Praying with Joy

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Living God, come speak today. Bind our hearts to your Word and will. Shape our every word and way. Living God, come speak today. Amen.

I was appraised of the fact that on my visit to Jesmond I would be starting a series in the letter to the Philippians, from which we had a passage read a little bit earlier in this service: Philippians 1:1-11.

You can’t go far into Philippians without noticing a pervasive fragrance. There’s something very special about it, a note of gladness, a joy, rejoicing. Things that are slightly alien to Brits like most of us. We might tone that sort of tone down to ‘enjoyment’; we don’t mind enjoying things. And indeed the Apostle Paul, in his contacts with the church in Philippi, enjoyed those contacts; he was glad to have them. He couldn’t visit them very often; he may have only visited them once. But he at least kept in touch in sort of way. But there’s more than mere enjoyment in this connection that he had, the relationship between himself and his converts in the town of Philippi. He actually says ‘I rejoiced in it’. And in just 4 chapters here in Philippians we find words of that kind – gladness words, joy and rejoicing words – 16 times over. That’s what I mean by pervasive.

We’ve got verses 1-11 of the first chapter, by way of introduction, and as I take you through it in 4 short sections, out of the 11 verses, I want you to notice the things that the Apostle Paul is doing joyfully.

The first is there is THANKING.
He is joyfully thanking God in vv3-5:

3I thank my God every time I remember you. 4In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.

It is all about being thankful to God. He thanks them, no doubt, for keeping in touch. He would have thanked them at the time for the good times he had with them, the excitement of those early conversions, and so forth. But most of all, he says, ‘it’s God I have to thank.’ Joyfully thanking God, in particular because that wonderful God had brought into being, in that heathen town of Philippi, a community of believers. A community of people, that is, a church, which you might say, certainly in this connection, in Philippi, a community which is together even when it’s apart. That’s how it must have seemed to him, I think.

In a way the 21st Century is just such another world: we live in the kind of world where you can make contact at any time with anyone you like, instantaneously, courtesy of that amazing modern invention – email. I have to say that I think in many ways that is an illusion – yes, the email you send gets there instantaneously, but whether you get an answer instantaneously is quite another matter! In theory it’s wonderful. I have to confess to you that I never actually embarked on it – I retired just in time before it was required practice for Vicars. So people complain to me how inconvenient it is not to be able to email me. It’s inconvenient for them, not for me!

In the 1st Century, 2000 years ago, they only had rare contact. Months and even years went by without a contact, certainly a personal, face to face contact. There was a mail service – letters went to and fro. And people travelled and there were visits. But there’s something very real:

3I thank my God every time I remember you. 4In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.

‘I’m always making requests with joy’ he says. That’s fascinating isn’t it? It means that he can say to these people, quite honestly, that day after day – maybe every day if he was able to cram it in with all the other people he had to pray for – almost every day I remember you. Obviously you’ve gone on from the way you were when I last saw you, obviously things have happened that I’m not aware of, but every day I constantly remember you in my prayers as I knew you.’ With imagination, you see, all that can make these people live in a way that not even emails can. In fact, sometimes I think that it’s so easy to send an email that you do it without thinking and the wording is a bit slipshod and it conveys quite the wrong impression when it arrives. And you know very well that face to face you wouldn’t have said it quite like that. So Paul has to remember that kind of thing, and he does remember it: he’s constantly thanking God for these folk.

We’d say for ourselves, I’m quite sure, that we thank God constantly on our own account. Perhaps we remember that good old Victorian hymn:

Count your many blessings,
Name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

And we say ‘yes, that’s been my experience, I’ve practised that for many years. I’ve counted my blessings, I’ve thought back over the 24 hours past and thought ‘Lord, you did that – thank you, that’s brilliant’’ And as time goes on, I think you’ll find as I do that that becomes an evermore constant experience. Again and again, more and more frequently you find yourself saying ‘thank you Lord, thank you Lord’. I could embroider that, but I’ve got limited time. I’d love to tell some of things I can thank God for over the last 24 hours. But what Paul is doing here is remembering other people and do you notice, he’s saying ‘I thank my God for everything I remember about you’, in other words ‘I am counting not just my own blessings but yours. My prayer life has a lot to do with counting other people’s blessings. I look at you and I think what God has done for you, and I thank God for what he has done for you. And I can remember so many of you, many of you I remember by name. And I thank God for everything that I realise God has been blessing you with.’ That’s what I call joyful thanking. He is thanking God.

