Summary: Near the anniversary of 9/11, this sermon from Philippians 4 explains how and why Paul says we are to rejoice in the Lord always.
Fourteenth Sunday in Trinity
“Don’t Worry? Be Happy?”
This past week, our nation passed through the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Jim and I were in Colorado Springs for meetings, staying with the Stanleys. When I arose at 8:00, I went into a small office next to my bedroom and used our hostess’ computer to check email. When I arrived at the Yahoo news portal page, there was a headline: “Plane strikes World Trade Center.” I went downstairs and found Jim and our host watching the television. And at that moment I was probably doing what most of you were doing that same morning, wherever you were.
This past week, of course, we not only had the memory of September 11, we had the recent horror in Russia to contemplate. This is what prompted me last night to request that some of you give some thought to prayers for our nation in the coming months. We have been told by those who are supposed to understand these things that it is only a matter of time before terrorists launch another attack on American soil. And the horrors in Russia a couple of weeks ago give a fresh and disturbing example of what may be looming out there.
In God’s providence, the second lesson appointed for today engages this very issue: not terrorism per se, but rather how we are to relate to things like terrorism, what we are to think, how we are to go about our lives, when great suffering or calamity looms out there – terrible things that are potential, but not yet actual; things that are likely to happen but have not happened yet. Paul’s words in Philippians are useful for us in this kind of climate.
It helps us to understand Paul if we recall that when he wrote the words of today’s lesson, he was definitely NOT taking his ease in some Mediterranean resort. Instead, he was writing from prison in Rome. He was separated from his friends. The Roman authorities had brought his church planting mission to a stop. Paul was expecting to be executed at any time. Paul was in a situation where it would be reasonable to feel depression and despair, to experience fear and anxiety, to grieve at what was now lost. Paul, however, was not feeling any of these kinds of things. Instead he wrote to the Philippians what we heard read to us a short while ago.
Let’s look again at Paul’s words. He tells us to do three things: to rejoice in the Lord, to fill our hearts with good things, and to do all those things we have learned through Paul’s teaching and that we have seen in Paul’s example. Let’s take each of these instructions in turn.
First of all, Paul says we are to rejoice in the Lord. Always. Not some of the time, but always. And to be sure we get his point, he repeats himself: “Again, I say, Rejoice! The Lord is at hand!”
Some years ago, an entertainer named Bobby McFerrin performed a song named “Don’t Worry. Be Happy.” From the first time I heard it, I thought it was the most insipid bit of silliness I had ever heard. I googled the lyrics for this song recently, and sure enough – they are every bit as insipid as I ever remembered them. It is as if McFerrin (or whoever wrote that inane song) thinks that being happy is something that results from sheer and mere choice.
Please do not think that THIS is what Paul is talking about when he says, in effect, “Be happy, don’t worry!” That’s about as close to McFerrin that Paul ever gets. Because Paul does what McFerrin never does in that silly song: Paul tells us HOW and WHY we may rejoice, why we SHOULD rejoice, how and why we CAN posesses the peace God which surpasses all understanding.
So, why may we rejoice in the Lord? Why and how can we be gentle? Paul says it is because the Lord is at hand. Most people read these words and suppose that Paul means that the return of the Lord to the earth is immenent, something that is about to happen. And, certainly, it is possible for the phrase “at hand” to signify that something will happen sooner rather than later. Paul says in 1 Timothy, for example, that “the time of my departure is at hand.”
However, there is another sense to the words “at hand” which I think are what we have here – whatever is at hand is something which is immediately present. Jesus, for example, in Gethsemane tells his disciples, “"Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46Rise, let us be going. See, My betrayer is at hand." In both these cases, “at hand” points to something that is immediately HERE, something already present. Jesus is NOT saying that the time of his betrayal is coming soon. INSTEAD, he means that his betrayal is ALREADY underway. His betrayer isn’t coming soon. Rather, his betrayer is RIGHT OVER THERE.”