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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Rejoice! And Don’t Be Anxious

Third Sunday in Advent

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 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 your minds in Christ Jesus.

Phil 4:4-7

Years ago we had a funny song about life that said, “You open the door, and the flies come in; you shut the door, and it’s hot again. Life gets tedious, don’t it?” Well, sometimes life can get tedious, can’t it? And it can be unpredictable too! You just never know what’s going to happen next! When you think you have everything exactly as you want it, along comes something you don’t want – and hadn’t expected – and you have to start all over again. At least we don’t get bored very often! But we sure can get tired of coping with the people, the problems, and the situations that come our way.

The Apostle Paul had a lot of experience in coping with people, problems, and situations – more experience than most of us have had. When he wrote today’s Epistle lesson he was in prison, probably in Rome. He’d also been in prison in Ephesus and Caesarea, not to mention times spent in jails. Well, here’s what he wrote to the church in Corinth: “I have… been in prison frequently, been flogged… severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the 40 lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor. 11:23-29)

I read that account to you for the same reason Paul wrote it to the Corinthians: he knew what real life was all about – and then some! I don’t know about you, but when I read of Paul’s trials and tribulations, I realize what an easy life I’ve had!

And yet, from prison, Paul writes about being joyful, and gentle, and peaceful. And he says that, in Christ, we can all have victory over the circumstances of our lives. In the joy of the Lord, Paul found the secret of such victory – the way of “escape” from his prison.

We all have our prisons of one kind or another: maybe it’s a hospital bed, or a kitchen sink. Maybe it’s an office desk or a factory line. Or maybe it’s a person, or a situation, or a memory. When you find yourself in a prison, it’s a good thing to remember what God has been doing in your life, instead of dwelling on your present status that will remind you of what He’s committed to doing!

That’s what the Apostle Paul tells us, and he says that whatever our prison is, we too can find the way of joy in Christ. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Let’s see what Paul has to say.

First, he speaks of a kind of joy that can’t be defeated: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I’ll say it again: Rejoice!” Don’t miss the word, “always”! That means we’re to rejoice in every situation – no matter what. That idea has some difficulties, doesn’t it? It’s not easy to understand – and it sure isn’t easy to do, when we do understand it!

But Paul doesn’t just say, “Rejoice always” does he? That would be totally unrealistic. He says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” That’s what makes it different – and possible. You see, Paul is in prison, under Nero’s persecution, and he’s concerned that his disciples in Philippi will be able to survive the persecution that he’s sure is heading their way. He wants them to stand, and he says they can, and they must do it in the Lord. He’s saying that Christians can do things that they could never do alone. Standing in the Lord makes us able to stand up to some things, and survive some things, that we couldn’t stand up to and survive on our own.

But we could still ask, “How can we rejoice, even in the Lord, when we can see absolutely no reason for joy and no cause for rejoicing?”

Well, the first part of the answer is in the title, “Lord.” That means He’s boss – of everything! As He said, “All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me.” And Paul told the Philippians, two chapters before our lesson, that one day every knee shall bow to Him and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord! If you really believe that Jesus is Lord, you can trust Him to be in control – even when it appears that He isn’t!

In the second place, we need to note the words, “in the” Lord. As believers in Him as Lord and Savior, we are so closely related to Him that the Bible says we are “in Him.” And it also says that He is so closely related to us that He is “in us.” We are in Christ, and Christ is in us!

Now, to rejoice in the Lord does not mean to pretend there’s nothing wrong nor does it mean to ignore your responsibilities, nor does it mean to evade obvious issues. Rather, it means to be as aware of the situation as possible, and be as prepared as possible to deal with it responsibly – fully convinced that the Lord will give you the wisdom, the courage, and the grace to deal with whatever comes along.

You know, our battles are easier to handle, even if we suffer a loss now and then, when we remember that with Christ, we ultimately win the war! So Paul can say, “Rejoice in the Lord always – and again I say, ‘Rejoice!’”

