Let’s read what Paul had to say to his dear friends in Philippi.
Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.
Alright. Let’s start with this question: is Paul being ridiculous here? Is this hyperbole?
“Don’t worry about anything”?!?
[Song] “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.” I grew up singing that song in Sunday school.
Always joyful, never worrying… It seems a bit idealistic at first glance, doesn’t it?
Especially in 2021. The world is going up in flames, everybody’s screaming at each other, we’re all exhausted. “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.” Sure. I’ll get right on that.
So maybe Paul is just painting the picture of some unattainable ideal. It’s idealism, right?
Well, I’m not so sure. For one thing, Paul does use hyperbole in his letters sometimes, but it looks different. And it’s pretty clear when he’s being ridiculous.
For another, he seems to base this idea of constant joy and freedom from worry on a pretty concrete concept: the “peace of God.” Verse 7.
Paul says it’s a peace that “exceeds anything we can understand.” Literally in Greek it “surpasses thought.”
This is the peace that will “guard our hearts and our minds as we live in Christ.”
So before we too quickly rule out what Paul is saying here as some kind of fantasy, let’s talk about that peace of God.
Because I believe it’s the exact same peace those angels declared to those shepherds that first Christmas morning. Peace on earth.
And right now, when I look around at what we’re all going through - as I look at my own heart – I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that joy and a freedom from anxiety is simply unattainable.
I want to learn how to rejoice again, don’t you?
So let’s talk about the “peace of God.”
To understand this concept we have to think about peace throughout the whole of Scripture. What Paul understood as he meditated on the Torah and the Psalms and the Prophets.
What we see as we look at the storyline of the Bible is that peace - God’s peace - is not just an absence of war.
Peace - or shalom in Hebrew - goes way beyond just a lack of violence. Peace in the Bible means wholeness, completeness. It means abundance and fruitfulness and life.
Put simply, peace in Scripture is the Garden of Eden. The presence of God. It’s all things made right for humanity. No conflict between people. No shame. No greed.
And the whole storyline of the Bible is about God trying to bring us back to that ideal. A return to Eden. That’s biblical peace.
When you think about peace in the Bible, think about Marty the pig. Yes, he’s got a secure fence to keep out predators. But that absence of conflict hardly defines his life.
No, his life is all about pumpkins and acorns and fresh grass and blankets. His life is now “wait, there’s MORE?”
And I believe that is exactly the kind of wholeness and wellbeing God desires for us. That is biblical peace. A return to Eden.
And that is the peace Paul is talking about here.
Imagine if that was your mentality - your outlook on life. Every day just experience life and abundance and saying, “Wait, there’s MORE?”
If that was how your life was going, it might not seem so ridiculous to “rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice,” right?
If you were living in true biblical peace - a peace that exceeds anything we can understand - it would change you, wouldn’t it?
So that’s biblical peace.
Here’s what we have to wrestle with: According to Paul, this peace - God's peace - is something we can experience right now.
Again, verse 7. This peace is something that he says “will guard our hearts and minds as we live in Christ Jesus” today.
It’s not unattainable. It’s not wishful thinking.
But if that’s true, then how do we begin to live into it? Especially during these hectic times? It sure doesn’t feel like Eden…
Well, I think an important clue is in verse 8. Paul says, “fix your thoughts on what is true, what is honorable, what is right,” pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, worthy of praise…
Fix your thoughts.
To Paul, there is an intentionality about what we focus our mind on – what truths we hold in our hearts.
There are plenty of other things vying for our attention! We’ve got to make a choice.
Thankfully, we don’t have to guess about what is true or what is pure or admirable or right… because Paul spells it right out in verse 5.
Remember – fix your thoughts – on the fact that “the Lord is coming soon.”
Literally, what he says here is, The Lord is near. Close at hand. Remember that and then you will experience peace.
What exactly does he mean by this?
Well, there are two options. The New Living Translation has made an interpretive choice, and this is one option. They see this as an eschatological statement, or a future statement about the end of things.
The Lord is coming soon.
This would be the way the Old Testament prophets thought of the future.
Stand in silence in the presence of the Sovereign LORD, for the awesome day of the LORD’s judgment is near.
