October 06, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
In a seminar on Matthew’s gospel, Tom Long pointed out that in Matthew, it’s never a good thing to be addressed as “friend.” Every time someone is called a friend in Matthew, what follows is not pleasant! Jesus himself was referred to as a “friend” by the religious authorities in Matthew 11 but it was no compliment: they accused Jesus of being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” In the previous chapter from last week’s lection, the master of the vineyard overhears the grumbling and grousing of the 12-hour workers over being paid the same as the 1-hour folks. “I am not being unfair to you, friend” the master says. But there is an edge to that—the grumblers were no friends of the owner! Later in Matthew we find the single most poignant such instance when, having been kissed by the traitor Judas, Jesus asks him, “Friend, what have you come for?”
But a close second to that final devastating use of “friend” may well be here in Matthew 22 when a hapless wedding guest is addressed as “Friend” right before being most definitively thrown out on his ear!
That concluding incident is the second shock of this parable, the first having come when the king orders the complete annihilation of those who spurned his invitation to dinner. All in all, then, the king of this parable is not someone to be trifled with! Whatever is going on as symbolized by this parable, the stakes are clearly on the high side.
Because the center of this parable displays the reach of God’s gospel to the least likely of people—a theme Matthew has been hammering away at since his opening genealogy and then the appearance of also the Magi—it is fairly easy to see how and why this is finally a parable full of grace. But that grace is nestled in pretty closely to judgment as well. And just here is a tension for us preachers.
All of us like to proclaim grace. Indeed, I would contend it is our #1 task as preachers to do just that. We are not supposed to morph into Oprah or Dr. Phil mode when in the pulpit, dispensing good advice or pithy moral aphorisms meant to inspire people to aspire to greater things in their lives (even though plenty of preachers in recent years seem quite content to do exactly that). Nor is it our first task to preach Bad News sermons of finger-wagging condemnation or in which we Christians are encouraged to take on morally superior airs to all the greasy losers all around us in society. Too many sermons do make it sound as though the difference between the saved and the unsaved is that the former group does better things, generates more moral wattage, and so attracted God’s attention in the first place on account of all the merit points folks had racked up on their own. Too often sermons make it sound like it’s finally up to us either to get saved or to stay saved.
No, no. We preach grace. We preach the supreme merits of Jesus. That is the Gospel. That is what we preachers were ordained to proclaim.
But does that mean we may never talk about the other side of the coin? Does it mean we should not mention the fact that if people spurn the Gospel or refuse grace or refuse to turn from their selfish ways that they may well face a dire fate? There is no question that Jesus exuded grace. There is no question that far from being afraid of him, sinners and those shunned by the religious establishment of the day found Jesus attractive and welcoming. And there is no question that salvation is indeed a free gift such that at the end of the cosmic day—as in this parable—more people and not fewer people will come, and a good many of those who end up at the king’s banquet table may well be those whom religious types had long ago written off.
There will be surprises. But that’s grace for you.
But the same Jesus back to whom all of that can be traced was not adverse to mixing into all that good stuff darker notes of judgment and ultimacy. It is possible in some sense to tell the God of all Grace to take a hike, and if someone does that in one way, shape, or form, the consequences are real and trend toward the dire end of the spectrum. What Jesus came to offer the world was the most precious thing God could offer: a divine sacrifice of such gargantuan dimensions we’ll just possibly never finish plumbing the depths of a love so great. But precisely because of the value and the beauty and the majesty of all that, to have it rejected, spurned, or chalked up as being of no account is no small matter.
Augustine once discussed the idea—current among some critics of Christianity in his day—that the notion of an eternal punishment for sins committed in this temporal world was patently unfair, if not sheer nonsense. How could anything people could manage to do across a few score of years be so bad as to warrant a punishment into eternity? But Augustine countered that we don’t tend to mete out punishments even on this earth based on chronological distinctions. It may take a man no more than four minutes to rape a woman. It takes a matter of seconds to pull a gun, fire it, and take a life. But no judge or jury ever would claim that given the short duration of the crime in question, a sentence of years and years is unjust. It is the monstrosity of the crime, the value of what was lost or taken, that leads to a just punishment.
