Philippians 4v2-9: Peace with God here and now - 17th Nov 2013 - Dave Walker

Bible reading: Philippians 4:2-9

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There’s a difference between a big story and a little story within a story. You get that idea, don’t you? When you read a book or watch a film, there’s a big story there, the plot from beginning to end. And then there are all sorts of littler stories; the subplots; the stories within a story. And those little stories are important, and can be pretty memorable. So when you come out of the cinema, you might say “I liked the bit when… That bit when such and such happened, that was the bit that made me cry…” But those little stories within a story only make sense when you fit them into the big story. It’s the big story that gives it all its meaning. You don’t win an Oscar for ‘best bit of film.’ You win an Oscar for best film.

Little stories within a story work and make sense when you see them as part of the big story. That’s true in films, it’s true in life. Today’s reading is full of specific directions, things related to day to day events, the little stories within a story. Things like ‘what to do when there’s a fall out’, ‘what to do when you’re anxious’, ‘what to think about in the day to day.’

It’s important to say this: these things only make sense in the big story. In Philippians Paul has told us about the Big Story. Remember – Jesus the Son of God, freely humbling himself to death for us, then being raised up to the highest place, so that we might be his people, citizens of heaven where he is. That’s the Big Story. When we get onto the specifics of this week, we must have that in mind. We must remember that these specific instructions and situations are little stories within that Big Story.

If we don’t remember that, we’ll end up pretty discouraged. This passage which tells us about joy and peace will leave us feeling miserable and stressed. It’s a wonderful section, isn’t it? The things it talks are brilliant things; who wouldn’t want their lives to be filled with this sort of great stuff? That’s why so many of these verses appear on Christian motivational posters and things like that. But if we just read them as posters on a blank wall and not stories within a story, they won’t help us. We’ll read “agree with one another” and you’ll think “you don’t know what sort of person he is, or she is.” We’ll read “Rejoice in the Lord always” and you’ll think “you don’t know what kind of week I’ve had. I’m finding it pretty hard to rejoice right now.” We’ll read “don’t be anxious about anything” and you’ll think “what? You’re kidding. If you had the same things to worry about that I have, you’d be anxious too.” Or maybe, maybe, you’ll hear these things, and you get motivated, and you’ll decide to have a real try at being joyful and peaceful and gentle. “Come on!” you’ll think, “let’s do this!” But soon enough you’ll run out of steam, you’ll get bogged down as before and you’ll be more discouraged than ever; because you know you’re not supposed to be like that. It feels like the posters on the wall are just mocking your failure.

I want to show you today that it doesn’t have to be this way. I want to show very carefully that if you’re a believer in Jesus, then you have reason to rejoice, and you can be peaceful, even in the middle of what’s going on. I want to do that respectfully, because it’s true, I don’t know all the details. I know that lots of you are wrestling with some pretty big things at the moment; some of those are things that I have little or no personal experience of, and I don’t want to pretend for a second that those things are easy. So I want to be respectful here. This is not a nagging session, a “for goodness sake, pull yourself together” sermon. This is about what God has done having an impact on your day to day life. Seeing his Big Story makes all the difference, even when the little story within the story that you are in at the moment is a bleak one.

The Apostle Paul wants us to keep in mind the Big Story, and so throughout this passage we keep reading those three words ‘in the Lord’. Can you see them. There in verse 1: “stand firm in the Lord.” There is verse 2: “agree with each other in the Lord.” Verse 4: “Rejoice in the Lord.” That whole picture of being in the Lord or in Christ is massive in the Bible. It refers to the fact that we who believe in Jesus are joined on to him. So what’s true of Jesus is true of his people. We are righteous because he is, we are united because he is, we have peace with God because he does, we get to share in God’s everlasting love and glory because he does. What’s true of Jesus is true of his people. We’re in the Lord. That’s the Big Story of our lives, if we’re followers of Jesus. That’s the Big Story. That’s what makes the little stories make sense.

So let’s see how that pans out. First we’re looking at verses 2 and 3, and we’ll call it “Peaceful relationships”.

1. Jesus brings peaceful relationships (v2-3)

So there’s these two women called Euodia and Syntyche, and they’ve fallen out. That’s the little story within the story in verses 2 and 3. But as I read it see if you can notice all the ways that Paul is pointing their minds to the Big Story.

