Joy in the Valley of the Shadow

Philippians 4:4-7

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

Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.

Be anxious for nothing, 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 minds through Christ Jesus.

I prepared this sermon on Philippians 4:4-7 on Thursday, and I put the finishing touches on it early Friday morning. I then went out to work in my yard, only to return to my computer and see the news of the Connecticut elementary school shooting. I had been planning on addressing the problem of blue Christmases and the loneliness that modern man can feel, then offering up a happy message. The sermon was to be joyful and positive throughout, a nice message for the Holiday season. Now I look like a fool.

We cannot simply smile and pat our neighbors on the shoulder in the face of 26 lost lives, 20 dead children. “There, there,” will not do, and an easy message of internal and invisible salvation too often leaves us callous and empty. Shouldn’t I change the message then?

But this thought highlights precisely the problem which we, which all Christians face. If the message of comfort and joy is toothless and impotent when real tragedy strikes, then it is really worthless all of the time. If it is no good in the midst of outright evil, what exactly is it good for? Are we Lenin’s “useful idiots,” after all, addicted to the opiate of the masses?

What has changed since Friday? Do we now have a sin problem that we previously lacked? No. Genesis chapters three and four, written thousands of years ago, teach us that alienation from God leads to violence against mankind; murder and hatred have been with us since the Fall. Friday just turned the abstract into the concrete. Life got real.

And so if I was prepared to preach on the Christian’s joy in a fallen and sin-ravaged world before the news of Sandy Hook, I need to be prepare to preach on it afterward. In fact, the message is needed all the more. The Apostle Paul says to rejoice always in the Lord. Is this still possible?

 

Rejoice in the Lord, always

The first thing to note about Philippians 4:4 is that the Apostle gives an imperative. Paul’s instruction to rejoice is a command. If it is a command, then it is capable of being obeyed, and if it is a command, then not obeying it is a sin. This means that many of us may need to repent of our lack of joy, particularly in those times of our life which are not so dark as today. We should repent of taking life for granted and not enjoying what God has given us.

And we must have joy in times of need. As I said, this sermon was written before the news of the shooting on Friday, and I thought about changing it. But, in fact, this is precisely the challenge– how can we have joy when confronted with evil, sorrow, and loss? The answer comes a few verses later in our same chapter, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:13 is a favorite verse of many, but it is rarely understood. It is not about winning personal glory and achievement, pushing yourself to the limits and then winning victory through dedication and hard work. No, it is about having contentment and joy through trials and tribulations. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” is about today.

How are we do this? What spiritual disciplines should we pursue in order to achieve this otherwise impossible joy?

 

Gentleness

We must be gentle. “Let your gentleness be known to all men” (vs. 5) Gentleness is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:23). It is a qualification for eldership in the church (1 Tim. 3:3). We might point out that Jesus Christ was gentle, and that when he tells us to come “learn from him” and to “find rest for our souls,” he mentions his gentility and lowliness of heart. “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:29) Do you wish to be gentle? Learn from Jesus!

Gentleness comes from being lowly in heart. If you are not gentle, then it is very likely that you have a haughty heart. You probably have a false view of yourself and a false view of God. Gentle people know that God doesn’t owe them anything. They are grateful for what they have, and they are lowly in heart. In fact, a gentle spirit is gentle because it is joyful. Full of the knowledge of God’s goodness and God’s sovereignty, it can let go of all anxiety. Hard spirits and haughty hearts, on the other hand, are regularly angry, uptight, harsh, and anxious. They want to fix the world themselves, but a gentle lowly heart knows that vengeance is the Lord’s, and He is at hand.

 

Anxiety

This leads us directly to the Apostle Paul’s next point. “Be anxious for nothing” (vs. 6). This is another one of those impossible commands. Who can rid themselves of anxiety? But it isn’t only Paul that we have to reckon with. Jesus himself left us with this teaching:

Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? (Matt. 6:25)

But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matt. 6:33-34)

Again, we might ask how a person could ever obey such a command. It certainly sounds pious, but we all know that “in real life,” anxiety is everywhere. Who can escape it? Jesus gives us some help. In Luke’s gospel he connects this point to our loves and where we locate our values. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). Treasure the kingdom of God, and value God’s sovereignty. Only then will you be free from worry.

And again, the Apostle Paul gives us some means of assistance here. He says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God” (vs. 6). You can control anxiety by prayer. Give your worries to God. Ask Him to heal you. Ask Him to protect you. And believe. Believe that He will answer your prayers.

Paul also says that this comes by thanksgiving. This is essential to maintaining a low and gentle heart, to having joy in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Give thanks for all of the blessings God has given you. And as strange as it sounds, give thanks for the trials.

This piece of advice needs to be handled with care. Let us never forget that there is a time to weep, a time to mourn (Eccl. 3:4). We are to comfort the grieving by mourning with them (Rom. 12:15). Yet we must also remember that other command, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks” (1 Tim 5:16-18). How can we give thanks during times of tribulation? We can because we know that they too have a purpose. Times of tribulation are also things in which we can glory:

And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom. 5:3-5)

 

The Peace of God

Finally we come to the real answer to all of this. The reason that we can have joy, the reason we can give up our anxiety, and the reason that we can glory in tribulations is that it is not us, but Christ who works in us. Indeed, it is the peace of God which gives us this ability, “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard [our] hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (vs. 7).

The peace of God surpasses all understanding. It won’t make sense, and it will look like foolishness, just like the gospel. The man at peace with God is a wonder to the world. The peace of God will guard your heart. It will do the work of restoring your emotions and healing your wounds. The peace of God will guard your mind. It will answer your questions, insofar as they can be answered, and it will put your mind at rest. And then, with your heart and mind guarded by the peace of God, then you can have joy.

Many have remarked how Friday’s tragedy comes so close to Christmas and how that darkens the season. But, as sad as it is, when we look to the Bible we see that this is actually not inappropriate. The coming of the messiah was the coming of light into darkness. Christ’s birth was followed by Herod’s murder of innocents, and all mankind was dying under the curse of sin on Christmas morning.  Rachel wept for her children, for they were no more.

Many of our Christmas carols have captured this setting. Darkness, Satan, thorns, and the curse– these are essential elements of the Christmas story, for it is these things which Christ came to conquer. “This little babe, so few days old, is come to rifle Satan’s fold; All Hell doth at his presence quake, though he himself for cold do shake; for in this weak, unarmed wise, the gates of Hell he will surprise.” “God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay; remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day, to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” Tell me, do you really believe this or is this just some song you sing to yourselves and pretend it’s all ok? Do you really believe that “He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse as found,” so that sins and sorrows will case to grow and thorns will no longer infest the ground? Do you mean these words? Then have joy at all times, especially in the valley, in the shadow of death, and in the darkness. Rejoice in the Lord, always. Again, I say rejoice. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

Let us pray.

 O God, who makest us glad by the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ; Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honor and glory, world without end.

Amen.

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