MEANWHILE BACK AT THE CHURCH…
A sermon on Philippians 4:1-9
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
October 11, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
When December 31st of this year rolls around, I imagine that few of us will be sad to say goodbye to 2020. What a most stressful year it has been. Nothing much has been normal or familiar…
The COVID pandemic has wreaked almost unimaginable havoc on countless lives, jobs, and institutions. Additionally, we are living in a time of social upheaval as our nation comes to grips with its history of racial injustice. Uncontrolled wildfires have torched millions of acres out West, leaving thousands homeless. Hurricanes are popping up and striking the Gulf coast and the Atlantic coast with frightening regularity. Even right now in Lynchburg, we are experiencing the remnants of Hurricane Delta, the 10th named storm to hit the US in a record setting hurricane season. And we are in the middle of one of the most contentious and heated presidential elections in my memory—maybe even in the history of the republic. No—I do not think that many of us will be sad to put the year 2020 in the rearview mirror…
These are anxious times. There is certainly no question about that. It seems to me that these times provide an opportunity for the followers of Jesus to demonstrate to those outside of the faith a quality of life that is different from what is prevalent in society—to give witness to “the peace of God which passes all understanding,” as the Apostle Paul puts it in verse seven of our text this morning. In some ways, I guess that we are mostly “doing okay” in that regard. (Although it must be said that the cause of Christ is damaged in the eyes of others when some church or famous minister flagrantly disregards the CDC guidelines.1
Such attitudes and actions make the rest of us who call ourselves “Christians” look bad in the eyes of others. On the positive side though, many churches have responded to the challenge of these days in a Christ-like manner. Ministry still goes on in spite of everything. Some two thousand years earlier, the Apostle Paul has some words for us to instruct us in the ways that we should handle such a crisis as God would want us to do.
In the earlier chapters of Philippians, Paul has spoken in broad strokes about the nature of life in Christ. He has talked about his own situation in regard to being in prison for preaching the gospel. In
1 I’m thinking particularly of John McArthur and Mark Dever, big name preachers and authors who have defiantly refused to comply with the restrictions that their states (CA and Washington, DC respectively) have put into place. I guess their allegiance to their First Amendment right to freedom of religion expression is more important than Jesus’ command to “Love one another” by not putting people at risk for the virus at “super spreader events” like large worship gatherings…
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spite of his circumstances, he encourages the church at Philippi to live a life worthy of the gospel that they profess. He then speaks of Christ as the example of what it means to live the life of the Spirit. He counsels them to imitate the humility of Christ in obeying and following the will of God. He then warns of those who would pervert the message of Christ to their own selfish ends by insisting on adding pieces of the Old Testament law to the requirements for salvation and for the Spirit-filled life. As you may remember from last week’s sermon, Paul calls such things by the Greek word skϋ’-bä-lon, which is a rather crude term for “barnyard waste” or “animal excrement.” He calls his good and righteous deeds as less than nothing in comparison to the joy and satisfaction of being made right with God through his son, Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, back at the church in Philippi…
After spending the first three chapters of the book discussing high and lofty principles—and universal truths—regarding the life of the Spirit, Paul turns his attention to a nagging problem in the Philippian congregation in chapter 4…It is said that “All politics is local.” Might I also suggest that “all theology is local” as well…?
[Side bar here: The well-known proverb “All politics is local” is one that is sometimes heard in political circles. It basically means that, even in nationwide or statewide elections, and despite whatever lofty eloquence and noble ideas that are presented, or how much money is spent on the campaign, voters are mostly concerned about the issues that affect them directly in their own personal lives and in their home communities. Consequently those concerns dictate how they will vote in a particular election on the state or national level as well as on the local level. National or state elections that do not take those concerns into consideration are likely not to succeed.
