(Photo: St. Brendan the Navigator, Bantry, perhaps rejoicing at the discovery of distant new shores.)
Sermon for Sunday 16th December, text: Philippians 4:4-7
Rejoice is not a word we use much, it seems quite old-fashioned sounding; we are not used to seeing it in a text message, or hearing it said on the nine o’clock news. Yet it is a beautiful word. It means ‘to delight in God’s grace’, to express our joy at the experience of His undeserved favour and to be conscious of His unconditional love for us. See, I told you it was a beautiful word. As followers of the Lord Jesus, we have good reason to do a lot of rejoicing and our reading today from Paul’s letter to his friends in Philippi should help us rediscover the urge to rejoice that we may have lost somewhere along the way of our everyday lives.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
It seems that the Philippians needed a reminder about rejoicing too, as Paul thinks it is worth repeating; “again I will say, Rejoice.”
In this season of Advent, let us rejoice in God’s love for us in sending Jesus, God born a baby to show us how much He loves us. God doesn’t keep his distance; He does not want or need us to work our way up to Him (we couldn’t anyway, even if we tried). God has come down to us in Jesus, and that is something to greatly rejoice about. Let us be like the wise men, who rejoiced when they saw the star leading them to Jesus (Matt. 2:10).
I saw something recently, which reminded me of Christmas and what it’s all about; it was at the swimming pool, where one of our boys was having a swimming lesson. The teacher was standing on the edge of the pool while her class were splashing away in the water beneath her. Everything was going fine except that there was a little girl who was getting increasingly frustrated; she just couldn’t keep us with the others in the class and she had started crying. So the teacher, wearing a tracksuit, got into the pool and held the little girl and spoke encouraging words to her and walked with her up and down the pool along with all the other children. Soon the little girl was smiling again. It reminded me of how God came down to us, to help us, to show us the way but of course Jesus did so much more than that; He was not only born for us, but as we know, he died on the cross for us too and rose again for us as well. What a God we have. Rejoice we must.
Next Paul wrote:
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
The word ‘gentleness’ (ἐπιεικής), means to be gentle in terms of being fair and reasonable, not to judge by the ‘letter of the law’ but by the ‘spirit of the law’. So when Paul says “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” He is talking about the way that the Philippians (and us) should live our lives everyday. What kind of reputation do we have outside of the walls of this church? Are we known as a hard-nosed businessman, as a ‘chancer’ or ‘cute hoor’? When people think of us do they think of someone who is gentle, someone who is fair and kind-hearted? We are to live lives where we reflect Jesus. Are people drawn towards Jesus or away from Jesus when they encounter us?
We have another link with Advent when Paul writes the four-word sentence:
The Lord is near.
There is a clever double meaning here. Yes the Lord is near to us, closer than we would think and there is nowhere we can go in this life where the Lord would not be near to us (Psalm 139:7-10). There is also the sense that the Lord is near as in the second coming. So the point is that we should be encouraged to let our gentleness be known to everyone because Jesus is with us and He will help us, but also that we should let our gentleness be known to everyone because time is short, we need to seize the opportunities that God gives us because we never know when time will come to an end. We could die tomorrow, the person we are trying to show God’s love to could die today. The Lord could return at any moment, so for God’s sake and for the sake of those around us, let our gentleness be known to everyone.
Next comes the bit we’ve all been waiting for; they are some of the most famous and popular verses in the whole Bible. Paul writes:
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.
Q. What lies at the bottom of the ocean and twitches?
A. A nervous wreck.
The beginning of anxiety is the end of faith, and the beginning of true faith is the end of anxiety. (George Muller.)
I heard a good definition of worry recently, that it is ‘meditation but without the prayer!’ I really hope that we all make time to meditate on Scripture, that is why we have our ‘memory verses’ in the Service Guide each week to help us get started. The idea is that you read the verse or verses over and over, again and again and you let the words sink into you and soak into your soul. You absorb them so that they become a part of you. Have you ever seen a professional wine taster at work? The way they breathe in deeply as they sip the wine and let flavours wash back and forth over their tongue and they savour the different nuances and characteristics of the grape is amazing to watch. Meditating on Scripture is a bit like that, though of course we do not spit it out at the end! When we worry about something, we let it roll over and over in our mind and it can be so bad that it can stop us eating or sleeping properly (or worse). Worry is self-destructive, but meditation is something that builds us up and gives us strength, it is nourishing and life-giving. Paul tells us not to worry about anything at all but instead to turn what is on our minds into a prayer. It is very easy to turn a worry into a prayer is it not? We just have to direct what is on our minds towards God; give Him a list of all the things that are worrying or concerning us. As we do this, we are to be thankful, thankful that we have a God who hears and answers our prayers. When we post a letter into the letter box, we don’t think that it is going to disappear into a hole in the ground and never be seen again, we have faith that it will arrive at its intended destination and that the person will read it. In a much greater way, when we pray we know that without delay our Heavenly Father hears us and that our prayer is answered even before we have finished praying.
When we realise this, it should fill us with a peace that can only come from God, a peace which is beyond all human understanding. The word used for peace (εἰρήνη) includes the idea of being whole or complete; when you have your shoe-laces undone the laces are all over the place and you may well trip over them, but when they are tied, they are whole and complete and as they should be. Similarly our minds are not at peace when we have thoughts all over the place, but in the place of prayer, where we lay all before God, He takes our thoughts, concerns and worries from us and onto Himself. Remember the Lord Jesus said:
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:29)
Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)
It’s funny isn’t it how often we seem to want to hold on to our worries, fears and anxieties, it is almost as if we find that they give us purpose and something to live for. But God wants us to be free (John 8:36), Has has a wonderful plan and purpose for our lives, He longs for us to trust Him; trust Him with our hearts, our lives, our family, trust Him with our past, trust Him now and trust him for the future. He wants us to trust Him with our parents, our children our spouse and all our relationships. He wants us to take a hold of His outstretched nail-pierced hands and let Him lead us through the fullness of a life lived not for ourselves, but for Him, who made us for that very purpose, to have a relationship with Him.
If you are still awake at this point you might very well ask me: How can I have this life that you are talking about? I go to church, I pray, I pay all my taxes but I just don’t know God the way you are describing. What do I need to do?
It’s all about passion. How much do you want to know God? Do you hunger after Him, thirst with longing, or are you just content with an on-off relationship without real commitment? What if you were to say to your wife or husband: “Well I can see you this Sunday morning for an hour and maybe one evening a week for another hour or two, but that’s all.” They probably wouldn’t be too impressed would they! In fact you couldn’t have a marriage like that, so what makes us think we can have a relationship with our Creator like that? We need to be in relationship with God ALL THE TIME, and if we only limit God to a couple of slots a week, then that is why our relationship with him is lukewarm at best. In Jeremiah 29:13, God says to His people:
When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.
If we seek God with all of our heart, we really will find Him.
May we pray: … Amen