Preaching Date: August 5, 2018
Key Sentence: Anxiety can supernaturally become peace when we lift our eyes.
I. Look up with joy in the Lord (Philippians 4:4)
II. Look around with gentleness toward others (Philippians 4:5)
III. Look up with petition toward God (Philippians 4:6)
IV. Look around with thanksgiving for what he has given (Philippians 4:6)
V. Look within to find inexplicable peace (Philippians 4:7)
I have a simple mental image of anxiety, fear and concern. It’s a dark hurricane cloud spinning in my chest. Like a hurricane it seems impossible to take your eyes off it. I know that if there’s a hurricane, I get entirely caught up in trying to figure the monster out. If you scroll back on the church website, or Facebook page far enough you’ll find a series of posts on Harvey. For days I played meteorologist, getting some things right and some wrong. On August 24th, Thursday of that week, I said “The current National Weather Service forecast has Harvey stuck near the coast for a while, then moving up toward Houston late Saturday, either just inland or just offshore. Either way, but particularly if the center of the tropical system is offshore, this could be a major, major rain event for Houston. The NWS forecast discussion mentions 25 inches of rain, and my favorite non-panicky local forecaster is saying 20.”
On Friday I got it right. “I’ve been going through the updates this morning and the data is only a little more organized than yesterday. Two things stand out: (1) Harvey’s track to landfall is fairly clear, and the impact on our area should be tolerable. (2) Harvey’s track after landfall is very likely to bring us a ton of rain over three or four days.” On Saturday, after Harvey came ashore, I got it wrong: “A very serious flooding situation is coming. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the worst of this will not kick in until Sunday afternoon or Monday. So there is still a possibility of church on Sunday.”
By 1:00 a.m. Sunday morning I realized how wrong I was: “Well, that was fast. It’s only a little over three hours since I went to sleep, and now many of us are in a huge mess. Please pray for those whose homes are flooding as we speak.” “The rain band that was forming up this afternoon has landed with a vengeance, passing very slowly over Houston and stalling just east. That’s us.” As Eric Berger said “the rain bands created “a super-mega-rainball of doom that stretched across Houston from the Woodlands and Tomball down to Texas City. As of 12:45am on Sunday, it shows no signs of abating.”
That’s how anxiety is. A super mega rainball of doom that spins in your chest, shows no signs of abating, and you can’t take your eyes off it. But if we will lift our eyes, anxiety can supernaturally become peace. If we can rejoice, if we can be gracious, if we can be thankful, anxiety can supernaturally become peace.
Last week we talked about anger and grieving, crying to God in that moment of anger and choosing to be sad rather than mad. I pictured sadness at one point as an emptiness in my chest, but a white emptiness, pure and untroubled.
I also mentioned the problem of depression, a darkness which takes over that empty space. This week’s topic, anxiety, is also a darkness, but a darkness spun up and roiled by concerns and fears. But just as dependence on God was the right response to the temptation to anger and the danger of depression, so also it is the right answer to anxiety. This week, in Philippians 4:4-7 we’ll see that anxiety can become peace if we lift our eyes from the inward struggle and focus upward and outward. Dependence on God leads us to joy and peace.
Let’s read the text. Philippians 4:4-7 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
What is anxiety? One dictionary says “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Another says “apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill.” Anxiety is the fear that something bad is going to happen. It’s worry, concern and fear that something will go wrong.
Most of us have potential anxieties going on in our lives at any moment. After that introduction you may be anxious about a hurricane this year. It could happen. But there are many anxieties. You might be anxious today about a medical test you just had, that you don’t know the outcome or what it might mean. Or you could be anxious today for someone in your family, or a close friend. “I’m worried about what’s going to happen to [blank].” I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but I’m sure most everybody here could put a name in the blank. We live in an uncertain world, where bad things can happen to people. We also get anxious about people doing something, if you’ll excuse my language, stupid. Or you may be worried you yourself are going to do something. You’ve given in before and you fear you’ll do it again.
There are other kinds of anxiety. You may just be waiting for an outcome. You’ve taken a test or submitted an application or presented the evidence, and now you’re anxious because you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, for you or for other loved ones involved. What will the insurance company, or the doctor or the bank or the professor or the parent or the girl you’re interested in say?
Finally, it’s easy to be anxious about the state of the world. We live in a fallen world. Whether it’s politics, natural disasters, injustice, tyranny or violence, there are lots of tragic things happening around us. It’s easy to get consume with anxiety over what’s going to happen next and where it’s all going.
When Paul gets to his actual mention of anxiety in verse 6 he doesn’t pick out one of thing to focus on. Even the context doesn’t tell us what particular anxieties the people of Philippi had. Paul says don’t be anxious about anything. The implication is that none of the anxieties or fears you walked in with this morning is exempt. There are no fears too great for the scope of the promise he will make in verse 6, and there are no anxieties that cannot be addressed by the redirection of the eyes of our hearts upward and outward.
