“Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice. Let your forbearance be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. In nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.”
I’ve chosen as my text this morning the Philippians passage – ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say ‘rejoice’!’
I do this partly to spare you from having to hear my John the Baptist sermon again. I only have the one. More significantly though, I’ve chosen this passage because I’m conscious of the fact that‘rejoicing’ is not something I’ve been very good at of late.
Danielle, who was working with me on Friday, was telling me that she’d seen some statistics about how often children laughed in a day, compared to adults. She said this as we listened to my children laughing hysterically at something extraordinarily banal that was playing on the TV.
I can’t remember the figures now but they were quite extraordinary – something like 400 laughs per day per kid, whereas adults laugh on average about 4 times … per week! Danielle took these figures as evidence of the fact that she hadn’t grown up. The flip side of that, of course, is that I obviously have grown up, as I confess that I have become a rather miserable old sod of late.
Well … I’ve had a hard year – probably the hardest year of my life, and most people here have been very understanding of that. But then Paul walks in, saying, “Hey, why don’t you turn that frown upside-down?” and I feel like saying, “Oh … go away!”
You know the deal; ‘misery loves company’, but only if it’s miserable company, and the last thing I feel I need, when I’m busy feeling sorry for myself, is Paul waltzing in, singing, “If life seems jolly rotten, there’s one thing you’ve forgotten, and that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing!”
I find Paul a little hard to identify with at this point. I feel like saying, “what would you know?” But in truth I know full well that Paul did know what it was like to suffer. He knew very well. He might not have struggled with exactly the same things that have plagued me. I don’t think he ever had any teenage children to worry about, but in just about every other respect, I think he knew even my particular struggles very well.
Certainly he knew what it was like to struggle in your role as pastor of a church. Certainly he knew the difficulty of making ends meet financially, and certainly he knew what it was like to have people who hated you and wanted to destroy you. And yet he seems to retain a cheerful countenance even at the worst of times.
Indeed, at the time of writing this letter, we know full well that Paul was in prison, awaiting a trial that would determine whether he was to be executed. You wouldn’t think he had a lot to be joyful about! Even so, he says, ‘rejoice’!
What was his secret?
One possibility, of course, is that Paul was something of a masochist – that he somehow revelled in the pain?
The question has to be asked, for his writings do suggest that he was at times somewhat obsessed with his own suffering. He talks about it all the time. He lists his persecutions like a series of proud credentials:
“Five times I received the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure…” (2 Corinthians 11:24-29)
Paul does get preoccupied with his struggles and devotes a lot of thought to the subject of human suffering – this is true – and yet I believe that this is equally true of the New Testament as a whole.
I remember when Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ”, first came out, the most prevalent criticism I heard was that it was obsessed with suffering. My response was that this reflected the focus of the New Testament, and the Gospels in particular.
The Gospel of Mark, people often say, reads like a crucifixion narrative with an extended introduction. The mystery of the suffering of Christ is a focal point of the New Testament and of the Christian faith, and part of Paul’s preoccupation with his own struggles, I think you‘ll find, is that he can only ever see his own pain in the light of the sufferings of Christ.
There’s a lot more that could be said on this, but it will take us away from our text. Let it suffice today to say that Paul did indeed see significance in his own sufferings in the light of the sufferings of Christ, but this did not mean that he ever enjoyed any of it. On the contrary, just as we see Jesus praying for relief in the Garden of Gethsemane, so Paul tells us how he would often pray to God for relief.
Paul was no masochist. How then does he rejoice in the midst of his struggles? Was it all a bit of an act – putting on a brave face, showing that British stiff upper lip (even though he was Jewish).
This would certainly be consistent with his exhortation, “Let your forbearance be known unto all”, which sounds a lot like what we tell our boxers as they prepare for a fight: ‘Never let them know they’ve hurt you’. That’s an important part of the game
I still remember young Shane, whose baby we baptised earlier this year, when he was a much younger lad, around 13, having his second kickboxing fight (I think it was). He took a decent hit early in the first round and reacted with what was his typical clownish behaviour – shaking his head and over-reacting – and the referee stopped the fight!
Experienced fighters never show a reaction. You might be in agony, with a broken rib, and you might be seeing three of your opponent, but you keep a poker face, and if you can get in a clinch you say things like, ‘is that the best you can do?’