And then he says, “Do not be anxious about anything.” Come on! You’ve gotta be kidding me Paul! Our most common problem. Worry, confusion, past experiences, pressures of daily life, uncertainty about the future – these things make us anxious, and they take away our peace of mind. They’re depressing! And depression is the most common emotional problem in America today – and one of the most difficult to deal with. Sometimes it even requires hospitalization. But those under the care of a doctor are a small part of the people who are functioning at an ineffective level, weighed down by heavy burdens.

Anxiety, in the way Paul is using the term, and the way we most often experience it, is the futile, frustrating attempt to bear the burdens of life, and especially of the future, ourselves, alone. The Christian answer to anxiety is confident prayer, resulting in “the peace of God which transcends all understanding.”

This is no glib word, no pious cliché, no easy moralizing about complex issues. Remember, Paul was in prison when he wrote these words. Remember what he’d gone through to get there: the fears, uncertainty about the future, persecution, physical disease, mental anguish. Paul’s words come from a person who has experienced the answer he’s giving.

His offer of prayer is not an easy solution; there’s no magic formula here, no bedtime or morning mechanical repetition of words that we sometimes call prayer. Paul is talking about the serious business of bringing our lives to God, confessing our dependence on God, putting our lives into God’s hands to be used by Him, remembering and thanking God for what He’s already done, confessing our needs, dedicating our gifts, and committing ourselves and all that we are to His kingdom.

When prayer is seen like that, then it’s not glib to say that anxiety is an attempt to carry the burdens of life oneself; prayer is yielding them to – and leaving them – in the safe hands of God.

And then “the peace of God… will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The opposite of anxiety is peace. Not numbness or unconcern, not the absence of inner and outer struggles, but God's peace. The peace of God that gives us hope and confidence – and strength to carry on with joy when the burdens are heavy and the road we travel is rough.

It has little to do with outward circumstances, which is why Paul said the peace of God would guard our hearts and minds. God’s peace is a guard, protecting us from invasion by the forces that would disrupt and wreak havoc on our minds and hearts.

In the summer of 1952, I took a 6-week 12-credit course in Wildlife Management that consisted of 10 students and a professor traveling all over the state of Michigan in a deuce-and-a-half truck. It was educational and fun and everything went well, until we spent a weekend at the Michigan State University Forestry Camp at Sault Ste Marie. I woke up Saturday morning with a head ache, a back ache and a 100-and-something degree temperature. Do you think I rejoiced? They put me in bed in the Forestry Camp clinic, and the MSU doctor assigned to the Camp for two weeks speculated that I had polio! Do you think I was not anxious? The next day he had good news: it couldn’t be polio – maybe it was pneumonia. I did rejoice! A little, anyway. The doctor’s tour at the Soo was up, so I rode down to the MSU hospital in East Lansing with him and his wife – about a 350 mile ride – and I felt rotten! Do you think I was rejoicing? After a week they discharged me. I asked what I had – they didn’t know! Maybe glandular fever, they said. Do you think I wasn’t a little anxious? I hitch-hiked the 435 miles to Marquette, to an empty house! My parents were at a church convention in Minneapolis. I was broke, and I searched the whole house and couldn’t find a dollar! Do you think I rejoiced? My ’36 Chevy was parked in the back yard so I put the battery on a charger, borrowed $20 from Mr. Peterson next door and went to bed. The next morning I put gas in the car – and it started! And I rejoiced! I was on my way to Copper Harbor to catch up with the class and take the boat to Isle Royale!!

I didn’t even make it out of town! The thing died – and wouldn’t start again. Do you think I rejoiced then? I coasted back downhill to the Studebaker garage. The oil was full of water and gunk from sitting most of a year, and it would take two days to clean out the engine. Rejoice, right?

I’d missed my chance to catch up with my class, I was almost broke, I had no car, and I was stuck in Marquette for the rest of the summer. All my plans had been changed on me. Was I anxious? Did I rejoice? About what? What was good about all those events? Oh yeah, that weekend, August 8th to be exact, I met the girl I would marry! And I’ve rejoiced about all those events ever since! :)

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I’ll say it again: Rejoice!... Don’t be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”


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