The first and most powerful of these changes of focus is to look to the Lord and to rejoice in him. It’s given as a command, verse 4: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Paul uses the words ‘rejoice’ and ‘joy’ 13 times in this letter, mostly about his own attitude despite the fact that he’s writing from prison with no certainty of release. This is the second or third time he gives it as a command. Think about that for a minute. You and I are commanded to rejoice. This is something we’re expected to obey. It’s not a suggestion, it’s not a good idea or a recommendation. It’s not optional. It’s not dependent on circumstances. It’s a command. Therefore it must be something more associated with the will than with the emotions. Even if it is a feeling, joy, it’s apparently something God can tell us to do. Rejoice. C’mon. Rejoice.
This might seem like nonsense if we didn’t notice that both times the command is given in this letter we are told to rejoice “in the Lord.” That makes a huge difference. We may not feel able to rejoice in our circumstances, in the tragedies of a fallen world or in the sin of our own hearts or the people around us. Last week I said that for me choosing sadness over anger was a really helpful discipline. But now I’m saying choose joy, and I don’t think that’s a contradiction. In fact I think it’s necessary while being sad about sin to choose joy in the Lord. Otherwise my sadness walks that path toward depression.
But what does “In the Lord,” mean? This phrase “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” “in Him,” is very common in the New Testament. In fact there are over 130 places where this kind of phrase is used, and it is worth your time to read all of them. I’ve preached whole sermons on this, but I’ve tried to summarize by saying that being in Jesus is like a plant being in the sunshine, the source of light and life. The first chapter of John says that “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” So to be in him is to find light and life, just as a plant is in the sunshine and is drawn up to the sunshine and takes life from the light. As the plant seems to rejoice in the sunlight, so we truly rejoice in the light of our Savior. We rejoice to be in him. We rejoice in the Lord.
But how do we get to be “in him”? First we recognize that we are not in him because of sin. Romans 3:23 says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We live in a fallen world where hurting and being hurt are the norm and sinful selfishness often rules us. We’re all sinners. But God loves us and offers us grace. Paul says we are justified or made right with God freely, by his grace.
How does this happen? Through the redemption that came in Christ Jesus. In him we are bought back from sin, rescued from our own sinful desires and choices. God the Son chose to be the object of the just punishment of sin. Jesus became a sacrifice for our sins. He paid the price. He died and rose victorious over sin and now by faith we are in Him. God looks at us and no longer sees us, he sees Jesus the victorious redeemer, sinless and perfect, and because we are in him we are sinlessly perfect in God’s sight. We receive this, Paul says “through faith in his blood.” Faith is trusting, believing in him and what he’s done. There is no other way. No good works can erase or compensate for our sins. There is no system, no rules that can save. “It is by grace you are saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” Now, Paul says “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come.” He says “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”
Friends, if that’s what it means to be “in the Lord,” it makes perfect sense no matter what our other anxieties may be, to rejoice in the Lord. Just as we rejoiced in the rescue of the thirteen boys in that cave a few weeks ago, we rejoice in our own rescue and the rescue of others. We rejoice in the one who saved us. We rejoice in the light and life that is in him just as a plant rejoices in the sunshine.
This is crucial as we struggle with anxiety. Rather than focusing on anxious thoughts and the hurricane whirl of our ‘what ifs,’ we lift our eyes, rejoice in the risen Savior. Hebrews 12 says “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” The first response is to look up with joy to the Lord.
The second discipline is to look around with gentleness toward others. Philippians 4:5 in the English Standard Version says “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.” Other versions say “Let your gentleness be evident to all,” or “Let your graciousness be known to everyone.” The Greek word behind reasonableness, gentleness and graciousness is epieikes, and it has a range of meaning that makes it had to translate into English.
It’s used of Jesus in 2nd Corinthians 10:1 and is combined with ‘humility.’ It’s often used of leaders, whether the clemency of the Roman king Felix who tried Paul or the gentleness of the elders of a church in 1st Timothy. I think the idea here is that those who rejoice in the Lord, who anticipate his soon return, can look around even in the midst of anxiety, and see in those around us God’s grace toward us, and thus engage them gently and graciously.
We’ve all known people who have done this, even in the midst of their own troubles. I could name people here who are like that, but it would embarrass them. Some of you remember Caroline Casselberry who walked in the anxiety of her husband David’s brain tumor for a number of years before the Lord called him home. In those years she, and he as well, displayed an ongoing care and concern for the needs of others, even people who came to visit in the hospital. That’s what Paul is talking about, taking your eyes off yourself and seeing the needs of others. The cool part is that this contributes to your own peace. It’s good to get our eyes off our concerns and onto the needs and lives of others.
So we look up and rejoice in the Lord, we look around with graciousness toward others. These are practices that oppose anxiety. But verse 6 addresses anxiety directly and is the heart of this passage. It tells us to look away from ourselves and to look up, again, with supplication toward God. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Do not be anxious. Notice that’s also a command. It’s not easy to rejoice or to not be anxious on command. Paul raises the bar even further by saying “Do not be anxious about anything.” No thing. No health issue, no family issue, no sin issue, no legal issue, no financial issue. Not anything is worthy of your anxiety. Every hurricane that rises in your chest is to be dealt with by pulling it out and handing it over to God.