I think theology is the same way. Regardless of how grandiose and intricate the arguments about God and the faith may be, how lofty and flowery the ideas may be expressed, ultimately it does not matter if it does not reach down into the local community of believers and speak to them and their situation and in their context. Otherwise, theology is just a bunch of hot air and not really of much value. That is my opinion, although some theologians sometimes seem not to understand that…And it goes the other way too. The problems and concerns of the local congregation should be considered front-and-center in any credible theological construct. The concerns of the local church should be one of the starting points for more universal thinking about God and the worldwide church…Just sayin’…]
Meanwhile, back at the church…In verse two, Paul addresses a problem within the Philippian congregation. At the center of the controversy are two women named Euodia and Syntyche. (This early conflict within the church kind of makes me wonder if the Philippian congregation had some distinctly Baptist blood in it…) We are not told anything really about the dispute—or who may have been right or wrong—or even what it concerned. Apparently none of those things were overly important to the Apostle. But the contention between these two women was so severe that Paul made it a point to call attention to it and plead for them to resolve their differences. Perhaps it even threatened to split the church wide open…
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Part of Paul’s response to the controversy in the church around these two women is to be found in verse6. There the apostle writes, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”
Gentleness…It is easy to show that quality to some people, isn’t it? Others—not so much. Sometimes we find it difficult to extend gentleness to others. And sometimes others (and maybe even ourselves) find it difficult to receive gentleness from the hand of another person…The Greek word that Paul uses here really does not have an exact equivalent in the English language. Therefore, if you were to look up verse 6 in different English translations, you would find the word rendered as “reasonableness,” or “yielding” or “forbearance” or “lenience.” And at the end of verse six, he gives us the reason why Christians are to treat each other with gentleness even in spite of the differences that they may have. He says it is because “The Lord is near.”
What does he mean by that? What does he mean by reminding the people that “The Lord is near”? It could mean one of two things…
First it could be referring to the return of the Lord in power and glory—the “Second Coming of Christ.” As one reads through the New Testament, it is not hard to see that those folks in the early church believed that the Lord’s return was imminent. They seemed to believe that they would most likely see the Lord’s return during their lifetime. Obviously that did not happen. But it seemed to be in the forefront of their minds and they wanted to be ready for it.
But there is another meaning that Paul could be invoking in this statement “The Lord is near.” The gospels tell us that Jesus is “Emmanuel”—that is, interpreted it means “God with us.” We hear that phrase every Christmas season. But I think that we often do not consider the implications of that statement in our lives for the rest of the year. Because, if Jesus really is Emmanuel (“God with us”), then it means that Christ is near to each one of us and is observing what we do and listening in to every word that we speak…
There used to be a plaque that I remember seeing in several homes of church members through the years. Maybe you have one of these plaques in your home. It usually hung on the wall of the dining room or kitchen, but it really is appropriate most anywhere. (I would have to confess that I haven’t seen it anywhere in a while—not really sure how to interpret that.) Anyway, the plaque reads, “Christ is the head of this house, the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation.” (Anybody else here ever see that sign in someone’s house?)
The scriptures tell us that Jesus is one who “sticks closer than a brother.”2 As we go about our daily activities, it is helpful to be reminded that the Lord is present within us, listening in to what we say and observing what we do. I do not think that many of us keep that in focus in our day-to-day lives. But that reality should give us pause…
