Philippians 4.1-9: A Sermon
Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long for, my cause for joy and my reason for boasting, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved. (2) I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to agree with one another in the Lord. (3) Indeed, I ask you also loyal fellow-worker , help these women who have shared my struggle in the gospel, together also with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. (4) Rejoice in the Lord always – I will say it again: Rejoice! (5) Let all people know your kindness. The Lord is near. (6) Worry in no way, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, disclose your requests to God. (7) And God’s peace, which is more valuable than all reason, will hold your desires and your thoughts prisoner in Christ Jesus. (8) As for the rest, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy, whatever is conforming to the will of God, whatever is innocent, whatever is pleasing, whatever is worthy of praise, if there is any moral excellence and if any praiseworthy thing - take these things into account. (9) Also, those things that you learned and received and heard and saw by me - do these things; and the God of peace will be with you.
How many of you have ever watched the Christian station called Trinity Broadcasting Network – TBN – on cable TV? My wife thinks I’m crazy, but I love to watch TBN. The preachers on TBN are so intense in their preaching that you can get tired just watching them. I grew up with generally sedate, exegetical preaching, and preachers on TBN are like something out of a different world for me. I think that Paul would be on TBN if he was around today. Don’t get me wrong, I hold Paul in the highest respect. But every now and then I listen to what he has to say to us and it sounds so foreign. Take a few instances from our passage today. As a quick side-note, you will not find the translation we are using today in any printed Bible since it is my own translation. I figured that since I’ve spent so much time learning Greek then I should use it now and then. Anyway, if we look at this passage, it is pretty easy to see that Paul says some pretty “out-there” things.
- 4:1, Paul says that his readers are his “cause for joy and my reason for boasting.” What is Paul’s deal with boasting? He’s always talking about it. Just read any of his letters and you will see what I mean.
- 4:3, Paul talks about people having their names in a “book of life.” Have you ever seen a “book of life?” I haven’t. Is it some kind of first-aid manual? Do we have one here at the church for legal reasons?
- 4:4, Paul tells us to rejoice – twice! Why does Paul always repeat himself? I can just picture Paul sitting around a fire with Timothy and others on his travels. “Listen to this, everyone” Paul says - he’s busy writing Philippians at the time – “listen to this and tell me if you like it. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’” “You can say that again, Paul” chuckles Timothy. “I think I will,” replies Paul with a perfectly serious expression on his face.
- 4:5. What is this business about letting all people know about our kindness? Should we take out advertisement time on the local cable channel? Did the early Christians develop a line of tracts to inform their neighbors of their kindness? Maybe we should get T-shirts. And then Paul says “The Lord is near.” How did you know that Paul? The Lord is only just now pulling in the driveway. Hey, come over here and check out his new Mercedes!
- 4:7 – This sounds a bit scary. God’s peace is going to hold me prisoner? Some peace! It sounds more like occupation by a hostile force. Or at least “taxation without representation.”
- 4:8 – And what is this nonsense about taking into account whatever is true, worthy, innocent, pleasing, or whatever? How am I supposed to know what fits the bill? Things that please me don’t necessarily please anyone else. For instance, I’m a big U2 fan. I think their music is quite true, worthy, and pleasing. But I’m sure I could find someone to disagree with me. At least theoretically.
The point is that, if we are really honest with ourselves, we find it difficult to make heads or tails out of what Paul is talking about.
To make matters worse, all these things that Paul is saying are commands. They are imperatives. They demand that we do something!
- 4:1 – “Stand firm in the Lord.” Ok Paul, I’ll do that! Um, Paul…how am I supposed to do that? I have all the firmness of a wet noodle.
- 4:2, Paul tells Euodia and Syntyche to agree with each other. I guess that since it was important for these two ladies to agree with each other in the Lord, then we should agree with each other in the Lord also. But what exactly are we supposed to agree about? Perhaps the color of the background we use for the PowerPoint slides?
- 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always – I will say it again: Rejoice!” Paul seems to be pretty taken with this talk about rejoicing. He has been talking about it throughout this whole letter. “I rejoice, even though I am in prison,” he said in 1:18-19, and again in 2:17-18. In 3:1 he flat out says it like in our passage today, “Rejoice in the Lord.” But there are some days that I wake up and the last thing on my mind is rejoicing. And then someone cuts me off on Route #1 and the last thing on my mind is rejoicing. And then I cut them off and the first thing on my mind is rejoicing!
- 4:5 – “Let all people know about your kindness,” Paul says. Talk about misrepresentation in advertising. Aren’t we supposed to give an accurate portrayal? “Hi, nice to meet you. My name is Travis and I’m a kind person. Never mind about earlier today when my neighbor’s copy of the New York Times wound up on my driveway. Don’t worry, I’ll get it back to him just as soon as I take a peak at what my favorite columnist has to say.” We have a hard enough time being genuinely kind to those we love, much less everyone.
- 4:6, “Worry in no way.” Paul, how am I supposed to not worry? Have you seen the world that I’m living in? There were guys with assault rifles in Penn Station just a week or two ago!
- 4:8 – You already know what I think about this list of things to take into account. But even that bit about whatever conforms to the will of God – how am I supposed to do God’s will? I don’t really know what it is, and I have a sneaky suspicion that it might include selling my U2 CD collection in order to give more money to the church, or – heaven help me – to the poor.
- 4:9 – And to top it all off, I’m supposed to do everything that you taught and did? Paul, you lived nearly 2000 years ago. How am I supposed to know what you did, much less do what you did? I’ve read Acts and I’m not terribly excited about going through everything you did. Well, a Caesar doesn’t rule from Rome anymore so I’m pretty sure that gets me off the hook about being in prison there.
