Proper 23A

October 06, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 22:1-14

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 32:1-14

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 106:1-6; 9-13

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Philippians 4:1-9

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                Our reading for today contains some of the best loved commands in the Bible.  They are helpful, upbeat, and practical—a preacher’s delight.  But they are also incredibly difficult to obey.  I mean, how can anyone rejoice always, and never be anxious, and focus our thoughts only on positive things?  These verses sound wonderful, but they are practically impossible, unless we focus, as Paul does, on Jesus.  Note that with one exception, Paul stresses the importance of “the Lord.”  So, however we approach this very practical passage, we must be sure that our sermons are Christ centered, because these commands are impossible apart from his presence and power.

                When confronted with this many commands, the preacher is faced with the question of organization.  Do we simply move through the text, elucidating and applying each command in order?  Or do we decide to focus on just one of them and leave the others for another sermon?  Or do we take one verse as the governing theme and use the rest to explain that theme?  I’m going to take the third approach, focusing on verse 4 as the main theme (“Rejoice in the Lord always!”) and interpreting the other verses as Paul’s explanation of how we can do that one thing.  This is, admittedly, a bit arbitrary, but it may help you decide how you would preach this succession of commands.

                I want to get at this command to be “rejoice always” by recalling something from Richard Foster’s marvelous book, Celebration of Discipline.  It was an attempt to help the modern Protestant church recover the traditional disciplines of the church.  Among the disciplines he highlighted was the discipline of celebration.  That may sound like an oxymoron, because discipline has about it the idea of order, effort, even pain, while celebration suggests spontaneity, freedom, and pleasure.  How can we square the clenched fist of discipline with the open hand of celebration?  The “celebration of discipline” sounds contradictory, but it’s not.

    Indeed, the discipline of celebration is an antidote to what I will call the clenched fist syndrome, which is epidemic in today’s world.  As I reflected on this text, I was surprised at how much time I spend with a clenched fist.  There are so many things I’m angry about, or worried about, or with which I’m preoccupied.  And it is very difficult to obey the command of our text when our fists are clenched.  “Rejoice in the Lord always!  I will say it again (presumably because it is so difficult to do): Rejoice!”  Here God commands us to unclench our fists and extend the open hands of joy.  In the following verses he tells us how to do that, by giving us three specific things we can do to free ourselves to celebrate, three disciplined behaviors that will unclench our fists.

    The first thing is in verse 5. “Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.”  Paul is talking about fighting here.  In verse 2 he pleaded with two women who have been quarreling in the church.  “Agree with each other,” he said.  Unclench your fists and shake hands, embrace. That’s hard to do when you believe you are right, even more so when you’ve been hurt.  The world is full of angry people, as demonstrated by a book written in the late 20th century, entitled The Contentious Society: The Fraying of America. That’s 21st century America, too, contentious, everyone battling for his cause, her issue, my rights.  As a result, America is fraying, coming apart at the seams.  So is the church.

    Our text says an important word to the all Christian warriors—“let your gentleness be evident to all.”  This is not a call to forget the fight.  There are times for battling; there are issues that matter deeply, truth and justice issues, gospel issues.  God doesn’t tell us to lay down our arms.  He does call us to unclench angry fists, and be gentle with each other as we contend.  How can we do that?  We must believe what Paul says next.  “The Lord is near.”  We are not alone.  It isn’t only up to you.  The Lord is near.  That is a reference to either the Parousia or to Christ’s promised Presence (Mt. 28:20), or both.  Either way, Paul is reminding us that it’s Christ’s battle, too, or first.  We can be gentle because Christ is in this with both hands, clenched or unclenched.

    But these contentious things are important.  We’re worried about how they will turn out.  We’re sick with anxiety about the future—our children, our health, our church, our country.  So we hold tightly to these things, clutching them to our breast with worried hands.  Our text has a word not only for Christian warriors, but also for Christian worriers.  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

     “Do not be anxious” doesn’t mean that we can’t care about things.  An older translation says, “Be careful about nothing,” which sounds like, “you shouldn’t care about things.”  That, of course, is nonsense.  We supposed to care and care deeply.  “I don’t care,” is a terrible thing to say.  Care is part of love.  The Bible is not saying, “Don’t care.”  It is saying, “Don’t let your care drive you crazy.”

