Rejoice in the Lord audio (4MB)
You’ve probably noticed that there’s been a resurgence lately of vocal opponents to belief in God. And it’s especially obvious in Melbourne where the new atheists seem to think it’s a great place to hold their annual international convention. Do you think that means it’s becoming harder to be a Christian in our world? Is this rise of atheism something we should be worried about? Well, you’d have to say it’s not anything new. In this letter to the Philippians Paul has just finished warning that there are many in the world who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. And that’s not only in the world outside the church. There are plenty inside the church. So he says: “Therefore stand firm in the Lord.” Don’t give way to the forces that oppose you. Remain steady in your love and devotion to Christ.
Well today I want us to think briefly about what that means in practice? How are we to do this?
Paul begins by thinking about the inner dynamics of the church. There’s obviously been some long standing dispute between two of the women in the church. The details aren’t important, since he doesn’t talk about them. But their unity is. So he instructs them to be of the same mind. The first thing to get right if you’re an army facing a strong opponent is to make sure that you’re working in harmony with one another. If members of the church are fighting among themselves, how can they possibly join forces to stand firm against the opposition of the world? We’re meant to be brothers and sisters in the same family, the family of Jesus Christ. So how can we be warring amongst ourselves?
What’s more if these two sisters can’t agree by themselves then it’s up to the rest of the church, particularly the leaders, to help them resolve their differences. Notice that he calls these women fellow-workers who have struggled with him in the work of the gospel. These are team members. What’s more they’re among those whose names are written in the book of life. There are no divisions in heaven where God reigns over his people in peace. So how can we let such divisions continue here among those who are destined for heaven?
Rejoice in the Lord
Next he says “Rejoice in the Lord always.” In fact he repeats it: “Again I will say, Rejoice.” If unity is the first step, a continual rejoicing in all that Jesus Christ has done is the next. When we experience opposition to the gospel, our greatest defence is to think back to what Christ has done for us. It’s to rejoice that our names are written in heaven. So often the opposition we feel is aimed at breaking down our confidence in the gospel, or at making us despondent, even despairing. But when we remember what Christ has done for us, when we remember his victory over sin and death, when we think about the fellowship of believers to which we belong, it lifts our hearts; it restores our confidence in the gospel.
Next he says, “Be gentle.” “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Why? Because the Lord is near. The gentleness he’s referring to is the same gentleness that Jesus showed to us in giving up his status as the Son of God in order to take on the role of a servant (2:5-8). Is there a connection between this gentleness and rejoicing in Christ, do you think? If we’re truly rejoicing in what Christ has done for us, will that lead us to be more understanding, more patient with others, perhaps?
Certainly if we’re rejoicing that Christ has forgiven us despite our own shortcomings it should make us more patient with others shouldn’t it?
Next he says “Do not worry but pray.” It seems to me that our world is a world where people are very worried. Terrorism has been high on the political agenda for the last 10 years. But it’s not just that. There’s the fear caused by the financial crisis. There’s the fear of our own mortality, of the insecurity of life on this earth, brought about partly by terrorism, partly by natural disasters, global warming, drought, bushfires, pollution and the like. For many the fear is simply to do with the pains of ageing. Let’s face it, we’re not getting any younger are we? So we wonder how much longer do I have on this earth? Will I suffer some degrading illness towards the end? Will my loved ones be looked after when I’m gone? etc. And for some in other parts of the world these fears are added to by the worry that they could become the victims of persecution for their faith.
The antidote to such anxiety, he says, is prayer with thanksgiving. Again rejoicing in the Lord is central. So if you’re worried about something, pray about it. Ask God to supply your needs, to ease your mind, to allay your fears. You see, when you pray, what you’re doing is exercising your trust in God. And the more we exercise trust, the stronger that trust will get.
And when we pray with thanksgiving, we’re saying we accept that God has taken the worry over. We’re exercising our faith that God is able to deal with whatever it is that worries us.
