Sermon for Dec. 16, 2018 (Advent 3)

Note: This sermon is for the third Sunday of the season of Advent, which spans the four Sundays that precede Christmas day. To read a Surprising God post explaining the meaning of Advent click here. For four GCI-produced videos for Advent, click here.
Scripture readings for today:
Zeph. 3:14-20 • Isa. 12:2-6 • Phil. 4:4-7 • Luke 3:7-18

Aggressive Gratitude

(Philippians 4:4-9)

Several years ago, the book The Count of Monte Cristo was made into a movie that starred Richard Harris and Christian actor Jim Caviezel. The beginning of the film is set in the desolation of a hopeless island prison. Richard Harris plays an older prisoner who has found a way to survive in this dark place. As a spiritual survival technique, each morning when his gruel bucket would be tossed through the door of his cell, he would say, “Thank you.” The guards only know he’s dead only when, for the first time in 12 years, they don’t hear him say “Thank you.”

Can you imagine being grateful in a place like prison? Every time the old man was offered the thin gruel that kept him barely alive, he would express gratitude. He had been unjustly imprisoned, beaten, and mistreated, and his spirit  survived only by sheer gratitude. I think about this from time to time when I find myself getting perturbed by little things—where is my attitude of gratitude?

Today I want to talk with you not just about having an attitude of gratitude but about what we might call aggressive gratitude. That phrase couples the emotion of aggression (fighting, conflict, anger) with the emotion of gratitude (thankfulness, giving and receiving, peace). On the surface, this combination seems like an oxymoron (like vegetarian bacon, jumbo shrimp, or military intelligence). But aggressive gratitude is an appropriate term for us to consider.

Facing anxiety

In our reading from the New Testament epistles today, we continue in the book of Philippians. When Paul sent this letter to the church at Philippi, he was in prison—possibly a form of house arrest, chained to a Roman guard much of the time. Though he had occasional visitors and was able to write letters (some becoming books of the New Testament), he was still imprisoned. Though the conditions were not the worst he’d ever experienced, he was, nevertheless, anxious, for he was awaiting trial.

“Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the time in the ancient world, people weren’t kept in jail for long. Rather than used as punishment, jail was where you awaited punishment, which typically involved torture or execution. Thus, Paul, attached to a soldier much of the time, awaited his forthcoming punishment, not knowing what it would entail. As they say: “The certainty of misery is better than the misery of uncertainty.” Paul writes Philippians in the middle of the misery of uncertainty.

Words of encouragement

Paul’s letter is intended for the community of Christians that met in Philippi—a church he had founded some 10 to 15 years earlier. He is telling them of his longing to return to see them. Different from Paul’s usual letters, he isn’t writing to correct a problem. He’s not rebuking them for false theology or for a particular sin—this is mostly a letter of encouragement and friendship. He is telling them to keep going, to keep walking in faith. They are being ridiculed and persecuted by their neighbors, and there are troubles within the church including divisions and doctrinal fights. Paul exhorts them to be aggressively grateful for the presence of God with them now, and for the life that is theirs in the world to come.

I think Philippians is where we find Paul most centered, proclaiming, “To live is Christ, to die is gain,” “Whatever happens to me, conduct yourself in a way worthy of the gospel,” “I count all as loss so that I might know Christ.” Instead of arguing or rebuking, Paul is living in the peace that passes human understanding. Have you ever been in that place? Have you ever been in love, where you were so filled with purpose and strength that everything that used to scare you or anger you just fell away?

Centered on Christ

My opinion is that Paul, despite the stressful circumstances of his imprisonment, wrote these words when he was at peace, completely centered on Christ. He commends that mindset, that way of being, to the Philippian Christians:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (Phil. 4:4-5)

Paul repeats the word “rejoice” multiple times in this letter. He commends them to do so “in the Lord.” It’s interesting that he uses that phrase. He does not say, rejoice because life is so great. He doesn’t say rejoice because Oprah says it’s good for your cardio health. He says rejoice in the Lord—rejoice because your daily reality is shaped by your heavenly reality. Rejoice for the Lord is near! Paul, facing who knows what punishment, maybe even death, keeps that ultimate reality in focus—he rejoices in realities that can’t be diminished by his immediate physical circumstances. Paul rejoices, despite his circumstances knowing that God is in control, that God will supply all his needs, and even if should he die, life with God awaits him.

Do not be anxious

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Phil. 4:6)

Anxious. There’s that word. Psychology Today described anxiety as “the modern plague.”  There is no shortage of things to make us anxious in today’s world. Yet there is a severe shortage of ways to deal with that anxiety. Paul writes about true freedom from anxiety: “be anxious for nothing,” he says. In saying this he seems to be quoting Jesus, who said, “Do not worry about your life…” (Matt. 6:25). Jesus’s teaching and Paul’s theme in Philippians is that God, who is in control, can be trusted—our true citizenship and home is in heaven and we can count on that, no matter what happens here on earth.

Most of us have faced the death of a loved one. When someone is sick, we get anxious, and as their condition worsens, it’s easy for us to get more and more anxious. Sometimes it’s difficult to take Jesus’ and Paul’s words to heart—to not worry, to not be anxious.

God is in control

Paul is telling us that we don’t control the circumstances in our lives. In fact, we don’t really control our lives at all—any one of us can be in an accident, come down with a deadly disease, or develop dementia. But no matter what we face, or what a loved one faces, we are never outside of God’s superintending control. Though we live and die as residents in this world (which is passing away), our true citizenship is with God in heaven. Because of that, we need not be anxious. We are safe and secure in God’s hands.

