Monday, October 13, 2014

Sermon on Philippians 4:4-13, for Reformation 2, "Rejoicing and Prayer in the Reformation"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Did you notice the strong themes of rejoicing, feasting, and wedding celebration in all the readings today; even the Psalm on the front of your bulletin insert, that we didn’t use? They’re all also themes of Christian worship. Every Sunday we gather for rejoicing and a feast, as our worship is centered around Jesus, our Heavenly Groom, and the Lord’s Supper that He gives to His Bride, the Church, as a foretaste of the feast to come. We hope and rejoice each week because of the presence of Jesus and His outpoured blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord,” because true joy is found only in Him. The Old Testament reading describes the heavenly celebration when God swallows up death forever, wipes away the tears from all faces, and takes away the reproach of His people. The Gospel describes a wedding feast filled with undeserving guests, while those who despised the invitation were left out.

When we hear Paul say, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”; that seems like a tall order. How can we rejoice always? A superficial survey of local, national, and international news is always a quick way to dull your joy. But should it? Rejoice in the Lord always—Paul says. “But don’t you know the world is filled with trouble and with suffering, Paul? How can you expect me to rejoice?” But Paul answers: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Tell me more, Paul—what is that secret of your contentment? “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Back to the Lord! Rejoice in the Lord! The emphasis on rejoicing is not in finding elusive joy within me—but in finding it in the Lord! God is the source of contentment, joy, and peace. And anyone who has heard me teach or preach on joy and rejoicing before, knows that I always remind people that joy runs much deeper than happiness. It has deeper roots than the emotional ups and downs and external circumstances that can so quickly change my mood from happiness to sadness, or from excitement to worry or fear.

But Paul is telling us about the deep-rooted joy that sinks our heart and mind into God’s peace, and the joy of God’s incredible love for us in Christ Jesus, and the strength of God building you up even in the worst of circumstances, when “every earthly prop gives way”. Like the hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” says:

His oath, His covenant and blood, support me in the raging flood; when every earthly prop gives way, He then is all my hope and stay. On Christ, the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. (LSB 575:3).


Probably no one counts on the evening news for their daily boost of joy—but I think we are tempted, all too often, to build our security, our hope, or confidence on all sorts of earthly props, that prove to be sinking sand. Whether we’ve put that trust in other people, who are but sinners and who may let us down; whether we put out trust in financial security, job security, a safe home, school, or neighborhood; even hopes for a world without war—trusting in politicians and leaders to deliver it—we will continually find that these things often cannot sustain us through the raging floods of life—the disasters, the times of failure, the wars and times of darkness. And if our hope is built on these, if our joy is dependent on the world and the uncertainties of our external circumstances: wealth, safety, or prosperity—then we are doomed for disappointment.

But if our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness—if we’re built on Christ the solid rock—we can ride out the storms of life secure on the One who is immovable, unshakeable. Not any loss, not even death, can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ our Lord. This is the joy built on the Rock—an inner peace and contentment with God, a knowledge that He is for us, and nothing can withstand His love. Paul said in Philippians 1, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” The believer in Christ Jesus faces a win-win situation in whatever situation they are, high or low—because even death brings us to life eternal with Him. It doesn’t mean your external circumstances will never be rough. It doesn’t mean a smile will be always painted on your face, even when going through a terrible illness or depression, or great loss or suffering. But it means that neither you nor your external circumstances are the source of your joy. But rather the Lord gives you strength—He is your joy. It might even mean that in your suffering you can sing and praise the Lord as Paul and Silas did in their prison, or like Job trusted God even in his evil circumstances—because their hearts and minds were guarded by God’s peace that surpasses all understanding.

Notice, it’s not just human understanding that is surpassed—but all understanding. I believe that includes the angels and demons as well! None can comprehend the boundless good of God’s peace, and it’s power to transcend even the most evil of circumstances, to find joy in the Lord. I’m sure it’s infuriating to the devil. I’m sure its infuriating to wicked terrorists who are executing innocent Christians in Iraq and Syria, in a desperate attempt to create fear, in those who will not renounce Christ Jesus their Lord, even in the face of death. That even a humble child trusting in Jesus can defy those cowards, is a testament to Paul’s words, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Angels must marvel at the power of God’s peace to heal even the deepest wounds, to bring forgiveness through Jesus’ blood to hurting and guilty souls. The New Testament describes how the angels longed to see and understand the unfolding of God’s salvation in Christ Jesus. It also tells us how they rejoice in even a single sinner’s conversion to the Lord. How intimately they watch and attend to our daily lives, all behind the scenes, and for no glory to themselves, but to help us to give more glory to Jesus, the object of our mutual hope and joy. And this peace of God even surpasses their understanding!

