Beyond understanding

Friends, we have been through a lot together. And I don’t just mean the last few months. The last months have been challenging. But it’s coming up on five years since I came here to Springfield, and we have done so much together.

We have worshiped and prayed. We’ve studied the Bible, and learned so much about it.

We’ve eaten dozens of meals, and washed thousands of dishes side by side. We’ve dreamed about the future. We’ve tried out wild and crazy ideas.

We’ve celebrated the birth of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus, every year, and it’s always been fresh and amazing.

We have grieved together, more times than I like to think about, for people we love. We have honored their memory, and we’ve challenged ourselves to live in the same spirit that they lived.
We’ve cleaned up after storms, and planted things together.

I must have gone more than a thousand times to hospital rooms and sick beds, trying to bring hope and cheer to people, in the name of our meeting.

We’ve planned, and changed our plans. Somebody once said, “You want to know how to make everybody up in Heaven laugh? Make a plan!”

Actually, I think it’s all right to make plans. But it helps, if they’re part of God’s bigger plan. God is all about having people love each other. God is all about having us listen, and forgive.

When our plan is telling each other about what Jesus has done for us, that’s part of God’s plan. When our plan is to grow by serving people’s needs, that’s God’s plan, too.

Today I want to read a piece from a letter which somebody wrote during hard times. We think that we have it hard! This letter was written by someone who was in prison, while he was waiting for trial, which he knew would probably lead to his being executed.

It’s a letter of encouragement, which he wrote to his friends, in a small church that he’d started a few years ago. He was hoping to lift them up, and encourage them, during a time when a lot of things seemed to be going wrong.

Let me read to you now, from Paul’s letter to the church at Phillipi.

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything, and let your prayers and thanks be made known to God.

And the peace of Christ, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:4-7

The last time I preached on this passage, was at a Friends meeting I served back in Indiana. I had two elders with me on the facing bench that day. They were — and still are — wonderful saints, people of great faith. I’ve known them for many years.

When I was in seminary, they kind of adopted us. They invited us into their home. They made us lots of meals, which was a great blessing, because we didn’t have any money. They showed us around our new town, and they introduced us to their wide circle of friends.

They’re an African-American couple, and they told us about all the blind, unreasoning hatred they’d experienced, from people who hated them and treated them badly for no other reason than the color of their skin.

They told us about restaurants where they hadn’t been served, and public places where they’d been turned away, even though they were hard-working people with highly responsible jobs.

We moved away for about 10 years after I finished seminary. During that time, Peggy developed cancer. She fought it. She beat the odds. It was a tough fight.

Most people, after an experience like that, just sit back and try to enjoy life. Peggy did something different. She started a Cancer Survivors group, which she kept up faithfully for more than 30 years, and supported hundreds of people with practical help, with listening and support.

Then we moved back to the same town, and we renewed our friendship. I can’t begin to tell you all the things that we lived through together.

Illnesses and job changes. They lost their dream house in a fire. They’ve taken in grandchildren, when their families couldn’t manage. They’ve lost parents. They lost one of their sons, in a terrible auto accident.

We lived through it all together, and we wept together, and prayed together, and sometimes we’ve held our arms around each other, because we didn’t have the words to say.

The Scripture I read this morning is at the heart of what Paul wanted to say to his friends, and they’re at the heart of who we are and who we need to be.

Paul was writing this letter from Rome, where he was a prisoner waiting to be put on trial for his life.

I know that a lot of us wish we could sit Paul down in a chair and ask him some tough questions about his attitude towards women, and what he said about gay people.

I have a feeling that in today’s world, some of Paul’s statements might be different, because if there was one thing Paul was good at, it was adapting the Christian message to different cultures and different situations.

We need to remember that Paul didn’t have an easy time of it as a friend of Jesus. He suffered because he trusted in God. He was a survivor. In one of his letters, Paul says that he was flogged five times – 39 lashes with a terrible whip. Three times, he was beaten with heavy sticks. He was stoned. He was shipwrecked. He was imprisoned. He was adrift at sea.

