how the nearness of God matters

The last part of Philippians 4:5 says, “The Lord is at hand.”  Some take this to mean, Jesus is coming back soon.  While that is true, it also means God is present.  He is near.  It’s when our life is chaotic, when we don’t feel so happy about our circumstances, or when we are tempted to worry it is the nearness of God that matters most.   We know God is near.  Theology tells us God is omnipresent, but how does that matter when I need it most?

Philippians 4:1-9 is like the junk drawer of the letter (before you get in a huff let me explain), yet unlike most junk drawers this text is jam packed with treasures.  It’s junk that is valuable gems for your faith (e.g. 7 rapid-fire commands).  There is too much here to talk about today, so I will limit my focus to two commands and the intersection that brings them together which is the nearness of God.  Today we will explore how the nearness of God matters.

SINCE GOD IS NEAR I CAN HAVE REASONABLE JOY (4:1-5)

Paul has deep joy for Philippi.  He planted the church 10 years prior with a slave girl, a jailer and fam, and a business woman named Lydia.  Now there are others.  Paul addresses them all as “brothers” (v.1), not because he couldn’t remember their names, but because they were that close to his heart.  He proves it by using other terms of endearment like: “whom I long for”, (cf. 1:8) “my joy and crown”, (cf. 1:4; 2:16) “my beloved.”   Aren’t those encouraging words to hear?  Don’t you need to hear those words spoken over you?  Or words you should share over one another?  Look around.  Do you think of one another this way?  Is this the kind of affection you desire to have for one another?

Paul then changes his tone in the next two verses because there are two ladies in the church who aren’t being so affectionate with one another and Paul urges them to reconcile and encourages the church to get involved (vs.2-3).  Why would Paul care if everyone is getting along?  The first reason is that a divided church is a terrible witness Christ.  When people see Christians bicker, bark, and backbite, they certainly don’t see the beauty of Jesus’s Body or Jesus as their Head; they see the ugly reality of someone unchanged by the gospel, which is something they see everyday.

The second reason is that togetherness in Christ—a church fixed on Jesus—results in joy.  Paul says, “Rejoice,” and in case you didn’t hear it, “again I say rejoice.” (v. 4).  Joy here is not optional, it’s essential.  I like how Eugene Peterson in The Message puts it, “Celebrate God all day, everyday. I mean revel in him!  Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them.”  Isn’t it interesting that this familiar command reserved for coffee cups and kids club songs follows a plea for conflict resolution?  Holding grudges, giving people what they deserve, gossiping about your brothers and sisters, gives a smug sense of satisfaction, but it more so produces relational emptiness, not deep joy.

If you are around Christians you are also around conflict.  Each of us are so different.  We have different personalities, different interests, different spiritual gift, but there are two things we have in common: 1) we are all sinners and, 2) we are all sinners redeemed by the blood of Jesus.   Jesus died so that our greatest conflict (between He and us) would be resolved and it makes resolution between our brothers and sisters possible.  Joy is at stake (cf. 2:2).

It sounds so unreasonable, doesn’t it?  To rejoice always doesn’t seem practical or attainable.  How do you rejoice when your child is hurting?  When your marriage is rocky?  When things aren’t going well at all?  You got to remember Paul isn’t commanding the church to just be happy when everything is going well, but to rejoice in the midst of chaos, in those emergency moments, when you get that phone call, when it is most difficult to have joy.  You and I need help with this command, don’t we?

How is joy possible in those moments?  Thank God He tells you and doesn’t leave you hanging.  He says, “Let your reasonableness be known to all.” (v.5a)  Again, joy doesn’t seem so reasonable here, until you know the soil that joy is rooted in.  This joy is not predicated by your circumstances.  It never is.  The ability to have reasonable joy in whatever situation is because “the Lord is at hand.” (v.5b)

Resting in the promise that the “Lord is near.”  gives a future hope.  He is coming.  It’s a sure thing.  As sure as the dawn.  When he comes he will make all that’s wrong in the world right.  No more sorrow.  No suffering.  No conflict.  He will wipe every tear.  He will reconcile creation.  Yet there is also a present hope.  What is more encouraging than knowing the Lord is near to you, even right now? He is with you, always.  That is reasonable.  God is sovereign over your yesterday, today, and tomorrow..  He is loving.  He is good.  When everything in life is hard, nothing is hard for him (Jer. 32:17, 27).  In the moment of chaos, the God of the universe, the God who rescued and saved you, is not Himself powerless at all in that moment, is not at all surprised or shocked by that moment, is not reeling one bit or trying to figure out what to do in that moment.  That’s not what He does.  He’s there.  He knows.  He is with you.  He is in control within the chaos.  That is reason to rejoice.  That’s where reasonable joy is rooted.

