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12.16.12 Prescription for Peace, Philippians 3:17-4:9 Sermon Summary

by on December 18, 2012

How can we “Rejoice always,” as Paul exhorts? Is this an example of an ancient religious text that has no relevance to today’s audience?

Summary Points

  • The context of Paul’s impossible enjoinder to rejoice always
  • The basis of Paul’s hope
  • 7 prescriptions for peace
  • Questions for discussion or reflection

Nota Bene: This was the Sunday following the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre. I did not preach the second half of this sermon, but include it here.

This has been a particularly difficult Christmas for me in terms of preparing to receive Christ and experiencing the peace of God’s presence. I’ve never been further behind, more distracted, more anxious.

So when the lectionary takes us, as it always does on the third Sunday of Advent, to Paul’s exuberant invitation to “rejoice always,” I have to say, “Really? How?”

So I want to offer just some observations and recommendations.

First, the context of this passage isn’t one of cloistered monastic beatitude. The context is prison, from which Paul writes (see 1:7, 14), and the coming persecution, of which he warns. Paul remains in prison because others are preaching in such a way to keep him there (1:15-17). The Philippian churches face “opponents” who are causing “suffering,” which he says can only be overcome if they “stand firm in one spirit, side by side” (1:28-29). What is more, Euodia and Syntyche, two female leaders in the church (“I thought women couldn’t be leaders in the church!”), aren’t getting along (4:2).

No, things are not perfect in the context of this letter’s writing or reading, and rejoicing for them would have been a challenge then just as it is for us. But Paul finds joy that Christ’s message is being proclaimed, regardless of motive (1:18), and thus he can tell the Philippians (and us) also to “rejoice in the Lord always” (4:4).

Why? How? On what basis? Simply put, because “the Lord is near.” God’s nearness is, on one hand, temporal: Paul and his generation believed that Christ’s second coming was imminent. But God’s nearness is also spatial. Psalm 34:18 says, “the LORD is near to the broken hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” Psalm 145:18 affirms that, “the LORD is near to all who call on him.” Rejoicing and thanksgiving, it’s close relative and partner in this passage, are possible precisely because life is challenging and the Lord is near. I suspect this holiday season you’ll not fight with your spouse while the in-laws are visiting and “near.” Same idea.

Elsewhere in this passage, we might find a “prescription for peace” from Paul. In such terms, we might list the elements as follows.

  1. Begin by looking to heaven first, and earth’s concerns will take on a secondary perspective. Paul writes, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” When things don’t look so good here on earth, look up and expect (that is pray for) the salvation that comes with Christ.
  2. Reconcile with your brother and sister: Paul pleads that Euodia and Syntyche, be of the same mind, that is, the mind “of Christ” (see 2:5). Christ’s fundamental attitude was one of humble service in faithful obedience to God. No matter how Euodia and Syntyche—or you and your siblings—disagree, the place to begin (with no guarantee of outcome) is humility on your part.
  3. Rejoice in God’s “nearness” both temporally and spatially. Remember, to rejoice is a choice. Make it.
  4. Replace worry with prayers of supplication and thanksgiving. Here again, just give it a try. Take everything you’re worrying about and put it into a list. Then take that list and turn it into prayer. The simplest is saying, “God, I’m worried about looking like a downer at the office party,” to “God, I confess I have put more emphasis on pleasing others this season than pleasing you.” But it starts with a list of your worries.
  5. Remember that the peace of God “transcends understanding.” If it could be explained and understood conventionally, you’d have already done it and experienced it. But this gift defies logic, probably because the things we worry about, for example the office party, still happen, and people will judge you on your appearance, but you don’t care. When it comes to God’s peace, we can’t look for it; we can only receive it.
  6. Meditate upon what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasant, commendable, and excellent (4:8). Look up this verse in many translations. Compare the words. They are obviously subject to interpretation, but the point is not the precise word but the meditation upon the word. Pick the words that mean something to you and meditate upon them.
  7. Imitate Paul, especially as he talks about himself, his attitudes, and his actions throughout the rest of the letter to the Philippian churches. It’s only four chapters long. Take a week and compare your life to Paul’s, always mindful that though he was in prison and leading a church into persecution, he anticipated Christ’s presence and found a reason to rejoice. May this be more of our experience this Advent also. Amen.

Questions for Discussion or Reflection

  • Which of these 7 suggestions appeals to you most? What concrete, next small step can you take to realize it in the coming days and week?
  • Whom might you be able to invite into a season of “receiving God’s transcendent peace” by practicing some of these 7 suggestions? The two of you can meet once a week for a month and check in.
  • Whom might you encourage this Advent by sharing the link to this summary?


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