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Commanded to Rejoice?!

    Dec 16, 2018

    Passage: Philippians 4:4-7

    Preacher: Rev. Dr. Alfonso Espinosa

    Category: Sunday, Advent


    4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

    Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

    Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Lord, this is one of those texts in Holy Scripture that is well-known and popular. I learned a little song a long time ago based on Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; [and] again I say, Rejoice! (repeat, then) Rejoice! Rejoice! And again, I say, Rejoice! (repeat).” I have fond memories of serving many youth groups and Vacation Bible Schools especially during college when this song was a regular part of our repertoire. And yet, there is a serious need to put these words in proper context and to strive to understand what the Lord is here revealing to us, especially as Christmas approaches. All of us want joy – and make no mistake about it – true joy is the only proper response towards the Coming King…but what does this Scripture mean when we quite often – if we are honest – don’t have joy?

    Too often – like I used to do on youth ministry teams back in college – we recite the words, “rejoice in the Lord always” and sometimes give people the impression that we are at all costs to quote unquote “put on a happy face.” But if we are not careful, the expression of our Christian faith could become hypocritical and just plain phony.

    When we are honest, however, we realize that we have this thing called a “sinful nature.” Yes, even Christians have evil thoughts, Christians often feel as though they lack joy and peace as their thoughts are full of confusion and distress. One of my old seminary professors – who is now in heaven – wrote, “Christians easily become downhearted.” (Buls, 8) He wrote, “The tearful, frightened, sorrowing, confused Christian is a fit subject for the Gospel in all its sweetness.” (ibid, 10) Point blank, our human mind apart from the help of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, has no choice but to succumb to anxiety. This is what sinners experience: since our hearts (our whole personality) is steeped in sin, then the thoughts that flow from this condition of the heart are inevitably not thoughts of peace and joy, but thoughts that raise anxiety and worry.

    The original disciples themselves dealt with these problems. In John 14:27, our Lord had to tell them “not to let their hearts be troubled and neither be afraid.” Why would Jesus say this if not for the fact that this was exactly what they were dealing with?! In like manner, our Lord comforted the disciples when he said, “…In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Why say this? It was because they felt tribulation! They knew what it felt like to lose heart!

    So, Luther says in taking the meaning of Philippians 4:4 into consideration – Luther expresses a balanced view – “To be gloomy before God is not pleasing to Him, although He would permit us to be depressed before the world.” (Lutheran Study Bible, 2038) Chrysostom helps us to understand our admixture experience: “This rejoicing is not separable from grief, for indeed it is rather deeply connected with grief. The one who grieves for his own wrongdoing and confesses it is joyful. Alternatively, it is possible to grieve for one’s own sins but rejoice in Christ (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VIII, 281).” This leads us to call attention to a key qualifier in our text right off the bat: we are to rejoice in what? Answer: We are to rejoice in the Lord!

    It is easy to feel emotional joy when you get a bonus at work, to get a nifty present for Christmas, to feel joy upon the realization that you’ve got a good, loving friend, to get our favorite meal, to get a new car, etc. These things evoke a natural response of joy, but St. Paul is looking at the big picture in life. What happens when you get bad news? What happens when you feel as though you’re in an entangled mess where all your “options” lead to an inevitable dilemma? What happens when you’re confronted with the real yucky stuff that indeed can sometimes even be life-threatening? What about joy then? In this context, we turn away from easy-joy 101, and move on to needing joy in the advanced courses of life!

    Is joy possible in these situations? We must say unhesitatingly – because the Word of God teaches it – absolutely and beyond a shadow of a doubt! And let’s face it; this is the joy we are really interested in! This is the joy we really need! Consider this Scripture from Hebrews 12:2 describing the ministry of our Savior: “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” That joy for our Savior was the joy of bringing you and me to salvation through the cross. The cross was agonizing. The cross was excruciating, but it was ALSO the means for our forgiveness and salvation. It was this “ALSO” clause that our Savior looked upon and knew true joy even through the cross!

    This principle is true for Christians as well as their Savior after Whom they are named. Consider Matthew 5:11-12: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

    It is hard and painful and causes great anxiety to rise from our flesh when we are mistreated! To be mistreated is the cause of great anxiety that can easily keep you up all night! But during this, the original disciples – who especially faced persecution as they were either martyred or exiled for the faith (do we really have anything to complain about?), they were called by the Lord to “rejoice and be glad.” Why? Because of the salvation set before them. Their roads – even if they were roads of extreme hardship – were paved to lead them back to the salvation that is in Christ Jesus. Jesus was the cause of their joy; Jesus was their assurance that everything bad would be used by God to lead to greater blessings in Christ. Even if it meant that they would simply get better at falling into the arms of their Savior! 

    Which leads me to really appreciate how this text presents the concept of joy. It is something commanded of us. And let’s face it: if we conceive of this as essentially a feeling, then the imperative command from the Lord will seem very confusing to us. How does one “flip a switch?!” If you are going through great anxiety, do you simply “feel better” because you think that this is what God is commanding you to do? This invites again terrible – and unnecessary – confusion. This peace, however, is objective. Now, I’m not saying that this objective peace cannot and does not lead to subjective, emotional peace. It does, and it should (indeed, it must) …eventually, but you know the old saying, “first things first!” And if we lose the emphasis, if we lose the objectivity of this peace and the proper order of things, then we will never know the subjective peace. So, our focus is not on an impossible and phony “flip of the switch,” but rather our focus is on Saint Paul’s true meaning.