We can be thankful knowing  we will see our loved ones again—thankful knowing that eternal life, not death or disease, is our deepest reality. Because the joy of relationship is ours forever, we can practice aggressive gratitude even when the relationship is temporarily interrupted. We can, through the grace given us, celebrate the memories and even rejoice in the pain, knowing it means that we’ve experienced God’s gift of love.

The antidote to anxiety: God’s peace

The old prisoner in The Count of Monte Cristo survived by being grateful. His gratitude marked his days and nights and gave him power to determine how he was going to feel even in the worst circumstances.

The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7)

In our culture today, we have all sorts of tricks and gimmicks to reduce anxiety or try to make ourselves into better people. But because they all are about believing and looking into self, they have no lasting benefit.
We need the stronger medicine offered by Paul, who sees no disconnect between our life with God and our daily life (troubling though it might be). Paul calls us to lift the anxieties of daily life up to God and experience the peace that passes human understanding. That peace can’t be found within ourselves or within this world. As Paul notes, it’s a peace that comes from God—one that guards our heart and mind, for it’s the peace we experience “in Christ Jesus”—it’s his peace, shared with us by the Spirit.

Paul is telling us that as we maintain a prayerful posture of aggressive gratitude, our hearts and minds will be guarded. The Greek word Paul used for guarded is one used for a military battalion. It’s as though he is saying that a formidable group of spear-wielding soldiers will guard (maintain) our peace. In writing this, perhaps Paul had in mind the Roman soldier to which he was chained. His point is that God’s peace—Christ’s peace—is our guard. Our Lord surrounds us like a military guard surrounds a castle—ensuring the inhabitants’ safety. With God as our guard, we can have peace within, despite circumstances without.

Turn your thoughts

Paul reminds us of our heavenly connection, and urges us to plug into that: Rejoice, pray, be aggressively grateful, enjoy the privileges of your heavenly citizenship—even in the harshness of daily reality, and God’s peace will guard you. Then Paul turns to the part of our lives where we do have some control—the power to change our minds. In 2 Corinthians 10 Paul urges Christians to “take every thought captive,” and to do so for God’s glory. Paul knows how squirrelly and scattered our minds are—how quickly we focus on the negative, how quickly we forget that God is the one with the final word. Along those lines, he writes this to the Philippian Christians:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever remains true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:8-9)

The church at Philippi was facing persecution and other sources of trouble. Their first instinct might have been to panic, to succumb to anxiety by turning inward. Instead Paul urges them to turn their eyes upon Jesus and through his eyes focus on what is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable and thus praiseworthy. They should not flee the world, but continue in their ministry to the world with a mindset that is tempered by God’s peace.

How about us? In a post-Christian culture that is increasingly hostile to the Christian faith, do we draw away from the world into a “Christian cave” where we have our own music, movies, books, clothes? Though some of these things can feed our spirits, they sometimes go too far as we practice a form of escapism that is contrary to the mission we have been given. Sadly, we sometimes become what Dwight Moody warned against—becoming so “heavenly minded” that we become of no “earthly good.”

Paul tells us that because the entire world belongs to God, we can enjoy its good things in the way he intends. Knowing that romance, money and work cannot fill the void in us that only Christ fills, we can enjoy these temporary gifts of God all the more. And so Paul tells us to “think about these things”—to see the beauty and goodness around us as the promise that our loving, creative, joy-filled God is the source and ruler of it all.

Conclusion

The world we live in today has its trials and tragedies. We live in the time between Jesus’ first and second comings (the “time-between-the-times”), during which, as Paul says, we have dual citizenship. The Christians in Philippi (a Roman colony) were citizens of both the kingdom of Rome and of the kingdom of God. Paul makes it clear that they have responsibilities related to both, though their first allegiance is to the kingdom of God, a citizenship that comes with both responsibilities and privileges.

What Paul wanted them to know, and what I pray we will take away from his message, is that through prayerful, aggressive gratitude, we can enjoy the peace of God even here, even despite the troubles, trials and tragedies that befall us as citizens here in this world. Paul’s words focus on three things:

  • Our citizenship. We are citizens of God’s kingdom here in this world. We know God is in charge.
  • Our minds. We are to set our minds on things above through prayerful, aggressive gratitude. The more we do so, the more we’ll experience God’s peace. And that peace will guard our hearts and minds.
  • Our gentleness. Paul exhorts us to “let your gentleness be evident to all” (Phil. 4:5). The word for gentleness includes the ideas of forbearance and reasonableness—not retaliating when doing so is the natural reaction. This gentleness-under-fire is a true witness to God’s grace and goodness. As followers of Jesus, we seek to display the gentleness, kindness, and freedom of a heart guarded by the peace of God.

During Advent we are reminded of Jesus’ “comings” to save us. May these celebrations inspire us to faithfully practice aggressive gratitude.


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • The title of this week’s sermon (Aggressive Gratitude) is an oxymoron. Can you name others—serious or funny? (Examples: jumbo shrimp, confirmed rumor, military intelligence, congressional ethics.)
  • In the movie, The Count of Monte Christo, the old man survives his imprisonment by saying “thank you” every day that he is given his bucket of gruel. Have you ever thought of gratitude as a means of spiritual-emotional survival? Has this ever been the case in your life? [Idea: watch the movie as a group, then ask these questions.]
  • In Philippians 4:7 Paul writes: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The word he uses for “guard” is the word for a garrison (large group) of soldiers. Have you ever felt God’s peace “guarding” you? A heavily-guarded peace is another oxymoron that Paul seems to be living out, experiencing peace even while under arrest. Have you ever experienced peace that didn’t match circumstances (one that “passes understanding”)?
    • Paul continues by encouraging us to take our thoughts captive: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:8). How can we do this in a world flooded with media and entertainment? What are some habits we can cultivate to keep our thoughts captive for God’s glory?

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