Peace in Anxious Times

by Elaine Maust
Philippians 4: 1-9
October 12, 2008

Turn your bulletin over onto the back if you will. There, at the bottom, see the fine print? It is today’s date and four Scriptures, an Old Testament, New Testament, Psalm, and Gospel. There’s a list for today and one for next Sunday. You can find this every Sunday.

Sometimes you might hear Duane or I say, “Our lectionary text for today is…” Along with believers of many different denominations – Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopal, Methodists, the list goes on – we open our Bibles and hearts to the same texts every Sunday in a three year pattern through the Bible. It’s called the Lectionary. Preachers at Jubilee don’t always follow this guide. Sometimes we follow a series or the Holy Spirit directs in other ways.

As I looked up the texts for this Sunday, I smiled. Philippians 4:1-9. All over the world in the middle of a world-wide financial crisis, thousands of churches today are hearing words of comfort and challenge for anxious times.

These are anxious times, aren’t they? In the United States we are in the middle of a heated presidential election, a war, and the meltdown of Wall Street. I frankly don’t understand the Wall Street mess, but I have not heard such a worried tone in the familiar professional voices on the evening news since 9/11.

And if the national news is not bad enough, we all have our own personal financial crises as we face the devaluation of our homes and retirements and as we try to pay for milk and gas. What is going on?

On top of all of that are the regular pressures and problems of home and work and family and school. All the regular things we worried about before our country became a nation of worriers.

How will we Christians face these anxious times?

Well, today I join pastors and priests, ministers and preachers around the world as we turn to the Good News of God’s word today. I invite you to turn to Philippians 4 this morning.

Philippians 4 is part of a letter Paul wrote to his favorite church, the church in the town of Philippi. That’s where this letter got its name. You may remember that this church began back during Paul’s second missionary trip. Let’s start there, Acts 16.

After a couple of frustrating attempts at moving the ministry ahead, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia who said, “come over here and help us!” Paul, along with his colleagues, went to Philippi.

There they joined a women’s prayer meeting and Lydia, a wealthy business woman, became a believer. The first church in Phillip met in her home.

Acts 16 tells us of the other first members of First Christian of Philippi, a slave girl, who was a Greek fortune teller. And the Roman prison guard who Paul and Silas saved from suicide. But that‘s another sermon…

So there you have the beginning of this church… An Asian business woman and her household, who seemed to be one of the church leaders, a Roman man of middle class and his household, and a Greek slave girl, who would have been thought of as a human tool, the lowest member of society. Should have made for some interesting Sunday School Class discussions! About ten years after the church began, Paul wrote this letter.

And here’s something else you need to know about the letter. It was written while Paul was in jail in Rome. He had been in jail in Philippi, remember. Now he’s in jail again. This time he is under house arrest. That didn’t sound so bad until I read that he was chained, that’s right, chained at his wrist to a prison guard at all times. How did he sleep? It is important to have this picture of him as we listen to this cheery letter and let God speak to our hearts from these words this morning.

And his friends? They were feeling the consequences of their decisions to follow God too. Nero and terrible persecution of Christians was on the horizon. These were anxious times. What will Paul say to them? I imagine them unrolling the scroll of a letter when it finally arrived and being so excited to hear from him that no one dared to breath.

The chapter begins with Paul reminding his friends in Philippi of how much he loves them. He calls them, “my joy and crown” (Phil. 4:1) The word crown refers to the crown of olive branches that athletes won at the games. Even though Paul was in jail, when he thought about this church he felt like a winner.

In verses 2-3 he makes a case for church unity. Evidently there where two women who were church leaders who were not getting along with each other, Euodia and Synthyche. Paul pleads with them to work it out and asks others in the church to help them resolve this conflict. I wonder if Paul was remembering the conflict he had with Barnabas recorded in Acts 15, not so long before he met the good folks in Philippi.

I’m grateful that the Bible is so unflinching in telling us about conflicts, disagreements, down right fights among Christian people of good intention. I find that reassuring somehow.

These weren’t just bench warmers, these women. They were had worked side by side with Paul (Phil. 4:3). “Stand firm,” he calls to them from far away Rome, “agree with each other.”

The other morning I was riding in that little red car down Old 80 and found myself praying for you all out loud. “Come on team. Come on Jubilee.” It was as if I was cheering for you, for your unity, as I rode into the church on that random weekday morning.

Then in verse 4 he breaks out, as if in song… “Rejoice in the Lord!” What? Wait a minute. Paul is in prison. Some of their leaders are squabbling. The political situation is frightening. I imagine someone interrupting, “Wait, what was that? Read it again!” And Paul writes, “I will say it again: Rejoice!”

But this isn’t just a letter from a missionary to a young church. This is the precious word of God to us! And in these anxious times, God looks us in the eye and says, “Rejoice!”

So what do you rejoice about these days? A healthy antidote to worry is a grateful heart. What is your top 10 gratitude list?

