A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Advent 3 ~ Philippians 4:4-7
Rejoice, Paul tells us. The Lord is near.
Rejoice always! It’s so important he says it twice in one verse: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Why? The Lord is near!
We might say that God is present. God’s nearness, God’s presence is a wonderful source of and producer of joy!
Then he says something a little odd. Paul says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”
Our ears hear gentleness as being soft and kind – and that’s good stuff. Paul certainly doesn’t mean for us not to be soft and kind.
But the deeper meaning of the word is about being fair-minded, being equitable, fulfilling the spirit and not just the letter of the law as you interact with the world.
Joyful people who know that God is near, are moved to live justly!
Our joyfulness isn’t just for our own benefit, it’s for the world.
We’re off to a great start!
What might derail all this joy and justice and noticing God’s nearness? Worry!
Verse 6 begins: Do not worry about anything. Really? Good luck with that!
But if we dig deeper we can see that the word worry here doesn’t simply mean the care and concern we have for our loved ones and others. It refers to being divided, distracted, going to pieces, literally it means being pulled in two directions.
Paul is not telling us not to have concern for things or people. We can’t care for people or be loving and compassionate if we don’t feel concern for them. No, the worry we’re being warned about here is more than just being anxious about something, it’s about the dangers of being overly preoccupied with things, being absorbed by them, being obsessed with them. Care and concern are healthy, preoccupation and obsession are not.
Care and concern and love don’t steal our joy.
It’s that general state of anxiety and disquiet that insidiously sneaks into our being and starts to run our life – that’s the real soul-sucking stuff. That’s the worry that kills.
So how does one avoid that?
Prayer is one of those words that we use all the time, but it amazed me that in over a decade of preaching here I’ve never gone deep and really wrestled with the core meaning of prayer. Hold onto your hats! Here we go!
The Greek word for prayer is proseuché (pros-yoo-kay) – it’s a compound word consisting of two concepts: toward-ness, and will-exchange.
The toward-ness part means openness, to conceptually (if not physically) turn ourselves away from whatever might be distracting us in a given moment and turn ourselves, turn our mindfulness, turn our attention to noticing and engaging with the Presence of God. Literally, the Greek word means movement toward a something, a goal, a destination, with implied interaction or reciprocity. It’s not just openness and toward-ness, but also has that sense of interaction and a reciprocal relationship at the core.
So the first part of prayer is to open oneself to an interaction, a conversation, a relationship.
The second part of the compound word is about the exchange that happens during that interaction. Quite literally, the exchange part means to interact with the Lord by switching human wishes (ideas) for God’s wishes. We exchange our ways for God’s ways.
In other words, let Thy will be my will – Thy will be done, not mine!
That means that prayer is fundamentally a two-way communication – talking and listening. And even more than that, prayer is a relationship.
Think of someone you have a deep, connected relationship with. It could be your partner, your best friend, your close sibling or relative – anyone with whom you feel deeply connected. Now imagine you’re sitting together in a quiet room. Do you need to speak in order to deepen that relationship, or is just being together enough? Meister Eckhart, a famous 14th century mystic and theologian, described prayer as a reciprocal gaze! Like lovers gazing dreamily into one another’s eyes.
What would it be like if all you did was speak to them, ask them questions, complain about their supposed shortcomings, and seek their help, but never stopped to listen? Not much of a relationship!
Our relationship with God deepens through prayer, which is our primary means of communication with God. Just spending open-hearted, mindful time with one another is where real connection and intimacy grows and deepens. That is prayer. And that is the foundation from which all those other forms of prayer flow. Things like supplication (which means mainly to pray for things for yourself), and intercession (which means to pray for things for others) must be rooted in that toward-ness and will-exchange that prayer is.
Where and when does this all happen? Well, anywhere, and anytime!
It’s all a matter of intention and mindfulness.
Jesus told us that “whenever you pray, go into your inner room and shut the door and pray to your Father inwardly” (Father /Mother /Lover /Friend /Shepherd /Saviour – choose whatever language you prefer!) Matthew 6:6.
He didn’t mean a special room in your house, he meant your inner-self.
Connecting with God inwardly doesn’t need a special room – not even a church sanctuary – it just needs us to practice toward-ness and openness – for the purpose of will-exchange!
Special rooms like this one surely help us focus, but they’re definitely not required.
Let’s put verse 6 altogether.