    When you care about someone or something, your heart goes out to the object of your care.  When you worry about something, your heart goes in upon itself.  And if your heart keeps going in on itself, it creates a circle of worry, and it drives you crazy.  That’s where the old gesture of craziness comes from– moving your fingers in a circle around your ears.  The circle of worry, in which our hearts keeps turning in on themselves, robs us of peace, and spins us down into deep anxiety and its evil twin depression, where the clenched fists of mental distress take hold of us.

    In this text Paul shows us how to regain our peace.  Here’s a picture you can paint for your congregation.  Take that circle of worry and snap it into a straight line and make it into a prayer list.  That is not an argument against counseling or medication.  Sometimes we need to talk things through with someone or take some medication so that we can calm down enough to think clearly.  But neither counseling nor medication will bring us the peace that passes understanding.  That comes only when we do what Paul says here.

    When things are whirling around in your mind, make a list of all the things that worry you.  And then turn each worry into a prayer, a request to God.  One by one, take your requests in your hand, lift them up toward God, and present them to God as a gift.  Open your hand, letting go, so that your worries rise to God like a helium filled balloon.  And the peace of God that passes all understanding will keep your heart and mind.

    Except it doesn’t always work that way, does it?  We pray, letting that helium filled balloon go up.  But it seems as though there’s a string attached to it, and we pull it right back down into our circle of worry, and we keep spinning.  That’s why Paul adds those two words “with thanksgiving.”  We can’t really let go of our worries unless we are able to give thanks to God in the very moment that we let go of our worries.  If we can’t thank God for hearing our prayers and taking care of our worry in the very best way possible, we won’t have peace, no matter how much we pray.

    But how can we thank God that way?  A story from the early church shows us the way.  In Acts 4 the church was just entering a time of persecution, so they had a lot to worry about.  Notice how these first Christians prayed in the middle of persecution.  It is the key to thanksgiving and peace.   “Sovereign Lord,” they said in verse 24.  When they encountered something that might have made them clench their fists in worry, they opened their hands in prayer and reminded themselves of everything they knew about God’s sovereignty—not because God didn’t know these things, but because they needed to be remember that God’s sovereignty is not an abstract idea, but a life changing reality.  “You made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them.”  They confessed out loud that God is bigger than their worries, bigger than anything that can threaten us, because he created absolutely everything.

     They continued by reminding themselves about the power of God’s word.  “You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David.”  God doesn’t live way up there somewhere in splendid, silent isolation.  God cares so much about us that he has spoken directly to us by the Holy Spirit.  Their quotation of Psalm 2 is a great reminder when we worry that God has spoken his Word for our lives in The Book.  The bad times of our lives don’t take God by surprise.  They aren’t outside his control.  He has already spoken about our lives in the Bible.

    These early Christians knew that Psalm 2 had just been fulfilled in what had happened to Jesus.  A few weeks before this the leaders of the Jewish nation and of the Roman Empire had conspired to kill God’s anointed one, Jesus Christ.  Jesus awful suffering and death were not outside God’s knowledge or control.  He predicted it in the Bible 1,000 years before it ever happened.

    In fact, say these Christians to God, these wicked people did “what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”  That’s how sovereign God is.  Even the murder of Jesus, the crucifixion of the very Son of God, surely the greatest sin ever committed, was under God’s sovereign control.  God didn’t make those leaders do that to Jesus; they acted of their own free will (“they did…”).  But what they did God had decided beforehand should happen.  Don’t ask me how that fits together.  There’s a place for such theological thinking, but it’s not in your prayer closet.  That’s where we just have to take God’s Word for it.  Even the sin and evil committed by human beings is not outside God’s power and control.

