4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Dear Friends in Christ,
I’ve been a pastor now for about 34½ years and during that time I have made 2 interesting observations that I want to begin with today. The 1st observation is this: Sometimes God calms the storm. He did for Moses, didn’t he? Pharaoh fumes behind him. The Red Sea foams in front of him. And as many as 2-3 million frightened, complaining Israelites surround him. Moses has nowhere to turn but up. And as he lifts his staff at God’s command, the sea opens, the Israelites scurry across on dry ground, and the pursuing Egyptian army is swallowed alive by the collapsing walls of water because sometimes God calms the storm.
He did for Daniel. Daniel had been invited to the lion’s den for dinner. The only problem was he was not to be the eater but the one who would be eaten. Fortunately Daniel remembered that it’s appropriate to pray before eating, which he did. And that prayer was answered with a case of lion lockjaw because sometimes God calms the storm.
Sometimes he takes the cancer away. Sometimes he transfers the cranky boss who’s making your life miserable. Sometimes he lifts the oppressive guilt that has been weighing you down. Sometimes with one blast of his mighty breath the storm clouds disappear and the dark sky becomes radiantly blue because sometimes God calms the storm.
But here’s the other observation I’ve noted: Sometimes God chooses to calm the child in the midst of the storm. Rather than still the tempest he stills the heart. Rather than remove the disease he removes the fear of the disease. Rather than grant deliverance he grants understanding and acceptance. So even though the storm is still brewing the child is no longer fretting. Instead he is trusting and confidently resting in the loving care of his loving God because sometimes, instead of calming the storm, God calms the child in the midst of the storm.
And if there’s one thing I want you to take home with you today, my friends, it is the realization that that calm, that peace is available to you in the midst of your storms. Paul refers to it in our text as a peace that passes all human understanding. One commentator I looked at calls it “a heaven-sent, illogical, stare-death-in-the-face-with-a-smile peace.” Some of you could use that peace today, couldn’t you? Perhaps you’re passing through a stormy time in your life right now. Or there’s a typhoon just brewing off the coast of your life and you know it’s going to hit anytime. And you’re wondering how in the world God is going to calm that storm. It could be that he will not. It could be that instead he will choose to calm you, the child, in the midst of the storm. So how does he do that? Or perhaps another way to ask that question would be, what can we do in the midst of the storm to find that kind of calm, that kind of peace? Well, the Apostle Paul, who was certainly no stranger to storms, gives us 3 suggestions in our text for today.
And I’m going to warn you, the 1st one is especially tough. He says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Well, that’s a fine how-do-you-do, isn’t it? Here I am in the midst of a storm and Paul is telling me to just be happy. No, that’s not what Paul is telling you. He’s telling you to be joyful. I know I’ve shared this with some of you before, but I think it’s worth repeating. There’s a big difference between joy and happiness. The word “happiness” comes from the same root word as the word “happening.” Which means that our happiness is based upon the happenings in our lives. So when the happenings are not very pleasant, it’s pretty tough to be happy.
But joy is much different. In the Bible joy is not a permanent grin plastered on your face. It’s not a feeling of endless exuberance and elation. Rather in Scripture joy is more of a conviction – a deep down, bedrock conviction that though the storm may be great, God is greater still; though the battle may be tough, God is on my side; though the days may be dark, brighter days are ahead, if not in this life, then in the life to come. Joy is not the absence of fear or concern, but it is the absence of desperation. It is a trust that enables the child to hang on because that child knows God is near.
Now notice, Paul tells us to have this kind of joy how often? ALWAYS. He says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” That word “always” is a tough one to swallow, isn’t it? We’d like this verse better if it said “Rejoice in the Lord on good days or when the sun is shining or when things are going well.” But all days? How can you have joy when you’ve got bills to pay and kids to raise and deadlines to meet? Or, how can you rejoice when you’ve got 80-year-old Moses for a leader and manna for breakfast again and the wilderness all around you? That’s what the Israelites were asking several thousand years ago. They had no joy in their hearts and they were notorious for their incessant grumbling. In fact, at least 19 times in the Old Testament the word grumble or grumbled or grumblers or grumbling is used in reference to the Israelites.