Secondly, there’s a good deal of joyful KNOWING – v6:

6[I am] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

‘I am confident of this, I know this,’ he says. ‘And it gives me great joy to know it.’ But we would say ‘How can he? How can he know? He can guess at what’s been going on in their lives, he remembers the situation, he remembers the face maybe, but he can’t know the details.’ And that may be true as we pray for other people, we say ‘I wish I knew how so and so’s getting on – it’s ages since I heard for them. I wonder what God’s been doing. How can I thank God for what he’s been doing this week for them when I don’t know it?’ And that’s true, and Paul doesn’t know what’s been happening in Philippi in the course of the last week. But he does know his God. And he does know how his God has been at work in Philippi the past, and therefore he knows how his God is working today and will be working tomorrow in the church in Philippi. And his God knows all the details. And Paul can say ‘I pray with joy because I know [and this is one of the joyful things about the letter – I know] that God knows all about you.’ I suppose he might sometimes say to himself ‘I have to take it on board that their welfare does not actually depend on my being in contact with them.’ It’s quite a hard lesson to learn isn’t it? ‘If I were there they’d be fine – I’d be able to help in all sorts of ways. But I’m not there. Ah, but God is there, and God knows. Thank you Lord.’ And there’s that joy of knowing that however little I know about Philippi at the moment he know all about it. That’s real praying.

So there’s thanking, and that’s joyful. And the knowing, and that’s joyful.

Thirdly, there’s LOVING. You remember that back in v3 Paul says ‘I thank my God.’ He actually says the word. In v6 he doesn’t actually say ‘I know’, what he does say ‘I am confident’ which amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it – ‘I’m sure this is true’ he says. And here again, in vv7-9, he doesn’t actually say that he loves them. He thanks God for them, he knows about them, and does he love them? Yes! Look at vv7-9. He doesn’t actually say ‘I love’ but how better could you sum up?

7It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me. 8God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

If that is not saying ‘I love you’ then I don’t know what it is saying! With great joy he thanks. With great joy he knows. And now with great joy he loves them. And of course although ‘I love you’ is one of the tritest phrases in the language, what’s being spoken of here is something which is much bigger and much deeper than sentimental love and very much bigger and deeper than what’s meant by sexual love. This is something extraordinary – this is the bond between him and his converts in Philippi. And what it means is that each of them is eager for the other’s welfare. That’s one of the best definitions of love that I’ve ever come across – someone being concerned, eager for someone else’s welfare. I was very struck, just recently, in recent episodes of a television soap to find this exemplified in a way – I don’t know if it was intentional on the part of the writers. Two storylines in Emmerdale. Nobody watches Emmerdale here?! They were combined: there was a storyline about a gay relationship combined with a storyline about assisted suicide. And both of those would raise big questions in a Christian congregation, wouldn’t they? And what struck me so forcibly was that as the storylines developed what it was actually about was concern for someone else’s welfare. That was what gave rise to the whole tangled, difficult, dreadful situation – concern for someone else’s welfare. I thought in television soaps that’s a rare as hen’s teeth! When else do you find love in the Christian sense? More concerned about the welfare of someone who’s not me? Well that’s the Apostle Paul here with Philippi. That’s real loving. And the love that in this way rises above all barriers of race and language and culture and background and even above the barriers that personal likes and dislikes put up between people. And this is the love that crosses all of those things, and Paul can say ‘that is how I feel about you people.’ There’s loving. And it’s a love that’s full of joy: ‘I want the best for my friends in Philippi’. So along with the thanking and the knowing there’s the third joyful thing: the loving.