May my prayer be like Job, “Though [You] slay me, I will hope in [You].” (13:15) or like Jehoshaphat, “[I] do not know what to do, but [my] eyes are on you.” (2 Chron. 20:12)  Or may my prayer be, “Lord, help me to rejoice in You in this moment.  Help me to be reasonable.  I am not happy with this horrific situation.  However, You are in control.  I trust You.  You love me.  You understand what You’re doing.  I have You.  I am Yours.”

What if you just can’t get along with your brother or sister?  What is the one thing you can get along with together?  The gospel—Jesus!  Learn to love Jesus more than your opinions.  Remember WHO you have in common.  The gospel makes what is irreconcilable reconcilable.  The gospel makes resolving conflict possible.   It makes Jesus and the Body shine.  And creates fertile soil for the roots of deep joy.

Few things are more fatal to your faith than the poisonous idea that joy in Jesus is optional, not essential.  Rejoicing always doesn’t mean there isn’t sorrow.  In fact, Paul says that sorrow and rejoicing can exist simultaneously: “… as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” (2 Corinthians 6:10). What Paul means is that sorrowful circumstances will come, and may cut deep, but the undercurrent of joy runs deeper still because he is the source of it and he is a river that never runs dry.

SINCE GOD IS NEAR I HAVE NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT (4:6-9)

Paul finishes his thought with something a bit extreme.  He says, “do not be anxious about anything.”  Anything?  Really?  Literally he means no-thing.  Not one thing is to be the cause of your worry.

Worry is the enemy of joy.  If you are filled with joy you are not filled with worry, but if you are filled with worry you are not filled with joy.  It’s that simple.

The questions is, “What do you have to worry about?”  One might say, “A lot.  Let me give you a list: my health and future, my spouse or lack thereof, my kids health and future, my responsibilities, that project due soon, travels, the holidays.”  And the list could go on and on, right?

But let me ask that question again, “What do you have to worry about?”  The answer: nothing.  Why?  There is not one square millimeter of creation or one millisecond of time that God is not present or sovereign.  God is near.  God knows not time.  If we worry about the future, may we not forget that the future is a place where God already is.

Paul says that worrying is worthless.  It doesn’t help the problem.  In fact, it adds to it.  Jesus says, “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Mt. 6:27).

God has never failed you.  He has never let you down.  He may not have given you everything you wanted or run your life the way you desired.  He may have never taken your advice or considered your wishlist.  He may have felt distant, but he has never abandoned you.  He has never left you.  You have never been without his love and sovereign care.

Worry is what happens when I believe God is not in control and I can’t be.  But it’s so hard not to worry. I know I shouldn’t worry, but I feel anxious plenty of times about plenty of things. Like those moments when I’m traveling by plane and I suddenly realize that there’s nothing beneath me.  I’m thinking, “Whoa, we’re in the sky.” It’s hard not to be anxious.  Or that time you realize.  I am in Chad.  I am really far from “decent” medical help.  That’ll freak you out.  Also, I have three daughters.  Enough said.  Can I just be honest?  It’s hard not to worry about certain things?

Is there a remedy to eradicating worry?  Paul’s answer is also a bit extreme, “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (v.6)  Everything?  Really?  Yes.  Everything.  Literally he means, all things.  God wants you to bring all your hurts, pains, worries, fears, and doubts to him.  As we have learned, the Lord is at hand.  He is right there with you in it all.

There are two components to prayer that we learn from Paul that are important for eradicating worry.  The first is supplication.  Supplication is a “Help Me!” prayer.  It fits well with the encouragements Paul has already been teaching on lowliness, humility, and awe of God.  Prayer and worry are sort of the same.  They both rehearse the circumstances and chew it over.  In worry there is no traction.  It spins its wheels.  But praying is worrying at God and handing them over to God.  The second is thanksgiving is to be connected to the first.  Thanksgiving is a “Thank You” to God for his listening ear and loving hand.  Thankfulness is the worry’s kryptonite.  Thanksgiving and worry can’t occupy the same space.  When we come to God with a thankful heart even in the middle of chaos, hurt, or doubts, our worries flee like roaches to light.

And the result is “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (v.7)  This means through prayer the worry I once entertained is now eradicated and replaced by a right understanding and peace that is produced by God and rooted in Christ.

Have you been there?  Yeah, me too.  In the past few weeks, these verses have taken on a freshness I haven’t known since I memorized them as a teenager in Youth Group.   Just last week I had witnessed a horrific situation that revealed worry and fear that had been incubated for years if not generations in my family.  As I prayed about it with some dear friends God not only spoke peace over my life, but he gave me a peace which surpassed all understanding.  Isn’t that often what happens in the hard times?  God is a God of peace.  He has no place with worry, but he loves it when we bring our worries to him with thankful hearts allowing him to Father us.  He knows we are like weak little children, but he is a good strong Father.  He is our peace.