What do you think Paul had to rejoice about? If we practice gratitude for the small things, there will always be plenty for which to give thanks. I thank God for hot running water, for a good cup of coffee, for a hug from a child. I am grateful for a car that runs, for the way the sun shines in my kitchen window, for seeing a hummingbird. With all my heart I want to live out the words of the Celtic saint Ita, “a simple life with a grateful spirit.”

“Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” (5). God wants us to live in a way that everyone can see our lives as steady, faithful and fair. That’s the best explanation I can come up with for this word translated gentleness. It’s talking about the balance of justice and mercy.

“The Lord is near.” We live lives that reflect that we know God is with us, watching us and coming back soon. We live ready, as Duane talked about in a sermon awhile back.

And here we go, the part that made me smile. “Do not be anxious about anything.” Obviously Paul wasn’t losing his retirement in the 2008 economic crisis! But Paul says this with his eyes open about his own serious and very real causes for anxiety. In Philippians 1:20-26 Paul takes an open-eyed approach to the fact that he would later be martyred for his faith. This is no “pretend it’s not happening,” this “do not be anxious.” This is a man who has looked at his personal worst case scenario, they could kill me and probably will, and came back saying, “Do not be anxious.” Within five years he was executed. How could he say, “Do not be anxious”?

Because he knew about prayer.

Instead of anxiety, God invites us to prayer. Those worries in the night, those anxieties in the day, they can become signals to pray. To petition. To say out in words what it is that we want. So what is it that you are worried about? Do you not know how you’ll pay the bills this month? Tell God. Are you unsure what is best for your family right now? Ask God for help.

“With thanksgiving.” There it is again. We ask. We tell God what we want and need and as we do, we remember what God has already done for us. And we give thanks. So how has God come through for you in the past? Say thank you as you pray.

And the peace of God will guard our hearts. Not because God gives us whatever we want, but because we put our concerns into God’s hands. In the mornings I pray, Ps. 5:8. We lay our requests before God. In the evenings I pray. John 14:1 & 27. We trust God and God gives us peace.

I come from a long line of insomniacs. Family stories detail the all night escapades of folks on my Larimer side who could not sleep. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to realize that all this insomnia might have been anxiety induced. We have a gift for imagining disaster! Perhaps Joel and Christine should have their baby’s DNA tested to see if it is a carrier of this deviant gene.

Here’s the shape this takes for me. It is the week of the 10th. I have payroll, payroll taxes, and the 10th bills to pay at the cabinet shop. And the Lord only knows what else may come up! I do not have the money for any of this.

I pray. “Lord, I trust you. We need money to pay the bills.” Then I remember how God has always taken care of us in the past. There has always been money for payroll. Always. I give thanks. I remember when the money really did run out during the berry farm days. Times when there wasn’t money to pay the bills. Even then God took care of us. I give thanks. It is in God’s hands. And I have peace.

Friday was the 10th. The bills are paid. Payroll and payroll taxes? Paid. And there is money in the bank. How did that happen? I don’t know exactly. But I do know I trust God. And believe me, I give thanks.

I don’t trust the housing market. I don’t trust our bank account. I trust God.

“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns.” (Phil. 4:6, The Message)

As we give our worries over to God. What makes you anxious? The children who won’t do right, the check book that won’t balance, the job that makes us crazy. Maybe it is the teacher whose expectations seem impossible or the bully who won’t quit picking on you. As we offer these to God, we find peace settling into our hearts. A peace that is unexplainable. And this peace will stand guard over our hearts and minds. (v7)

And that means that you can sleep, even if you are a Larimer.

(v8) contains a list of things to think about instead of worrying. Things that are true, pure, excellent are to be our focus. Sometimes when my imagination gets the best of me, I out loud tell myself, “Stop!” In an attempt to redirect my thought patterns to something more right and pure.

All of us have made mistakes. But how we chose to remember them will shape our lives into compassion or despair. All of us have been sinned against. But how we frame those offenses will make us bitter or focused. How we think, what we focus on, it matters!

(v9) Paul tells his good friends, “Live like me. Do what I do.” Can you say that to your friends? Can you say, “Are you worried? Just watch me and I’ll show you how to have peace.”?

Like I wrote in the column in the September Jubilee Newsletter, people are watching us. How we live matters. With all my heart I want to live the kind of like that I can look you in the eye and say, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” So may it be. So may it be.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, wrote, “I advise no man more than I practice. I do, blessed be God, gain and save and give all I can. And so, I trust in God, I shall do, while the breath of God is in my nostrils.”

Being anxious is easy. But it is toxic. It will kill our joy, our souls, even our bodies. God wants to free of us destructive habits of worry and negative thinking. What are the anxiety antidotes found in Philippians 4? Gratitude, prayer, thankfulness, focus. We place ourselves and every situation and every person we care for into God’s capable hands. Do all this, “And the God of peace will be with you.”

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