Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 12, 2021
Philippians 4:4-7 Commentary
The season of Advent is, for many of Jesus’ friends, as well as the culture in which many citizens of the global west live, a perhaps especially busy one. Many of us are busily preparing for various holiday celebrations, even as a global pandemic and political strife continue to rage among and around us.
So this Sunday Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers as well as hearers may not be eager to hear Paul and Timothy add one more thing for Christians to do this season. Jesus Christ’s friends may, in fact, be tempted to tell the apostles, “Enough already! We’ve got more than our hands full just trying to keep our heads above water right now!”
Faithful readers of the Center for Excellence in Preaching’s commentaries are probably aware of their authors’ general aversion to “should,” “must” and “ought to” messages. Proclaimers are wise to be even more reluctant to add one more thing to our hearers’ already overflowing holiday to-do lists.
Yet what if the Spirit points Philippians 4’s proclaimers to something that God can use to help lessen at least some of Advent’s stress? It might be worth exploring how the apostles’ call to “in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (6) can help Jesus’ friends to prepare not just for our celebrations of Jesus’ first coming, but also, as perhaps an “added bonus,” for our celebrations of his second coming.
Verse 6 is, of course, theologically rich. It begins with Paul and Timothy’s call to “in everything (en panti) … present your requests to God.” That invitation is consistent with much of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s “all in” language. “Rejoice in the Lord always” (4). “Let your gentleness be evident to all” (5a). “Do not be anxious about anything” (5b). “The peace of God which transcends all understanding” (7).
However, it’s not easy to fully understand just what the apostles mean by verse 6’s “in everything.” Panti (“everything”) is, after all, a Greek adjective. So Paul and Timothy literally tell the Philippian Christians “In all, present your requests to God.”
Perhaps, however, that very ambiguity can serve as a summons to Christians to pray to God in every kind of time, place, circumstance, and perhaps even way. Panti (“everything”) may even leave room for us to interpret the apostles as calling their adopted siblings in Christ to pray “in totality,” with all that we are.
During the first month of my first pastorate in Iowa, a dear parishioner inadvertently challenged my understanding of that “all things.” Her public request for our church to pray for her sick cat flummoxed me. I had no idea of how (or even whether!) to pray for an ailing house pet. I remember stumbling through a fairly generic prayer for all the things and people that are dear to us.
The Spirit has better equipped me to handle such requests 34 years later. I’d now publicly pray not just for “Boots,” but also for all who love and care for her. After all, her illness and her master’s pain over it seems to me to fall well within the scope of the apostles’ “everything” about whey summon us present our requests to the Lord.
Christians sometimes pray as if God is only interested in “big” things like the pandemic, climate change, political strife, racial injustice, and world peace. We occasionally even pray as if we assume that God’s just too busy to deal with Boots’ illness or Joey’s soccer game. God’s adopted children might disagree about whether God wants to heal Boots or help Joey win his game. But we can’t argue that God graciously loves and acts on behalf of all that God creates in ways that bring God glory and are best for those creatures.
After all, it’s some of those things that we sometimes consider “small” that create the anxiety about which the apostles write. Christians aren’t just anxious about this pandemic. We’re also anxious about the exams some of us will soon have to write. We aren’t just anxious about the current political or earthly climate. We’re also anxious about the holiday parties we have to organize and host.
Paul and Timothy summon their adopted siblings in Christ to bring all of those anxieties and more to the Lord in prayer. They invite us to “By prayer and petition, with thanksgiving” present our “requests to God.”
It’s not easy to know the difference the apostles see between “prayer and petition.” But verse 6 at least suggests that they see some distinction between them. Perhaps, then, “prayer” refers to praise and adoration, while “petition” refers more to what we sometimes call “intercession.”
In any case, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s apostles summon Christians to a kind of full-orbed prayer life. To go beyond prayerfully presenting to God our generic praise and thanks, as well as divine Santa Claus wish lists. Our communication with God includes specific causes for praise, thanks, and request. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might even summon its proclaimers to do an audit on our own prayers and invite our hearers to do the same.
After all, when we offer full-orbed prayers, we run counter to our culture’s general emphasis on self-reliance. Even Christians naturally assume that we only need to pray for that which we can’t somehow produce on our own. When we prayerfully present our requests to God, we, in a sense, pray against that natural tendency. The kind of prayer to which this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson invites Jesus’ friends involves professing that we completely rely on God as the generous giver of every good gift.
What’s more, we might make the case that such prayer is a key to the rest of Philippians 4’s ethical summonses. No human being is naturally capable of verses 4 and 5’s constant rejoicing or universal gentleness. Even the godliest Christians can’t generate the kind of peace about which the apostles write in verse 7.
When Philippians 4’s proclaimers expand the ethical commands to those in the rest of the chapter, we’re reminded of our complete reliance on the Holy Spirit to create in us firmness in our stance in the Lord, agreement with our fellow Christians in the Lord, our consideration of excellent and praiseworthy things as well as our practice of what we proclaim. In fact, to even intimate that we’re capable of those things on our own only adds to the heavy burdens that our hearers already carry right now.
When God’s dearly beloved people prayerfully plead with God for the Christ-likeness this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson describes, we aren’t telling God anything God doesn’t already know. But we are confessing the limitations our sin, sins and sinful nature impose on our ability to imitate Jesus Christ.
Yet in those things to which the apostles summon us in Philippians 4, we also see reflections of the character of the Christ whose return we await. While he is a member of the Trinity, he devoted large parts of his incarnation to prayer. Jesus modelled gentleness, especially toward those on society and religions’ margins. His life was filled with joy. And God’s peace allowed Jesus to live and die at peace with his Father.
In Advent we wait. Yet Christians don’t just await Christmas or Christ’s return. We don’t even just await the end of this pandemic, political partisanship, and climate degradation. Jesus’ friends may also await the results of medical tests, court cases or job evaluations. Philippians 4 invites us to prayerfully await all that (and more) “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving.”
Mark Twain was a famous religious skeptic. One of his most famous quotes was, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so …” So it’s not surprising that Twain was also skeptical about the efficacy of prayer. He used Huck Finn to express that skepticism.
Twain’s Huck recounts how his guardian Miss Watson, a fervent Christian, “took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get. But it warn’t so. I tried it.
Once I got a fish-line but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow, I couldn’t make it work. By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way.”
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