Do not be over-anxious about anything, but in everything (in everything, in all circumstances, in all times and places) by prayer (by our open-hearted toward-ness and will-exchange, through our deep relationship with the Holy Mystery we call God) – by prayer and supplication (prayers for our needs) with thanksgiving……. let your requests be made known to God.
That’s a long way to go, and a very deep relationship to nurture, before we get to the part about asking for help with our needs – which is why in the gospels Jesus insists that God knows our needs before we even ask, because we’re supposed to be in an ever-deepening prayerful relationship together.
Our challenge is that we’ve been steeped in thousands of movies, novels, and TV shows, and yes, even sermons, that have taught us some very dodgy things about prayer.
It’s the season for Christmas-themed movies. One of the best is “It’s A Wonderful Life.” It’s a fantastic movie – except for one glaringly, theologically awful scene. The hero is a guy named George Bailey who is absolutely at the end of his rope. He closes his eyes, clasps his hands together, and says, “Father, I’m not a praying man, but I don’t know what else to do. Please help me!” And, of course because it’s a movie, poof an angel appears and helps George to fix all his problems.
Clearly, Frank Capra (the director) never read Philippians 4:6, or heard a sermon like this! If he had, he’d have known that jumping straight to prayers of supplication without ever even trying to establish a relationship is something akin to walking up to a total stranger and asking them to marry you, and expecting a “yes”! You’d at least need dinner and a movie first, right? Just maybe not “It’s a Wonderful Life!”
But that’s how all the shows and books seem to portray prayer. You wait until you’ve tried everything on your own and then when you have nowhere else to turn you pray for help and then get mad when the magic wand doesn’t appear.
And no, I’m not saying that if you have a deep relationship with God that suddenly those prayers all get answered. I’m saying that from a place of deep relationship you pray differently.
All of us have deep needs. God knows.
The help comes through the spiritual relationship, not through a cute little angel named Clarence.
We do healing services here. It’s because we collectively believe that there is a wondrous spiritual energy that is shared among us, and that prayer, somehow, mysteriously, can amplify that energy, and draw on it, and direct it. Of course we pray for miracles; our deepest desires deserve to be articulated and honoured.
The sure result of prayer, though, isn’t a miracle, it’s peace.
Philippians 4:7 – after all that deep, relational praying what happens? – And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
THAT, is what prayer accomplishes. The real truth of prayer is that it isn’t meant to change God’s mind or situation. God loves. Period.
Prayer changes the pray-er! It changes us.
It changes us because in the praying we let go of our being pulled in multiple directions and just focus on one direction – toward-ness!
And in that openness we experience a will-exchange. Thy will be done, O God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts (which means your innermost self, your very being) and your minds (which means your thoughts, your purpose) in Christ Jesus.
Peace surpassing all understanding.
Today’s reading began with rejoicing and ends with peace. That’s good stuff!
And I could stop there, but I want to poke at one more really important theological idea – the idea of joy and happiness.
It’s very important that we realize that as people of faith, joy and happiness are not the same thing.
Happiness is usually dependent on our circumstances, and it is a transient thing. By that I simply mean that happiness comes and goes.
Joy, on the other hand, is not dependent on our circumstances, and it is more like a state of being than an emotion.
At the Porch bible study this week one of the participants said that “Happiness is a flash; joy is radiance!” I think that’s exactly right!
Here’s a couple of thoughts that may challenge you!
Chasing after happiness may actually prevent you from knowing joy – because you can be so focused on the flash that you neglect the depth.
And even more challenging – I believe it is possible to be unhappy (due to your circumstances) and still be joyful (due to your faith and trust in God).
Remember, Paul who is shouting rejoice always, again I say rejoice, is saying it from a prison cell.
Holding joy and unhappiness in tension is really hard!
Maybe one of the problems with understanding this is the way this Philippians passage is organized. To my ears this scripture passage works better backwards! If I reverse the order of sentences it begins with a promise of peace, grounds that peace in deep prayer, reminds us that God is near, encourages us to live justly, and all that taken together results in rejoicing in life – whatever your circumstance.
Listen to it backwards:
7 The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
6 So don’t be over-anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
5 The Lord is near. Let your equity and justice be known to everyone.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
The Christmas carol says “Pray for peace, people, everywhere!”
Maybe that means by praying you get peace. And knowing peace brings forth joy!
And so, rejoice my friends! The Lord is near!