Can you remember where you were when the World Trade Centres were attacked in 2001?
We were working in PNG and heard the news through a New Zealand colleague. I remember walking into the subdued classroom at the time, saying to the students that the world will change forever as a result of what has happened at WTC.A much-less safe place!
To some degree or other the world has been on edge ever since, but even more so since the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Nobody knows where or when or what those who manifest ideologies such as that which drove those in Paris will hit next.
Fear is, of course, the primary weapon of the terrorist and with attacks like those in Paris, and also in other parts of the world, people are anxious. The world is a much-less safe place. The values that our community espouses, such as freedom, safety and security – things very fundamental to our society and indeed our culture – are being threatened.
As a consequence we live in a time of increasing fear and great confusion, because nobody seems to know what to do.
The question for us today is ‘How is a Christian to respond in these times?’
Changing, challenging times
The first thing that I can say with some confidence is that although the days we live in are indeed changing and challenging times, this is not the only time in history that people have lived in such times, so we ought not to consider our situation unique.
Throughout history cultures and societies have undergone tectonic-like shifts with the rise and fall of empires, wars and persecution, terror and turmoil – all of the same things we are seeing in our times.
God’s people Israel were well acquainted with shifting world power as they witnessed the rise and fall of powerful nations such as the Persians, the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans. They knew all too well the insecurity of a changing geopolitical environment.
The second thing is that the Bible, though written in excess of 2000 years ago, speaking words of peace comfort and assurance to people in its time, is not a book limited only to the time it was written in.
Scriptures has always provided practical guidance, realistic assurance and direction to the true source of peace, which of course is only found in God, and we might therefore assume that it can do the same for us today.
Some of this encouragement can be found in Philippians 4.
Rejoicing in troubled times
Paul wrote to the Philippian church from prison. I can imagine that his situation would not have been too pleasant, for Roman prisons were not known for their creature comforts. Yet he wrote great encouragement to a group of Christians who were under pressure.
They too knew what it was to be persecuted, had felt the pain of suffering in their own context. With this in mind it would come as a surprise when Paul declared in verse 4, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say again, rejoice.’
If I was in prison, or suffering persecution, and even as I reflect on what took place in Paris recently, rejoice is not the first word that might normally come to mind. The sombre reporting of the incident, the heaviness associated with this tragedy does not easily lend itself to rejoicing in the manner that we might think of the word from a purely secular point of view!
However, the word that Paul uses here when he says rejoice is unique. It means to celebrate God’s goodness, but also to be favourably disposed to, literally experience, God’s grace.
The NT Greek word for grace and the Greek word for rejoice are very closely linked. So when a Christian rejoices, it is not just about being happy or joy-filled (although reflecting on the goodness of God should cause us to experience a deep sense of joy), rejoicing is something that we can do no matter what the circumstances, good or bad.
If we were to re-translate this statement in light of our troubled times, we could say at all times, but especially in times or turmoil or strife, always lean heavily on the grace of God.
We can understand how the average person might rejoice when the football team scores a goal or cricket team takes a wicket; that is a sort of celebration, a cause of joy or happiness. But Christians can at all times whether times of plenty or of want, happiness or sadness, peace or turmoil, lean on the grace of God and experience it in all its fulness.
Jesus is near
In verse five Paul gave the other reason to take heart despite all circumstances. He said in a very pithy little statement that might be understood in two ways; the Lord is near.
This of course could mean that the Lord is returning soon – he had so alluded in chapter 3 verse 20, that we eagerly await a Saviour from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ. But the words may equally mean that Christ is close by, or near or at hand in a presence sense.
The Lord’s closeness in terms of his proximity to his people is a recurring assurance to his people in both Old and New Testaments. For example, in the book of Psalms we read:
• ‘The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit’ (Psa. 34:18).
• ‘Yet you are near O Lord and all your commands are true’ (Psa. 119:151).
• ‘The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth’ (Psa. 145:18).
JH Newman, in 1896, preached, ‘Christ, then, is ever at our doors; as near 1800 years ago as now, and not nearer now than then, and not nearer when he comes than now.’
Paul says, because Christ is near, God’s people do not need to be anxious about anything, a statement that we find in verse six. Anxiety, according to Paul, should be replaced with praise, fearfulness with dependence on God’s grace.
This is in line with Jesus own teaching: ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; about your body, what you will wear… Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself’ (Matthew 6:25-34).
In Paul’s understanding, Christian existence in a pagan world was full of uncertainties: persecution of one kind or another was always a possibility. But if the Lord was near, there was no cause for anxiety.
Aussies often comment, ‘No worries.’ Peter encouraged us to ‘Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you’ (1 Pet. 5:7 NLT).
Jesus had encouraged his disciples to have done with anxiety because the heavenly Father, who fed the birds and clothes the grass with flowers, and knew their needs and was well able to supply them.
Similarly Paul says, ‘In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God’ (Phi.4:6).
The importance of prayer
Paul uses three different Greek words for prayer here. There are slight differences of nuance between one word and another, but the main effect of the use of all three is to emphasise the importance in the Christian life of faithfulness and consistency in believing and expectant prayer.
In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to use when addressing the heavenly Father, the provision of his children’s daily bread is included along with the establishment of his kingdom on earth. Like his master, Paul takes it for granted that an essential element in prayer is asking God for things, with the same trustful spirit as children show when they ask their earthly fathers for things.
Moreover, grateful remembrance of past blessings is a safeguard against anxiety for the future: it adds confidence to the prayer for continued blessings, hence the importance of thanksgiving in all true prayer.
As a consequence of these three things – rejoicing (or leaning heavily on the grace of God), recognising the nearness of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by being faithful and consistent in prayer – Paul promises something amazing will take place inside us.
He says that the application of those three things – rejoicing, recognising the nearness of the Lord Jesus Christ and being faithful and consistent in prayer – will also have a transforming effect on how we view and experience our world.
Beyond all understanding
In our world which is characterised by increasing anxiety and fear, uncertainty and insecurity, a follower of Christ can personally experience the peace of God, which transcends all understanding.
Paul describes this peace as beyond understanding. The secular or pagan mind cannot possibly understand how, in the midst of turmoil, a Christian might say that all things are working together in harmony, ultimately for God’s glory.
Yet that is exactly what the scripture teaches. Paul also wrote in Romans 8:28, ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’
The peace of God’s is not just a feeling that we might have, though we most certainly may experience a feeling of peace. It is God outworking his purposes in perfect harmony. The peace of God is his gift of wholeness and it is this peace Paul says which will guard your hearts and minds in Jesus.
The gospel offers so much
This is, of course one of the greatest gifts that followers of Christ can give to our world today. World events only highlight for us the turmoil that many communities live in, the confusion and anxiety that are part and parcel of the personal daily experience of so many people.
So easy it must be in the face of this kind of experience, to throw our hands in the air and …
• Say there is nothing I can do
• Therefore I do nothing
• Revert to being completely self-focused
• Block out everything around, attempting to protect ourselves from the evil that stalks our earth
• Become even more insular to the needs of others, selfish in our pursuit of material goods and ignorant of the role God has called us to play in the world.
But the Christian gospel offers something more than hopefulness, something tangible, something practical; the peace of God which guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
This too echoes the Christmas message of ‘Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased’ (Luke 2:14 NLT).
David Hogdens pastors Warrnambool & District Baptist Church, Victoria. Link: firstname.lastname@example.org