Anxiety or the Peace of God?

Sermon, December 13, 2015 – Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
Philippians 4:4-7

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

What a crazy, sad and disheartening few weeks we’ve just been through. Multiple incidents of mass killing; nasty and heated political rhetoric; and the consumerist excess and frenzy of Black Friday. During this past week, I couldn’t help but think about today’s reading from Philippians, and in particular Paul’s injunction “Do not be anxious about anything” in light of the political chatter that has dominated the airwaves.

It struck me that in our culture today, everybody wants us to be anxious and fearful about something. Some people tell us to be anxious about Muslims. Others tell us that we should be anxious about right-wing extremists. Still others tell us that we should be anxious about those who buy guns to protect themselves from all the bad guys they have been told to fear. But that’s not all. Some politicians tell us that we should be anxious and envious of those who are rich. And others tell us that we should be anxious and angry with those who are poor. And the list of anxieties goes on – the war on women, immigrants, climate change, police brutality, rising crime. Politics is pretty much a contest of who is best at making us anxious and fearful.

It goes beyond politics. Financial advisors tell us to be anxious about our retirement accounts. A constant barrage of advertising and pop culture tells us that we should always keep up with the latest gadgets, cars, and have the best homes. We always have to have the very latest smartphone model – or else. We need to be driving a car that tells the world how rich and important we are – even if we are neither rich nor important. We are told that we should be anxious about our weight, what we eat, that we don’t exercise enough, and of horrible diseases.

We are filled up with worry, anxiety, fear, and envy, and the meanness, greediness and self-centeredness that these emotions inevitably lead us to. Can anyone find any redeeming quality or hope in the fearful, hateful and divisive political rhetoric with which we have just been bombarded in the past weeks? Why do we seem so addicted to anxiety and fear? Is there a way out of this?

The words of a favorite and ancient Advent hymn are brought to mind. It was written hundreds of years ago but is still so applicable to us today.

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Without Christ, we are the captive Israel, mourning in our lonely exile here in a world full of fear, worry, anxiety, envy and hatred. Without the redemption that Jesus Christ brings to us, this sin and ugliness is all there is for us.

But as the hymn tells us, we can rejoice because our Savior has come to us. “Rejoice, rejoice!” we sing. Rejoicing is the theme for today, the third Sunday of Advent. In fact, the third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete, or Joyful, Sunday. It is so called because the Mass was traditionally begun with our New Testament passage read in Latin. “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.” Translated, this is “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”

Why can we rejoice? Because, as Paul tells us “The Lord is near.” Advent is the time in the church year that we look forward to the coming of Jesus Christ. In Salisbury Cathedral in England, they hold a service of Advent lessons and carols which they call “From Darkness to Light.” Jesus brings light and life to a world full of darkness and sin. His death on the cross paid the penalty for our sin, and his resurrection opened the way for us to overcome death and become sons and daughter of God our Father. Jesus Christ ushered in the Kingdom of God, in which creation is restored to what it was meant to be. And the Holy Spirit, which Jesus sent, gives us the power and grace to live as children of God’s kingdom.

That’s why we can rejoice. But you might have noticed that in today’s passage from Philippians, Paul doesn’t tell us why we should rejoice. Instead he tells us to rejoice and then tells us how we can exchange our fears, anxieties, envies and self-centeredness for gentleness, reasonableness, thankfulness and peace. The passage is very concise and to the point, so let’s listen to it again.

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.

Paul packs a lot into this passage. First, we are told to rejoice in the Lord. Paul really means this, because he repeats himself. “I will say it again: Rejoice!” What does it mean to rejoice? Barbara’s sister follows an Indian guru, now deceased, who was the originator of the phrase “don’t worry be happy.” When we say this, we tend to think about escaping from the dreary world we live in and just being happy. Ignore what is wrong with the world, focus on the positive. Just be happy. But is this what God is calling us to do when he tells us to rejoice?

