Well I don’t know if you’ve spotted this, but it seems that every decent preacher has got a great story about how they have got into some desperate trouble in the sea. Where they’ve gone out surfing or swimming or scuba-diving and they’ve had a great time splashing and bobbing around in the water - until they suddenly realise that the current has dragged them out to sea or perilously close to the jagged imposing rocks at the end of the bay, so that their life hangs quite literally in the balance!
I was racking my brains for some such occurrence in my own life this week - and I remembered a time when we went surfing on our summer week away with the youth. There were only 8 surfboards so I let the young people have use of them and hopped onto a body board instead as I’m so sacrificial and servant hearted – ok it was actually because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. But whatever our mode of transport we had a whale of a time charging out into the surf and trying to catch the waves, until after about half an hour or so we realised that we had drifted 20 yards down the beach and were now a lot closer to the rocks than we’d like to be. So... we got out and went back to the middle of the beach again.
Now that is the lamest “Trouble in the Sea” story you will ever hear, is it not? It’s got nothing on the old “I got sucked out to sea and couldn’t swim back for the life of me” story. Or the “I was rescued from within feet of having my brains dashed against the rocks” story. Or even the Bethany Hamilton story Soul Surfer - Where this young girl is out surfing and gets her arm ripped off by a shark, yet still manages to get back to the shore, make it to the hospital before her blood runs out and recovers to inspire thousands through her tale of faith triumphing in the face of extreme odds. If you haven’t got your summer reads sorted out then I can really recommend this one.
But even though my story is lacking when it comes to drama, it is still a clear visual aid to one of the great dangers of the Christian life. And that is the danger of Spiritual drift. As falling away from faith isn’t always spectacular. It can happen so easily that we can hardly notice it! We can be on fire for the Lord early on in our Christian lives, but then very gradually we get busy with other things and our priorities change, so that when we finally look up we find that we have drifted so far from Jesus Christ that we can barely see him anymore – Dragged away on the currents of the world’s perspectives and concerns.
Well this passage that we’re going to look at tonight in Philippians 4 is all about avoiding spiritual drift. Can you see that in chapter 4 verse 1:
“Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and I long for, my joy and my crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!”
The word used here for “stand firm” is the same as that of a soldier standing firm in battle with the enemy surging down upon him. And Paul says: “Stand firm! Against the drift.” The commentator Lightfoot says this about this passage:
“In the same way the believers are condemned to fight for their lives. Against them are the arrayed ranks of worldliness and sin. Only unflinching courage and steady togetherness can win the victory against such odds.”
So Paul cries out to these believers who he has brought to the Lord, and nurtured in their growth, and now as “dear friends”, as “brothers”, as his “joy and crown” – He warns them not to drift away.
So this sermon maybe for you tonight – as you are gently drifting on the tide and in danger of being dragged steadily, if unspectacularly away from Christ. But it could also be for you if you are fighting to encourage and equip others in the faith and are struggling to know how - As the Apostle Paul gives us 3 commands which we need to heed or encourage others with – in order to “stand firm in the Lord”.
Firstly, Agree With Each Other In The Lord (v.2-3)
“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. 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.”
You know the word “plead” here literally means “begging on his knees”. So the apostle Paul who is in prison hundreds of miles away from Philippi is begging these women –to be reconciled to one another.
And the first thing that these 2 women teach us is that the Christian life is not problem free. They teach us that there is dispute and disunity lurking in our hearts. So you may think that you are a wonderfully loyal church member - And you may well be, but that does not mean that dispute and disunity cannot lurk in your heart. We simply do not wake up every morning of the Christian life with an angelic disposition.
No, despite the fact that these 2 women have clearly been converted, as verse 3 says their “…names are in the book of life.” And they have also been fine Christian workers, as Paul says they have “contended at my side” – working together to proclaim the gospel. Yet despite both those facts – They are at each other’s throats!
Now some have rather cruelly nicknamed these 2 women “Odious” and “So-Touchy” – But you wouldn’t find me lowering myself to such a cheap gag as that. Especially as we don’t know what their actually disagreement is here. It can’t have been a major doctrinal issue otherwise Paul would have just set them straight. “Euodia is right.” or “Syntyche is spot on”. And it would be job done.
But even though we can’t be sure of what the issue is, there is one thing we can be certain of: The feelings of both these women had been terribly hurt. And ultimately their hurt feelings were more important to them than gospel unity. They could not place their hurts on one side and be reconciled – so that they could once more contend together for the gospel.
Now I don’t want to knock feelings for a minute. We all have feelings and they are a legitimate human emotion. But often we have to choose - we have to choose whether we are going to give our hurt feelings authority or whether we are going to allow Jesus Christ and following him to have authority. We have to choose! Hurt feelings or following Christ.
Which is why Paul pleads with these 2 women to “…agree in the Lord.” Now that is exactly the same wording as Paul uses in chapter 2 of this letter – where he says in verse 5:
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus”.
As he’s essentially saying to them here “In this dispute, in this tension, when you’re so furious, when you’re so mad with each other that I’ve heard about it hundreds of miles away in prison – Have the same mind as Jesus Christ. You must think like him.”