I’ll not comment here on what we should think about the prospect of eternal punishment but let’s indeed pick up on Augustine’s notion that we properly assess things in life based on what is at stake in a given instance. In the case of Matthew 22, what is at stake is the Gospel, the free invitation of grace to sit at the king’s table of grace. What’s at stake is of infinite, precious value. Yes, you can receive these glorious riches by grace alone but if you cannot be moved by that same grace—if you look at what is proffered and find it less interesting than other things that are occupying your heart and mind and life—then the result cannot be a simple shrug of the divine shoulders. Offer a person a chocolate chip cookie and have him turn it down and it’s no big deal. Offer to donate a kidney that he needs to have his life saved only to have him spurn also that and your eyes widen at such a thing.
Even as preachers, we may well undermine the very beauty and glory of the Gospel if we leave the impression that there are few, if any, severe consequences for rejecting the Christ of God and the invitation to come to the banquet.
Dale Bruner is at his usual trenchant self in commenting on this passage by highlighting for us the interplay in Matthew 22 between the concepts of being “called” (the Greek kaleo, which in many translations is rendered “invited”) and the concept of being “chosen” or “elected” (the Greek elekto as in verse 14 where many are called/invited but only a few are in the end elected). In verse 3, the servants are told to go out and invite those who were invited (literally in the Greek, to call those who had been called). Apparently there was a general invitation issued and when the banquet was ready, those who had been so invited are summoned. But in the end most of those initial invitees declined, revealing that although called, they had not been elected or chosen. But Bruner reminds us to be cautious. Matthew’s use of the concept of election is not the same as the Apostle Paul’s later use of it. For Paul election is the source of a person’s salvation. For Matthew election is the goal or end-result of truly responding to God’s call with a joyful life of gratitude.
Tom Long once related something that, as he himself admitted, may sound like the set-up for a joke but that is actually a real story. He said that one day Barbara Brown Taylor, Fred Craddock, and he all attended an Atlanta Braves baseball game (“Three homileticians walked into a bar and . . .”). Unbeknownst to them and to others in the stands that day, a man several rows ahead of them was apparently causing problems. The next thing they knew, several burly men wearing bright yellow shirts with the word “SECURITY” written across their backs barreled down the aisle, lifted this apparently troublesome man from his seat, and carried him clean out of the stadium. The crowd sat in stunned silence until finally the somewhat high-pitched voice of Fred Craddock piped up to say, “Obviously he didn’t have a wedding garment on!”
Probably to some of the people there at the ballpark that day, the reference to a “wedding garment” seemed to come from out of nowhere and made no sense to them. If you do not know this parable in Matthew 22, then how could you know what Craddock’s wise crack meant? But really, even within this parable, this mention of a wedding garment comes as a bit of a surprise in that such attire had not been mentioned earlier. It’s even a little hard to know what it means or what it stands for today.
But at very least it may mean this: the party is finally God’s party and everyone there is there by grace alone. You had to be clothed with grace to be there and no matter what you may think of the wedding garment of grace when it is handed to you, you either put it on or risk getting pitched out of the party. There is no other way to be at the party without wearing the attire the master assigns. Those who think they got there some other way or who think they can do without the clothing of grace everyone else is wearing will soon find out how wrong they are.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
As Exodus 32 opens, it has been just over a month since Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive from God the full corpus of divine laws. Moses went up alone because the people found they just couldn’t take it when God thundered at them directly. But before Moses left, in Exodus 24:3, the people had heard the first portion of God’s Law and with one voice had responded by saying, “Everything Yahweh has commanded, we will do.”
That was forty days ago. Not a long period. If you preach from this text in the Lectionary Year A cycle for 2014, then 40 days prior to October 12 was September 2, the day after this year’s Labor Day in the United States. Not long ago at all.
But in the case of Exodus, forty days was enough to introduce among Israel a grave calamity. Indeed, if you pay close attention to this chapter, then you may note something that crops up again and again: namely, the phrase “brought out of Egypt.”
“I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” That is the ringing opening line of what has become known as the Ten Commandments. It is the place to begin because knowing who God is, what God has done, and how that properly motivates us to worship this God alone is the linch-pin in all true discipleship. Yet here the phrase “brought out of Egypt” pops up six times in the span of just 23 verses but there seems to be no consensus on who did this mighty deed. Was it Moses? The golden calf? Is there an outside chance that the right answer is Yahweh?
Just who brought them up from out of the land of Egypt??!!
The people don’t seem to know.