‘Never let them know they’ve hurt you!’ ‘Show that British stiff upper-lip’. ‘Suck in the pain and carry on as if nothing has happened!’
Is that St Paul? No, not at all! Indeed – the way Paul chronicles his history of suffering reflects the fact that he was very open about how much people hurt him.
Paul was no stoic, hiding his true thoughts and feelings behind a mask of inscrutability. On the contrary, Paul was a very openly passionate man – passionate in his warmth and affection towards those he loved, and passionate in his pain. Like his Lord Jesus, he wept and he bled and he did not try to conceal his humanity.
So how was it that he rejoiced in the midst of all this? A third possibility is that he knew it was doing him good – building his character.
This is what you hear from modern motivational speakers all the time – that ‘tough times don’t last but tough people do!’ and that it’s tough times that produce tough people.
Paul does indeed take that line in Romans 5, telling us that “suffering producesify> endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope”
I don’t think that’s what he’s got in mind though here as he writes to the Philippians, where he is likely facing imminent execution, for it doesn’t make much sense to speak of the character-building value of suffering in that context.
Battling with difficult people may indeed make you a stronger person who can handle things better in the future. Getting your head cut off will not improve your future prospects (not in this life anyway).
Even so, Paul will rejoice, and, whatever the circumstances, Paul calls on us to rejoice. Not because pain is fun, not because it doesn’t hurt, and not because it always makes us better people. Rejoice! Why? Well, he tells us: ‘because the Lord is at hand’, which means that in the great scheme of things, everything is about to get a whole lot better!
We rejoice in the Lord, always, because the Lord is at hand and so in the Lord we have a well-grounded hope that the evils of this world are soon to be overcome. We believe that the Lord is at hand, and so we rejoice.
Despite the genocide in Dafur, where some 450,000 people have apparently been killed in the last couple of years, and continue to get killed off at a rate of more than 100 per day, still we believe that the Lord is at hand and so we rejoice.
Despite what’s happening in Gaza, where parents struggle to find clean water for their families and where military attacks continue to destroy homes and innocent civilians on a daily basis, still we believe that the Lord is at hand and so we rejoice.
Despite the failure of the church worldwide to make the sacrifices necessary to truly reflect the love of Christ to those who are suffering, still we believe that the Lord is at hand and so we rejoice.
Despite our own struggles – in our families, at work, with people we can’t endure and with situations we can’t deal with, still we believe that the Lord is at hand and so we rejoice.
And this is why, I think, the peace of God, Paul says, ‘passes all understanding’ – because He gives us this comforting sense of hope that flies in the face of all the evidence to the contrary!
Things don’t look like they’re about to get a whole lot better, but we believe that they will, and deep down within our hearts God gives us that assurance that He is indeed at work in our world and that in the end all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.
Perhaps it doesn’t make much sense to believe this? If people ask you to give them some external evidence for your conviction that the Lord is at hand and that things are about to get a whole lot better, you may well have trouble arguing your case. You can point to Christ of course – to his death and resurrection as a foretaste of what is to come – but even then, you’re not likely win the argument on logic alone.
But beyond all understanding, the eye of faith sees what the mind cannot comprehend – that one day soon the lion will lie down with the lamb, people will turn their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks and study war no more, and the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea … and so we rejoice!
As I confessed at the beginning though, I still struggle to rejoice. Why? Because, like all of us I suspect, sometimes I get so engulfed by the struggle that I lose sight of the big picture. And sometimes, like when you’ve got a toothache, I get so overtaken by the pain that I just can’t see beyond my own misery, even to notice the looming figure of the dentist!
There’s another great saying of St Paul’s in Romans 8 – ‘that the whole creation is groaning like a woman enduring the pain of childbirth.’
If you’ve given birth or even if you’ve been present at a birth, you know what that pain is about. And if you focus on the pain, it will engulf you. But if you can focus on the new creation that is about to come to birth, even in our pain we can rejoice.
That’s what distinguishes Christian joy from glib naivety, I believe. People who are glib simply deny the pain, or minimize how serious the situation is – ‘oh, things ain’t that bad!’ St Paul, I believe, would say, ‘yes, things are very bad, but they will get a whole lot better soon, for the Lord is at hand’.
This is our belief. This is our conviction. This is our defiant hope that refuses to accept the triumph of evil in our world but looks forward instead to the imminent coming of our Lord.
And so we rejoice, and again I say to you, rejoice!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.