Sermon preached at Vespers for the 61st Annual Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Coventry
2 October 2015
Ps. 119:145–52; Philippians 4:4–9; Luke 11:5–13
There are certain commands that almost always have the opposite effect from what they actually command. An exasperated parent’s “For goodness sake, stupid child, stop being so miserable” is likely to add to rather than reduce said child’s misery. A drill sergeant yelling at privates to “stop being afraid or else” will only add to their fear. When I was a young schoolboy, I was often told by playground bullies to do something or I would cry and do it. It didn’t take us long to come up with what we thought was a great witticism: cheer up, or you’ll cry and cheer up.
At first sight, it appears that in the reading from Philippians, chapter 4, the apostle Paul is guilty of issuing such counter-productive commands. And not only one of them, but several.
Rejoice in the Lord always!
Do not be anxious about anything.
You can’t tell people to rejoice. They either do, or they don’t. Your telling them to do so won’t change a thing, except perhaps put pressure on them to be joyful, thereby killing whatever joy they had to start with.
Likewise, if someone has a tendency to be anxious, telling not to be anxious simply makes matters worse. Before, they were anxious about X, Y and Z. Now they are anxious about X, Y, Z and the fact that they are anxious when they shouldn’t.
It seems that Paul is being as profound as Bobby McFerrin—Don’t Worry, Be Happy—without the catchy tune at least to cheer us up for a moment.
But the trouble isn’t with the apostle Paul, or with any other part of God’s word. The trouble is, as always, with our sinful and blinded eyes, ears and hearts. When we hear a command, what we hear is an instruction for us to go and do something. To make matters worse, in our superficial and emotionally shallow times, when we hear of joy and anxiety, we are prone to think only of feelings and emotions. And so we hear the apostle telling us to go and sort out our feelings.
But this is not what St. Paul is saying at all. He doesn’t write, “Be happy all the time.” Instead, he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” He doesn’t write, “Don’t ever feel worried.” Instead, he writes, “Do not be anxious about anything.” And therein lies all the difference—a command for positive feelings is replaced by the gift of confidence in God’s goodness.
In fact, the Scriptures are full of exhortations to rejoice: in the Law of Moses, in the Psalms, in the prophets. Jesus himself, in the Sermon on the Mount, issues the same command at the end of the Beatitudes: “Rejoice and be glad.” (Matt. 5:12)
Likewise, a little later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us not to be anxious about anything but to seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. What Paul teaches the Philippians is nothing other than what Jesus teaches.
And herein lies the difference between earthly joy and joy in the Lord, between earthly contentment and contentment in the Lord: what God demands, Jesus always supplies. And that which Jesus supplies never fails.
In this world, we have moments of joy and moments of sorrow, moments of contentment and moments of anxiety—depending on the circumstances. We rejoice when good things happen and we are contented when we have health, prosperity and security. But since we can’t rely on these things, we can’t rely on lasting joy and contentment. Sorrow and anxiety will take their place, whether we like it or not. No amount of positive thinking can turn illness and death, unemployment and bankruptcy, loneliness and bereavement, loss and missed opportunity into good news. No amount of wishful thinking can take away uncertainty about what the future might bring into certainty.
Moreover, Jesus fails to promise us that it would be otherwise. In this world you will have sorrow, he promises the disciples. And his command to rejoice and be glad is not a general call for cheerfulness: Rejoice and be glad when they persecute you for righteousness’ sake, Jesus says, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Do not be anxious about tomorrow, Jesus says, for tomorrow will be anxious about itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
But in Jesus, we have joy and contentment that depends on only one thing: on Jesus himself. He brings joy, because he brings heaven to us, and in heaven there is nothing but joy. He brings contentment to us, because he brings the riches of heaven and the promises of God to us, and such heavenly treasure is inexhaustible, incorruptible, and beyond the reach of moths and thieves. Fix your eyes on Jesus, and you will behold an immovable mark that cannot and will not fail.