Their collective memory has grown altogether foggy. Beyond the tragic events confined to just chapter 32 there is an even sadder tragedy to note in the larger sweep of this entire book. In general the Book of Exodus stands as one giant answer to the question, “Who is God?” Back in chapter 5 Pharaoh himself famously asks Moses, “Who is Yahweh that I should listen to him!?” Pharaoh asked the question, and God then took matters in hand to answer it. Pharaoh got the education of a lifetime in learning the hard way who Yahweh is. But the people of Israel were supposed to learn right along with Pharaoh and for the most part, it seemed as though they had. Their song of jubilation at the Red Sea surely looked for all the world like testimony to the fact that they had discovered who their God is and why he is worthy of praise.
Yet now it comes to this sad business in Exodus 32. The people get bored. Their attention span isn’t worth much. They figure Moses had gone on holiday, maybe permanently, and so they go to the man Moses had left in charge, brother Aaron, and demand a god. Arrestingly enough, Aaron seems not even to hesitate. He asks for all the gold they can muster, melts it down, gets some metal-working engraver’s tools, and handily fashions the image of a bull calf. Earlier the people said they wanted such a thing because Moses “who brought us out of Egypt” had disappeared. After the calf is created, Aaron and the others say that this calf now is the God “who brought us out of Egypt.”
But then Aaron says something curious in verse 6: he announces that the next day they would (in front of this calf) hold a festival to Yahweh. Having just made an idol, why would Aaron turn right around and start talking about Yahweh, again? Apparently because he had convinced himself that there was no disparity between Yahweh and the calf. The people could serve Yahweh through the golden calf.
Before the sun had set that next day, however, Aaron should have had a pretty good clue that he was wrong. The moment you make a god out of something blind, deaf, and dumb, it becomes easy to indulge yourself, do whatever feels good, because after all, this god isn’t going to scold you in any event.
Meanwhile, up on the mountain, Yahweh knows what’s happening and so dispatches Moses back to the camp. But notice in verse 7 that even Yahweh says to Moses, “the people you brought up out of Egypt are corrupt.” Even God is so fed up that he is putting some daylight between himself and Israel. Later in verse 11 Moses will boldly come right back at God and say, “Now wait a minute! These are not my people. These are the folks whom you, O God, brought up out of Egypt!”
If this were not a scene filled with so much gravity, this exchange could almost be funny. God and Moses are like some married couple, embarrassed over the antics of their child at the church picnic and so saying to one another, “Dear, your daughter just kicked the minister in the shins. Fetch her, would you please!” “Well, honey, she’s your daughter, too!”
But beyond the oddities of God’s and Moses’ exchange, notice what is the key that unlocks this chapter: since the people had forgotten God, God now returns the (dis)favor and forgets them. In verse 10 God says to Moses, “Let’s ditch the whole lot of them. Just you and me will head to the Promised Land and I’ll make a great nation out of you, Moses!” In short, forget Israel! At the end of the chapter, in verses 32-33 (which falls outside the prescribed Lectionary reading), we find an even more chilling conversation that centers on God’s literally blotting out of the book of life those who have sinned. Moses once again stays Yahweh’s hand by saying, “If you blot them out of the book, then blot me out, too.” God relents, but notice what the stakes are here! This is not just a matter of life and death, it is a matter of existence and non-existence, of being remembered by the God whose memory spells life or forgotten by the God whose forgetting of anyone is the equivalent of his or her being banished to the hell of divine amnesia.
But before we pursue that grim theme a bit more, let’s note one other wrinkle in this story. As much as anything, the role played in this sordid scenario by Aaron that is most distressing. Moses charges straight at Aaron, eyes ablaze, and Aaron says something that is either one of history’s lamest of excuses or something that contains a scary truth. Moses asks, “What in the world happened here!?” and Aaron recounts events very accurately, right up to the end when he implausibly says, “So I took all their gold, just threw it blindly into the fire, and–presto, poof–out popped this calf!” Now, of course, we as readers already know that Aaron himself formed this calf. It did not appear out of thin air.
So Aaron’s reply looks hardly better than the school boy who when the principal asks how the chemistry lab blew up, shuffles his feet, looks down at the ground and says, “I dunno. Just happened.” But suppose Aaron is not merely being immature and evasive. Suppose that from his vantage point, this is pretty much what happened. Oh, not that he had really forgotten the hard work he devoted to forming that calf. It’s just that he had never intended it to become a false god. When in verse 6 Aaron stood right in front of this idol and declared a festival to Yahweh, he was serious. But before he could blink twice, presto, poof, the silly thing turned into a false god after all.