Paul spent most of his life traveling, and it wasn’t like hopping in a car and driving from one city to another. He almost drowned while crossing rivers. He was in danger from bandits and outlaws. He was betrayed. He was in danger everywhere. He spent sleepless nights, hungry and cold.

He was stressed and anxious about the tiny new churches that he’d started. One time, he had to escape over a city wall by being lowered down in a big basket on a rope. (see 2 Corinthians 11:24-33)

Now Paul was imprisoned, waiting to be tried for a capital crime. His enemies had accused him of sedition – they said he was speaking against the Roman government. Instead of trying to fight the charges in a hostile court, Paul made the dangerous choice of appealing directly to the Emperor.

Nobody knew when the Emperor would get around to hearing Paul’s case. It was a poor chance, but it was better than no chance at all.

In the mean while, Paul was chained hand-to-hand to a Roman soldier, night and day, so that he couldn’t escape. He wasn’t in a jail, but he was under strict house arrest.

Was Paul upset by all this? He doesn’t seem to be. He couldn’t go to church, but some of his fellow Christians were able to visit him. He was able to write letters, including the one we heard today.

What did he say?

He said, “Rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always! Rejoice! Rejoice! Let everyone know how harmless you are, how willing you are to listen, how much you’ve experienced God’s mercy, how ready you are to pray.”

He said, “Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything. Let all your prayers be filled with thanks, and tell everything to God.”

He said, “God’s peace, which is more than anything you can describe, will guard your hearts and minds.”

That’s a really interesting phrase. Paul literally says that God’s peace will stand on guard, watching over you day and night, watching over your heart and mind.

God’s peace is your guardian. God is looking out for you. God isn’t trying to make things worse for you. God is surrounding you and guarding you with a peace that is so deep, and so strong, that words fail to describe it.

God’s peace – the peace that Jesus talked about – is lifting you up, supporting you, holding you safe, all the time.

Then Paul says, “My beloved friends, don’t worry about all the things that can distract you or throw you off balance. Don’t be put off by the dirtiness of the world. Don’t be sucked in by the black holes of fear and despair.”

He said, “Remember things that are true. There are so many of them. Remember people who are decent. Think about justice, not injustice. Remember things that are pure and refreshing. Think about things which are pleasing to God. Think about things which are excellent. Don’t think about failures. Think about things which are praiseworthy.”

“Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me,” Paul says, “and the God of peace will be with you.”

And then, he says, “I have learned to be content.” He goes on to list the things which all of us worry about, and spend so much of our time being afraid of. Having a lot, or having little. Plenty to eat, or going hungry. Rich in material things, or needing material things.

We could all write our own lists of things we want, and things we’re afraid of. But Paul says, “I’ve learned the secret, wherever I am, and whatever is happening: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!”

I mentioned my friends Ron and Peggy to you earlier. If they were preaching today, instead of me, they could talk for hours about what they’ve lived through, and about how God has helped them to survive.

We are survivors, friends! We are living through times which are incredibly difficult. But we are surviving. With God’s help, we are making it.

I want us to remember today, all the times when we have rejoiced, when God has helped us, against the odds.

I want us to think about times when prayer and thanksgiving have turned our attitude completely around.

I want us to think about times when we have felt that peace that Paul is talking about, that sense of peace which stands on guard and protects us and lifts us up.

I want us to think about what things we focus on, which keep us balanced and sane, when the world seems to be falling apart all around us.

And I especially want us to think about Paul’s last words that he said today: “I can do all things through the one who strengthens me!”

In our own lives, what can we say? When are the times we have been lifted up? When are the times we have been strengthened, by a strength which is more than our own?

Not what does Paul say, not what somebody else says, but what can we say? What can we tell our friends, to lift them up? What joy can we share? What indescribable peace have we felt? What are we truly thankful for? How has God led us?

When we think about these things, even though times are hard, we won’t despair. We will have courage, to get up every morning. We’ll have faith, that God will see us through. And we’ll have hope, for a better tomorrow.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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