Pastor Gary Wong, October 25, 2020
4 Rejoice in the Lord always! I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if anything is excellent, and if anything is praiseworthy, think about these things. 9 The things that you learned, received, heard, and saw in me: Keep doing these things. And the God of peace will be with you.10 I rejoice greatly in the Lord now that you have revived your concern for me once again. Actually, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I lack anything; in fact, I have learned to be content in any circumstances in which I find myself. 12 I know what it is to live in humble circumstances, and I know what it is to have more than enough. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, while being full or hungry, while having plenty or not enough. 13 I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.
They said it couldn’t be done. No locomotive engine could pull that many heavy freight trains up that steep slope. One by one, each engine was asked to take on this huge job; one by one, each engine gave its excuse. Pete, the pompous passenger engine, tooted with disdain, “I don’t do freight trains.” Ernie, after years of heavy hauling, didn’t have enough steam left in his old, broken down engine. Even Big Jake, the most powerful engine in the yard, said “No way!” Finally, the only engine that hadn’t been asked was Tillie, the littlest engine of them all. Even though the most work Tillie had ever done was to move a few cars around the yard, Tillie immediately put herself in front of that long line of heavy cars. As she began to pull, Tillie puffed, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” As she climbed the steep grade that had discouraged all the other engines from even trying, Tillie slowed down; but she kept puffing, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Because of her determination and grit, Tillie finally reached the top. As she went down the other side of the grade, Tillie let out a triumphant blast of her whistle, “I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could!”
Many of you recognize this story as “The Little Engine That Could.” The moral of this classic children’s tale is that no matter how daunting the task, we should never give up; we should always keep a positive, “Can Do” attitude. The Apostle Paul gives us similar encouragement in today’s lesson. As we travel life’s road, we sometimes encounter trouble along the tracks. At times, our problems make us feel as though we are hauling a heavy load up a very steep hill. After a while, our troubles can take their toll. We get worn down and worn out, and we wonder where we can find the strength to go on. Unlike the story of “The Little Engine That Could”, Paul doesn’t direct us to look to ourselves for strength. Rather, Paul points us to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The gospel—God’s Word and the sacraments—is our divine power source. Motivated and energized by the gospel, you and I, along with Paul, can confidently proclaim, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength!”
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is filled with encouragement, comfort, and practical advice. In the first verse of our text, Paul encourages us to rejoice—to be happy and to show our happiness. How happy? Think about the joy that a first-time mother feels as she holds her newborn baby; picture the smile on the face of a little boy on Christmas who opens his gift and sees the toy that he wanted more than anything in the whole world; imagine how happy Vikings’ fans would be if their favorite team were to win the Super Bowl—now that would be cause for a colossal celebration! It’s easy to rejoice and be happy when things are going our way. But what happens if the opposite is true? We probably wouldn’t feel like celebrating if we’re going through some tough times. Yet, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Php. 4:4).
I don’t know about you, but sometimes that little word, always, makes me uncomfortable. If I were to have the opportunity to speak with Paul, I might say something like, “Paul—how can you tell us that we should always rejoice? Right now, I don’t see a lot of reasons to jump for joy. For instance, we’ve been dealing with COVID 19 for over half a year. At one point, everything except essential services and those who could work from home were shut down. Even now, many businesses, schools, and churches are only partially open and are facing tremendous challenges. Everyone is feeling the physical, financial, and emotional stress of social distancing mandates. The coronavirus is just one of our problems. Then there’s the animosity and division caused by politics and the upcoming election. How can anyone rejoice when we have to deal with so many problems?”
Paul, of course, can’t answer my questions—or can he? Paul actually does give us the reason why we can always rejoice. The answer is in the text. Listen carefully as I read this verse. Paul exhorts us to “rejoice in the Lord” (4:4). In other words, our joy is intimately and inextricably connected to Jesus. As Christians, our source of happiness, joy, and peace is our unity with Christ. As dearly loved children of God, we have the joy of knowing that our sins are forgiven and that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. God’s Word assures us that we have a glorious inheritance in heaven just waiting for us. As we keep these unshakable gospel promises in mind each and every day, we can understand why Paul would tell us to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Our happiness and joy don’t depend on our outward circumstances. Even when it seems as though everything around us is dark and gloomy, we have the light of the gospel shining in our hearts. We have every reason to always rejoice, because our hearts are filled with the love of Christ.