In other words, the day we’ve been waiting for: of God making all things right in this broken world - the coming of the New Creation - the ultimate return to Eden - that day is so close you can almost grasp it. The Lord is near.
Remember that. Live like that’s true. And you’ll have the peace of God guarding your heart because you know where things are headed.
That’s one way to understand it.
The other way is that the Lord is near, as in “close by.” As in proximity.
That’s how the Psalm writers thought of it.
Psalm 145:18 (NRSV)
The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
In other words, Paul could be saying “remember: Jesus is not far off. He’s right beside you. He’s there in your trials, he’s with you in your pain.”
The Lord is near, so you don’t need to worry about anything. You can rejoice. Because you are not alone. That truth can give you a peace that exceeds anything we can understand.
The Lord is near.
So which one is it? Does Paul want his readers to remember that the Lord is coming soon? Or that the Lord is right there beside us, no matter what?
I think the answer is a bit of both. Because I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.
The best proof of that is the birth of Jesus that first Christmas morning.
Think about it.
On that fateful day in Bethlehem the God of the universe sent his only son to be born as one of us. A flesh and blood human who would experience joy, hope, and love, but also pain, grief, loneliness, and betrayal.
He would so radically identify with our sin and brokenness that he would take it all upon himself on the cross.
When we say “the Lord is near,” this is what we’re talking about. He is with us so closely it defies our ability to understand.
“Peace on earth and good will towards men?” Yeah, we can have peace in our hearts, because our God has not left us alone. Emmanuel - God with us. The Lord is near.
At the same time, think about what the birth of Jesus began. The first cry of that baby boy was like the first spring leaves sprouting into New Creation.
Jesus inaugurated God’s long-awaited kingdom. He began the transformation of our world. From that day until now Jesus has been healing the broken places of our world and returning of humanity to Eden. It’s a transformation you and I are still a part of today.
The Lord is near because his intentions are finally coming to fruition.
And every day, you and I are invited to participate in that abundance. Joy, healing, hope… If we have eyes to see his hand at work, we too can say with utter astonishment, “You mean there’s MORE?”
Our Lord stands closer than a brother, and he is on the way to make all things new.
The Lord is near.
PEACE IN MY HEART
Paul tells his readers to “always be full of joy in the Lord.” To not worry about anything.
Right now, in 2021, that seems like a lot to ask. But I wonder if it’s possible for us to get a taste of the peace of God in our hearts this Christmas season.
Not manufactured peace. Not holiday cheer. But shalom. Biblical peace.
Is it possible for us to fix our thoughts on what is true? To live like the Lord is near?
I think it is. And I think it is vital that we learn how.
So here’s what I’d like to do. I want to give you a simple tool to hold onto this December. Something you can do anytime to practice this idea.
• When you’re standing in an infuriatingly long line at the checkout counter…
• When you’re sitting in front of a fireplace sipping hot chocolate…
• When you’re stuck in traffic…
• When you’re feeling alone…
• When you’re grieving…
This is something you can do. It’s called a breath prayer.
You’ve got to breathe. No choice in that. So why not use a few of those breaths to fix your thoughts on what is true?
[breathe] The Lord is near. [breathe] The Lord is near.
Whichever of the two meanings most resonates with you.
If you are facing anxiety or helplessness or loneliness, remember that Jesus is not far away. He's closer than a brother. He became one of us. He's acquainted with grief and suffering. He's with you in your pain. He sees, he cares, and he is near.
Maybe when you pray, “The Lord is near,” it means:
The Lord is near and he will never leave my side.
Fix your thoughts on that.
Or, maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed by the brokenness of this world right now. You’re losing hope. Things feel bleak and depressing.
If that’s where you are, remember what the birth of Jesus began - a worldwide transformation, the beginning of New Creation.
When you pray, “The Lord is near,” it means:
The Lord is near and he is making all things right.
I want to give us a chance to practice this. I’m going to pray this breath prayer several times, and I invite you to use these moments to fix your thoughts on the truth.
And then today – this week – this month – I want you to practice this on your own.
Practice this breath prayer and perhaps the peace of God, which exceeds anything we can understand will guard your heart and mind as you live in Christ Jesus.