Philippians 4:2-3  I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.  3 Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

Do you see what he does? He doesn’t pull rank and tell them off, does he? He doesn’t threaten them with all the damage they’ll do if they don’t sort it out. No he just gets alongside them as a brother and tells them the Big Story. He tells them to agree with each other in the Lord. They’re in the Lord together. He notes that they’ve contended together in the cause of the gospel. He finishes by remarking on how their names are in the book of life together. They are in Christ together, they are working on the same team for Jesus Christ, they will one day look on the face of Jesus Christ together as they share his glory for ever. That’s the big story. In Christ, working for Christ, future with Christ – all together. Do you see how seeing that Big Story might make a difference to how they approach the little story they’re in at the moment, the story of their falling out with each other?

Arguments happen. People get annoyed with each other. People fall out. It happens; it’s reality. In the family of the church as well as outside it. Sometimes when these things happen in the church they can actually be worse, because we know how serious relationship breakdown is, it can feel to us like matters of eternal importance ride on our disagreements. That can add heat to the fire. We know that unity in the church matters, so it just annoys us all the more that that person has broken unity with us. Christians should know better! Do you know what I mean? But here we have an amazing power for solving those conflicts, don’t we? The gospel of Jesus means that we are one. The Big Story of the gospel unites us at every point. So a little story within the story in which we are separated, can only be a little story, can’t it? Falling outs between Christian brothers and sisters can only ever be temporary.

So that person, that other Christian. The one who just annoys you. The one who was rude to you. You are in Jesus together; workers on the same team; one day you will look upon the face of Jesus together and enjoy his glory forever. The fights won’t matter then, will they? Does that help you now, as you think about being reconciled to that person? Remember the Big Story.

2. Jesus brings peace and joy in difficult circumstances. (v4-7)

This is the bit that really presents a struggle for those who are going through the mill. “Rejoice in the Lord always!” Oh yeah? “Do not be anxious about anything!” How does that work?

Remember these are not just instructions; they are applying the Big Story. Rejoice in the Lord, he says. Not rejoice in your circumstances, rejoice in the Lord. Paul is not saying that when illness or family breakdown or unemployment come along we’re supposed to say “yippee! Just what I always wanted!” That’s our circumstances. Our circumstances will cause us to feel all sorts of things – sometimes we’ll be happy about them, sometimes we’ll be sad about them. If our Christian joy came only from our circumstances, then a verse like this would be utterly impossible. There’s no way we could rejoice always. Not unless we were only pretending.

Do you remember in Luke’s gospel when Jesus sent out his disciples on a mission, and then when they came back they were absolutely buzzing, and they said “master, even the demons submit to us in your name.” We’ve had all this success! Do you remember what Jesus said? “Do not rejoice that the demons submit to you; rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Not the circumstances, the little story within the story of success or tragedy. Take joy instead in your security in Jesus. Remember the Big Story.

It’s a bit like Noah on the ark. So imagine Noah’s having a hard day: the place stinks, the elephant has trodden on his foot, his sons are fighting like cat and dog, not to mention the cats and the dogs, and he’s just feeling worn out by it all. But you could still say “Noah, you have reason to rejoice – rejoice that you’re in the ark; you’re not in the flood.”

You may well be in very difficult circumstances now. As I say, I know that some of you are. But even there if you’re a follower of Jesus it’s still possible to say “I am in the Lord, Jesus has given himself for me, the Spirit lives in me, I have forgiveness, I have the righteousness of Christ, I have an inheritance that cannot fade, I’m a child of the living God, I will meet Jesus one day and live with him for ever. That’s the Big Story, it’s true. It’s true for me.” That is your reason to rejoice. That will always be your reason to rejoice. 

And knowing the reality of that makes it possible to have gentleness as your ambition. Do you see that in verse 5: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” That word gentleness is difficult to translate, but it means something like “humble patient enduring steadfastness.” It’s the opposite of a ‘throwing all the toys out of the pram me-firstness.’ And again it comes out of a deep conviction of who God is and what his Big Story is. If you’re deeply convinced that God is in control, that gives you the freedom to not be in control. To not get all irate when things don’t quite go your way. If you’re convinced of Jesus being near to you, the same Jesus who marked himself out by humbling himself for us, well then you are free to lay aside your own wants.

