I rejoice[g] in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.[h]
I love what Paul says here in Philippians. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice!”
Joy is an important part of being a Christian.
Our Old Testament lesson says, “Shout for Joy!”
Our first hymn says, “Rejoice Ye Pure In Heart.”
In a few minutes we will sing another hymn which will say, “Rejoice give thanks and sing!”
Smile, God loves you!
Don’t worry! Be happy!
But what if you are not in a good mood? What if you don’t feel like smiling or signing praises to God?
You ever come to church in a bad mood?
Maybe it is something small. Your back hearts on Sunday morning from all of the yard work you did on Saturday. Or you are upset with your spouse or someone in your family. Or breakfast just didn’t go very well?’
Or it is something that is not small at all.
You have cancer, and you are so tired of the radiation or chemo therapy.
You don’t have a job – or you have a job, but you aren’t sure you will have one next week.
Your bills are way too high, and your salary is way too low.
Your son or your granddaughter spent the weekend in jail.
And yet, here is Paul saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice!”
Man! If you are in a bad mood or if you are filled with sorrow, it sometimes seems like the last thing you need is for someone to come to you bubbling over with joy telling you to rejoice!
Who does Paul think he is to tell us to rejoice?
But wait a minute here!
At the beginning of his letter he says, “I am in chains for the Lord,” and he meant that literally. Paul is in prison.
Paul is going through a difficult time.
But Paul had often gone through difficult times.
In another one of his letters, in II Corinthians, chapter 11, Paul reflects on his life. He says, “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.
“Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.
“Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,
“I have been constantly on the move.
“I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.
“I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”
Paul has had a difficult life. And yet, he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.”
How can you feel joy in worship, or in life in general, when things are not going your way?
First, “Don’t be anxious.”
Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice,” and he follows that with the mandate, “Don’t be anxious for anything.”
But Paul didn’t live in 21st Century
– we are anxious about EVERYTHING.
Years ago, my son went to his first day of Kindergarten. His Mom was excited, I was excited. My son was a bit reserved. He didn’t seem to be anxious, just reserved. I thought perhaps he was simply trying to act cool.
When he got home, I asked him, “How was your first day of Kindergarten?”
“Terrible,” he said. “It was the second worst day of my entire life.”
I suppose I should have started by asking what made Kindergarten so bad, but first, I really needed to satisfy my curiousity. “Son,” I asked, “What was the first worst day of your entire life?”
My 5 year old son plopped onto the sofa and said with despair, “The first day of college.”
A lot of things we are anxious about are things that are nothing – it is as if we look for things to worry about.
I think that a lot of people in the corporate world are so anxious about being sued; they go overboard to warn us about the dangers of their products.
In every McDonalds, there is a sign somewhere that says, “Warning, coffee may be hot.” I think most customers WANT their coffee hot, but years ago someone spilled some McDonalds coffee in his lap, got badly burned and was actually in the hospital for 8 days where she had to receive skin grafts for the 3rd degree burns that covered 16% of her body. (Leibeck v. McDonalds, 1994). They were terrible burns and this poor woman really suffered, and she successfully sued McDonalds. So now, McDonalds has anxiety about that and has put up warning signs about the hot coffee is hot.
On my wife’s hair dryer there is a tag that reads, “Warning, do not use hair dryer while in the bathtub.”
I read this on an iron – “Caution, do not iron clothes while wearing them.”
We are bombarded with warnings about food and drugs that cause cancer in laboratory mice. I actually read on a box of rat poison – RAT POISON: “Warning, this product has been found to cause cancer in laboratory mice.”
Some things are not worth being anxious about.
Some things, however, are worth the worry.
Harry S Truman ran for reelection and campaigned against Dewey in 1948. On November 2nd, Truman voted, went to a small hotel, took a bath and went to bed. Thomas E. Dewey stayed awake all night long.
Both men believed in what they were doing and both believed he was the best candidate for the president. But Truman knew he had done all he could do, and went to bed and slept.
Years ago, I had a parishioner who had to have his leg amputated. Mr. Sanders was always in a good mood. Whenever you asked him how he was doing, he would say, “Ohhh, I am sooo happy.”
But on the night before his surgery, I went to visit him, knowing he would not be happy. He had followed every instruction the doctor had given him. He had struggled for months to keep his leg. Now he was about to lose it. His life was about to change.
I went into the hospital room, and Mr. Sanders looked at me and said, “I’m still happy.”
“Are you sure,” I asked. “You are facing a major event in your life.”
“I’ve done everything I could do. Now there is no choice. Tomorrow I will wake up without my right leg. But I’m happy that I have good doctors, good therapists, a good church, and a good family – and starting tomorrow everyone is going to be there for me and help me learn how to live without my leg.”
“Happy” was probably not the best choice of words, but when Mr. Sanders used it, what he probably meant was that he was at peace. He was free of anxiety.
He was about to do something he didn’t want to do, but he knew he could face reality without fear.