    This peace is the peace that Christ has established between you and your Maker, the Creator, your Heavenly Father. Through the blood of Jesus, peace between you and God has been established. This is now an objective fact: you have peace with God. You are no longer His enemy and as a result, God your friend is committed to standing by your side to help you, to deliver you, to save you, to bless you no matter what you face! And what truly encourages you and propels you in this real reason for joy is the fact that the Lord is near; His coming is soon…before you know it, we will know nothing, but glory and we will not even be able to remember what caused us anxiety and worry. This is the truth, this is a fact and this is the objective basis for our peace which stands as a guard at the entrance of our heart: The Lord is with me and His coming is very soon…I have reason once again to rejoice, because none of my earthly troubles will last, none of them will take me from Christ, none of them can remove the crown I will receive on account of Christ! And all of them are a reminder for me to call on the Name of my Coming King who has already saved me!

    This is what the Lord will do for you, but in this faith that God creates He also creates a new life in you that lives in a way that the world does not know. The Lord has created a new response in you and in me to anxiety that is part and parcel of the work of peace that flows from Christ even now. What am I talking about? The Lord gives us a new response to anxiety and worry. And if we are faithless, if we choose to ignore what this new life does, and we don’t do it, then we are to blame for taking on and accepting more anxiety and worry than is necessary. All of us will experience anxiety and worry, but every Christian here this morning has been given a stupendous resource that serves as an antidote to the anxiety and worry you face.

    The answer according to Philippians 4 is prayer. Skeptics have a hey-day with this. “But doesn’t God already know what you need? Why pray?” These are the questions of the spiritually blind. It is true that the Word of God states that our Heavenly Father knows what we need even before we ask (Matthew 6:8), but this is a revelation of God’s power and omniscience; it leads us to marvel in awe at our great God, but it is does not cancel our need for prayer. Prayer is the exercise of faith. Prayer is not something God needs, it is something we need as we strive to live in His gift of faith. And when we pray, we are helped, because the gift of faith is a powerful gift from God and when we use it – by His grace – we are quite simply blessed. That’s just the way it is.

    So, what is the practical help we have against anxiety and worry? Do you realize the cross-road we’ve come to in this sermon? Do you realize how much money we spend on worldly resources to address our anxiety and worry? What will you do dear Christian with this revelation? May we quite simply do what the Lord says to do by His grace, by His Word, and by His Spirit. Keep the Lord’s straight-forward message to you in your heart: James 4:2 says, “…You do not have, because you do not ask.”

    Saint Paul instructs us in one little verse our response – God’s antidote to anxiety and worry – and it is verse 6 of Philippians 4: “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Look carefully at this Word, there are four things involved in God’s prescription against anxiety and worry which tries to rob your joy founded on Christ. Here it is, when anxiety and worry strike, do this:

    1. Pray
    2. Make supplication
    3. Give thanks
    4. Make requests

    The first word drives us to pray, to come before the Lord and to call on the Name of the Lord and then offer your supplication, offer the real struggle that is there like the Psalmist did in Psalm 73. He admitted to being confused and confounded; he confessed his weariness; he admitted that he was brutish and ignorant (verses 16 and 22), but then he confesses his faith: that he knew the Lord was truly with him and that the Lord would guide him and that the Lord would receive him into glory (verses 23-24). And with such supplications that bring the saving faith to mind, thank the Lord, thank the Lord, and thank the Lord…thank Him…you cannot thank too much…and if there is anything that anxiety and worry cannot live with, then it is a heart full of thanksgiving! Thanksgiving kills anxiety; it is the destroyer of worry! And finally, don’t forget the last element, make requests…ask, ask, ask. These words remind us of what our Lord said in Luke 11:10: ASK, SEEK, KNOCK; look at what the acronym emphasizes:

    A sk

    S eek

    K nock

    = ASK, ASK, ASK! It means your faith is alive; it means that you are expressing what faith does…it expects and receives the grace of God in Christ! Asking means that you trust and believe that God is your Gracious God and He is! Christ has guaranteed it through His life, death, and resurrection for you!

    And when this is your way of responding to all anxiety and worry which constantly confronts you (which way is a gift from the Lord by His work in you through Word and Sacrament), then we may live in the rest of this word, we may then show to all people the “reasonableness” that the Lord has equipped us with. What is this? The word is expressed in Latin by cedo…to yield. You don’t have to try to “force” anything…we can step back and confess that we are only poor sinners, we are weak, we are nothing and we don’t have to behave as if the world depends on us to keep rotating on its axis. It is a word that might be translated as “chill.” Don’t pursue your rights, your fears, your “needs” …let go of yourself and live your faith: you are already rich; you are already strong; you have already been given all things…such a faith makes us gentle. It makes us treat others not as competitors or as threats, but as people we may witness to. To show the gentleness and service we have already received from the King of Kings…this we may give to those we encounter, because God has made us joyful on account of the salvation we’ve received in Christ;  and His peace guards our hearts so that when anxiety strikes we pray, we make supplication, we give thanks, we make requests…and so we can live around others not all stressed-out so that we are tempted to try to control other people, but we can yield to them by being gentle toward them…and why not? We are now people filled with joy; we are now people kept in peace!