And how does Jesus think? Well that’s chapter 2 verse 6 where Paul says of Jesus:
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!”
So Jesus Christ does not snatch at what’s rightfully his. “Look how she treated me! You’ll never guess what he did to me!” No! Instead in a staggering act of self-giving he gets down off his throne and heads towards the cross. He humbles himself and becomes obedient to a slaves death, to a criminals death.
So, what will you do to be reconciled in your relationships? “You must think like Christ thinks” says Paul. “You must go the way of the cross. You must humble yourself and make the first move as Jesus did and reach out.”
I received an e-mail a couple of weeks ago that made me so angry that I wanted to slam my laptop shut. It was highly critical of something I had done - unfairly so in my opinion. But even if the criticism was justified, there were no positive suggestions made as to how I should fix things. The whole tone of it was arrogant and condescending and it made me mad. By the way - you needn’t worry, it wasn’t from anyone here. That would be really awkward! But how do you handle it when you receive a message like that?
Well you can’t cope with stuff like that unless you think with the attitude of Christ. The world doesn’t do that. The world we live in files it! You offend me - I file it! I offend you - you file it! It’s written down in here - I’ll remember that! The Christian community led by Jesus Christ does not do that though. We don’t give the devil a foothold with our anger like that. Or at least we shouldn’t. Instead as Jesus went as low as he could possibly go to the cross - We are to swallow our pride and refused to stand on our dignity.
Now, who do you need to forgive? Or ask forgiveness from? Is there a relationship, a rivalry, a tension - perhaps there’s a stony silence that has gone on for years, maybe even decades?
Well, I don’t know if you’re like me, but I hate apologising. I suspect many here are like that too. When it comes to saying sorry we suffer from BSE - We Blame Someone Else, don’t we? And there are many who just will not apologise. And will not forgive. Particularly if we’re British we like to shut the door on these things and pretend they’re not there. But Paul says: “This must happen!” If we are to be an authentic Christ follower we must go the way of our master.
We must go the way of the cross and Agree With Each Other In The Lord. And if we can’t do that, then you know what? We’re going to drift away. Because our heart will grow hard.
Secondly, Rejoice in the Lord Always (v.4-5)
There it is in verse 4 isn’t it?
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
Now here’s a quick quiz question for you: Do you know the difference between human happiness and Christian joy? This is so important - Because many Christians have been rendered inoperative by the devil because they don’t understand the difference, and give up when the Christian life does not deliver human happiness.
So what is human happiness? Well if in doubt what do you do? You google it! So I googled “What is happiness?” and my favourite answer was the definition of happiness from the Charlie Brown cartoons: “Happiness is a warm puppy”. That’s a great picture isn’t it? As a sweet little puppy gambols into the room and starts snuggling into you – that’s happiness! Unless of course you get asthma from dogs – But apart from that, that’s happiness! But what was interesting about everything google came up with, whether it was puppies, or money, exotic holidays, a romantic relationship, seeing the sunshine for more than 2 days a year, or simply having a good laugh with friends - The key to happiness according to the internet is that it is externally stimulated. It all depends on getting my environment and my surroundings right.
And so the question for the Christian is: Do you secretly long to live the life of the shiny happy people? You know the people in the adverts - Where the message is that because they bought certain products they are healthy, fit, good looking, stylishly dressed, wealthy, organised, happily married, with contentedly obediently yet endearingly mischievous children, living in a beautiful, tidy, spacious house with a 5 acre garden, a tree house and a stream. Those are the people of the adverts aren’t they? And their happiness depends on external circumstances. They are never content with life unless they get the shiny happy things.
But in point of fact they aren’t even happy then. Because how long does that happiness last when reality hits? When your kids get older and stop walking all over your feet and start walking all over your heart? Or the feeling of romance dies and the relationship just isn’t working out? And the money runs out and you just don’t know how you’re going to pay the bills? What happens when we have to live with unrelenting demands? Or failing health? Or loneliness? Or whatever the burdens of your heart are this evening. What happens when the external stimuli to happiness fail?
Well for the Christian they can still find joy. Because Christian joy is not externally, but internally stimulated. As it all depends on having a relationship with somebody. Can you see that there in verse 4? You have to “rejoice in the Lord”. We can rejoice whatever the circumstances, because our relationship with Christ is our anchor.
Which may seem like a holy platitude to you, but look what makes it real in verse 5. What is central to this relationship is the fact that:
“The Lord is near”.
And it’s clear that Paul is undoubtedly making 2 points here. He is undoubtedly talking about the second coming of Christ and he’s undoubtedly talking about the presence of Jesus in our lives through the Holy Spirit now. You see the Christian lives his or her life between these 2 reference points. The 1st coming of Jesus culminating in the cross and the 2nd when Christ returns.
