Philippians 4:4-9 – Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about[f] these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Do It Yourself
Oct. 15, 2017
Our garage has a loft in it. It’s a nice benefit to have, because it gives us a space to store all of our junk, instead of storing it in our basement. Actually, we have junk down there, too, but now we can have more junk and still fit both cars in the garage. Score! The only problem with our loft is that it’s about ten feet off the ground, and there’s no easy way to get to it.
So, I decided to build a wooden ladder for it. What qualifications do I have to undertake such a project, you ask? Well, let me share with you my extensive resume. I’ve been on several church mission trips, including one where I cut out a window space in the wall of a Habitat home. The construction supervisor was very impressed with my window-cutting skills, and said it would have been even better if I’d cut the window into the correct wall. I hope the family living there appreciates the extra natural light I provided for them.
Let’s see, what other qualifications do I have to build a ladder? (Pause) Yeah, that’s about it. But I did what any budding handyman does these days. I Googled it. It didn’t look too difficult, and I had the right tools, and I got to use my power saw. Vroom vroom! So, I bought some wood and some nails, made a few cuts, pounded some boards together, and…ta da! We now have a ladder to our loft. To this day, I am the only one in my house who will set foot on that ladder. Leigh will say, “Where are the Halloween decorations?” I’ll say, “They’re up in the loft.” She’ll pause and say, “Um…I’ll let you get those.”
There are a lot of things I’ve learned to do myself. Unclog a dishwasher. Tune up a lawnmower. Make toast. Hey, it’s a start! And each time I do something myself, I get encouraged to try more. Isn’t that what the big hardware stores want us to do? Think about their slogans: “Let’s Build Something Together.” “Never Stop Improving.” “You Can Do It. We Can Help.” “Who Needs All Ten Fingers?” I think that place went out of business.
Doing it yourself is in the DNA of our country, which was founded by a group of rugged individualists who only needed one finger to tell the king, “No thanks, we’ll do it ourselves.” And they did. They endured rugged terrain and harsh weather, they built houses and businesses and whole industries, the tackled unsolvable problems like interstate highways and air travel and get both peanut butter and chocolate into an ice cream. We Americans have a long history of being able to do it ourselves.
Which gets us in a lot of trouble, doesn’t it? Because there are some things we can’t do ourselves. And yet, we’re not good at admitting that. We think it shows weakness, that it makes us less than human. So, we trudge forward, thinking we can fix that broken relationship, thinking we know better than the doctors what will help our loved one, thinking if we just try hard enough we can pull ourselves out of that depression. Because isn’t it up to us to never stop improving? Isn’t that what gives us value as human beings?
Paul knew differently than this. Paul knew that life will throw some problems at us much thornier than building a ladder. Paul knew that sometimes we will face situations in which we can’t do it ourselves, and even Googling it won’t light a path forward for us. And, Paul also knew that when that happens, our typical response is to have anxiety about what’s going to happen, because it’s out of our control. “Let’s worry about something together.”
Paul tells us, “Rejoice in the Lord, always.” He isn’t writing this from some ivory tower or a library filled with fine leather-bound books and smelling of rich mahogany. He’s writing it from a Roman jail, probably not long before he was executed. So yeah, Paul knows a little something about worrying and life not going according to plan. And yet he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
Paul then reminds the Philippians that the Lord is near. This probably means something different for us today than it did for them back then, and remind me how incredibly flexible the Bible is as a living document. The prevailing belief in Paul’s day was that Jesus was coming again at any moment to vanquish the Romans and usher in God’s kingdom on earth. Therefore, Paul didn’t have to worry about rotting away in jail because Jesus could drop in at any time. Why worry when the Lord is near?
Two thousand years later gives us a relaxed perspective on the Second Coming. That doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t coming again soon, but the thrill and urgency of that promise have worn off a bit. So, for us, “the Lord is near” is not a promise about what might happen, but about what has already happened. When the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, Jesus Christ went from being a person to being a presence, a presence that surrounds us and infuses us and inspires us. Christ is with us everywhere we go, from down into the pit to up a homemade ladder and all the other scary places in between. Why worry when the Lord is near?
