Friends, this is a perfect little scripture passage to read aloud together today. It’s Thanksgiving, it’s good to take a weekend to rejoice. It’s good to take some time to set aside anxieties. It’s good to gather around a table, pass a plate of turkey, and focus on thankfulness. I don’t think any one would disagree. But this passage doesn’t say, Rejoice in the Lord this the weekend. It says, Rejoice in the Lord always.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
These words from the Bible are familiar to many of us. And they’re really lovely and encouraging. But… are they realistic? Is this a real thing? Is it possible for us to rejoice always, to not be anxious about anything, to pray in everything?
The book of Philippians was penned by the Apostle Paul, a man whom God called and then empowered to tell people throughout the Middle East the good news that Jesus from Nazareth is Lord, and that God is establishing a brand new, diverse, holy people through Jesus’ death, resurrection, and reign. Paul traveled around, shared this news about Jesus, he established small churches of people who believed his message, and then he wrote a lot of letters to these different groups in order to support them, encourage them, and correct them, as they sought to live together under Jesus’ lordship as God’s new people.
Paul wrote this particular letter, and these particular words to a small group of Christians in the city of Philippi. And I bet that they themselves had that question that I just asked: Thanks, Paul, that sounds really good.… but, is that realistic?
The Christians living in Philippi had some significant concerns, some genuine reasons to be anxious. The cultural climate at the time was tenuous. They were living in a Roman colony in the Roman Empire and to proclaim that someone was Lord rather than Caesar at best, got you mocked and lost you some business and at worst got you killed. The practice of feeding Jesus-followers to lions in a Roman arena for entertainment hadn’t started up yet at the time that these words were written, but that kind of persecution was on the horizon. They could feel it in the air. They could sense it in their gut.
Don’t be anxious about anything?
Those of us here don’t have that specific concern, but we do have real reasons to feel anxious. Cancer. Chronic pain. Mental health, our own or that of a loved one. That sadness or anger or despair that you just can’t seem to shake. A broken or strained relationship at work or at home that seems to colour everything. Will my struggling child be okay? Will my ailing parent be okay? Will my sibling survive this tough time? Will it get done? Will it heal? Do I have what it takes? Why isn’t this working? Will we make it through?
Don’t be anxious about anything.
If you yourself have ever asked that question, or if you are connected to anyone that is asking themselves that question, this word from God is especially for you today: Is it realistic to rejoice in the Lord always? Yes. Is it realistic to not be anxious about anything? Yes. Is it realistic to pray with thanksgiving in every situation? Yes.
And the key here is this: The Lord is near. Listen for that little sentence again. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Jesus told his followers two things before he left them. First, he told them that he was going to come back. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, The Lord is near, that is what is is referring to. Jesus’ return. Don’t forget, Paul says, he’s coming back. And he is coming back soon. His return is near. And when the Lord comes, he has promised to bring full justice, bring full healing, right everything wrong, mend everything broken, get rid of every trace of sin, and wipe every tear from his beloved children’s eyes. The Lord is near. And he will set it right.
Second, Jesus told his followers that in the meantime, while they waited for him, he wasn’t going to leave them on their own. He was going to give them the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the third person of the almighty, most holy, eternal Trinity to live in them and in their little church. The Lord is near. The Lord is near in that we have received His Spirit. And the Spirit in us gives us power to engage our circumstances. The Spirit in us gives us strength to persevere when weak. The Spirit in us comforts us in our pain. The Spirit in us guides us into truth. The Spirit in us helps us to pray.
And that there is the thing. The Truth is that the Lord is near. The action that comes out of that truth is prayer. The Lord is near. Therefore, when faced with the myriad of things that cause you to be anxious, instead of putting your mental/emotional/ spiritual energy into circling and stewing and stressing and fretting and planning and wringing your hands and crossing your fingers, put your capacities into prayer. Because the Lord is near.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
A few comments about prayer here. While prayer is totally the natural result of faith in the reality that the Lord is near, it is by no means easy. Not unlike learning how to ride a bike, it might feel hard and awkward, and not very fun at first. But, don’t get discouraged! Just because it’s hard right now doesn’t mean it’s not your gift or you’re not meant to do it. Prayer is for every Christian. The Lord is near to each of us. Put in the commitment. Put in the time. Ask some questions, get some instruction, find some accountability. And as you do, you’ll notice that getting on that bike, finding your balance and keeping your balance becomes easier… and it even becomes fun.
Another comment about prayer is that prayer is not meant to be a tactic for avoidance. It’s not meant to enable you to avoid looking at your hard things. It’s not meant to enable you to avoid feeling your hard feelings. And it’s certainly not meant to enable you to view your life with fake, rose-coloured glasses. It’s not that things aren’t actually as bad as they seem. For some of you, things really are that bad. And it’s not that you might not get hurt. Some of you have been. And some of you will be. The call to pray when you feel anxious is meant to ground you in the fact that there is a Truth that trumps your hard circumstances. The call to pray when you feel anxious is meant to give you a deep, unshakable peace as you look at your hard things, as you wade through your hard feelings, as you engage your difficult circumstances.
And a last thing comment about prayer is this bit about thanksgiving. When we present our requests to God, we are to do so with thanksgiving. The thanksgiving part of our prayer when it’s being referred to here is less about the material things God has given us, and more about the spiritual things. It’s not so much the habit of saying while praying, “Well, Lord, I’m so anxious about this job situation, but thank you at least for my health.” It’s not so much, “Well, I’m really worried about this terrible illness that I’m facing, but at least I have some supportive family members.” It’s good to be grateful for everything, God is the One who gives us even these material things. But, here, the instruction is to recognize what we have been given spiritually in Christ, and to let our thankfulness for that shape our prayer. Thank you God, for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Thank you God, that I have been incorporated into your people by your grace. Thank you God, that Jesus is coming soon to make a new world of which I get to be apart. Thank you God, that until then, I have your Spirit to be with me always. Thank you God that, you are near.
I was with my family at the breakfast table earlier this week. And I was eating my bowl of granola, and I didn’t have much of an appetite, because I was feeling anxious. There are a number of challenges on my plate right now, minor ones relatively speaking, but a few that I’m needing to manage all at the same time. And I was thinking about all those things, and then I was thinking about adding sermon-writing, and I had the feeling in my chest, that heaviness combined with a tightness, and I said aloud, “I feeling nervous about this week. I’m anxious. I feel afraid.” And Dave said, “You don’t have to be afraid.” And then he said, “I mean, if you were doing it all alone and if the outcome was up to you, then you should afraid. But, you’re not alone. And the outcome is not up to you.” In other words, he was reminding me, “The Lord is near.”
Put yourself at my breakfast table, feel your own heaviness, and insert your own concern into the conversation. Insert whatever minor challenge you are dealing with. Or insert that giant one you are facing right now. That word is meant for all of us, and it is meant for each and every situation. You are not alone. The outcome does not depend on you. The Lord is near.
Don’t be anxious about anything? Is it realistic? Yes, brother. Yes, sister. Yes, friend who is listening in. It is realistic. Because the Lord is seated securely on the throne. Because His is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory. Because He is coming soon to bring justice and healing to our broken lives and broken world. Because you belong to him! Because the Father smiles upon you and nothing can change that. Because Jesus died to win you and promises to keep you for eternity. And because the Spirit dwells within you, giving you everything you need to live your life with him and for him.
So, together, let’s … rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen!