Sermon 11-11-12: “Attitude of Gratitude, Part 2: Rejoice”

November 15, 2012

“Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul says. Does always really mean always? I’s easy to rejoice when things are going our way, but what about when they’re not? How can we be thankful in all circumstances? In today’s sermon, Brent tackles these questions head-on.

Sermon Text: Philippians 4:4-9

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

So… Slow news week this past week, huh? Just kidding. As is the case whenever there’s a presidential election, some of us are disappointed; some of us are happy. That’s understandable. The good news is that our hope doesn’t rest on the shoulders of whatever fallible human being happens to win the presidential election; our hope is rooted in our King Jesus, who at this very moment is reigning at the right hand of God the Father. The future is in his hands; we’ve seen our own future in his resurrection; and we know that, through him, our future is bright. Can I get an Amen? Regardless of whether our guy won or not, I hope we can all appreciate Governor Romney’s very gracious concession speech early Wednesday morning. It was a short speech, but one that was overflowing with this thing that we’re talking about this month: gratitude.

He thanked his running mate. He thanked his wife. He thanked his sons who worked hard on his campaign, and their wives and children who picked up the slack while they were campaigning. He thanked his campaign workers, volunteers, and donors. But at the end of the speech, he also acknowledged his deep disappointment: He really wanted to win. But he encouraged us to join him and his in praying for President Obama, for his success, and for our nation. Not bad!

I don’t mean to single out Governor Romney. President Obama’s victory speech was magnanimous and filled with gratitude, as well, but let’s face it: It’s easier to be thankful when you win. But when you pour your heart into something, when you invest years of your life—and so much money, and so much energy, and so much passion—and you still come up short, well… how do you find a way to be thankful?

This is one of the most important questions raised by today’s scripture. “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.”

Does “always” really mean always? Does “always” really mean “in all circumstances”? Does “always” mean not only when you’re winning—which is kind of easy—but also when you’re losing. And the answer must be yes. After all, consider the context in which Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians. While Philippians is a letter overflowing with the kind of joy that is at the heart of rejoicing, it is also a letter that Paul wrote while he was in prison. As one commentator said, for a traveling apostle to be put in prison “must have seemed like a concert pianist having his hands tied behind his back. How can he possibly continue the work that he’s been called to do?”[1] It’s easy to imagine that Paul would feel depressed. It’s easy to imagine that he would feel discouraged. It’s easy to imagine that he would feel as if his dreams had gone up in smoke.

On the contrary, Paul says earlier in the letter, being thrown into prison has actually helped his cause. First, because the elite group of Roman soldiers who were holding Paul prisoner were hearing all about the gospel of Jesus Christ. These soldiers were used to hearing another gospel—literally. The word “gospel” had previously been used in the Roman Empire to describe the good news of another Lord who was worshiped by many—the emperor, Caesar. But Caesar, of course, was a pretender to the throne. Jesus was the world’s true Lord, and because Paul was in prison, he was able to tell them all about it. And then they would tell others, and so the gospel would spread. Also, Paul says, his fellow Christians in the churches nearby were hearing about his imprisonment, and this inspired them to speak the word more boldly and bravely. And so the gospel would spread. Finally, Paul says, there are some people who were spreading the gospel out of envy or rivalry. We’re not sure who these people were—probably pagans, who wanted to make Paul’s life in prison even more difficult. “Did you hear about this weird dude in prison who’s been going around saying there’s a new king—a new emperor! And you won’t believe it—this new king turns out to be a Jew whom they crucified a few years ago. This prisoner says he’s the real Lord of the world!”[2]

Sure, they might think Paul was a dangerous lunatic, but Paul didn’t care. As long as they were talking about Jesus, the gospel was being spread.

It sounds like Paul was the kind of person who saw the glass as half full rather than half empty, doesn’t it? We can learn something from his attitude, don’t you think?

I’ll never forget the time many years ago when my pastor preached a sermon encouraging his congregation to be more optimistic. At the end of the sermon, he passed out rubber bands to the congregation. For the next week, he wanted us to wear these rubber bands on our wrists. And whenever we had a pessimistic, discouraging, or negative thought, we were supposed to snap the rubber band against our wrist. Isn’t that funny? At the end of the week, let me tell you… my wrist was red and welted! Honestly! I wasn’t accustomed to “looking on the bright side of life.” In fact, that was during a period of time in my early- to mid-20s when I was deeply unhappy with my career. I was in sales with a large telecommunications company, and even in the early nineties, it was still widely believed that you could go to work for a company like this, enjoy or otherwise endure a decades-long career, at the end of which you could retire with a gold watch and pension. I was surrounded by “lifers” at the company who had worked there for 20 years, and they were going to work there for 20 more, whether they liked it or not. Do any of you remember those days?

Here’s a sign that you’re in the wrong career: Nearly every morning of the week, when I didn’t have customer appointments, my friend Don and I would say, “Let’s go do some account planning.” Of course, “account planning” meant going to a coffee bar at a nearby Harris Teeter—and hanging out for an hour or so. We weren’t working, mind you.These were the days before people like me went to coffee shops to do work. Anyway, eventually we would look at our watch and say, “Well, we better get back to the office. Otherwise, we’ll be late for lunch.”

