Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Peace Incomprehensible

This is a sermon that was preached on Sunday, October 8 2017 at United Presbyterian Church in Sterling, KS.  
Listen to sermon audio here
Read Philippians 4:1-9, Isaiah 41:1-13 here.
An exasperated husband asked his wife, “Why are you always worrying when it doesn't do any good?”
She quickly piped back, “Oh yes it does! Ninety percent of the things I worry about never end up happenning.”[1]
What’s wrong with worry?  We all do it.  But worry can be an obstacle to gratitude and a roadblock to faith.  Both Jesus and the apostle Paul tell us not to worry.  So does Isaiah in the passage we read today.  Twice he says, “Don’t be afraid.”
It’s not like there aren’t things to worry about.  There are plenty.  There always have been and there always will be.  There were reasons to worry back when these words from Isaiah were written.
Isaiah was writing the words we read today to comfort Israel.  But for the first 39 chapters of this book, Isaiah has warned the people to repent and change their ways in hopes of averting the disaster that’s coming, the impending capture by the Babylonian army and being carried off to exile. He’s given them as many opportunities as possible to turn back to God.  But then in chapter 40, Isaiah switches to comfort, reassuring them that though their exile is now unavoidable, they can still have hope.
Israel’s greatest fear in being captured and taken away from Jerusalem was losing God. They didn’t necessarily want to do what he said to do, or hang out with God, but they didn’t want to lose him altogether.  What Isaiah tells them over and over is that no matter how bad it gets, God still promises to be with you. God is still God, and God has not forgotten you.
Four times God says to them in chapter 41, “Do not fear, I will be with you.” 
I am holding you.  I’m even holding your hand.  I’m still your God and you’re still my people.
They were worried about the future.  We too worry about the future.  We make plans and we worry whether our plans will work out the way we want them to.  There’s an old joke that says the best way to make God laugh is to make a plan.  One of our Bible writers, James, also tells us not to get too caught up in making plans.  He says,
 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.”  Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-15)
We don’t know the future. Worrying about the future gets us too caught up in looking ahead, just like too much nostalgia gets us too caught up in looking back.
Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in a person's heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails.”
God has a plan.  In Isaiah’s words God is reminding Israel that he is working things out in the current time, and in the years and centuries to come.  God was working to bring them a savior, who we now know is Jesus. He says in verse 4:
Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning?
I, the Lord, am first, and will be with the last.” --Isaiah 41:4
Jesus says almost these same words in Revelation.[2]  “I am the alpha and omega.”  Since the beginning of time, God has been working.  Long after we are gone, God will still be working, taking care of things through Jesus Christ.
Jesus knew we humans struggle with worry.  He was fully God and fully human, and in his humanness he struggled with the same things we do.  In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, he talks in some depth about worry.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,[j] or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 
We can almost imagine the people’s response hearing this.  What do you mean, Jesus?  We’re not the same as the birds.  They don’t wear clothes.  They don’t have to cook their food.  They don’t have to have money to pay for things.  Of course the birds don’t have to worry, but, Lord, we DO!  And so Jesus continues his argument by asking them a rather challenging question:
27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
Well, no, Lord, of course not, but….
28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Ouch.  Little faith?  Ok, Jesus, I guess you really mean it, then.  So we ask, what do we need to do?
 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God[l] and his[m]righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Jesus knew that we would need to work on it….to practice trusting instead of worrying, to practice living in God’s peace. And he knew that his presence would help us with this.  Near the end of his life, Jesus explained this to the disciples, as he was preparing them for what was going to happen to him over the next three days, his crucifixion and death.  He knows they’re afraid, and they’re worried, so he tells them in his final evening of teaching, in the words we find in John 14-17, how to have peace.  He says, “Abide with me.  Remain in me and I will remain in you.”  (John 15)
“I have told you all this so that you will have peace.  In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16)