You see, there are two ways to give thanks. The first is to wait until we see the answer and then give thanks. That’s certainly a good thing to do. If we were to wait for an answer and then not give thanks we’d be showing ingratitude. But the second way is to thank God for his provision for us even while we’re asking, while we’re praying for his help. That way of giving thanks acknowledges that God has answered us before and is able and willing to answer us again. It might also say that we trust him to say no if that’s what’s best for us. But what it does is to remove from our shoulders the burden of worry. If we’ve handed over our worries to God then he can deal with them. All we have to do is to wait for his answer, knowing that he loves us and wants the best for us. And the result of that is:
“7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” If we're to stand firm against opposition then this is the rock on which we’ll be enabled to do it. It’s been said that the highland soldiers of Scotland used to rattle their opponents by the noise made by their pipers as they marched into battle. The sound of the pipes ringing through the hills got the enemy soldiers so apprehensive that by the time the battle was joined half the damage had already been done. And that’s the same with us and our spiritual battles. If the enemy can unsettle us, make us unsure of ourselves or our faith, make us disheartened or anxious, then half the battle is lost before we even begin. But if we rest in the peace of God then we’ll be enabled to stand firm. Notice how he expresses this: “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds.” It’s like the peace of God is a castle wall set around you to keep out the forces of the enemy. Outside the wall the situation is terrible. There’s noise and struggle and fighting and bloodshed. But inside the wall all is quiet. The turbulence of the battle raging outside can’t get past the walls to disturb us. Inside we’re protected by that peace which only God can provide.
Notice too, that as he finishes this section Paul turns the expression around. In v9 he says “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” The reason we can enjoy the peace of God is that God is the God of peace. The most significant act of peacemaking in history is the peace that God has brought between him and us. If God could solve that problem, break down that dividing wall of hostility, what problem, what division is there that he can’t fix? The God of peace is a God of power beyond our imagining. He’s the one “who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep.” (Heb 13:20) He’s the one who’s overcome the evil one and assured us of a place with him in heaven.
Think the right thoughts
Finally he says, if you want to stand firm then you need to discipline your minds. “8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Again, when Satan seeks to defeat us he doesn’t do it front on. A frontal attack is too easy to recognise and to overcome. Rather he does it by more subtle means, by undermining our confidence, by whittling away at our self-understanding, our self-acceptance. He does it by polluting our minds so we concentrate on things that are impure or dishonourable or unworthy of us as children of God. The antidote to that of course is a diet of pure, honourable, just, true thoughts. If we’re filling our minds with good things then the bad things will find it that much harder to survive. One of the causes of anxiety and depression is people’s self-talk becoming negative. When they think about their life or the situation they’re in, they concentrate on all the negatives. They generalise their situation to a negative outcome. So too whether we stand or fall may depend on what we’re feeding our minds. Are they things that are true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, worthy of praise? If these are the things we fill our minds with then God’s work of bringing peace to our hearts and minds is half done, isn’t it?
Now I’m not just talking here about “happy talk.” This isn’t the power of positive thinking, though that probably derives from the same idea. No, this is the process of filling our minds with things that promote our faith in God. e.g. reminding ourselves of the things God has done for us already, of his power shown in raising Jesus from the dead, of the way he’s looked after us in the past, of the good things that other Christians have done for us, of the care we receive from others in the Christian family. Think about the way God has blessed us as a church: the way he’s brought people into the faith; the way he’s grown our children’s and youth ministries; the way he’s overseen our building program over the past couple of years; the way we’ve received blessing from so many people over the years. These are the sorts of thoughts that will strengthen our faith in God and thus help us trust him when we ask for his help. And in the end that will enable us to stand firm in the Lord as we wait for the God of Peace to bring his plan for peace on earth to fulfilment.
No, it’s not always easy to remain faithful as a Christian in this world but God is faithful and he’ll enable us to stand if we remain united with one another, if we rejoice at what he gives us, if we show the gentleness of Christ to others, if we ask him for what we need and if we keep our minds filled with things that lead to godliness.