How do you get to that point? How do you free yourself from anxiety?
Well, Paul said, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice… Do not be anxious about anything, but pray…”
I had an Associate Pastor once who was fresh out of seminary. Great guy. Fantastic minister. But being fresh out of seminary, he didn’t have the confidence he should have had. And he developed a rash around his abdomen. He went to the doctor. The doctor said it wasn’t an allergy. It wasn’t eczema. It seemed to be some sort of stress related symptom.
The doctor asked, “Are you under a lot of stress at work.”
“Oh yes,” my colleague said.
“What do you do for a living,” the doctor asked.
“I’m a Presbyterian minister.”
The doctor paused for a moment and then asked, “Have you ever tried… prayer?”
My friend loves to tell that story on himself.
What do you do when you can’t rejoice? What do you do when you are anxious?
You don’t have to be in a good, happy mood to come to worship. Sometimes you come to worship because you are not happy, you are not rejoicing.
You come to pray, because you need to be in a better spiritual place in your life.
One commentator said that anxiety and prayer are more opposed to one another than fire and water. I like the way a church sign said it, "If your knees are knocking, kneel on them." [i]
Another way of dealing with life when you don’t feel like rejoicing, is to include in your prayers not only petitions to God that the Lord would change your situation, but to lift up prayers of thanks to God.
Now don’t misunderstand.
Paul is not giving a shallow, “Look on the bright side of life,” approach to life’s problems.
Paul is in prison, and he knows the harsh reality of his life. He is in chains. But the
has sent him a gift, and Paul writes them a thank you note. The New Testament letter to the Phillipians
is a thank you note. Philippian Church
Paul does not ignore the harsh reality of his life in prison, but he balances it with a gratitude for the things for which he is thankful.
I remember being with a parishioner for several hours. We were in a hospital waiting room. Her daughter was having surgery, and she had no other family, and I stayed with the mother. We chatted away and she told me all about herself, and finally she said, “I’ve told you all about me, but I don’t know that much about you. Are your parents still living?”
I told her my parents had both died. Mom had died of emphysema and my Dad had died from the same disease years later.
She asked me if I had any brothers and sisters.
I said I’d had two sisters, but one died during surgery and the other died as a child.
The parishioner looked at me and said, “My word, you have lived such a tragic life.”
Not at all.
I had never thought that I’d had a tragic life.
My Dad lived a long life and he knew he was about to die and as he was waiting for death, he told me, “I’ve lived a great life.”
What a wonderful gift to hear a loved one say that before death.
When my mother died, my first reaction was one of thankfulness. Her death had not been an easy one, but had been very painful. When she died I was so thankful that for her pain was now over and that she had entered the joy of God’s peace.
My oldest sister died while receiving a transplant. It hadn’t succeeded because she had emergency, experimental surgery 10 years earlier. Doctors did not know until the transplant that the experimental surgery would prevent them from being able to succeed at the transplant. But the experimental surgery had given her ten years she would not have had otherwise. What a great gift. She was able to see her children graduate from college, get married, and she met all but one of her grandchildren.
Few things can be harder on a family than having one of the children die. And while my family grieved deeply and for a long time, we were always grateful and thankful that this child had been adopted by our family and that we were able to provide her with a happy home during her short life.
Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice… Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thankfulness, present your requests to God.”
So what happens then? Are you able to finally rejoice because God hears your prayers and does what you want him to do?
In fact, not often.
I told you that I had two sisters. One died as a child. She had a brain tumor and she was sick for a long, long time. Our oldest sister had such faith. She prayed that God would heal that child. And believed. She knew without doubt that God would heal our sister.
My oldest sister got married and our younger sister was unable to go to the wedding. But the wedding reception was held at our home, and during the reception the child was brought downstairs to say goodbye right before our oldest sister left for her honeymoon.
My oldest sister knew that the child would soon be healed. She had such faith. She’d prayed so often and so hard.
That night, the child went into a coma and never recovered consciousness. She died ten days later.
My sister completely rejected God. How could a loving God let a child die?
She prayed so hard. She had believed. God had let her down.
For over a year, she refused to pray or to believe in God. She became bitter. But the day came when she felt overwhelmed by the peace of God. It was the moment she held her newborn, first infant child in her own arms.
My oldest sister never received what she desired, which was for our sister to be healed and to live. She received something better – a peace that was beyond her ability to understand. It was a peace that helped face the death of a sister. It was a peace that helped her raise two children of her own. It was a peace that helped her face a decade long illness of her own.
A peace that enabled her to rejoice even in sorrow.
When we pray, we should not think we are sitting on the lap of Santa Claus giving a list of things we want. Prayer is not a way of directing God to do our will as if he was some sort of “cosmic bellhop who is neither very bright nor very efficient.”[ii] When we pray, we seek to find a way to rejoice once again.
And so we come to worship – whether we are in a good mood, or a bad mood. We come to worship, in search of God and of his peace.
Copyright 2014, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh