Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 16, 2018
Philippians 4:4-7 Commentary
The Bible is full of commands to “Rejoice.” Yet they’re not always calls to God’s people to just “be happy.” After all, the Scriptures’ calls to rejoice sometimes seem to come in the context of the least happy times and places.
For example, the Paul who writes the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary assigns for this Sunday doesn’t seem to be in a very happy situation. He’s, after all, alone in prison, awaiting a trial that he at least almost certainly fears will lead to his execution. The apostle also worries about the spiritual health of the young churches he has started. So we can’t simply assume that he’s particularly happy.
Yet Paul fills this short letter with 14 references to joy and rejoicing. So though he is deeply threatened by powerful people, the apostle can be joyful. He’s joyful whether he lives or dies, whether he’s well-fed or hungry, whether he’s safe or in danger – in fact, always (4). What’s more, Paul is also able to call the Philippians to rejoice with him in whatever circumstance they find themselves.
So how can Paul call people to “Rejoice” in the face of such great adversity? How can God expect those who struggle with mental and physical illness as well as other problems to rejoice? The theologian Karl Barth once called joy a “continual defiant ‘Nevertheless’.” It suggests that the kind of joy to which Paul invites God’s adopted sons and daughters isn’t based on our circumstances.
Of course, a number of people who proclaim and hear Philippians 4 are very happy. Some of God’s people are preparing to celebrate their first Christmas with a new family member or friend. Others celebrate these holidays with family members and friends in good physical, mental and economic health. So some of us can fairly easily rejoice in the good things God has graciously showered on us.
Yet those who proclaim Philippians 4 will want to be honest about people’s circumstances at this time of the year. We don’t want to add to the burden that is the expectation that everyone be merry and happy that our culture dumps on hurting people. It is, in fact, a “blue” Christmas for some who hear Philippians’ gospel.
Some who preach, teach and hear this Sunday’s Lectionary lesson have serious doubts and fears. Others face uncertain medical, financial or employment futures. So does that exempt them from Paul’s call to “rejoice in the Lord” this week? The answer is no. The imprisoned apostle and suffering Christians can rejoice.
For years I’ve looked for a satisfactory synonym for the word “rejoice.” I think I’ve actually found two. Those who are experiencing God’s blessings can rejoice in the sense that they’re “happy.” Those who are struggling, however, can still rejoice in a way that means, “take heart” or “have courage.” So we might say that to rejoice means to “be happy when circumstances allow it, but always to have courage.”
After all, as Paul reminds the Philippian saints and us, whether we’re glad or troubled, “the Lord is near” (5b). Whether God’s people live in freedom or in some kind of captivity, we can rejoice because the Lord is near. Whether our culture is healthy or sick, we can rejoice because the Lord is near.
Whether our personal health is solid or shaky, God’s adopted children can rejoice because the Lord is near. Whether our finances are booming or busting, we can rejoice because the Lord is near. Whether we feel alone or swamped by people, we can rejoice because the Lord is near.
As David Bartlett notes, we can rejoice that “the Lord is near” in especially two ways. The God who, in Christ, promised never to leave or abandon us is close at hand, by the Holy Spirit. So Jesus’ followers can rejoice in the fact that even our most difficult circumstances can’t wrench us away from either the Lord or God’s love.
Whether God’s beloved people are trudging through dark valleys or hiking through beautiful mountains, God is right with us. Whether we have to swim through flooded waters or walk in pleasant places in the coming year, God stays with us.
The Lord is near in the comfort the Holy Spirit gives. The Lord is near in the loving prayers and presence of other believers. The Lord is also near in the trust God grants us that God is working even through difficult circumstances for good.
However, in this Advent season of waiting for Jesus to return, Paul also recognized that we can rejoice that the Lord is near because our Savior is coming again very soon. The apostle will not have to sit in prison forever and the Philippians won’t have to endure persecution forever because Christ is coming back.
Those to whom Paul writes can also take heart because when Christ does return, God will show God’s approval of those others have ignored or persecuted. Because God’s people know Jesus will return, perhaps very soon, to make all things right, we can rejoice in the sense that we can take heart even when happiness seems very far away.
While Paul didn’t write in paragraphs, he may have placed verse 4’s call to “rejoice” strategically. He follows it up, after all, with call to let the Philippians’ “gentleness be evident to all” (5), as well as with a call to pray instead of being anxious (6). Might the apostle in doing so be at least implying that the Spirit will find it easier to equip God’s adopted sons and daughters to be gentle and prayer if they’re also joyful?
The Lectionary pairs Philippians 4:4-7 with an Old Testament lesson from Zephaniah 3:14-20. There the prophet also invites God’s people to rejoice in a surprising context. After all, he writes it in a time of great political uncertainty. One of Israel’s mightiest allies is losing her power.
What’s more, Zephaniah’s Israel is full of faithless leaders and corrupt powerful people who exploit society’s most vulnerable members. God has also promised to wreak havoc on both faithless Israel and the pagan nations around her.
Yet in Zephaniah 3:14 the prophet can invite God’s people to, “Rejoice, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel. Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem.” God’s Israelite adopted sons and daughters can take heart because God has removed their punishment that is their enemies. They have can courage because “The Lord, the King of Israel is with” them (15b).
Jonathon Kozol wrote a provocative book about people in the Bronx who are materially poor called Amazing Grace. The title reflects that of the old hymn that he heard them often sing in churches in the Bronx. However, it also reflects Kozol’s amazement that even in the midst of real deprivation, something very much like joy flourished. Even struggling people were able to “take heart.”
One pastor told Kozol that the fourth stanza of “Amazing Grace” was the anthem of the people he served. There, after all, they sang, “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
One of Kozol’s students wrote a paper that described his vision of the Lord’s nearness in the new earth and heaven: “There will be no violence in heaven. There will be no guns or drugs or IRS … Jesus will be good to all the children who have died and play with them … God will be fond of you.”
That’s a vision of the Lord’s nearness in which all of God’s adopted sons and daughter can rejoice.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!