether or not we understand God’s response. Even in this time of doubt, Paul says look around you, look to the future, and if you look with God’s eyes you will see cause for joy. The world will give you no encouragement, but God will.
Even still, we will have pain and need, but Paul reminds us to share that with God, in a spirit of faith and thanksgiving. Why? Well we see the reason in verse 7. The answer is, “That we might have peace.” Not necessarily everything that we want, but peace.
That is something that I assure you the world outside cannot offer us. It can offer us power, money, health, but we will always want more. We will never be fulfilled.
God, on the other hand, guarantees us none of those things. But God does offer us peace. Not just any peace. Paul says, “peace beyond comprehension.” In the Greek, it means peace that goes beyond just the mind. Paul says that the peace of God will protect our minds, yes, but will go beyond that and surround our hearts as well.
Rejoice? It doesn’t make sense up there to rejoice in a world that seems to be falling down around us. Rejoice? It doesn’t make sense in our own chaotic lives. It doesn’t make sense up there, but praise God it makes sense down here, because that is where the peace of God reaches us.
And so I bring you the words of Paul, also the words of an angel speaking to some shepherds watching their flocks one night, REJOICE! We have cause to celebrate! And pray, because we also have need to pray. And as we look toward the joy of God, and place our burdens at the feet of God, the peace of God becomes our gift, our hope, and our birthright.