A Sermon preached on December 12th, 2021 based upon Philippians 4:4-7 entitled, “Experiencing Joy in a Hurting World”.
With the words that I am about to read it is particularly important to know something of the backstory of the author. The Apostle Paul is writing to people he loves but won’t see again. He writes from a prison cell in Rome knowing he will soon be put to death. He is writing as someone who in the course of his lifetime has known pretty much every form of suffering known to humans: hunger, rejection from the community of people who raised him up, persecution and beatings. He’s also known the burden of guilt, having been forced to confront the great pain he caused in his days before his conversion in persecuting Christians.
Paul is therefore a man who is intimately acquainted with the power of sin both in his own life and in this world, and the suffering it causes.
This is important to know because what you’re going to hear him command the Christians at Philippi – and us as well – is to rejoice in the Lord always.
On the lips of a prosperity Gospel preacher living in a multi-million dollar mansion these words could sound almost obscene. We could write them off as mere happy talk coming from someone who has made a point of turning a blind eye to the great suffering that is in this world.
But Paul knows suffering, and he also knows joy.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Last week I took note of the connection made between sermons and jokes – how we’ve heard hundreds of them but usually can’t remember the words to any of them. What we remember is how they made us feel. There is a sermon I did recall this week that dates back over forty years to when I was graduating from seminary. One of our professors – Sister Margaret Farley – a Catholic nun was given the task of preaching the last sermon we would hear as seminarians.
As a professor of Christian ethics Sister Margaret’s specialty was thinking deeply about the moral responsibilities of a Christian in this world.
I remember the Scripture passage she chose to preach on – it was the passage I just read for you. She got us to laugh at the outset by taking note of the fact that we seminarians had a tendency to be resistant to the whole notion of joy — our laughter was in acknowledgment of her perception of us. We were an overly serious bunch with a high degree of sensitivity to the pain of the world – we’d come to seminary to learn how to minister to that pain. It sort of felt as though we couldn’t indulge ourselves with joy when there were so many hurting people in this world.
But Sister Margaret told us to heed the words of Paul. Without joy we would quickly burn out. If joy wasn’t a part of our lives, we would convey the message to the world that the powers of death and darkness had actually defeated God’s goodness and love. We had a moral responsibility to bear witness to joy.
It is akin perhaps to the feeling we might have living with a great grief for someone we have lost to death. How, we wonder can we experience joy with our beloved gone? The sadness that eclipses all joy almost seems like a memorial to the one we’ve lost. And yet our loved ones, having entered the eternal light and love that Paul glimpsed face to face with the risen Christ surely doesn’t want this – they want us to know joy.
So, let’s talk about joy.
We often think of happiness and joy as being the same, but I’d like to suggest a distinction. Happiness is “blue skies shining on me, nothing but blue skies do I see” – it’s something we experience when things are going well for us in life. Happiness requires money, because without it we’re going to have a lot more problems.
But joy doesn’t require money – nor does it require the absence of problems or grief.
Our culture views Christmas in terms of happiness, and as such about money. For a happy Christmas you need money for decorations and presents. We pity children whose parents don’t have money to buy presents for them, which is understandable. But the children who are most to be pitied are the ones who don’t have parents that cherish them and sometimes such parents have lots of money.
In our fixation on happiness, we overlook the strange truth that is at the heart of the Christmas story. An angel of the Lord comes with a message of “good news of great joy that comes to all people” and to whom does that joy first appear? To people who have absolutely no claims to happiness. To poor, homeless Mary and Joseph forced to find shelter in a stinking barn for the birth of their child, and to certain poor shepherds, also homeless, rejected by “respectable” people.
Joy shows up in unexpected places.
Now Paul commands us to rejoice, and that’s perplexing in itself. Can we manufacture joy? No, I don’t think so. Joy arises spontaneously as a gift from God.
There are things we can do, however that create a greater openness to joy. Very succinctly, Paul offers advice regarding how to open up to joy. He writes,
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Paul identifies the primary thing that blocks our access to joy, and that is anxiety. He tells us not to be anxious about anything, which of course is absurd. You can’t simply choose not to be anxious.
But this we can do: We can pray. And notice that Paul tells us to be very specific in our prayers. “In every situation, by prayer and petition… present your requests to God.”
We tend to think of fear and anxiety as the same, but there is a subtle distinction. Anxiety tends to be non-specific. It’s this generalized sense that something bad is going to happen.