Knowing that we are dearly loved children of God helps us put our problems in perspective. It changes the way we deal with our trials and how we deal with others. Paul says that because of Jesus, we can “let [our] gentleness be evident to all” (v.5). However, being gentle and a peacemaker doesn’t come naturally to us because of our sinful natures. Our culture tells us we shouldn’t back down or give in to anyone because that would be a sign of weakness. Paul, however, encourages us to be gentle and loving towards our fellow human beings. Christians, who are motivated by the love of Jesus, act in humility. Where others insist on exercising their rights, Christians gladly yield them as long as their actions do not conflict with God’s Word. Why should we act in gentleness and kindness? Paul tells us: “the Lord is near” (v.5). Christians are well aware that Jesus may return at any time; and with each passing day, the Day of Judgment is one day closer. We can be calm, cool and collected, because we know that when Jesus appears, he will judge with perfect justice and we will be blessed. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:3).
As comforting as it is to know that the Lord is near—that Jesus is coming soon, and that he is with us even now—there are times when we still feel stressed out. No matter how hard we try, our minds are sometimes filled with worries and fears. Paul has some advice when we feel overwhelmed with worry: “Do not be anxious about anything” (v. 6). Now, Paul isn’t saying that we should stick our heads in the sand like ostriches and act as though we don’t have any problems; what he is saying is that we shouldn’t worry about things over which we have no control. Worrying is a sin. When we worry, it shows that we aren’t trusting the Lord to provide for our needs and that he won’t protect us. So, what can we do when we’re lying in bed, not able to sleep because we’re anxious and concerned? The answer, in one word, is pray. Paul says, “In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (v.6).
God invites us to pray. He not only promises to hear us; he promises that he will answer each and every one of our prayers for Jesus’ sake. Now, prayer is not a substitute for planning, working, and using our Christian common sense to deal with our challenges, nor is prayer a means of grace. Yet, every time we pray, we are placing everything in the hands of the Lord who promises that he will work out all things for our good. I ask you; into what better hands can we place our cares and concerns than God? Also, keep in mind, if we don’t pray, it’s our loss. As the hymn writer so aptly put it, “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear; all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer” (CW 411 v.1). Paul concludes this series of encouragements with a wonderful promise: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (v.7).
Many, if not all of you, are familiar with the verse I just read. You hear it at the conclusion of every one of my sermons. Yet, how often do we think about what this promise means? Paul reminds us that we have peace with God—that because of his undeserved love for us, God gave his Son to be our Savior. Because of his love for us, Jesus humbled himself by becoming a human being. He kept all of God’s law perfectly in our place, and then suffered and died on the cross to pay for our sins. Because of Jesus’ perfect life and innocent death, we no longer have to be afraid that God is going to punish us; we don’t have to be afraid of death or wonder what’s going to happen to us when we die. We don’t have to be afraid of the devil. Rather, we are comforted and at peace, knowing that Jesus is standing guard at the doors of our hearts and minds, keeping us from all harm.
Truly, the peace of God is beyond our human understanding. So, what is our response to God’s undeserved blessings? We praise, thank, and serve him with our lips and with our lives. Even though we will never be free of problems as long as we are on this side of heaven, we, like Paul, can be content. Whatever hardships we must endure or burdens we must carry, we can confidently meet those challenges because we belong to Jesus. God’s grace is sufficient for us. Christ’s power rests on us. Jesus is standing right beside us, supplying all of our needs and guarding us until the day he takes us to heaven. So no matter how heavy the burden or how steep the hill, don’t be discouraged; don’t give up. Rejoice in the Lord always and keep chugging away. Remember, “[we] can do everything through him who gives [us] strength” (v.13). In Christ, we can say, “I know I can, I know I can, I know I can.” By the power of the gospel, we can do it all. Amen.
“Go Labor On” (CW 563)
Go labor on; spend and be spent
‘Tis joy to do the Father’s will.
It is the way the Master went;
Should not the servant tread it still?
Go labor on while it is day;
The world’s dark night is hast’ning on,
Speed, speed your work, do not delay,
For it is thus that souls are won.
Toil on and in your toil rejoice;
For toil comes rest, for exile home.
Soon shall you hear the Bridegroom’s voice,
The midnight cry, “Behold, I come!”