And I live now between those 2 anchor points. They are what hold me. The cross of Christ and the 2nd coming of Christ. They reassure me that I can be with Christ now, and I’m going home to be with him later – So my life is utterly secure in Christ. And therefore I really can, not worry and rejoice. Even be happy, because Paul says that the things that happen to me in this brief life are 2 Corinthians 4 verse 15 – just “light and momentary troubles”. In fact the word that Paul uses about the struggles that we are going through is “fluff”. He literally says: “In the light of Christ’s death for me, in the light of his second coming, the troubles that I have at the moment - imprisonment, beatings, hardship, execution - it’s just light and momentary troubles - It’s just fluff! For to me, (Philippians 1:21) –
“To live is Christ and to die is gain.”
You see because Paul knows that life is going somewhere, that there’s a greater prize at the end, and that it’s better to be there than here - He’s ambivalent about the stuff of this world. “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” He says “I don’t know which is better, I guess it’s better to stay and teach the gospel to you, but I’d love to go and be with Christ. And our present troubles? Just fluff!”
That’s how he sees it. So he says to the Philippian church: “You too can rejoice!” Because Jesus is with you and he’s coming back to take you home – and nothing is of greater worth than that.
I don’t know if you’ve ever read this book “In God’s Underground” by Richard Wurmbrand. But it tells the story of his 14 years in a communist jail where his guards were told when he went in that he was in there for child sacrifice. Imagine what that little piece of info did for the way he was treated inside! Well Wurmbrand writes in that book of how it was possible to rejoice in the most horrific present circumstances. So he writes of an old orthodox priest called Father Surioanu. And he had this to say of him:
“Father Surioanu had more reason to mourn than any of us, tragedy had struck his whole family. One of his daughters, a cripple had been deprived of her husband who was in prison with us. Another daughter and her husband had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for their faith. One of his sons had died in prison. A second son had turned against him. And yet Father Surioanu, a simple self-educated man spent his day encouraging and cheering others. He greeted people never with ‘Good morning’, but always with the Biblical ‘Rejoice!’ I asked him, ‘How can you rejoice always? You have had so much misfortune. Why?’ ‘It is a sin not to do so,’ he said. ‘There is always good reason to rejoice. There is a God in heaven and in the heart. Look now the sun is shining. Every day you do not rejoice is a day lost my son, you’ll never have that day again.”
I’m not expecting you to take this from me. I’ve had a fairly easy life. But take it from Father Surioanu. You see this man had learned a proper perspective. He knew the truth of these wonderful words - “The Lord is near” - AND so he could rejoice.
Thirdly, Present Your Requests To God (v.6-7)
As Paul knows that the tyranny of circumstance can still keep us awake at night even if we know “the Lord is near”. We can as verse 6 says “... be anxious about anything”! The human heart and mind can fill with anxiety. So that when our head hit the pillow we can toss and turn trying to get to sleep as the anxieties of the day gnaw away at our mind. I wonder what keeps you awake at night?
And what do you do about it more to the point? Do you just smile sweetly into the mirror in the morning and sing Bobby McFerrin’s classic 90s hit: “Don’t worry, be happy?” Do you remember that one? Or maybe you go for the stoically British approach and tell yourself to: “Just pull yourself together? Stiff upper lip and all that old boy!” Then again, maybe you sign up for a 7 part course on not worrying called “Anxiety Explored”? For what are we to do? Verse 6:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
Paul insists here that the antidote to anxiety is constant prayer. So of course we’ll be knocked by something. Something will happen and we’ll be sent reeling by it. But then as we recover our equilibrium we’ll need to make a choice. Will we fret and worry and wear ourselves out with stress? Or will we take it to the Lord in prayer and trust him with it?
That’s what the Apostle Paul says here. He says: “Will you please make the choice to pray. To remember who God is. To remember what he’s done in the past. To give thanks for his character. His goodness. His righteousness. To remember that he is your anchor point. Where you have come from and where you are going.”
And as we do that - well, what will happen? This is amazing! Have a look at the promise in verse 7 and hold onto your seats! What’s the promise? It’s the promise that God will do something. It doesn’t say that God will take away the bad circumstances, but that God will put his peace into your heart
“... and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
So as we bring our worries to God, he gives us peace in exchange. Isn’t that amazing? I bring my worries to him and in exchange he gives me his peace. And the word “peace” here has a sense of oneness with God. As this is a supernatural experience. We turn to God in prayer and we will find something that we can’t find anywhere else. Don Carson has written about this verse:
“I have yet to meet a chronic worrier who enjoyed an excellent prayer life.”
That’s very striking isn’t it? You see, either worry drives out prayer, or prayer drives out worry. So, if you find yourself lying in bed imagining the worst-case scenarios for your life, get up and pray. Pour out your worries to the Lord. And let your heart be garrisoned by a supernatural peace.
So how are you going with all this? There’s a lot there, isn’t there? So, let’s just take a moment now to think things through. Maybe there’s one thing from this sermon that you need to act upon. Why not talk to the Lord and ask for His help to act upon His word.
“Father God we ask that you would help us to have the mind of Christ. Give us his extraordinary humility as we deal with each other. And Father God we ask that in difficult circumstances you would give us your joy and peace. Please help us not to drift from you. To heed these words and to stay close to you. For we love you so much for what you’ve done for us. Amen.”