    Here’s the main point.  Instead of wringing their hands in worry, these persecuted people opened their hands in prayer.  And instead of rehearsing their problems, they reminded themselves of God’s sovereignty.  They didn’t start with their problems; they started with their God.  If you start with your problems, rehearsing them again and again, they will get larger.  If you start with God, reminding yourself of his greatness, your problems will get smaller.  So by the time these folks get around to their problems, their prayer sounds very calm. “Oh, by the way, Lord, we had some trouble in town today.  Some blowhards were threatening us.  Could you take care of that?  Thanks.”

    But how do we know the Sovereign Lord will answer our prayers in a good way?  After all, these first Christians prayed this way, and they were still persecuted after this.  In fact, it got worse.  Jesus himself was killed by wicked men, in spite of God’s sovereignty, or, more accurately, because of it.  The Son of God died at the hands of wicked men in fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation, precisely so that we can have the peace that passes understanding.  We can give thanks in every prayer because we know that the God who sent his Son will do us good.  That’s what Phil. 4:7 means when it promises that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds “in Christ Jesus.”  It is in Christ Jesus that we see God’s plan to do us good.  If you believe that, you can give thanks whenever you pray, and have peace.  And unclench those fists and celebrate with joy always.

    That brings me to the third thing we can do to free ourselves to celebrate.  Verse 8 tells us that we can’t rejoice always if our heads are full of negative things, all the things that are wrong with this world, our country, the church, our individual lives.  It is very easy to assume the pose of Rodin’s statue, The Thinker, hunched over with our fist clenched under our chin, deep in thought about all that’s wrong.  Here’s how we can unclench our fists, straighten up, and rejoice.  We decide what we will think about.

    Paul talks about some abstract things here, all of which are made concrete in specific Christian truths.  This is our Father’s world, after all.  Our God reigns, doesn’t he?  Christ is Lord, isn’t he?  God provides, doesn’t he?  Redemption is a reality, isn’t it?  Because of those truths, there is so much this true, noble, right, pure, etc.  Think about “these things,” about the creative, providential, redemptive work of the Triune God.  And rejoice in the Lord always.

    Paul ends this passage with one more reminder that celebration depends on disciplined living.  It depends on obedience.  “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me—put it into practice.”  Paul undoubtedly had in mind the three things he has just commanded.  Do these things, and you’ll discover that the God of peace is with you.

    One more thing.  Did you catch the secret of celebration in those 3 behaviors?  In each one, it is a disciplined faith that sees the Lord’s hands working in all things.  The only way to open your clenched fists and be gentle is if you believe that the Lord is near.  The only way you can open your clenched fists and release your worry to God in prayer is if you believe the Lord cares enough to do the best thing for you.  The only way you can open your clenched fists and think positive thoughts is if you believe the Lord is doing his redemptive work in a fallen world.  We can celebrate only if we believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is working in the routine experiences of our lives and the earthshaking events of our time. That’s why Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

    Illustration Idea

                A few months ago the cover of Time magazine showed a lovely blond woman with a totally unwrinkled face, serenely closed eyes, and a blissful smile.  The headline said, “The Mindful Revolution.”  The accompanying lead article was all about the mindful revolution lead by John Cabot Zinn.  That revolution promises a more peaceful, purposeful, and productive life.  The secret is to learn to pay attention to one thing at a time.  Even though its roots are in Buddhism, the mindfulness revolution is sweeping our country, and is making inroads in the Christian church.  I noticed recently that a local Christian college is offering two courses in mindfulness in its program for senior citizens.

    Undoubtedly, there is much that is helpful in this revolution, but Christians should be careful to focus their minds on Christian truth.  Some Eastern mystical traditions urge practitioners to empty their minds of all thought, while Paul in Philippians commands us to think of good and noble and lovely and pure things rooted in specific Christian truth.  While mindfulness may bring a measure of peace, only meditating on the work of the Triune God will give us the experience of the peace of God that transcends all understanding.