Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 13, 2015

Philippians 4:4-7 Commentary

Comments, Observations, and Questions

Growing up in a family of modest means, I learned early the value of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.  We couldn’t afford the real thing, those lovely complete books, so we read those abbreviated and edited versions of bestsellers and classics.  They were very helpful, though not nearly as graceful as the original.  You got the gist of the story, but not its full artistic beauty.  That’s the way summaries are.

In the words of Philippians 4:5b, we have a Reader’s Digest summary of the Advent Gospel.  “The Lord is near.”  Paul uses just three simple words in the Greek (ho kurios engus), but they are filled with profound meaning in a world where God often seems absent and the future stretches hopelessly before us “like a patient etherized upon a table.”  The world desperately needs to hear this simply profound summary, and it will be our task on this Third Sunday of Advent to show its full graceful beauty.

That is a truly awesome task, because if people genuinely believe that the Lord really is near, their lives will be revolutionized.  They will rejoice always; they will be gentle to all; they will have an unshakeable peace of mind.  Imagine a world without sorrow, without violence, without anxiety.  It’s almost impossible to imagine, isn’t it?  There’s so much to grieve, so much aggression, so much to fear, that Paul’s three commands in the words surrounding his brief announcement of the Gospel seem almost ridiculous.  Indeed, it is ridiculous to command joy and gentleness and peace, unless the Advent Gospel is true.  But if “the Lord is near,” then we can rejoice always, be gentle to all, and never worry about anything.  So a lot is hanging on our attempts to preach the Advent Gospel today.

Let’s unpack those three words.  “The Lord” is Jesus.  That’s almost always what Paul means when he talks about “ho kurios,” and his words about Jesus in the context of this verse make it certain.  Jesus is near—not just God, the invisible One, the Unmoved Mover, the Universal Spirit, the Man Upstairs, but the man Jesus who was God incarnate.  At the end of chapter 3, Paul has talked about Jesus as the “the Lord Jesus Christ,” as the King in whose kingdom we have citizenship.  As we live in a world where kingdoms are in conflict everywhere, it is wonderfully good news to hear that the man who was crucified as King of the Jews is coming as the King of Kings to transform the world.

Indeed, says Paul, he is near.  That’s the Good News of Advent, 2015.  Jesus is near.  As I said before, the Greek word is engus, which could refer to spatial or temporal nearness.  It could mean that Jesus is right next to me, right around the corner, in my neighborhood.  As Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of John 1:14 put it, when the Word became flesh, he “moved into the neighborhood,” pitching his tent right next door.  The angel told a skeptical Joseph that the child gestating in the womb of his presumably unfaithful fiancée was, in fact, Immanuel, God with us.  And even when he left the neighborhood and went back home to his Father, his parting words were, “I am with you always.”  He lives in our hearts by faith.  (Ephesians 3:17).   That’s how near Jesus is.  Since humanity’s expulsion from Eden, there has been a sin caused distance between God and humanity, but in Jesus God has come close.  The closeness of Christ who dwells in our hearts even as he sits on the right hand of the Father is one of the deep mysteries and high joys of the Christian faith.  But that’s probably not what Paul means here.

Jesus is near in time.  Scientists tell us that the earth has been here a long, long time.  The human race has walked the earth for countless generations.  You and I have observed many Advent seasons.  “Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day.”  Now, says Paul, after all that time, after all those disappointing Advent seasons, when we waited fruitlessly like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, the Lord is near in time.  His coming is just around the corner in time, and “we eagerly await a Savior from there (heaven).”  (Phil. 3:20)

Of course, Paul wrote this good news nearly 2,000 years ago, and Jesus hasn’t come yet.  So, what possible meaning does “near” have?   Well, it’s all matter of perspective.  As one who grew up in the Rocky Mountains, I can tell you that spatial nearness can be hard to gauge.  As you stand on one peak, the next mountain range might seem just a few miles away; a half day’s walk will get me there.  But in fact that range is 50 miles away and it will take me days of hard hiking to get there.  So it is with temporal nearness; it’s relative to one’s point of view.  To a child waiting for Christmas, a day seems like an eternity.  To her frazzled parents, the days rush by like a comet.  So what seems like a 2,000 year delay to us impatient children may be a very short time to our Father and Brother.  Though we can’t gauge time as God does, this Spirit-inspired text urges us to keep believing that our Advent hopes are about to be realized.  “The Lord is near.”

If we believe that, we will be able to “rejoice in the Lord always.”  Those central three words are all important.  We are commanded to rejoice in the Lord, not in the circumstances of our lives.  I have two friends who are suffering terribly right now, one from a rare form of facial cancer, another from a freak injury that nearly took her eye.  They are filled with sorrow for what they have lost, with fear for what they could still lose, and with anger for the sheer randomness of their losses.  It would be cruel and inhuman for me to urge them to rejoice in what they are suffering.  And Paul doesn’t do that.  He urges us to believe that Jesus is near even in this time and rejoice in him always.