Jesus’ name that we use most often around Christmas time is Immanuel.  It means God with us.  Our greatest assurance, the surest way to know deep joy and deep peace is to know Jesus and to keep him with us, to keep turning to him.
That’s what Paul is reminding us about in his words that we read today from Philippians.  Keep turning to Jesus.  Keep focusing on the good and the right and the lovely.  Keep bringing your concerns to God and finding the things to be thankful for.
We talked last week about how thankfulness takes practice.  We grow when we work on it, when we practice it daily, when we write about it in our little books or journals, when we say thanks to God daily.  Thankfulness isn’t always easy.  Sometimes it’s incredibly hard, but Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, tells us:
Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who are in Christ Jesus.
(1 Thess 3:18)
That’s why we need to work on thankfulness…and peace. Peace is what God promises us through our faith in Jesus. Peace with God, peace that goes beyond our understanding.  The Message version of Paul’s words makes it clear what happens we keep turning to God for peace:
Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. (Phil 4:7)
Peace isn’t always easy.  We need to practice finding God’s peace. (Practice peace.)
Instead sometimes we’re better at practicing worry. It’s easier.
Ralph was head over heels in trouble, and didn’t know what to do. A friend advised, “Ralph, you’ve got two hands, why don’t you go do something?”
“I using my two hands,” Ralph replied, “I’m wringing both of them.”[3]
In the letter to the Philippians, Paul was writing from prison to a church that he dearly loved.  They were doing well, doing great ministry, and he didn’t want them to get off track.[4]  Remember to have joy.  Remember to reorient on God and know God’s peace.
If we don’t take the time to find peace, we can end up living up around the ceiling.  Using a room as the scale, calm is at the floor.  Whenever something makes us stressed we go up from the floor.  If we don’t get back to calm before the next stress, we go up even more, and if we keep staying stressed, we end up living around the ceiling, always stressed, always worried, easily angered or emotional.  We go from crisis to crisis, stress to stress, anger to anger…and stress becomes normal.  (Like surface tension – one drop makes the whole glass spill over.)
What happens when we face challenges is that our natural response is to react and go from rational thought to fight-or-flight response.  Our brains shift to using our amygdala, the part of our brains designed to deal with emergencies….which is useful in the case of an emergency, but not so helpful for dealing with everyday life.  The more that we spend time practicing seeking God’s peace through prayer and meditation, the more we retrain our responses, and the more we are able to let God guide our thoughts, words, and actions in the face of trouble.[5]
Paul says in the Message version:
Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.
We need to follow Paul’s instructions to focus on the good things, and not on our worries.
A recently licensed pilot was flying his private plane in a cloudy day. He was not very experienced in instrument landing. When the control tower was to bring him in, he began to get panicky. “I can’t see.  What if I hit something?” Then a stern voice came over the radio, “You just obey instructions, we’ll take care of the obstructions.”[6]
Letting go of our worries is letting God take care of the obstructions.  God can see what we can’t see.  God can do so much more that we can do ourselves.
"Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus." --Philippians 4:6-7
One of the hard things about faith is that it means trusting God even when we are struggling to know he’s there, and trusting that God’s peace will come, even if it doesn’t come right away.  One of the devotionals I read frequently encourages readers to thank God for his presence and his peace. 
Thank him for those things, even when we don’t feel it.  That’s a step in faith – trusting that God is there and that God’s peace will come.
The world is full of things to worry about, but we will miss opportunities to enjoy and to share God’s peace if we’re focused on our worries.  So Paul challenges us to pray about our worries and say thanks to God and trust God for whatever happens next.
There’s a moment in the Lord of the Rings series in The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo is overwhelmed by all that has happened and he says to Gandalf:
“I wish it need not have happened," said Frodo. 
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”[7]
We too may not always like the way things are going, but whatever is happening, God has not left us to deal with it alone.

God has given us his son Jesus so that we can know his peace, and so that we can make the most of our time here on earth.  We won’t do it perfectly, but through Jesus, we also know God’s endless mercy and love for us.
There’s a song been stuck in my head this week that is good for helping to remember to keep taking our worries to God and finding God’s peace:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.

[2] David McKenna, Communicator’s Commentary (Dallas, Word Inc., 1994)
[4] Maxie Dunnam, Communicator’s Commentary (Dallas, Word, 1982)
[5] http://www.ethicsdaily.com/when-anxiety-pulls-your-focus-off-of-god-cms-23182

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