Fear in contrast is specific. Fear arises in the face of a particular threat. Fear, of course can be utterly terrifying but there is a clarity to fear that is missing in anxiety.
When we pray, it can be helpful to get as clear as possible about the specific fears contained inside our anxiety. What, specifically am I afraid might happen? Perhaps that I’ll lose my job, that the lab tests will come back badly, that someone I love will die. We focus in on these particular fears, and attempt to probe them further. What exactly are we afraid will happen if these things come to pass?
As we get clearer about our specific fears Paul tells us to raise them up in petition to God. Tell God what we feel that we need. Of course, God already knows what we need, but the act of taking it to the Lord in prayer is for our benefit, not God’s.
It can be helpful to create some kind of tangible, physical way to express these prayers. Write down your specific fears, then put each one in an envelope and label it, and then raise the envelope up to God. Say out loud, “God, I’m giving you this thing I’m afraid of. Please help me.”
Having made our requests to God, do we have a guarantee that we will get what we want to happen? No. But with the act of very intentionally bringing each need to God, a subtle shift may take place inside us. We’ve put it in God’s hands. We’ve gone to the Lord of the universe and made our request. It’s out of our hands now.
Paul also tells us to give thanks and here too it’s helpful to get specific. The intentional act of naming our specific blessings also can create a subtle shift inside us.
The nature of anxiety is that it creates a kind of tunnel vision. We’re only aware of the looming threats. Naming our blessings can chip away at the walls of our tunnel vision. We realize that there isn’t just darkness. There’s also light. We name and claim the light.
It is easy to overlook what is implicit in Paul’s words – that he is addressing a congregation of believers – a group of people who are committed in Christ to care for one another in love — to pray for one another — to keep the faith for one another when our faith falters. This is the larger context in which Christian prayer takes place.
Tucked inside Paul’s words is this line: “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” What is the connection of gentleness to anxiety and joy?
There is something about the gentleness of others that can move us to joy in moments when we are cracked open by life’s pain.
I mentioned last week Frederick Buechner’s suggestion that we pay attention to the things that move us to tears, because God is speaking to us at such moments. In my experience, oftentimes – though not all the time — tears express a peculiar mixture of sadness and joy – a testimony to the fact that joy and sorrow regarding the suffering of this world can exist side by side.
For many years the only place I could experience tears was in the darkness of a movie theater. When I thought about what scenes moved me to tears I recognized a pattern. I noticed that it wasn’t watching something painful or tragic happen to the characters. I would feel sad watching such scenes, but they wouldn’t bring forth my tears.
Tears would come when some unexpected gentleness or kindness occurred in the midst of pain.
One such movie was, “Terms of Endearment” a movie starring Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson that won the Oscar for best picture in 1983. The movie revolves around the relationship of a mother and daughter through the years. They love one another in spite of a lot of dysfunction in their relationship. Towards the end of the movie the daughter becomes sick and dies leaving behind three motherless sons. The boys’ father is unengaged and the boys have moved in with their grandmother. Jack Nicholson plays this retired astronaut – a very flawed man who lives next door to the grandmother, with whom he has had an erratic love relationship. He had sort of dropped out of the picture, but in the final scene which takes place at the reception after the funeral at the grandmother’s house – he is there in the backyard with one of the grieving grandsons, gently taking him aside to throw a football.
His unexpected he steps up to the plate with gentle kindness in the midst of the sorrow moved me to tears.
Then of course there is “What a Wonderful Life”, a great Christmas movie that I trust you have seen but if you haven’t, watch it. The life of this good man, George Baily – played by Jimmy Stewart — comes unravelling with an imminent bankruptcy that it seems will destroy everything for which he’s worked. He reaches a point of despair in which he’s ready to take his own life. Bumbling Clarence the angel steps in to let George know the difference his life has made in his town, and George gets his life back. It’s Christmas Eve but he still has to face the debt collectors.
Suddenly one by one all of George’s neighbors start showing up at his house. In appreciation of George’s life, they all make contributions to keep him afloat.
It is their gentleness – their kindness — that moves me to tears.
“Let your kindness be evident to all.” Practicing gentleness is a way to open us up to joy — particularly perhaps when we express gentleness in places it isn’t necessarily expected — with someone with whom we’re estranged perhaps or with a total stranger. The act of extending gentleness gets us out of the suffocating prison cell of ourselves. We become, perhaps the sign of joy for another, and in the process joy comes to us as well.
We witness in the midst of the pain and brokenness of this world that in the end, love wins.