This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, Oct. 15 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church. The scripture text is Philippians 4:1-9.
“Celebrate God all day, every day…revel in him” (v. 4). Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice! How can an attitude like that make any sense in today’s world of violence, fires and storms that devastate people’s lives and property? Additionally, it seems like we are on the threshold of war. Does such an attitude seem callous or fanatical? What was Paul thinking as he wrote this to the Philippian church?
For one thing, Paul had been through the school of hard knocks. He wrote this letter from prison and had experienced beatings and all kinds of problems for the faith. Remember that before becoming a follower of Jesus, Paul was a well-respected Jewish leader. He was zealous for his faith to the point of persecuting believers in Jesus.
The Philippians themselves were experiencing persecution, so you can imagine how the words, “Celebrate God all day, every day…revel in him” must have sounded to them. However, they trusted Paul who wrote to them as a father, brother, teacher and fellow-sufferer in the faith. He was the founder of their church along with Lydia and some other women as we’re told in Acts.
What we find in this final chapter of Philippians is a summary of what’s gone before, featuring practical advice for a life centered in Christ. In the beginning of this chapter, Paul gives specific instructions concerning two women and division in the church. He then gives general instructions to the Philippians, writing, “Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him!” (V. 4).—rejoice in the Lord always!
Right—isn’t that for crazy fanatics? That isn't real life and isn’t even nice when someone is suffering. Paul was not living in the lap of luxury in a big mansion, traveling around in his private jet.
Paul was in prison for his faith. Before coming to Christ, he was a well-respected religious leader. Life was good. Since his conversion, all kinds of troubles came his way. Just being a Christian and following Jesus does not immunize us from hardship. The difference is that we are not alone. Jesus is always with us and we also have our brothers and sisters in the faith with us, supporting us in our grief; and on top of all that, by the Holy Spirit, God is in us as well. God in and with us plus all of our sisters and brothers in the faith is what gives us hope.
Joy is a central theme in this letter and should be the distinctive mark of anyone who is a follower of Jesus. Paul is not talking about superficial happiness here, unlike the obligatory laughter of invisible (perhaps non-existent) audiences in TV sitcoms. There is a huge difference between something funny and deep joy, that wells up from within us because of God’s presence in our lives. Such joy has a lasting effect and power to change us, which is how we can manage the difficulties and fears of life. Paul could rejoice because he was unafraid of death, secure in the knowledge of his relationship with God. Such joy is completely dependent upon one’s relationship with the Lord Jesus.
In the face of suffering at the hands of their neighbors of the Empire, where Caesar was revered as “lord,” the Philippians are called upon to rejoice always, to revel in God. Problems are real, but they will not have the final word—God will.
Being on the side of others, “working with them and not against them” (v. 5) is what it means to be gentle. How we treat others, including those who are making life miserable for us, shows God’s work of grace in our lives, as the disposition of all God’s people.
“…the master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute.” There is a sense of Christ’s imminent return that Paul wants to communicate to his church. However, there is also the understanding of the now-ness of Christ’s presence. The NRSV translates this phrase as “The Lord is near” (4:5). The Philippians’ current suffering is at the hands of those who proclaim Caesar as lord. Paul reminds them that their true Lord is near. Using the language of the Psalms, Paul encourages the Philippians to pray in the midst of their difficult circumstances, because the Lord is near to those who call on Him. They are not alone. We are not left on our own.
Prayer is the roadway to peace, God’s wholeness and shalom. “Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers” (v. 6). Paul deliberately joins God’s peace with the exhortation to pray in trusting submission with thanksgiving. This is God’s antidote to worry. The result is, “Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down” (v. 7).
Christ displaces worry (v. 7). There are desperate situations all around us. What do we have to say to those suffering? There are still injured in the hospitals in Las Vegas. Clean up and rebuilding is happening where hurricanes and flooding have wreaked havoc. The fires in the west are worsening. In California, whole neighborhoods have been leveled.
How would we respond if we were in their shoes? We too, would be devastated and rightly so. God does hear and answer prayer—whether it means stopping evil and devastation or if it’s his presence as we go through the difficulties.
Paul gives final instructions on how to live a godly life. He tells the Philippians to let their minds be captivated by what is right and good-by filling their minds and meditating on what’s true as defined by what’s found in God and the gospel, by what’s noble, honorable, worthy of respect, by what’s reputable-not according to human understanding, but according to God and his relationship with his people, by the authentic; whatever is not tainted by evil, by the compelling-what people consider lovable in the sense of having a friendly disposition toward it, by the gracious; which is admirable as well as moral; the best and the beautiful; which is excellent, virtue filled with Christian content exemplified by Paul’s life and teaching, along with things to praise, meaning not simply general ethical judgment but conduct keeping with God’s own righteousness.
Paul does not give this list of virtues for the Philippians to thoughtlessly embrace. They are to consider and think about them. You need to see how this works? Look at Paul! These are not some fluffy, pie in the sky thoughts Paul communicates, but real things that will work in life’s circumstances and actions. “What you learned…heard…saw and realized” (v. 9). Paul is passing along a tradition—the body of teaching giving identity and continuity to the Christian community.
What do we think about? Is it the latest fashion, television show, electronics or some other craze? Or are we thinking about our finances and trying to make ends meet? Our minds go to all kinds of places. Can we commit ourselves to really mull over these virtues Paul is extolling? Will this make a difference in our lives and congregation? This can only be accomplished through our relationship with God and each other.
For the Philippians, Paul ends his letter on a note of imitation. Unlike what some of us may have heard growing up, it’s not a matter of “do as I say and not as I do,” but do as I say and as I do. Watch me. Look at me. You will see the life of Christ in me. It was a matter of what they had learned from him, heard, saw and realized. “Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies” (v. 9).
William R. Barclays, Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9.
Christian A. Eberhart,
The IVP New Testament Commentary Series