I don’t think so. We can rejoice in the Lord even when we aren’t happy. Listen carefully to what Paul tells us – rejoice in the Lord. Not in ourselves, not in the world, not in our circumstances here on earth. No, we are to rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice that even though we are sinners living in a world of darkness, hatred, envy and strife, God still loved us so much that he sent his only son to die for us and so take the penalty on himself and open for us the way to a relationship with God. Rejoice that even though we might be going through sickness, the death of a loved one, or any other pain, worry or anxiety, God is with us. It might be hard for us to feel that, but God is there whether we feel him there or not. So we are not rejoicing in our worldly lives and circumstances, but rather we are rejoicing that God has sent Jesus Christ on a rescue mission to save us from our circumstances.

If we orient our hearts and minds to rejoice in the Lord, we are focused on God and the good things he has in store for us, and not on our selfish interests. We are focused on God and others and not on ourselves. When we are self-absorbed and focused on ourselves, we tend to become unreasonable, mean spirited and greedy. When we are focused on God and what he has done for us, we will be, with the help of the Holy Spirit, gentle and reasonable. Paul tells us “let your gentleness be evident to all”. Some translations say “let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” So the word used is sometimes translated as gentleness and sometimes as reasonableness. In any case, gentle and reasonable people are those whose focus in not on themselves.

Next, Paul tells us not to be anxious but rather to present our requests to God by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving. Note the sentence structure. Paul says “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Do not be anxious BUT present your requests to God. The alternative to anxiety is to take your concerns to God. Note that Paul is not telling us to live with our heads in the sand, or adopt an escapist mindset. Not at all. We are to remain firmly grounded in reality. Those things which cause us concern are things that we should take up with God.

Paul tells us how to take our concerns up with God. “By prayer and petition, with thanksgiving.” Presenting our requests to God in prayer is not like presenting a list of gift requests to Santa. Prayer is a two way conversation with God. When we bring our concerns to God in prayer, we are seeking that God’s will be done. As the Lord’s Prayer teaches us “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” When we bring our concerns to God, we need to be focusing on how our concerns fit in with what we know of God’s will, as revealed both through Scripture and through prayer. And so when we bring our concerns to God through prayer, we don’t do so from a position of self-focus or self-centeredness, but from a God-focused attitude.

Paul also tells us to present our petitions to God with thanksgiving. When we come before God, Paul tells us, we should be sure to give him thanks as well as tell him our concerns. This is important in helping us see our concerns through God’s eternal perspective and not just from our narrow and limited perspective. Think about it this way. Imagine if you had a list of concerns you wanted to share with your spouse, family member or close friend. What if you opened your conversation by sharing with them a list of things that you were thankful for about them? How would that affect the tone of your conversation? How might that affect what you would then say to them?

Paul’s guidelines on prayer accomplish a number of important goals. By bringing our concerns to God, we are reminded that he is God and that we are his children. It puts our problems into an eternal perspective. By including thanksgivings, we think about all that God has done for us. I would encourage everyone to put Paul’s suggestions on prayer into practice this coming week. See how that impacts your outlook on life and your relationship to God.

Paul promises that if we rejoice, are gentle and reasonable, and bring our concerns to God in prayer and with thanksgiving, then the peace of God, which transcends all of our understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. This is the alternative to a world racked by anxiety, fear, mean spiritedness and self-centeredness. One of the commentaries put it very nicely, saying “When prayer replaces worry, the peace of God, which transcends all understanding comes in, and that peace acts as a sentry guarding the Christian’s mind and emotions from being over-whelmed by the sudden onrush of fear, anxiety or temptation.” (New Bible Commentary, D.A. Carson et al., eds., IVP 1994)

God knows that our world is full of sin, darkness, violence, hatred and greed. He knows that there are many things that ought to concern us. God knows that if we just look to ourselves, we will be overwhelmed with anxiety and fear. There is a reason why politicians are so adept at manipulating our fears and anxieties. It’s because it works. It is part of the human condition of sin. But God offers us a better way, the way that Paul lays out for us today. And I don’t know about you, but I think that Paul’s words could have been written to us today, for exactly the situation we find ourselves in.

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.

Anxiety, fear, anger, greed? Or the peace of God? Let’s go with God.

Let us pray,
Lord God, in these dark days of anxiety, darkness, grief and fear, give us your joy. We thank you Lord for coming to earth as one of us, for giving your life for us, and for opening the way to become the sons and daughters of the Father. We thank you for bringing in the Kingdom by which all will be made new. We ask you to guide our prayers so that your peace, which passes our understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in you. Amen.