Say It Again
| Philippians 4:4-7
||Sun, December 17, 2006
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” It is a traditional text for Laetere Sunday - “Rejoicing Sunday”. On this third Sunday of Advent the preparations to meet the Lord are over taken by joy. It is as if the sound of the angel chorus can be heard leaking backwards and forwards through time. It is a foretaste of heaven. But there is something slightly troubling about Paul’s invitation to rejoice. He has to say it again. It’s a clue. It is a clue that rejoicing is not so easy to do. After all, Paul spends the previous two verses trying to resolve a conflict between two of his colleagues in ministry. Not to mention that he writes the letter from prison. He doesn’t say: “Be joyful; again I will say, be joyful.” He isn’t simply saying: “Be happy”. It’s a good thing that he isn’t saying that because it would not be right. It would not be right to tell the whole congregation to burst into joy without a reason. Yes, some of us have cause for great joy. But others do not. Others are caught up in trouble and ache and grief. Preaching joy to those in pain is not good news. Not unless there is a reason for rejoicing.
To rejoice is to have joy again. It is to recover joy. It is to be re-joyed. It suggests a people who once were joyful and are now longing for that joy to return. Paul says to “Rejoice in the Lord always - The Lord is near.” In the midst of ache and conflict and grief Paul is assured that the Lord is near. This is the reason to find joy again. Paul is a messenger of the gospel chorus that plays three chords: Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. He is the evangelist of the nearness of the Lord when the cruciform grief of Good Friday comes tragically. He is the pastor who preaches daring, risky, persistent hope in the midst of the apparent absence of the Lord on our own long Holy Saturdays. And Paul lives his days utterly confident of the life giving power of the Lord that is revealed for all to see on Easter Sunday. He is not calling the church to put on a plastic, happy face in the midst of the tears and woe of so many. Paul calls the congregation to recover joy because of what the Lord is up to in the midst of the nightmares that are all too real. It means telling the truth about the utter darkness of Friday and the terrible silence of Saturday and the impossible possibility of Sunday. Rejoice in what the Lord is doing, says Paul. Rejoice in where the Lord is healing and saving and making new.
It is the reason that Paul can say: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” It is not just good advice. It is not a lesson in manners. He does not mean that there can be no anger, no truth-telling, no conflict. He means that the Lord is near, the Lord is in the midst of the trouble and ache and loss already saving and making new. And if the Lord is saving us here, now ... well, then, we can be gentle with one another. We do not need to panic. There is no need to do violence to one another - physically or socially or emotionally. Our honesty and even our anger can be gentled. It can be spoken and lived gracefully, lovingly, trusting that the neighbour or stranger we meet is treated gently by the Lord. I imagine that Paul hopes his congregations will be known as gentle places. They will not be communities of high anxiety. They will be places of such trust in the Lord’s nearness that they can afford to be gentle. I like to think of us becoming a place that treats not only its infants and toddlers gently, but also its children and teens and young adults and middle-aged and elders gently too. There is so much pain and sorrow to hold even here, in these lives gathered together, more than we dare allow ourselves to see or hear or feel. Thank heavens the Lord is near. It is a time for gentleness, a time to see and hear and feel each other’s trouble.
Now Paul makes what is surely an impossible statement. He says “Do not worry about anything”. Does he not pay attention to the news? Does he not know about our homes and neighbourhoods? Do not worry ... about anything? There is so much to worry about. Surely you do not need us to write out the list for you, Paul. There is so much that makes us anxious and afraid and worried. It is just not as simple as telling ourselves to stop worrying. We can’t help it. There are people we love in trouble. There are entire nations caught up in misery. But Paul is insistent: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Paul knows full well that there is plenty to worry about. His prison cell reminds him of that every day. His own life is not exactly worry free. He speaks from experience. He is certain that God is at work. He is not worried about it. He knows it is true. So he can bring everything to God. There is nothing that is beyond God. There is no situation or trouble that cannot be spoken to God. That is why the requests can be made with gratitude. The gratitude does not have to wait until later. God is already at work. Thanksgiving is appropriate even before God’s handiwork is evident.
This is the practice that we undertake together. We practice turning our worry over to God. We practice telling God the truth about the trouble. It is a counter-cultural move. We live in a world of worry and of worriers. We have more of everything - more food, more medicine, more comfort - than anyone in any period of human history. Perhaps we are worry-warts because we have more to worry about losing. We certainly do know how to worry. We are worry experts. We are very practiced at worrying. It’s the reason that in the church we cannot simply say on one Sunday: “Do not worry about anything”. It’s the reason that we practice and practice and practice the discipline of telling the truth about everything to God in gratitude. We are in detox for worry. That’s what the church is meant to be. The church is called to be the community where God removes the toxins of worry from our hearts and minds and souls and lives. It occurs one act of trust at a time, one truth-telling moment at a time, one grateful heart at a time. Over time the congregation becomes a people known for its trust in the Lord, for its deep gratitude, for its worry-free life, for its joy in the Lord. It is sad but true that many congregations find themselves overwhelmed by worry - worry about the troubles of the present and the fear of the future. We could easily overdose on worry, too. There is plenty of it available. But here, gathered because of the good news of the Lord’s journey through the three day gospel of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, we are not worried about anything. How can we worry when we see what God has done and what God is doing and what God will do? We will not worry, but in everything by prayer and supplication we will let our requests be made known to God. In other words, we will not hesitate to name what would otherwise be seriously worrying. It is what we do with our worries. We turn them into grateful petitions to God, who is the great bearer of the world’s worries.
The thing is, even our capacity to let go of worry and to rejoice in the Lord is the handiwork of God. As Paul puts it: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” It is a famous verse. I recall it painted on the wall of many funeral chapels in Manitoba. It is the reason that it is possible for us to rejoice in the Lord, to let our gentleness be known to everyone, to stop worrying about everything, to bring everything to God in grateful prayer. Our hearts and our minds are being guarded in Christ Jesus. Paul uses odd language. He says that we are in Christ Jesus. Not that we are with Christ Jesus. Not that we are following Christ Jesus. Not that we are protected by Christ Jesus. But that the peace of God guards us in Christ Jesus. Paul is saying that in our baptism we die to our independence. He is saying that in dying to ourselves we join in the resurrected life of Jesus Christ. It is strange language to modern ears. But it is crucial to Paul. And to us. It means that we live within the body of Christ and, therefore, that we are guarded from the darkness and terror and chaos by the God who has raised Jesus from the dead.
This is the peace of God. It is not the placidness of God. It is the mission of God to make new and make well and make right. It is the healing, redeeming, saving love of God. That is the peace of God. It is what we mean when we pass the peace of Christ to one another. We mean to tell one another that we are in Christ Jesus and that our hearts and minds are being guarded by the God whose peace cannot possibly be explained by any formula - mathematical or theological. It is a peace that overcomes the ugliness of Good Friday and the vacuum of Holy Saturday with the electrifying power of Easter Sunday. It is a peace, a wholeness, a redemption that overwhelms all our attempts to understand. It is the love of God carrying you through your worry even when you can’t stop worrying and even when you can’t rejoice and even when you don’t feel gentle. It is beyond our comprehension how this peace of God could possible be on guard against despair and depression and death. But just because we do not understand it does not mean it is a lie. It is the gospel truth. It is the reason that we will rejoice in the Lord in the midst of Good Friday’s endings and Holy Saturday’s longings. Easter Sunday rejoicing leaks through time to transform the troubles and the waiting. These difficult days are no longer the bitter end of our hopes. Now they are the birth place of God’s new creation. It is no wonder that Paul says it once, and then says it again: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”