Whether we believe that or not is often reflected in our generosity. If we don’t believe the Lord is near, and that our own security and happiness is completely up to us, then we’ll hold on tightly to what we have for fear of losing it. But if we believe the Lord is near, that it’s not up to us, then we are free to release our grasp on the blessings we have so that they can be shared with others. As you think about your giving this morning, are you giving out of joy, trusting that the Lord is near?
Because of Christ’s presence, Paul reminds us, we aren’t called to do it ourselves when it comes to navigating the winding roads of life. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” We have been promised by our Creator that we are not alone, and all we need to do is turn to God with our fears and our worries. And what happens when we do that? Paul says in the next verse, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Now that’s even a better answer than Googling it! When we don’t try to do it ourselves, but instead lean on God, our reward is peace. That doesn’t mean our problems are solved or our prayers are answered in the way we want them to be, but it does mean that we will find peace in the midst of our struggles. Can we live in peace in the midst of this crazy, conflicted life? We can do it, but only if God can help.
But we know us, so we know we will still get distracted by the challenges life throws at us. And we know we’ll still try to do things ourselves. And we certainly know we’ll get frustrated and angry and resentful toward God and toward each other. Just as we have the capacity within us for God’s peace, we also have the capacity for acts of great evil and destruction. And sometimes the difference between the two is determined by where we choose to focus.
There are plenty of things in this world that can drag us down into despair. Each week presents a new tragedy, a new natural disaster, another unspeakable act of evil. It’s overwhelming. It’s paralyzing. For those of us who like to do things ourselves, we feel completely helpless to do anything at all. What do you do when Las Vegas happens? When Puerto Rico happens? If we let it, it can consume us, distorting our view of this world and eclipsing the goodness and grace that still exists around us. We trust that the Lord is near, but sometimes he feels awfully far away.
So, knowing the human tendency to want to do something, Paul does gives us something to do. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Want to do it yourself? Start by making sure your mind is filled with these kinds of things. Paul’s not saying that if we think about these things, everything else will go away. He’s reminding us there’s more to this world than what we hear on the news or see on Facebook. The Lord is near. Therefore, we need to balance the darkness that clouds our minds with the light of Christ that shines through. We need to make sure we’re not losing sight of the goodness and grace around us.
I read several different translations of that list and want to share a few of them with you. Just listen to how these words of Paul are translated. One of the words Paul uses is “true.” That also translates as “honest” or “honorable.” But one translation says, “that which has the dignity of holiness upon it.” Some of our thoughts are worthy of being called “holy,” others aren’t. Are our thoughts characterized by things that have the dignity of holiness upon them?
Another word Paul uses is translated in our pew bibles as “pure.” I also found it rendered “attractive” or “winsome.” But here’s the one I liked the most: “that which calls forth love.” Do our thoughts call forth love? Or do they call forth something else?
The last one I want to point out is what our bibles call “worthy of praise.” This was also translated as “fair-spoken.” But what grabbed me was this: “things which are fit for God to hear.” Where is our attention focused these days? How are we responding to the hatred and fear around us? Are we matching evil with evil, hate with hate? Or do we dwell on things in our mind which are fit for God to hear?
Thinking about these things is not a one-time event that we accomplish or get right. It’s a process. Some days we’ll do better than others. Some days our thoughts will be pure, others not. Some days our thoughts will be admirable, others not. Some days our thoughts will have the dignity of holiness or will call forth love or will be fit for God to hear, others not. That’s why Paul says we are to put these things into practice. The word “practice” implies we have to do it over and over again in order to get better at it. That’s something God can’t do for us; we have to do it ourselves.
Let’s not forget that “Rejoice” is a scriptural command. Paul says it not once but twice, a command to find joy in the midst of this worrying thing called life. This is not a command to ignore the realities we face, but to see God at work in the midst of them, to find the things that are pure and true and beautiful in a world of impurity and falsehood and ugliness. And our hope is the more we practice, the closer we get to God’s peace. We may never fully get there in this life, but in this unstable world in which we live, isn’t the idea of God’s peace worth the effort? Let’s be honest, life is hard, and we can’t do this ourselves. Thankfully, we don’t have to. The Lord is near. May we think, may we love, may we give as if we believe that is true.