But, of course, the only reason Aaron made this calf in the first place is because he himself was suffering from a bad short-term memory. Aaron forgot that in the Ten Commandments, following God’s declaration that it was He who had brought the people out of Egypt, immediately Yahweh went on to forbid not only the worship of false gods but also the production of any graven images. Aaron was shocked at what the people did with his golden calf. Truth is, this should not have been even mildly surprising for Aaron. God said this would happen. That’s why he forbade it to begin with.
The role of sacred memory is key here. Notice in verse 13 that Moses saves the day not by mounting up some grand argument but when he jogs the divine memory. “O Lord, remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!” No sooner does Moses remind God of the covenant and we read that Yahweh relented. Just like that. The people whose memories were like a sieve were saved because God’s memory is so very good!
From this point forward in the balance of the Pentateuch, this will become the rallying cry for Israel. By the time you get to Deuteronomy and Moses’ last great swan song of a sermon, the phrase, “O Israel, remember and do not forget” pops up over and over like a kind of holy refrain. That cry echoes down along the centuries as we see Israel repeatedly forgetting, then remembering again for a time, and then forgetting all over again. Finally in the biblical story it takes no one less than the very Son of God himself to come down here in person, hold up some bread and wine, and say once and for all, “Remember!” And so each time we baptize a baby, we promise to remember and to nurture a holy memory bank in also this little one. Each time we come to the Lord’s table, we not only jog our memories all over again but vow to re-commit ourselves to an ongoing sacred remembrance of all that has gone into our great salvation through Christ Jesus the Lord.
In Exodus 32 the people are saved when Moses asks God to remember his promises. This is not the only place in the Bible where memory spells salvation. The thief on the cross knew what he was doing when he asked, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” But even before that, it was Jesus who looked at his disciples to say, “Remember me!” The question that echoes down along the ages, burning with an intensity no other question could, is whether or not we do, as a matter of fact, remember him.
It has now been 30 years since in 1984 Frederick Buechner published a collection of sermons and essays bearing the title of the first piece in the book, “A Room Called Remember.” In this piece Buechner recounts a deliciously good dream he once had of staying in a wonderful hotel room somewhere—a room in which he felt completely comfortable, at ease, and at peace. But then in the dream he left that hotel for some more travels, returning later only to be put into a different room that was dark and cramped. So he went to the front desk to request his prior room and was told by the clerk that, no problem, he could have it back. He only had to ask for that special room by name. And the name of the room, he was told, was Remember.
Buechner said he woke up in a startle at that point but has ever since pondered the power of memory. Among the many lyric things he said is that one reason memory is so powerful for us as Christians is because “To remember the past is to see that we are here today by grace, that we have survived as a gift.” But sacred memory is so key, too, because it puts us in touch with so much of what our Savior has done. Buechner concludes:
“The past and the future. Memory and expectation. Remember and hope. Remember and wait. Wait for him whose face we all of us know because somewhere in the past we have faintly seen it, whose life we all of us thirst for because somewhere in the past we have seen it lived, have maybe even had moments of living it ourselves. Remember him who remembers us as he promised to remember the thief who died beside him. To have faith is to remember and wait, and to wait in hope is to have what we hope for begin already to come true in us through our hoping. Praise him.” (A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces, Harper & Row San Francisco, 1984, p. 12.)
Exodus 32 stands as testament to what all the people of God can lose when they move out of the room called Remember.
Psalm 106:1-6; 9-13
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
Psalm 105 and 106 are in a way almost mirror images of each other. Psalm 105 concentrates on God’s marvelous works. Psalm 106 focuses on Israel’s failure to trust the Lord in spite of those marvelous works. Psalm 105 recalls how Israel received the land of promise because God kept God’s promise to Israel. 106 recalls how Israel lost that gift because of her failure to trust and obey.
Each, however, uses a recounting of God’s marvelous works to stimulate worshipers to praise the Lord. “Read together,” writes Old Testament scholar James Mays in his book, Psalms, “the two psalms constitute a study in the tension between the promise and purpose of God on the one hand and the perversity of the people of God on the other as the logos of Israel’s story.”
