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Saints and Sinners: Rejoicing Always

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 11 October 2020

A Sermon on Philippians 4:4-13 by Samuel D. Zumwalt

Philippians 4:4-13 English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, 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. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. 10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 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. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

SAINTS AND SINNERS: REJOICING ALWAYS

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Recidivists

Recidivist is our word for a career criminal. It comes to us from French, but its root is the Latin word “recidivare,” which means to relapse into sin or crime. A recidivist keeps breaking the law every time he or she gets out of jail. In some places, recidivism results in life in prison without parole, the so-called “three strikes and you’re out” law.

Paul is a recidivist for the Kingdom of God. Like the prophet Jeremiah, Paul cannot hold in the Word of God. He must speak it regardless of the consequences to himself. Paul keeps getting thrown in jail, because Paul has come to know that unbelief, yes, even the culture of unbelief in which he lives and to which he preaches is the actual prison. The inmates are walking around with the illusion of freedom, but they and we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.

Because this world is in bondage to sin, the inmates often cannot even see the prison bars or its walls. Yes, there is rampant discontent with this life. Yes, there is an epidemic of anger rooted in fear. Yes, there is, for many, that downward spiral of escaping into whatever will momentarily dull the senses. So, then, not recognizing, not admitting, not understanding, not facing that all of us are sick unto death because of our age-old rebellion against the Lord God lead to looking anxiously to other gods that cannot strengthen and cannot save us. We are recidivists unto death.

By way of contrast, Paul points to the evidence of our this-worldly prison with the words “honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellence, worthy of praise.” Those are the descriptors of lives lived in and under the rule and reign (the Kingdom) of God. What is dishonorable, unjust, impure, unlovely, uncommendable, mediocre, and unpraiseworthy marks the recidivist existence.

Twenty years ago I visited old schoolmates in the beautiful state of California. They sadly reveled in its secularism. They saw it as freedom that there were no billboards or bumper stickers celebrating the Christian life. Church buildings had been repurposed as bars, restaurants, and other businesses. Today, a social critic writes: “In 2019, before the pandemic and the widespread rioting and looting, outmigration jumped 38%, rising for the seventh straight year.” The same critic, who is moving his family out of the state where he was raised, educated, and started a business wrote, “The top marginal income tax rate is now 13.3%; legislators want to raise it to 16.8%. California is also home to a 7.25% sales tax, a 50-cent gas tax, and a bevy of other taxes that drain the wallet and burden business.” The public education system is a massive failure, etc.

A recidivistic culture, imprisoned by its unbelief, turns to a dying imperial state for a release it cannot give, because its prison walls are, proverbially, six feet deep. When will we ever learn?

Released

So, Paul can be released from whichever prison he has been thrown into this time for the sake of the Gospel, but he must proclaim the only release available to this world’s recidivists, to this world’s prisoners in unbelief, yes, to this world’s death-bound citizens. All of us are born in bondage to sin. We cannot free ourselves. Only God can save us from this sickness unto death.

Writing to his beloved Church at Philippi, Paul is freer than the culture that has thrown him in jail for preaching the Gospel. As we have heard the past two weeks, the only release from sin, death, and the power of the devil is God’s Son Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, truly God and truly human. Though He is the eternal Word of God, God’s Son chose to become human for us and our salvation. Though He is without sin, God’s Son chose to take on our nature and our lot. Though He is without sin, God’s Son went to the cross to take God’s death sentence upon Himself that recidivists like you and me might be released to become the children of God.

Through Christ alone there is release from our sin-sickness unto death and the taunts and empty promises of the old evil one whom Jesus calls the father of lies. Can you have the peace of sins forgiven? Can you have the promise of eternal life, love, and joy? Yes, through the grace and mercy of God in Christ. Yes, Holy Baptism, the new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, is the very place Christ releases us by joining us to His saving death and to His glorious resurrection.

When the prison that binds you is the sickness unto death and you can finally see the walls are six feet deep, there is only one place to turn. Only Jesus Christ, the Victor, can set us free!

Rejoicing

In verse 4, Paul uses the Greek verb “chairo” which we translate “rejoice.” To understand that rejoicing is something far different than being happy, feeling good, and all the other mood words and phrases we use for positive feelings, we have to go back to the Greek language of our text.

The Greek word we translate as “grace” or “gift” is “charis,” and the Greek word for “joy” is “chara.”  The Greek words for grace, joy, and rejoicing are all from the same root and share the same meaning. Oh, how that changes what Paul is writing from prison to his Philippian friends.

Paul isn’t singing, “I Whistle a Happy Tune.” Paul isn’t singing, “Don’t worry. Be happy.” Paul isn’t singing, “Celebrate. Celebrate. Dance to the music.” Paul is saying to his fellow recidivists who have been released: “You can be rejoicing always, like me, because we have the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Sin doesn’t define us. Death isn’t our master. Satan cannot have us. Marked with the holy cross of God’s Son Jesus, sealed with the Holy Spirit, we rejoice always.

Twenty-one years ago this month, nineteen Christians traveled from Austin to Juticalpa, Honduras to help build houses for the poorest of the poor in that country, people whose homes had been destroyed by flooding during Hurricane Mitch, a category five storm. We were building duplexes with a total of 400 square feet on each side. At the end of the week, there was a ceremony in which families we had worked alongside of received keys to their new homes. Our group sang in Spanish: “Cantad al Seňor” (O Sing to the Lord) as part of that celebration. It was a joyful day.