When we live with a lack of worry about the future, even in those tightrope kind of times, we communicate the truth that our God is indeed worthy of our trust—our life.  Worrisome Christians are bad advertisements for the God of all comfort.  But if you have to worry, Paul says worry (or think) on these things, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (v.8)  Aren’t these each powerful combatants to worry?   Where does this kind of thinking lead us?  It leads us to Jesus!  Ultimately, we see these mindsets in Christ.  In other words this text is the action of taking, “every thought (worry) captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5) And the result again is that “the God of peace will be with you.” (v.9b)

It is interesting that Paul concludes this section by saying “practice these things.” (v.9a)  This tells me that not worrying or having reasonable joy in all things doesn’t come naturally to us, but only happens by the power of the Spirit, by the the sweat of faith, by prayer, by doing life in community with other believers.  We have to practice this stuff.  This is the stuff of maturing in Christ.  It’s part of growing up in our faith. Reasonable joy in all things and eradicating worry by prayer is a mark of maturity.  That is the kind of man I want to be and I am certain the kid of man, woman or child you want to be too.  And it’s possible because the Lord is near.

 
Reflection: Can you identify what robs you of joy or worries you today? Is there someone you need to get right with? Will you bring “everything”, right now, to God in prayer with thanksgiving?Spend some time alone or with someone praying together.

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Jacob’s Journey—from recluse to reconciliation [part 3]

What does it mean to reconcile a relationship? What are some of the greatest stories of reconciliation you have ever seen or heard? Elizabeth Barrett was involved in a childhood accident that caused her to be an invalid. She also had a tyrannical father that treated her with disrespect. When she became older she met Robert Browning. Elizabeth’s father disapproved of the relationship and request for marriage. So in 1846 they married in secret and sailed to Italy where they lived for the rest of their lives. Her parents disowned her, but she did not give up on trying to communicate and reconcile with her parents. Almost weekly she wrote her parents letters. Not once did they reply.

After 10 years of writing her parents Elizabeth received a large box in the mail. Inside the box she found all her letter; not one had been opened. Today Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s letters are among the most beautiful in classic literature. Had her parents only read a few of the forgiveness packed poems their relationship with Elizabeth might have been reconciled.

Jacob Steps Up Like a Man [Genesis 33:1-3]

Jacob is now a new man with a new name and new future of God’s blessings and faith. After wrestling with God he is now empowered to meet his brother. While he sees his brother coming with a posy of 400 men, Jacob puts his people in ranks. He put his servants on the frontline, Leah and her children in the middle, and Rachel and her children in the back of the pack. Rachel gets the safe spot because he loved her and Joseph.

Jacob does hide out in the rear to take cover; rather he steps up to the front line. He doesn’t know if he will be killed, but it is a rick he’s willing to take believing in the promises of God. He has faith in God’s protection enough to put himself in harm’s way for the first time in his life. As a sign of humility and apology he bows his body before his brother. What we see is a complete change in character for Jacob.

Jacob Reunites with his Brother Face-to-Face [33:4-11]

In one of the most forgiving moments in Scripture the prodigal brother comes home. Esau responds like a mature older brother, “But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.” [Genesis 33:4] The reunion between Jacob and Esau comes after twenty long years of separation. It is a beautiful portrait of forgiveness. Esau runs to Jacob and lovingly embraces him in forgiveness and welcomes him home.

Jacob blessed his brother with generous gifts that he attributed to God’s provision. Esau did not need them because he too had become a wealthy man. Also, he releases any and all claims on his birthright. Jacob compares seeing Esau like seeing God [cf. Genesis 32:30] because both now and when he wrestled God Jacob is graciously spared. It is obvious that God had been working on the hearts of both men.

Esau offers his Protection [33:12-20]

Because of his many animals and young children Jacob was not able to go jump fast in making the journey all the way home. Esau offered to leave some men to protect Jacob’s household, but by faith he declined stating that God would indeed protect him. Jacob then worshiped God by building an altar at Shechem, which was the first place where his grandfather Abraham had been visited by God and built his own altar [cf. Genesis 12:6-7; 28:20-22; 31:5]. What a wonderful portrait of a transformed man now worshiping the God of Abraham and Isaac, but also now the God of Jacob.

Put yourself in Esau’s shoes for a moment. It is not often that we think about the situation from his perspective. What would you have done? Would you have been hesitant to reconcile your relationship with your brother? What should you do if you are hesitant to reconcile? Look to the example of Jesus Christ. He reconciles man to God and is our means and motivation to reconcile with one another [2 Corinthians 5:11-21]. Jesus is the Reconciler. And you might also consider:

1. Be honest about your motives. Make sure your desire is to please God and not get revenge [cf. Joseph and his brothers].

2. Be prayerful about the situation. Jesus said that you must pray for those who mistreat you [Luke 6:28; cf. Hebrews 4:16].

3. Be willing to admit how you have added to the problem [cf. Matthew 7:1-6].

4. Be mindful that God is sovereign over the situation [1 Corinthians 10:13].