What does it mean to rejoice in Jesus?  William Hendriksen scours the rest of this epistle to give content to that idea.  Paul could rejoice in Jesus always for these reasons: “that he was a saved individual whose purpose was in his entire person to magnify Christ (1:19,20); that this Savior, in whose cross, crown and coming again he glories (2:5-11; 3:20, 21; 4:5) was able and willing to supply his every need (4:11-13, 19, 20); that other, too, were being saved (1:6; 2:17,18), that the apostle himself being used by God for this glorious purpose; that he had many friends and helpers in the gospel-cause, who together formed a glorious fellowship in the Lord (1:5; 2:19-30; 4:1, 10); that God was causing all things, even bonds, to work together for good (1:12-18; cf. Rom. 8:28), so that even death is gain when life is Christ (1:12-18); and that at all times he has freedom of access to the throne of grace (4:6).”  It’s not that easy to rejoice in the Lord.  So Paul has to say it twice.  It takes effort to focus on Jesus.  No, it takes faith to believe that he is near.

If we believe that, we will be able to “let your gentleness be evident to all.”  The English word gentleness sounds like something from the Sermon on the Mount about the meek.  But the Greek word epieikes is much richer than mere meekness.  Dictionaries give an astonishing number of defining words: big heartedness, forbearance, yieldedness, geniality, kindliness, sweet reasonableness, considerateness, charitableness, mildness, magnanimity, generosity.

In a world filled with people who are always pushing for their rights, fighting to get their way,  looking out for themselves, and running over others in the process (one thinks here of certain loud, rude, offensive politicians), those who believe that the Lord is near don’t have to resort to such behavior.  There is a place for self-defense, of course, and for seeking justice for the oppressed, and for battling evil.  But if we truly believe that Jesus is the King “who [has] the power to bring everything under his control,” then we don’t have to assume a belligerent stance toward the world.  If we believe the Advent Gospel, our default position will be gentleness.  The Lord is near, so rejoice and be gentle.

And be at peace in your mind.  That’s the positive side of this text.  If you believe that Jesus is near, you can enjoy the peace of God.  Indeed, that peace will stand sentinel over your heart and mind, over your feelings and your thoughts.  Yes, you will still struggle with anxiety, but the peace of God will guard you.  Paul uses a military term there, suggesting that overcoming anxiety is a real battle.  God will give you peace.

But we have to do our part to receive and then enjoy that peace of God.  Blessedly, our part is relatively simple, though not easy.  We must take the cares that whirl around and around in our minds, that shift our focus off the nearness of Jesus and onto the nearness of trouble—we must take those cares and “present them to God.”  Or, more accurately, we must make them known (gnoridzesthe) to God.  That’s a fascinating way to put it.  Doesn’t God already know our cares and concerns?  Jesus assures us that God knows long before we ask (Matt. 6:32).  Well, then, why do we need to make them known?  So that we can get them off our chest, out of our mind, out of the secret places where they drive us to distraction and depression.

To enjoy the peace that God gives, we must take each of those whirling thoughts and make them known to God, so that we can know that he knows.  Paul uses a wonderful “vocabulary of the soul’s inner life” to help us understand how to let go of our worries: prayer, proseuche, the general Greek word for prayer; petition, deesis, a word that has a sense of need; requests, aitemata, a word that suggests the content of prayer, definite and precise petitions, as opposed to what Oswald Chambers called “sentimental mooning before the Lord;” and eucharistia, the word for thanksgiving.

Peace will come to us when we don’t just offer perfunctory prayers, but get passionate, needy, specific, and direct about our concerns, and when we thank God even as we beg for answers.  By thanking God for past answers, for present grace, and for future answers that are coming even as we pray, we can let go of our worries.  But none of that will “work,” unless we actually believe the Gospel of Advent.  “Jesus is near.”  We aren’t praying to a distant God.  We are praying to Immanuel, God with us, the coming King.  In our anxiety, we fear the future.  If we believe the Gospel, God gives us peace because we know that the King is coming soon with “the power to bring everything under his control….”

It is ironic and telling that Paul penned these words from prison and that he wrote them to people whom he first met when he was in prison.  Acts 16 shows us that Paul practiced in that Philippian prison what he preached to the Philippian Christians.  Even prison, it is possible to rejoice, be gentle, and be at peace.  That’s because even when he was in prison with a trial and possible execution ahead of him, Paul was first of all “in Christ Jesus.”  It is no accident that Paul ends this simply profound summary of the Gospel and its attendant call to revolutionary living with those words.  You can’t really believe that Jesus is near unless you are in Jesus.  Unless we have deep communion with the living Christ by faith, the gospel of his nearness will seem like a fiction.  So, a sermon on this text should end with a call to come to the Christ who came long ago, is near right now, and is coming again soon.  Let this Third Sunday of Advent become a day of conversion and re-commitment.

Illustration Idea

Readers of this text have always struggled with “Jesus is near.”  What does “near” mean?  One way of helping the congregation, especially the younger members, think about the idea of the nearness of Jesus would be to recall Sesame Street.  I can still remember Bert and Ernie teaching our kids the concepts of near and far by getting really close to the camera and saying,“Near.”  Then they would run away from the camera, shouting, “Far!”  Or you could talk about nearness in terms of time by talking about how far away a long awaited vacation is, as opposed to the next day when they will go to school.


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