After we got back home, one member told me again about having lost everything when she was in the throes of alcoholism. Because she had lost a big house and so much more, she had always looked back with regrets. She said: “After my trip to Honduras, I came home to my 600 square foot condo with a balcony overlooking a swimming pool, and I realized I live in a palace.” She gave God thanks and praise for her sobriety and her new life in Christ, gifts from God’s hand. She had to go to Honduras to see that she was no longer imprisoned. She was free.

These past months of coronavirus have not been easy for many of us. None of us saw this coming on New Year’s Day. None of us could imagine that we might not be able to gather for the services of God’s house. None of us could imagine that we might not be able to find staple items like toilet paper, paper towels, hand soap, or hand sanitizer. None of us could imagine that we might not be able to leave our homes or not to be able to enter stores without a face mask. None of us could imagine our businesses locked, restaurants closed, schools shut, or online worship and drive through Holy Communion on Easter Sunday. None of us could imagine that there could be in 2020 street violence worse than the 1960s, looting of stores, and the destruction of public property including public monuments, while mayors and governors did nothing about it.

Writing from prison, Paul tells his dearest Christian friends that rejoicing always in Christ Jesus is the antidote to this world’s poisonous lies that cannot save and release from our sin-sickness. Wherever we have been, wherever we are today, whatever we have done, whatever we have left undone, we don’t have to be stuck there. God’s grace in Jesus Christ is a free gift, and it is our reason for joy. Today, our Lord Jesus invites us to the eternal marriage feast of the King’s Son. Here, we can have a foretaste of that eternal feast as we receive His true Body and drink His most precious Blood for the forgiveness of sins, for the peace the world cannot give, and for the joy that shatters the darkness with brilliant light. It’s not just a symbol. Here we receive Jesus!

Have you learned in whatever situation you are to be content? Do you know how to be brought low and how to abound? Do you know the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need? Can you do all things through Christ who strengthens you? Jesus Christ is the answer.

We are works in progress, saints and sinners. Don’t give up or give in. Cling to Jesus. Rejoice always!

 In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©Samuel David Zumwalt

szumwalt@bellsouth.net

St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church

Wilmington, North Carolina USA

Bulletin Insert

Saints and Sinners: Rejoicing Always

Praying

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may be continually given to good works; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 622).

Listening

Philippians 4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. “

St. John Chrysostom [Late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople, Turkey]:  “This rejoicing is not separable from grief, for indeed it is rather deeply connected with grief. The one who grieves for his own wrongdoing and confesses it is joyful. Alternatively it is possible to grieve for one’s own sins but rejoice in Christ” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Philippians, 281).

Philippians 4:6 “do not be anxious about anything…”

Marius Victorinus [4th century Roman philosopher, translator of Aristotle, and late Christian convert]: “This means: Do not be concerned for yourselves. Do not give unnecessary thought to or be anxious about the world or worldly things. For all that is needful for you in this life God provides. And it will be even better in that life which is eternal” (281).

Philippians 4:6 “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

St. John Chrysostom: “So one ought to give thanks for everything, even what seems grievous. That is the mark of one who is truly thankful. Grief comes out of the circumstances with their demands. Thanksgiving comes from a soul that has true insight and a strong affection for God” (282).

Philippians 4:7 “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”

St. John Chrysostom: “For who could have expected and who could have hoped for such benefits? It transcends every human intellect and all speech. For his enemies, for those who hated him, for the apostates – for all these he did not refuse to give his only begotten Son, so as to make peace with them…When he sees that we should be at peace with enemies, with the unrighteous, with those who display contentiousness and hostility toward us, how does this not pass human understanding” (282).

Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

St. John Chrysostom: “Any achievement I have had belongs not to me but to the One who gave me strength” (285).

Reflecting

  1. How is the Lord Jesus Christ the antidote to anxiety?
  2. How are rejoicing in the Lord and living in the peace of God related?

 Learning

The Ten Commandments

AS THE HEAD OF THE HOUSEHOLD SHOLD TEACH THEM IN A SIMPLE WAY TO HIS HOUSEHOLD. 

The Sixth Commandment

You shall commit adultery.

What does this mean?

“We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other” (Luther’s Small Catechism).

Doing

  1. Pray for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.
  2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.
  3. Commit yourself to the study of God’s Word at St. Matthew’s whether in-person or online.
  4. Practice saying the sixth commandment and its explanation every day. Rehearse it with others in your household or with a Christian friend over the phone. Discuss the following question. In what ways does the sixth commandment offer hope and encouragement to families everywhere?
  5. Set aside time daily, preferably first thing, but when you are able to focus, to hear the Word of God, to reflect upon that Word, and to ask the Holy Spirit to grant you grace to be shaped by and conformed to that Word. Daily Bible readings may be found at www.stmatthewsch.org. If you haven’t previously done so, please ask for a new devotional booklet when you return to corporate worship or when you drive through to receive the Body and Blood of Christ this weekend. Daily lectionary readings are on p.191 in the front of the Lutheran Book of Worship (Year Two, Week of 19 Pentecost).

For Husbands and Wives

Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”