Are you dying? Rejoice, for death has been defeated! Are you lonely? Rejoice, for you are counted among the innumerable host of saints and angels! Have you suffered loss? Rejoice, for Christ has come to make all things new! Are you grieving? Rejoice, for Christ is risen and he is trampling down every enemy, including death itself!
Are you poor? Don’t be anxious, for God knows your needs and how to supply them. Is your future uncertain? Don’t be anxious, for the past, the present and the future are the Lord’s. Are you fearful about tomorrow? Don’t be anxious, for God will command His angels to guard you in all your ways.
And how do I gain access to this joy and this contentment? By living in meditation of God’s word and prayer.
Through God’s word, the promises are both made and delivered. Through the Word, Christ comes to me with his promises. Through the Word of Christ, faith is created, and through faith all the promises of God become ‘yes’. The more you hear God’s word proclaimed to you, the more you will hear God’s ‘yes’ in Christ. And like a bride, the more you receive the bridegroom’s love, the more your trust in him and love for him grows.
The more you study God’s word, the more you learn about His character, His ways, His will and His pledges. And you will learn the meaning of those great words of faith: “for you”. Not only did God create the world—He created the world for you. Not only did God send His Son into the world—He sent Him for you. Not only did Christ live, suffer, die and rise—He did it all for you. And if God did not spare His own Son but gave him up for us all, how will He not also with him graciously give us all things?
And so faith is put to work in the school of prayer. We pray, not in order to persuade God, or because He won’t give unless you ask really nicely. We pray so that we may learn to entrust ourselves to Him. This is the point of Jesus’ parable of the persistent friend. In this world, we have to nag and to be a nuisance in order to get what we need. And yet, if we do it well enough, we will get what we want from the most unwilling of givers. But if that’s the case, how much more will we receive when we turn with equal persistence to Him who gladly gives us more than we can imagine?
When we thus allow God to nourish our faith through His word, and we exercise that faith in a life of diligent prayer, we find that we receive the most precious gift Jesus can bestow on us in this life: the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.
Note that Paul does not say, as I have heard many preachers say, “the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding”. No, it’s the peace that surpasses all understanding. There is no mind, except the mind of God itself, that can comprehend this peace: the peace that emanates from the character of God Himself, this God of peace. The God of peace who was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, even while we were yet enemies, dead in our trespasses and sins. When we receive Christ, who Himself is our peace, we receive the full reconciliation that flows from the heart of God Himself, together with His eternal tranquillity. He has nothing to fear, no enemies or troubles to worry about—and in Christ, He calls us to share in that peace. This He does by undertaking to be the guarantor of our very life.
The world is a busy and noisy place. Unless we keep up, we get left behind and trampled down. With our modern conveniences, we have managed to make life even busier than before by making it possible to work even when nature tells us to stop by switching off the lights. It’s hard to find the time to carry out even daily necessities of life, let find time for prayer and contemplation.
Yet, all that for which we toil is only for a time. It will pass, as will our lives. But the Word of the Lord endures forever, and so do all who have been born of that living Word. Every promise will eventually lapse—but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. If we fill our lives with everything but God’s Word and prayer, they remain as full as a bathtub without a plug while the tap is still running.
But in Christ, the fullness of God dwells bodily: when we seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness—gifts that God the Father gladly gives through His Son by the Holy Spirit—all these other things will be added to us as well
When we meditate on God’s Word, we are in fact listening to Christ. He comes to us and fills us with the joy of salvation. The more we mediate, the more we hear, and the more we receive the assurance of the Gospel – showing and delivering to us the love of the Father.
Then we will also know the value of letting our requests be known to God in everything by prayer and supplication – since we can be sure that He delights to hear us and to demonstrate His love to us.
And so when Scripture commands us to rejoice, we find yet again that God Himself supplies that which He expects: since the Lord is at hand, the joy of His everlasting kingdom is also in our midst. Against every experience, what we sang in tonight’s Psalm is the truth:
But you are near, O Lord,
and all your commandments are true.
And so the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.