I’m not proud of this behavior, mind you… It was a way of coping with a job I hated.

But my parents and my family were so proud of me for getting this job and so happy for me. But I wasn’t happy! I was miserable. And I thought back then, “If I have to do this job for the rest of my working life, I will gouge my eyeballs out!” I believed that my life had gotten badly off course. I thought many of the dreams that I had for my life wouldn’t come true.

And even back then, my wife, Lisa, was filled with wisdom. I don’t know where she got this idea, but she was ahead of her time. Before we went to sleep each night, she would make me list “five positive things” that happened to me that day. This is like a thing now. I think Oprah Winfrey talked about it. Keeping a “gratitude” journal, you know? But listing five positive things seemed like such a struggle back then.

And you know why it was a struggle? It was a struggle, not because I didn’t have plenty to be grateful for—I did—but because, unlike Paul, I didn’t understand why I should be grateful. Paul understood something about God that I didn’t understand. Paul understood this because he knew his Bible. He knew, for example, about the story of Joseph in Genesis 39 and later. Joseph, you may recall, was spoiledrotten by his father Jacob, and his older brothers were jealous. They wanted to kill him but decided to sell him into slavery. Joseph was taken to Egypt, where, after a series of surprising twists and turns, and ups and downs—which included being falsely imprisoned—he rises to a high rank in the Pharaoh’s court and helps Egypt survive a terrible famine. Later, he reunites with the same brothers who sold him into slavery in the first place, and he tells them: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…”  I hope that, unlike Joseph and Paul, we don’t have enemies in our lives who are out to harm us—but we might. But at the very least we certainly have a spiritual Enemy who’s out to harm us. And this enemy wants to use bad circumstances in our lives to turn us away from our faith in Jesus. And he may do so without our even knowing it. We can call ourselves Christians and yet live our lives as if our Christian faith makes no difference whatsoever!

So, are any of you facing some tough circumstances in your lives right now? Problems at work, problems at school, problems with your health, problems with your spouse, problems with your kids, problems with your family, problems with finances, problems finding a new job… If so, the reason that we can still be thankful, in spite of our problems, is because we can learn to look at these them and say, “You intend to harm me. But my God intends it for good!” How often are we tempted to feel discouraged when things don’t work out as planned? Take heart: God’s got other plans for us, and God’s plans are always better! God’s plans are always better!

Even in my case, I hated that job… But I can see how God used it to help me. It was good for me. It was necessary for me. It was a school of hard knocks, but it provided me some important lessons—lessons about working with people, talking to people, relating to people. It pushed me out of my comfort zone. It gave me courage to make a career change. It ultimately led me into ministry. I can see that now.

God intends to bring good out of bad circumstances, and he’s always working to do so. God has our back. God is looking out for us. God is taking care of us.

It takes practice to see things this way. And the way we practice is through prayer: “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.” I will be the first to admit that I struggle with prayer. I struggle with it because I’m a perfectionist about it. I imagine that first I have to create the ideal environment for prayer. My mind has to be in the right place before I can pray. I have to wake up early, when the house is quiet, to pray. I have to allow this much time for prayer. I have to get down on my knees to pray. And worst of all, I have to pray for certain things in a certain order—otherwise I’m doing prayer wrong. Before long, if I buy into the idea that there is this right way to pray, then I find that it doesn’t get done very often. And I feel guilty. And prayer, which ought to help calm my fears, becomes another source of anxiety.

There’s a popular Twitter hashtag you may have seen recently called “first-world-problems.” Have you heard of this? The idea is that we Americans are really spoiled, and we have the luxury of complaining about things that most people in the world would love to complain about. Here are some examples of a “first world problem”: “Staying with relatives. They don’t know their wifi password.” “Forgot I was watching a recording. Sat through commercials.” And my favorite: “I dropped my MacBook. On my other MacBook.”

These are funny, and I get it: we are often spoiled, aren’t we? We need to keep things in perspective. But I wonder if this hashtag doesn’t also reinforce the idea that there’s a right way to pray. And we shouldn’t pray for things that are too small, too trivial, too selfish. After all, there are bigger and more important problems in the world—famine, disease, human rights abuses, you name it. And you shouldn’t bother God with all that little stuff. And we hear that stern and critical voice: “You’re not praying correctly!”

Fortunately, Paul says, prayer is much simpler, much more straightforward than all that.

Are you feeling anxious? Tell the Lord about each and every thing you’re worried about—whether for yourself or for others. Is it too trivial, too small, too self-centered? Don’t worry. If it’s big enough to cause you to worry, it’s big enough for you to mention in prayer. If it matters to you, it matters to God. And as you pray, remember also to give thanks for the good things that you’ve experienced. If you want to write them down in a “gratitude journal,” that’s a good practice, too.

If we learn to pray like this, something amazing will happen: “Then,” Paul tells us, “the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.”

May we all know that peace. Amen. [Stephanie will play “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”]

[1] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 89.

[2] Paraphrased from Wright, 90.

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