Now, finally, there’s the PRAYING. And the praying he does spell out. He’s not exactly moving away from thanking and knowing and loving, which is the praying bit. What he’s actually doing is asking simply that everything that he’s said thus far will grow and continue and develop. Listen to vv10-11, this is his prayer:

9And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, 11filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ— to the glory and praise of God.

That’s real joyful praying. And all he needs to do really is to remember the last time he saw them or the last time he heard from them, to use his imagination, to picture the people and the situation in his mind’s eye, and it’s as if he’s saying ‘Wherever you’re at at the moment, whatever’s been happening in recent days, weeks or years, my prayer is that you will go on, that you will abound more and more in love and knowledge and insight, until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness, to the glory and praise of God.’

Now there’s something about that kind of praying, and about all of these things really. The ‘4 joyfuls’ – I think you can attach the word joy, the word gladness and the word rejoicing to all of them. There’s the thanking, there’s the knowing, there’s the loving, there’s the praying. And there’s something about it that to my mind makes it highly relevant to us, 20 centuries down the line, and it is this: The people in Philippi had known Paul as an evangelist. He arrived in Philippi and he brought them things they had never heard before, which was the gospel of Jesus. They’d known him as an Apostle. He wasn’t just bringing the message of Jesus: he was bringing them a message as someone who had more right than anyone else to bring it – someone who had this personal contact with Jesus. He’d been a teacher – they’d known him as a teacher. When he’d been with them he’d opened up to them all these things and enabled them to understand them better. But the thing about Philippians 1:1-11 is that in this particular passage he is not being an evangelist, he is not being an Apostle, he is not being a teacher. He’s not being any of those things that set him apart, let alone above the people he is writing to. He is on their level. I wonder if you noticed that – as the passage was read to us earlier on, and as I’ve reread it to you now – I wondered if you noticed that everything that he says to them they could equally well be saying to him. They could return the complement and say ‘yes Paul, and that’s what we want to say to you too.’ They’re all on the level. And that means that they’re on the level with us as well. Paul could say the same things to you and me. And the Philippians could say the same things to you and me. And they could say to us ‘I hope you’re sharing this with other folk around you. We’re all on the level in this.’ We’re all looking at one another, and as we see God at work in one another, right across – not just us here, but them over there as well – this is the kind of thing about which we are so joyful. We think of one another in this building tonight, we think of friends we’ve got elsewhere in the country, elsewhere in the world, and right across the universal Christian community this is the kind of thing that we can do – to thank, to know, to love, to pray – and can do joyfully. That’s one kind of relevance. It’s not just for us here, but for them there. The church in every place. But it is also for the church in every age.

I understand this is the 150thanniversary year of JPC. Am I right? So it’s all rather special. And what it means is that just as there are things that are common to the church in every place, so there are things that are common to the church in every age. And that’s another reason why the things we read about in Philippians 2000 years ago applies exactly, without any change in essence, to us here, today. It’s the kind of thing that came up both in the Psalm we read (Psalm 78) and in the OT reading out of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). It’s this emphasis you find throughout the Old Testament on passing on what God has done for you. Not just to other people elsewhere, but to other people in the generations next to come, to the next lot coming up, to folk who are younger than you are in the faith. And you might say ‘there aren’t many of them – I’m a very new Christian’. You cannot be a Christian for very long before you find someone who’s even younger than you are in the faith. And there’s this challenge: all the things that are real to us the Lord wants us to pass on across the geography and on down through history. It’s a great challenge, isn’t it? And I think it’s very exciting that the whole thing comes out here as Paul’s speaking on a level and with joy. 16 times over: ‘I’m so glad, I rejoice, I’m full of joy! And that’s the spirit in which I do all these things.’ A great challenge for us.

I’m so glad that the next hymn that we’re going to sing actually has those 2 words in line 1 – who chose it? I didn’t! One of Tim Dudley Smith’s great hymns:

Fill your hearts with joy and gladness,
Sing and praise your God and mine.

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