Not only are the things that Paul writes to us hard to understand, they are impossible to do. Who among us has the courage to face the will of God and to submit completely to it? Who among us is able to impact the world like Paul did? What two people among us are even able to agree with one another? And how on earth could we possibly trick ourselves into thinking that we can rejoice in the Lord all the time, much less pull-off being kind to everyone? Still, this is what is demanded of us.
There is one thing about Paul that we can count on to help us out of this mess. Paul has a one-track mind. He is only able to think about one thing - God. No matter what it sounds like Paul is talking about, he is only ever talking about one thing. The Gospel. Jesus Christ. God. No matter how wrapped up Paul gets in talking about what we need to do, his underlying preoccupation with God and the Gospel keeps bubbling to the surface. We are to stand firm in the Lord (v1). We are to agree in the Lord (v2). It is important to agree because we share in the work of the Gospel (v3). We should rejoice – say it with me – in the Lord (v4). There is no need to worry because we pray to God, and because God’s peace – his holistic provision for the flourishing of our lives – holds prisoner even the rebelliousness of our thoughts and desires in Christ Jesus (v6-7). We can know the true, the worthy, the innocent, the pleasing, the morally excellent and the praiseworthy thing because they are things that conform to the will of God (v8). Which, by the way, Paul understands as being disclosed in Jesus Christ. And finally we can do what Paul did because the God of our flourishing will be with us (v9).
However, on top of all this, the one thing that drives this home, the one thing that puts it all into focus, is found in verse 5. “THE LORD IS NEAR.” This phrase seems to come out of nowhere. It is not grammatically or syntactically tied to what comes before or after it. This quick cloudburst of profundity breaks forth from Paul’s lips as though he is simply not able to contain himself. It stands alone, and it towers over this entire passage as the flashing neon road sign that points us along the path of understanding. This is the Archimedean point, such that if we stand here on this phrase, we can move the whole passage.
I think the point of what Paul is getting at is that these words of his are confusing. They are not easy for us to understand, and they are even more difficult for us to hear. Paul knows that he is placing demands upon us that we cannot possibly meet. That is, he knows that he is placing demands upon us that we cannot possibly meet if we try to do it ourselves. Furthermore, he knows that if we try to meet these demands ourselves, we will do nothing but enter a spiral of guilt and hopelessness. We loudly protest to the creator of the universe, “Dear God! You expect me to do all these things!?!” But at the same time, we are Americans. We are men and women of capitalistic skill and acumen. We know that the first offer is only a jumping-off point. God goes high, we go low, and then all parties agree on something in the middle – or, if we can cut a good bargain, something on the low end. Then we go out and spend our energy trying to convince ourselves that we are living up to even these low standards, when the reality is that we fail miserably every day. Paul knows this. And God certainly knows this.
BUT. “The Lord is near.” How is he near? In Jesus Christ. In the one human being who was able to obey God perfectly. In the one human being who died in a state of complete innocence. In the one human being who bore our sins and guilt and inadequacies far away beyond the veil of reality.
YES. “The Lord is near.” How is he near? In Christ Jesus. God walking on earth. God eating with us. God laughing with us. God crying with us. God dying with us? NO! GOD DYING FOR US.
In Jesus Christ, the amazing has happened. In the nearness of the Lord, the impossible has become actual. We are forgiven. Why? Because of what God did, and not because of anything we did or could possibly hope to do. Not because we made God an offer he couldn’t refuse. Not because we cut an amazing deal with him. Not because we did anything, but because HE DID EVERYTHING.
And now Paul calls us to do the impossible. Only now, we are not responsible for our own performance. God has made himself responsible for our performance, and in Christ Jesus, that performance was pulled-off without a hitch. What we are now commanded to do is called forth from us not by obligation, but by love. It is not a demand that is placed upon us from outside of ourselves, but an irrigation system meant to direct the waters of love for God that bubble up from inside our souls.
In closing, I want to leave you with a metaphor for all this. Gardening. I once heard a story about an old theologian who kept a garden as a hobby. And whenever this theologian went to give lectures, he would stay with the many friends that he had made throughout his career. When it came time for our theologian to return home, he always asked his host for permission to take a small plant - maybe his host had a flower planter beneath the kitchen window or a few shrubs off the back patio. He would then take these plants home and care for them in his garden. There is something about gardening that theologians are drawn to. I think this metaphor explains that a little.
When we garden and we want something to grow better, we enhance the conditions under which the growth is to take place. For instance, we add fertilizer, we apply more or less sun, we apply more or less water. But the best conditions in the world will mean nothing if the seed does not crack open and release its life-giving energy. Like any metaphor, we can’t push this too far. But the point is clear: the growth of our spiritual life, the development of our discipleship, the progress of our subjective sanctification does not come about because we struggle to meet conditions – such as obeying the many commands that Paul gives us in this passage. No, we grow, to steal a phrase from Saint Augustine, when “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” That is, when the Gospel grabs a hold of us and starts to transform us by its life-changing power. This isn’t a “let go and let God” strategy. This is a “Got God?” strategy.
Do we truly understand the depth of the significance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I don’t think any of us do, but that is precisely what must be grasped. That is what is required of us in the working out of our salvation with fear and trembling, which Paul mentions in 2:12-13. We do not “fear and tremble” because we know that we cannot live up to God’s expectations and are worried about what may come as God’s retaliation. In Christ, we have no reason now to fear God. We fear and tremble because something exciting is going on. If we really understand it we get goose bumps and shivers up and down our spines. Our hair stands on end. Our adrenaline is pumping, sending our minds and bodies into overdrive. In other words, we “fear and tremble” because it is God, the infinite creator of the universe, the author of our salvation, who is working in us both to will and to do. Amen.