2 Proverbs 18:24.
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It should not be a scary or terrifying truth for us. Jesus does not “stick closer than a brother” in order to tally up a list of our sins and shortcomings, so that he may zap us and punish us at a later time or through eternity. NO—that is not the point at all, although I am afraid that there are many who would like to portray it as such. Instead, the Lord is watching and working in us that we may be more fully controlled by His Spirit. God is gently correcting us and leading us along. He is pulling for us and helping us to become more conformed to the image of his Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That is the work of the Holy Spirit inside of us—to make us more Christ-like in all that we are and do. How much would our behavior change if we constantly reminded ourselves that Jesus is listening in to what we say…and watching our daily activities? How much of a difference would it make? Would it make a difference in our words and how we say them? Would it change some of what we do? What do you think?…
In verse 6, it says, “Do not worry about anything, but in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” Paul says do not let your anxiety control your life…
Is anxiety a disease or an addiction? Perhaps it is something of both. Partly, perhaps, because we can’t help it, and partly because for some dark reason we choose not to help it. We torment ourselves with detailed visions of the worst that can possibly happen. The nagging headache turns out to be a malignant brain tumor. When your teenage son fails to get off the plane you’ve gone to meet, you imagine seeing his picture being tacked up in the post office among the missing and his disappearance never accounted for. As the latest Middle East crisis boils over, you wonder if the TV game show you are watching will be interrupted by a special bulletin to the effect that major cities all over the country are being evacuated in anticipation of a nuclear attack.3
Why do we do that? I do not know. I do not think that anyone knows. Maybe we think that if we prepare ourselves for the worst, then maybe when it does arrive, we will be more prepared for it. But it usually doesn’t work that way, does it? When trouble and difficulties comes, it does not make it any easier if we were expecting them or not.
Paul says that the antidote to this seemingly endless cycle of fear and anxiety is prayer. Now that sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Just turn everything over to God and it will all be okay. Paul says to pray—connect with God regularly. He uses the word “supplication,” which is a fancy church word for asking things of God in prayer. And he says that, in our prayers, that we are to be thankful to God for the way he is working in our lives, even when we don’t see why, even when we don’t understand.
Prayer will not take all of our anxiety away. Nor is Paul preaching the benefits of “the power of positive thinking.” He is not promoting some Pollyanna way of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, ignoring the harsh realities that we sometimes encounter. God knows full well what life on earth
3 I am indebted to Frederick Buechner for most of the material in this paragraph.
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is like. The Cross is plenty of evidence of that. Instead, it’s about filling one’s mind with what Paul sees as the signs of God’s life—not so that we will feel good, but so that God’s life can flow through us into the world around us. The purpose of the anxieties and troubles that we face is to build up the faith inside of us and to cause to rely even more on Him. 1 John 4:18 tells us that “There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out all fear.” The anxiety that sometimes threatens to undo us can be battled by the follower of Jesus using the power of faith and love. The truth of the matter is that they are the only things that will really work against the anxieties that we experience…
We end with the words of Stanley Jones concerning anxiety and worry. Dr. Jones was an American Methodist minister and one of the best-known missionaries and religious writers of the first half of the 20th Century. He has been called “The Billy Graham of India.” Beginning in 1908, he worked among the high-caste Hindus and Muslims in India, teaching inter-religious classes and dialogues throughout the country. Later on in his life, he divided his time between his missionary work in India and evangelistic missions in the United States. He was a remarkable man who was a close friend of Gandhi during the time of the Indian Independence Movement. In fact, it was his best-selling biography of Gandhi that was seminal for Martin Luther King Jr.’s embrace of non-violent resistance in the 1960’s.4
Concerning the subject of anxiety in the life of the follower of Jesus, Dr. Jones made these observations:
We are inwardly fashioned for faith and not for fear. Fear is not our native land; faith is. We are so made that worry and anxiety are like grains of sand in the machinery of life; faith is the oil. We live better by faith and confidence than by fear and anxiety. In anxiety and worry, our inmost being is grasping for breath—these are not our native air. But in faith and confidence, we breathe freely—these are our native air…5
What great words: “We live better by faith and confidence than by fear and anxiety.”
As we reach the end of this morning’s sermon, hear again these words from Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
May it be so, O Lord, for us today—even in the midst of 2020. May it be so…
And to God alone be the glory! Amen.
4 Mohandas Gandhi: An Interpretation (1948) is the title of the book.
5 www.azquotes.com/quotes/topics/anxiety-and-worry.html (Accessed October 7, 2020) I changed the singular pronouns in the original to plural for this sermon.