(Philippians 4: 4-9)
I’m a big fan of the American painter Norman Rockwell. I love his paintings and even have one of his prints in my office. What’s interesting about his paintings is how much they have to say and the different stories that are being told. There’s so much going on in his paintings and it’s hard not to identify with one of the characters or to put yourself into the painting. One of my favorite paintings is his Thanksgiving Dinner painting where he portrays a family that has gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving. The table is all nicely decorated with the finest linen, silverware and china. At the head of the table you see the elderly heads of the family dressed in their finest behind a wonderfully prepared turkey big enough to feed the hugest of families. Then you see the other family members in various poses and positions. You can feel the excitement leaping off the picture as you look at the expressions on their faces, young, middle-aged and elderly. All in eager anticipation of the family feast in which they are about to partake. There’s even one guy down in the lower corner looking back as us with an expression on his face that seems to say: “pull up a chair, join us.” You can sense that God is in the room. I can almost hear the head of the family saying grace, thanking God for all their blessings, for the joy of gathering as a family, for freedoms they enjoy, and for the hands that prepared the meal. Rejoicing in the Lord always.
Rejoicing in the Lord always is the message the Apostle Paul is trying to convey to the believers at the church in Philippi. In all things he is telling them to; Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. What’s ironic about Paul’s message to rejoice is that he wrote this letter from prison. In spite of his situation and the uncertainty of his future, he was full of joy because he knew that no matter what happened to him, Jesus Christ was with him, in the room and at the table. The secret to his joy was the fact that he was grounded in his relationship with Jesus Christ. No matter his circumstances, free or captive, rich or poor, he had the joy of Christ in his heart and nobody could take that away from him. And, no matter what, he tells them to let their gentleness be known to everyone. Don’t let your circumstances stop you from being who you are, a brother or sister of Jesus Christ. Continue to be gentle, reasonable, fair minded and charitable to those outside the church and not to just fellow believers. Don’t hide your light, the light of Christ that dwells within you, under a bushel. It’s during those times of adversity when your light burns brightest is what he’s trying to tell us.
Paul loved the church in Philippi because it is one of the many churches he established on his missionary journeys. He urges them to be joyful, probably because they needed to hear it. They may have been feeling discouraged because of the opposition they were facing as new believers. The Pharisees weren’t finished with them yet and the novelty of this new religion was fading with the Roman authorities. They needed to know that if Paul wasn’t worried, they shouldn’t be worried either. Don’t worry, rejoice. He says; Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Thank God for all you have, your special blessings, and not what you don’t have or what the other person has. There is no joy in that.
And if you do that, Paul tells us that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. He’s telling us that if we stay grounded in God by taking our prayer requests to him, no matter what happens, we will have the peace of God within us which will guard our hearts and minds against all things. We will have that inner peace and the security that God is in control and that, as he said in Romans 8: 28, in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Imagine never being anxious about anything. It seems like an impossibility. We all have worries in our daily lives. But Paul’s advice is to turn our worries into prayers. He’s telling us that if we want to worry less, to pray more. Whenever you start to worry, stop and pray.
You know, that sounds easy enough, but I still worry and get anxious. The past couple of weeks have been especially worrisome as the number of people coming to the church seems to have increased. I think it may have something to do with the colder and wetter weather. We just put on warmer clothes or turn the thermostat up but the people coming to us for help can’t do that without an equal and opposite reaction. Burn more gas, eat less food. Their lives are not a Norman Rockwell painting. I was so overwhelmed last Monday I couldn’t focus or put words to paper. In a few days, many of us will gather with our families to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast and some of us will travel a great distance to be with loved ones. As I look at the Rockwell painting and think about my own Thanksgiving, I can’t help but think about those struggling to stay warm and wondering about where their next meal may be coming from. Ironically, as I was writing these very words, I got a call from someone needing assistance to buy propane. For that, I am thankful. I am thankful that God sends these people to us and I’m thankful that we can help, and I know they are thankful we exist and are willing to do what we can. But I still get anxious and worry that not enough is being done. I am thankful for the many agencies we have in Jefferson County, many which we support financially, that work hard to meet the needs of their clients but find themselves stretched to the breaking point. But then, I remember Paul’s reminder not to worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication and with thanksgiving to make my requests known to God who will make it happen in his time and in his way, not in my time or in my way. I am thankful that we can give and that the more we give the more God gives us to meet the needs of his children.
Paul closes out this portion of his letter by saying; 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 these things. 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. Paul’s telling us to focus on the positive and not the negative. He’s telling us, Community United Methodist Church, to keep on doing the things we have learned from Christ and received through the Spirit and heard and seen in the writings of the Apostles and the peace of God will be with us during those times we are anxious and worried.
God wants us to be thankful, enjoy all of that which we have been blessed with, and not to beat ourselves up for having what we have, because we’ve earned it. But he does wants us to use what we’ve been blessed with to help those who need help so that they too can be thankful for a God that looks after them too. We need to be like that guy in the lower corner of the Rockwell painting that is looking back at us with the look as if he is inviting an unexpected guest to the table to enjoy the feast that has been prepared for us. Above all for which we have to be thankful, we must be thankful to give.
Please pray with me.
Gracious God, we gather together to ask your blessing and that you make your will known to us your faithful servants. We pray for the wicked to cease their oppressing and for those who feel distressed to be relieved. We sing praises to your name because we know that you do not forget your own. We thank you for the Spirit who is beside us to guide us and that you are with us during our most difficult times and that one day we will prevail, and all glory will be thine. We rejoice in you Lord and bring everything to you in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving knowing we will be granted the peace which surpasses all understanding guarding our hearts and minds from all that makes us anxious. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.