And when we read about their grumbling we can’t help but shake our heads in disbelief. We’d love to be able to say to them, “Let me get this straight. You were slaves in Egypt for over 400 years and God rescued you. He topples the dynasty of Egypt like a kid topples blocks. He opens up the Red Sea as casually as you’d open a book. You witness miracle after miracle. Fed by manna from heaven. Led by fire and cloud. You leave from Egypt with all the loot and head toward the Promised Land and you have the audacity to grumble?” How could they be so callused, so unappreciative, so inconsiderate? But you know what, my friends? I think they’d probably feel the same way about us. In fact, recently I got the most incredible e-mail. Believe it or not, it came from none other than Moses at MtSinai.com. And this is what he said:
Dear Doug, I’ve been watching you prepare your sermon this week. You know, you’re not the 1st preacher to discuss the grumbling Israelites. But let me point out that they weren’t the last to grumble. I’ve heard quite a bit of grumbling coming from you this year. You grumbled about all the road construction you encountered this past summer. You grumble about the high volume of traffic in town. You grumble about the high unemployment rate in Salem. You grumbled about the wet weather you had back in the spring and then you grumbled about the dry weather you had in August. And then he goes on: Let me get this straight. You were a slave to sin, but God set you free. He toppled the dynasty of the devil like a kid topples blocks and opened the grave as casually as you’d open a book. You witness miracle after miracle. You’re fed by the manna of God’s Word. You’re led by the fire of the Holy Spirit. You’re loaded with spiritual gifts on the way to the Promised Land. And you grumble?
What’s my point? I firmly believe that if we were to adjust our focus during the storms of life and concentrate more on what God has given us and done for us instead of grumbling about what we’re going through, the joy Paul speaks of in our text can and will be ours – not just occasionally, but ALWAYS.
Then a 2nd suggestion Paul gives to us when we find ourselves in the midst of a storm is to be gentle. In v. 5 he says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” One interesting translation of this verse that I came across renders it this way: “Let the world know you will meet them halfway.”
I wonder how many storms in our lives would be stilled if we would do just that. Don’t you think that many of the tempests that we encounter are born out of personality conflicts, or because others won’t see things my way or do things my way? I wonder how many storms would be stilled if we were to strive with the help of the Holy Spirit to be more gentle, to be more willing to meet people halfway…or to be more like Chad. Chad was a painfully shy child who was never included with the rest of the kids at school. It worried his mom a lot, especially the day he came home with an idea for Valentine’s Day. “Mom,” he said, “I want to make everybody in class a Valentine card.” His mom was concerned about how her son would feel if he gave everyone else a card, but received few, if any, himself. But he was determined. So for several nights they worked on 35 Valentine cards, each one tailor-made for a particular classmate. Finally the 14th of February rolled around and Chad’s mother anxiously waited for him to come home after school. When he walked in the house, she heard him cry out, “Not a one, Mom! Not a one!” She turned around expecting to see a tear-filled face, but instead she saw a bright beaming happy face. And little Chad said, “I didn’t forget a one, Mom. I didn’t forget a one.”
How many storms would be stilled if we all had the attitude of Chad – no matter how they treat me, I’m going to treat them well. Sounds like something Jesus would do, doesn’t it?
Well, let’s move on to our final point. Paul not only tells us to be joyful and gentle in the midst of our storms, but he also adds that we should be prayerful. Notice v. 6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
It’s tough not to be anxious about certain things, isn’t it? But have you ever noticed that what we are so often anxious about, often times never happens or turns out to be not that big of a deal. I sure found that out when I was a little boy. I had this suffocating fear that if my mom and dad ever went anywhere in the car by themselves they would have a horrible accident, both would be killed, and I would be left without parents. It was such a burdensome anxiety that if I knew they were going to go some place the next day, like a pastors conference, I would play sick so my mom would stay home with me. There were times though when they did get away together without me, which meant that my brother would have to babysit me, which was not very comforting because delighted in terrorizing me by acting like he was dying, meaning I would really be alone then. But you know what? All that anxiety, all that worry that I went through back then was for naught because not once did my mom and dad have that accident that I so dreaded. Not once did they not make it home safe and sound. And now that I look back upon it, I realize how foolish it was to expend all that mental and emotional energy over something that was not that big of a deal.
I wonder if when we get to heaven we’ll make similar comments about the anxieties we had on earth. I wonder if we’ll say things like: “You know, that really wasn’t a big deal. Why was I so concerned about that job change or that test I had to take?” Could it be that we’ll even say, “Why was I so concerned about that cancer or the loss of my loved one?” Today it is a big deal. I understand that and I don’t mean to minimize what you may be going through right now. But in the economy of heaven and in the light of all eternity, I have a feeling we’ll look back and say; “It really wasn’t that big of a deal.”
So sometimes God calms the storm, but other times he calms the child in the midst of the storm. That’s what he did for Mary Wegener of our congregation when she found out that she had a slow-growing cancerous tumor on her duodenum that was going to have to be removed through a major operation. The day before I worked on this sermon back on Sept. 1 she called me to tell me all about it. And I marveled at how calm she was, a calm that could only be described as the peace of God that passes all human understanding. And by the way, that’s what God did for his own Son, didn’t he? He didn’t take the storm of the cross away from Jesus, but gave him the strength and the courage to go through it and to win eternal salvation for all who would believe in him. So sometimes God calms the storm, and that’s my prayer for all of you who are facing storms right now. But if he chooses not to do that, then my prayer is that he will calm you in the midst of the storm with a strong sense of his loving presence and with a joyful, gentle, prayerful spirit.