And that same knowledge that the Lord is near makes a big difference with anxiety and stress. Look closely at verses 6 and 7 again: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” See again, it’s not just self-help, it’s not just motivational posters, it’s not just ‘don’t worry, be happy.’ It’s all about the Big Story. Paul gives two alternative ways of dealing with trouble, doesn’t he? One is being anxious, the other is praying it to God with thanksgiving.

They are two different paths, and they belong to two different Big Stories. Anxiety, worry, stress, that’s the opposite of prayer. Worry is all about taking the trouble and turning in on it. So that it goes round and round and as turn it over again and again in your mind. You go through all the eventualities, you leap to the worst case scenario, you imagine the pain which that might bring ahead of time and you feel the panic rising. You run around like a mad thing trying to do anything you can to prevent that disaster, but there’s always something you can’t fix. That fits with a big story that says that the world is hostile and you’re in it alone. You against the universe.

The way of prayer is a path that sets off in the opposite direction. Prayer fits with a Big Story of a God who knows and who cares and who has stepped in to help through Jesus. That’s a very different Big Story, isn’t it? You can see how the two oppose each other, can’t you? You know it in practice too don’t you, because what is one of the big enemies of time spent in prayer? Worry. Stress. That feeling that says “I can’t afford the time to pray now, I need to do this and that and the other. There’s too much for me to do to bother with God.” Remember the Big Story. Remember what is true. You’re in the Lord. The Lord is near.

And as we call out to God in prayer, thanking him for what is true in Jesus, that’s when God’s peace becomes realized in our experience. That verse about “the peace of God which passes understanding” is another precious one, isn’t it? I say it, or something like it, pretty much every Sunday at the end of one of our services. But did you notice how when you read it like this you see how it’s tied to prayer? John Calvin the great theologian said when we pray “we dig up the treasures that are ours in Christ.” I love that expression. Prayer doesn’t create peace with God, peace with God is a fact if you’re in Christ, Jesus himself has given us peace with God. But when we pray we dig up that treasure so that we can actually enjoy it. God’s peace will guard us, he says. Like a security guard, or a soldier. Again, the assumption is that there will be peril. You don’t need a guard if there’s no danger. But we have a God who is strong enough for us. A God who loves to hear our prayers.

One more thing for today:

3. Jesus brings peace of mind (v8-9)

Look at those verses with me: “Finally, brothers, whatever is 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.  9 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.”

It’s more about peace, isn’t it? It’s more about enjoying the benefits of that Big Story in the day to day. Again, it’s about letting the big truths of the Big Story out there shape what goes on in here.

These verses would be great ones to have stuck on your TV, or as your homepage on your computer, or written on your wallet whenever you go out shopping. Because again there’s such a clear link between what we think and our enjoyment of God’s peace. If you want a troubled mind, fill your mind with rubbish. We know that’s true of our bodies, don’t we? If we put rubbish in we end up feeling rubbish. That’s why Fitness First and David Lloyd and all the rest do so well after Christmas, because so many people have eaten and drunk a load of rubbish and it makes them feel lousy. So they join a gym. The same is true with our minds. If we put rubbish in, we will feel horrible.

And it’s really, really easy to put rubbish in, isn’t it? We just leave the telly on, or click on the mouse or read the papers or listen to the radio and so on and so on. Now the answer is not for us Christians to have a ban on all those things, but we do need to decide what to fill our minds with. Rubbish in makes us feel rubbish. Instead, fill your mind with the Big Story. Fill your mind with the things of God, the truths of the gospel. Let your mind soak in God and his word. Let your mind be filled with good example. Learn from those godly, mature Christians which we’ve already talked about a few times as we’ve read this letter. See what occupies their minds. See how they work, and how they relax. When that is going in, that’s when we feel the presence of the God of peace.

Lots to chew on. Lots of day to day. It’s really desirable stuff, isn’t it? But don’t forget, this isn’t just a list of commands, this is about letting the Big Story, the message of Jesus, fill your living in the midst of all the little stories. I’m going to pray in just a moment. But before we do, let’s just mull on this for a second. Which of these little stories that we’ve talked about, these situations, the disputes, the anxiety, the mind-filling rubbish, which of them is a problem for you at the moment? Ok, which bit of the Big Story, the gospel story, do you need to remember, to help with that? Let’s ask God to give us that clear vision of his Big Story.