So how does rejoicing relate to the Reformation? Well, worship is one of the many places where Christians express their joy. We lift up our voices, we tune our instruments to give Him praise. And perhaps we take even that joy for granted sometimes. Do you know that one of the key reforms that Martin Luther brought to worship, 500 years ago in the Reformation, was to bring the worship back to the language of the people? Have you ever imagined what it would be like not to understand the worship service because it was in Latin? No hymns or songs you could sing in your own language, and you were a mere observer in worship? How could you find the joy of the Lord if you didn’t understand the sermon, if there even was one? How would you know what God had done for you?

We take it for granted, but this was just the situation Martin Luther faced, and he responded by translating the liturgy into the common language, and by writing hymns to be sung by the people. The return of congregational singing gave back to the people their voice to praise God, and words to teach the faith to them and future generations in a memorable way. Music and repetition are two of the best aids to memorization, as every teacher knows. The Lutheran church has been known as a “singing church” ever since! We have probably one of the richest collections of excellent Christian hymns in all the Christian church in our hymnal. Hymns that proclaim Christ and Him crucified as the center of our salvation and our worship. Hymns that give voice to our rejoicing, as well as to sorrow or the deep need to trust in God. Music is one of the best expressions of joy and thanksgiving to God. And if the words we sing are rich in proclaiming Christ Jesus and His redeeming work for us, we are doubly blessed to be writing the Truth of God’s Word into our hearts and minds. What an excellent way to set our minds on honorable, commendable, and praiseworthy things—and to be filled with the peace of God.

Paul also addresses our anxiety and worry, and tells us to take it to the Lord in prayer. God invites us to call on Him anytime and everywhere, with a direct line to Him through Jesus Christ our Lord. 1 Timothy tells us that Jesus is the One Mediator between God and man. Here again recall what Martin Luther recovered in the Reformation. By the 1500’s, prayer had long been redirected through a maze of saints—and most prominently, the Virgin Mary—on its way to God. This was an entirely unbiblical idea, and still is today—that we should pray to any saint, dead or living—as though they can assist in getting our prayers to God’s throne. We can and should pray to God directly, in Jesus Christ, and through no other mediator—not angels or humans. Of course we as Christians pray for one another, as we should—and maybe even saints in heaven continue to pray to God for us on earth. We can’t know for certain. But even if we knew they prayed for us, it doesn’t follow that we should pray to them, any more than we should pray to each other, as Luther noted. Again, all our requests and prayers and thanksgivings should be made known to God. We have no Word of God ever promising us that saints in heaven can hear or help us, and yet the Bible overflows with God’s promises and invitations to pray to Him, and that He will answer. Not only is it infinitely better to go straight to Him—it’s also the right way to honor and worship Him alone.

Prayer, Christian community and brotherly support, setting his mind on the noble things of God—these were all the daily stuff of life for Paul—they were signs of his life in Jesus—practical helps for his life. He was strengthened in all circumstances, rich with God’s peace, and rejoiced always. Paul was no stranger to hardship, suffering, and loss—more so than most of us. But he knew his strength and peace and joy were to be found in Christ Jesus our Lord. God is as accessible to you as your most immediate prayer; He is so near to you as to dwell in your body as the Temple of His Holy Spirit; His peace that goes beyond any understanding makes its home in your hearts and minds. And He has fully reconciled us to Himself in Christ Jesus, through His death on the cross. Contentment and joy are in Him! Let go of everything else, and stand firm on Him, so that the storms and floods will not frighten you—and you will know that He holds you secure in life or in death. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Study the bulletin insert, the Introit on the front, and the readings on the back. What themes of rejoicing and celebration do you notice? Why does worship share all these themes?
  2. Where does Christian joy come from? Do we produce it ourselves? Does it come from our circumstances, or where? In Philippians 4:10-13, what is Paul’s secret to contentment? What confidence does he have about what God will do for him? Philippians 1:19-22.
  3. Look at the hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” (LSB 575). What are the “earthly props that give way”, that we often mistakenly trust in? Why is Christ the only solid rock we should build on? Luke 6:46-49; Psalm 46; Matthew 21:42-44
  4. How is joy different from external happiness? What would it mean to have joy, even when suffering or in prison? Philippians 4:6-9; Acts 5:40-42; Acts 16:19-34; Job 2:7-10.
  5. How did Martin Luther reform the worship of the church, to recover both the joy and understanding of the people? How did he reform prayer, to return it to its original purpose and pattern? 1 Timothy 2:1-6 How does Christ-centered and cross-focused music help us to set our minds on noble things? Philippians 4:8-9; Colossians 3:16.

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