The Peace Which Surpasses All Understanding

A sermon preached on October 12, 2008 based upon Philippians 4:1 – 9, entitled “The Peace Which Surpasses All Understanding.”
At our healing prayer group this past week, George and Ann joined us on their way through town, heading for Florida for the Winter. At the end of our time of prayer together, George said he wanted to share something. He spoke softly about the peace that he and Ann had experienced in the midst of the frightening time they had been through in the past year when Ann was suddenly discovered to have a cancer that required immediate surgery. He testified to the sense of being lead by unseen hands; of feeling safe in the midst of the storm.

George’s words moved others — myself included — to nod in recognition. We too had had experiences in which a surprising peace showed up in the scariest of times — a confidence that everything was going to be okay, without really knowing what “okay” meant.

There is a familiar verse in this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that points towards this remarkable experience. Paul writes from prison, where he knows in all likelihood he will die, to a congregation suffering from severe persecution. And yet he promises God’s peace:

“The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Perhaps if you think back over your life, you, too will be able to recall a similar sort of experience: something scary loomed on the horizon of your life, in anticipation of which you experienced a great deal of anxiety, and yet when the scary thing actually arrived, you found yourself unexpectedly calm.

What’s with this?

Some people might suggest that this is merely some kind of brain chemistry survival mechanism built into the human race — that, and nothing more. But if you have been through what I am talking about, I doubt that this explanation satisfies you. It feels at such moments that we are in fact in contact with something that is REAL — that all our anxiety of anticipation was the thing that wasn’t truly rooted in reality, that is, the deepest core of reality.

These are trying times we live in. For some time now we’ve been living with ongoing fears about war, terrorism, environmental destruction, and now over the past month we also find ourselves thrust into the apparent breakdown of the global economy. At such a time as this, when we wonder whether Chicken Little had it right — that the sky is indeed falling — it is good to ponder the mystery of the peace that surpasses all understanding.

The experience of which we are referring is a gift of grace, which means we cannot simply manufacture the experience on demand, as much as we might want to be able to do just that at the times in which we feel afraid.

It is important, however to simply know of the gift, to remember perhaps a time in the past when we were blessed with unexpected peace, as well as to listen to the experiences of this peace in others, in order to find the courage to do what needs to be done in anxious times.

Early on in John Wesley’s life he found himself on a ship crossing the Atlantic in the midst of a violent storm that threatened to drown everybody on board, and Wesley was filled with terror. He marveled, however, at a group of Moravian Christian on board that same ship who waited out the storm calmly praying and softly singing, possessing a mysterious peace. These Moravians made quite an impression on Wesley, and he longed to share in that same peace which they had experienced in the midst of the storm. This longing contributed to a receptivity that God blessed a year later when Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed.”

So if this mysterious peace is not presently within you, let me suggest to you that it is enough at the moment to simply believe in the possibility of this peace. Rest assured, the peace will come.

Here is something else to consider: the peace which surpasses all understanding

is not about the absence of struggle or conflict. It does not mean that suddenly all is right with the world. No, the peace being referred to here is not about the absence of struggle, but rather it is about the presence of a great love. In the scary time we suddenly become aware of the presence of a great love. Perhaps the great love was always there, but we simply weren’t open to experiencing it.

In speaking of this great mystery, Paul give some fairly practical advice: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” In times like these, practice gentleness. In the act of being gentle — of practicing kindness — of acting out love, we may find ourselves coming in contact with a love far greater than ourselves, and sense the presence of invisible loving hands that are here to support and guide.

The act of gentleness may start out as nothing more than an act of obedience, as in “I want to follow Jesus, therefore, I will go out of my way to be gentle, to be kind.” We may not even feel especially kind or gentle at the moment — we may, in fact, feel simply terrified. But as we go through the motions in simple obedience, we may be surprised to find our fears giving way, and that love becomes the primary thing of which we are aware.

Gentleness is always a good way to live, but when the sky appears to be falling, the impact of gentleness becomes magnified. I heard a story on the news yesterday about some ordinary, middle class guy who got the idea in his head to go hang out at a local gas station and randomly pay to have the gas tanks of strangers filled, and then when they asked him why, he simply told them with great gentleness that he wanted them to find some way to “pay it forward.”