So “who can proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord or fully proclaim his praise?” (2). The psalmist doesn’t explicitly answer that question. Yet Jacobson suggests the psalm implies an answer to it. Preachers and teachers might draw one possible answer to the question from verse 3. “Blessed are they who maintain justice,” the poet writes there, “who constantly do what is right.” She at least seems to suggest that doing what’s just and right play some kind of role in remembering what God has done.
Yet the psalmist doesn’t make it clear whether doing what’s right and just comes first, or if remembering God’s marvelous deeds comes first. However, he suggests that if unhappiness and trouble come from failing to remember God’s past actions on our behalf, blessing comes from a faithful relationship with God that produces just and righteous behavior.
However, the psalmist also suggests those who can proclaim the mighty acts of God and fully proclaim God’s praise are also those who deliberately remember what God has done. They’re people who take the time to make note of those deeds and deliberately commit them to memory. Those who proclaim God’s marvelous deeds are those who remember God’s “many kindnesses” (7), what God “had done” (13) the “great things” God did in Egypt (21).
Karl Jacobson, in Psalms for Preaching and Worship, says Psalm 106’s historical memory plays two roles. It draws worshipers into Israel’s story. However, this psalm also encourages worshipers to recognize our own tendency towards a kind of spiritual amnesia. Like the psalm’s Israelites, we too easily forget God’s marvelous deeds.
Those who wish to preach or teach this psalm may want to offer worshipers or students an opportunity to reflect on God’s marvelous deeds in their lives or the lives of those they love. They may even offer participants an opportunity to publicly recount some of those deeds as a means to stimulating fellow participants to praise the Lord with them.
Psalm 106 includes a number of examples of how forgetful Israel “sinned,” did “wrong” and “acted wickedly’ (6). The section the Lectionary appoints for this particular Sunday recalls one of those incidents, her acts of unfaithfulness at Mount Horeb. There, in the face of God and Moses’ apparent inactivity, Israel simply forgets God and what God had done to bring her to that place. Israel worships a “calf,” “an idol cast from metal” (19), because she has forgotten how God has repeatedly rescued her, first from Egyptian slavery, then from the rampaging Egyptian army, then from her repeated wilderness missteps.
Israel’s idolatry at Horeb is so egregious that God is determined to simply “destroy” (20) her. It’s precisely the kind of sin, wrongdoing and wickedness that verse 6 introduces. Yet Moses intercedes for her, “stepping into the breach” in order to change God’s mind about Israel.
However, such sin isn’t limited to post-slavery Israel. In verse 6 the poet confesses on behalf of worshipers, “We have sinned, even as our fathers did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly” (italics added). So the psalm’s recitation of Israel’s past failures and infidelity serves as a kind of warning to her own contemporaries. It’s as if she says to them, “Look what happened to our ancestors at Horeb (and other places). Had Moses not interceded for them, God would have destroyed them. The same thing could easily happen to us if we continue to forget God’s marvelous deeds and sin against God.”
And yet a promise also lies embedded even in the psalm’s remembrance of Israel’s unfaithfulness. God, insists the poet in verse 44, “took note of” the Israelites’ “distress when he heard their cry.” Even if worshipers don’t remember God’s covenant, God remembers it and shows us God’s “great love” (45) because of it.
That’s why the poet can invite worshipers to “praise” and “give thanks to the Lord” (1). Such praise plays a crucial role in Israel’s relationship with the Lord. It doesn’t just remember and recite God’s promises and actions. It also reflects the reality in which worshipers live, move and have our being. When we no longer live on the basis of God’s words and actions, we easily fall into the very sins our ancestors committed against God.
The poet offers both a challenge and an assurance in Psalm 106. She challenges worshipers to remember what God has done, how our ancestors failed and yet God still heard their cry, because then we’re less likely to be unfaithful to God. However the poet also promises that even when we sin as our ancestors did, if we raise our voices in praise and prayer, God will listen.
It’s not surprising that the Lectionary appoints Exodus 32 for this particular Sunday in partnership with its reading from Psalm 106. The Exodus passage, after all, fleshes out what the psalm describes more briefly. It poignantly describes just how Israel exchanged God’s “Glory for an image of a bull, which eats grass” (20).
The Lectionary also appoints Philippians 4:1-9 for this Sunday. Its call to consider what is true, honorable, just and pure serves as a wonderful contrast to our natural tendency to focus on what is not holy, leading us down the path toward sinning because we forget who God is and what God does.
The Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana once famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a truth that’s been sadly confirmed ever since our parents fell into sin.
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.”
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.