Just as the command to rejoice came with an ‘in the Lord” that made it possible, this command comes with “by prayer and supplication” which makes it possible. “Let your requests be made known to God.” This is far simpler than we want it to be. We’d like some complicated formula for resolving anxieties, along with some expert to walk us through it, preferably with step-by-step YouTube videos. Paul doesn’t give any of that. He says “look up to God in your need and cry out.” He makes explicit here what I said last week, what I’ve thought often, that much of the Christian life is lived by conversation with God. Our needs are addressed by relational prayers. So instead of stewing anxiously over your problems let them be made known to God, talk to God about them, bring them to God through prayer with supplication, that is crying out to Him. “Oh Lord, help.” “O Lord, please take this anxiety, take this worry, work out the circumstance according to your will and allow me to trust in you.”
The mental image I use for this, though it’s not explicit here, is taking your burden to the foot of the cross and laying it down. I'm pretty sure I heard that phrase back when I first became a Christian, in the song David sang for the offertory. “Lay your burdens down.” “Take your burdens to the foot of the cross and lay them down.” That image was reinforced when the wonderful, illustrated “Dangerous Journey” version of Pilgrim’s Progress came out in the 80s. Christian, the main character, is weighed down by a huge burden, his sin, which he cannot put down. But when he comes to the foot of the cross, his burden falls off his back and rolls into the empty tomb, and he leaps for joy. It’s an image of salvation but it's also the way we deal with any burden, any anxiety, any concern. We take it to the foot of the cross by prayer and crying out, and we lay it down, which is also a way of looking up. You take your eyes off the anxiety and put them on Jesus dying on the cross not only to save you from sin but to free you from the anxiety of this fallen world.
There’s also a looking around step in this verse. you not only take your eyes off your anxieties to look up, but also take your eyes off your anxieties to look around and give thanks for what God has already provided. Those two words, with thanksgiving, are wonderful. No matter how difficult our circumstances or consuming our anxieties, it’s always possible to look around and give thanks.
As I thought about the first days of the hurricane, I saw how this had been true. In the worst moments on Sunday we were able to give thanks that at least in our circle there was no loss of life, nor even serious injury. In the worst moments on Monday, it was possible for me to sit in my chair and know with absolute certainty that Crisis Response would show up as soon as humanly possible. When it became clear that the water had stopped rising, even though we knew that many of us and thousands of others were flooded, it was possible to give thanks that the worst was over. As we began to gut and clean and take care of houses , it was possible to give thanks that even with the loss of possessions, families and communities and friends and strangers had come together to do good to one another. In all things, Paul says elsewhere, give thanks. Whether the circumstance causing your anxiety is a flood, a financial crisis, a family issue or a health issue, it is always possible to look around and give thanks.
So we bring our anxieties to him by prayer, by crying out, and with thanksgiving. Verse 7 is God’s promise, and it’s exactly the promise we really wanted. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is not a promise to fix it, to make all your problems go away. God has never promised that, and don’t let anybody fool you into thinking he has. You will be disappointed. But this is a promise of what you really want when you are anxious. You want peace.
And this is a promise of a miracle, a peace from God that surpasses human understanding. Okay psychologist, okay sociologist, okay neurologist, try to explain this. Why is this person peaceful in the midst of these circumstances. “I don’t know. It’s a miracle.” Just as we sometimes God work in medical circumstances in ways that make the doctors say “we have no explanation,” so also God work’s to relieve our anxiety in ways that are beyond explanation.
He will give us peace and he will guard our hearts and our minds. Our feelings, our hearts, our emotions will not go astray into anger or even plummet into depression. Our minds will not whirl with the hurricane. He will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Notice that it ends where it began ‘in Christ Jesus.’ We begin with rejoicing in the Lord, we end with peace and safety in Christ Jesus. This is the promise. Look up and rejoice in the Lord. Look with grace at those around you. Look up and cry out, telling God your anxieties and needs. Look around and do it with thanksgiving. And the peace of God will be yours, a supernatural miraculous peace. This is a promise.
I had that experience in Harvey. It was August 29th, the Tuesday. The rain finally stopped on Wednesday, but at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning I didn’t know that, and I wrote on my Facebook wall “All through the night I’ve been seeing the same refrain on our Facebook feeds: “It’s still raining.” Lots of weariness, cumulative stress and frayed faith bound up in those words. Then I quoted from Psalm 130 as my 4;00 a.m. prayer: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord 2O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” Then I posted a link to the Casting Crowns song that had been running through my head all morning.
“I was sure by now God, You would have reached down And wiped our tears away Stepped in and saved the day But once again, I say "Amen", and it's still raining... As the thunder rolls I barely hear your whisper through the rain, “I'm with you.” And as your mercy falls I raise my hands and praise the God who gives and takes away. And I'll praise you in this storm, and I will lift my hands, for you are who you are, no matter where I am. And every tear I've cried, you hold in your hand. You never left my side, and though my heart is torn, I will praise you in this storm.”