In the midst of the economic uncertainty we are experiencing — in a time in which we might expect that peoples’ instincts would be to hoard what they have and watch out only for themselves and their own families, giving to strangers goes against the grain, standing out in a way it might not otherwise — a bright light shining in the darkness.

Paul goes on to give some practical advice regarding altering our patterns of thinking.

More often than not these days, if you go to a psycho-therapist to help you in a time of emotional distress (which, I would point out, is often a very wise thing to do), chances are the therapist won’t spend a lot of time asking you about your childhood and the deep seeded internal conflicts you may or may not be carrying around with you from those formative years of your life. More likely the therapist will ask you about how you are experiencing your life in the present, and help you examine your thinking — the pattern of thoughts running through your head. The hope is that you might be able to identify ways in which you are bringing yourself down in your thinking, and begin to change the habitual ways you think about your experiences.

For instance, when the acorn falls from the tree and hits Chicken Little on the head, and for whatever reason her mind jumps to the conclusion that the sky is falling and takes off running with this terrifying idea, the therapist might work with Chicken Little to consider the possibility that an acorn smacking her head does not necessarily translate into “the sky is falling”. The therapist might help Chicken Little think about ways of thinking and acting that will take her in more positive, constructive directions.

Paul is suggesting something similar here. In the midst of what seems like very anxious times, he advises us to try as best we can to re-focus our attention on

“… 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.” 

Keep doing this, he says, “and the God of peace will be with you.”I was struck by the editorial the Daily Record ran this past Tuesday. Following yet another day of frightening economic bad news, the editorial began by noting the long history of newspapers being criticized for their tendency to focus only on the bad news. Acknowledging that there was plenty of bad news, the editorial went on to state, “we still see evidence in Morris County of ordinary people going out of their way to do good things.” They proceeded to give two examples from the past week:

*A retired school teacher who by frugal, simple living was able to leave three million dollars in his will to further the good work of the local YMCA;

*Two brothers who had volunteered their time over the years to maintain an old cemetery up on Route 10.

The editorial concluded by saying, “Yes, there is a lot of bad news out there, but let’s not overlook how average people continue to make a difference, as trite as that sounds.”Think about these things, Paul says, “… whatever is true, honorable, and just, whatever is pure and pleasing and commendable, think about these things.”I was reminded of a quote I love from Garrison Keillor. In an essay from twenty years ago entitled “The Meaning of Life”, he writes these words that seem all the more appropriate for today:

“What else will do except faith in such a cynical, corrupt time? When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word.”

When he asks what, then is the last word, Keillor concludes this way:

“Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids–all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through.”

It is said that in every crisis there is both danger and opportunity. The danger seems clear enough — the question is, can we recognize the opportunity?

Last week I saw a familiar bumper sticker that once more made me chuckle: It read, “Don’t let my car fool you, my real treasure is in heaven.”  The humor of this bumper sticker comes from the fact that it gets affixed to some beat-up, rusted-out, old bomb of a car. Our treasure never was in the expensive car, the money, the house, the savings for retirement, because in the end all things pass away — every new and shining car ends up a rusted out piece of junk.

The crisis we find ourselves in provides opportunity to remember where in fact our true treasure is, and that is a truly good thing.

For me, the scariest part of the present economic crisis isn’t the fact that we will have do deal with a great deal of scarcity. No, the scariest part arises from the possibility that it holds the potential to bring out the worst, rather than the best, in human nature.

Will our nation become divided, or united?  Will the world become divided, or united?

There is a great deal of emotion being generated in relation to the upcoming election, which is understandable considering all that is at stake. At times the intensity of this emotion has seemed capable of turning destructive, even violent.

It is important to remember that whether our guy wins or loses, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There isn’t a right or a wrong way for a Christian to vote. There is, however, an obligation placed on us as followers of Jesus to practice gentleness in the midst of conflict and crisis. We are obliged to be peace-makers, and that begins by bearing witness in our lives to the peace of God which surpasses all knowledge.

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