"In Anxious Times, Rejoice! "#86-16
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 16, 2018
By Rev. Dr. Anthony (Tony) Cook, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Philippians 4:4-7
"In anxious times, rejoice!" a seemingly absurd command, but one that is nonetheless at the heart of what it means to live as a Christian in uncertain times—times of escalating anxiety, anxiety about finances, health, politics, war, and those different from ourselves, an ever-present tightness in our chests, all wrapped up in a growing polarization where the balanced and reflective voices in this world are drowned out by the angered extremes.
Precious little safe space is left in our world today—space where we find protection from these anxious outbursts. We're surrounded by a disheartening din, the nightly news, political commercials, the internet, not to mention the all-too-frequent reminders of man's depraved acts: another shooting, another missing child, another hate crime, another broken home. Even nature itself adds to the threat with impending storms and fires, threatening to destroy life and home.
Solomon, the wisest among the wise, once spoke of anxiety's impact when he said, "Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down." And so it does, like so many rocks in our pockets, pulling us down bit by bit until our head begins to dip below the level of the rising sea. One thing is true: anxiety is found in our very disposition to the world. It is found in the fiber of our broken being. Being overwhelmed by anxiety characterizes what it means to live in the fallen world today. Fortunately, Solomon's wisdom did not end. Not only did he realize that anxiety in our heart weighs us down, he also knew that a good word, a truly good word, has the power to make the heart glad again.
While anxiety is found in our disposition to the world, joy is found in God's disposition to us, in His gracious disposition in Christ. The deep and abiding cheer experienced in the Christian heart is not the result of earthly gain, comfort, pleasure, or security. No. Christian joy, the conscious delights spoken of by Paul, finds its source solely in the grace of God, in Jesus.
The Greek word for rejoice makes this connection clear. The word "rejoice" used by Paul is connected to the same Greek word used in the Bible for the words "joy" and "grace." Joy and grace. This connection gives us a glorious insight, for through it, we learn that to rejoice as Christians, is nothing less than to delight—to have joy—in God's gracious activity. This delight in God's grace is our true seat of joy, a joy that bubbles over into continual rejoicing, and this, my friends, is Paul's good word for you today, a good word that speaks louder than all of the anxious voices combined. "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
Rejoice always, letting your reasonableness be known to all, and your requests be known to God. This, my friends, is a glorious description of the life available to you now, today, and to all who are found in our Savior, Jesus Christ. Here, my friends, is the way of moving forward in these uncertain and anxious times, a way in which our hearts can be lightened, and our anxiety transformed into joy. And this joy is a joy that is unending. It's not an ongoing emotion. It's an unshakable certainty, certainty found in the sacrificial work of Jesus, certainty that through Jesus we have a Father who has overcome all that stands in our way and threatens to separate us from Him and the wondrous life He provides for free.
All other joy is fleeting and easily defeated by the worries of the world, but our Lord gifts us with a joy that finds its foundation outside of our troubled lives, beyond our anxious hearts, a joy securely found in the undeniable promises of God in Jesus. This is how we can always rejoice, even in the most anxious of times. In this rejoicing, we are set free, set free from the prison of polarization, set free from the looming uncertainty of our broken lives. It is an unending joy, a joy that transcends, a joy that is yours forever in Jesus.
How often I have prayed that our reasonable Christian witness, our balanced Christian nature could be grasped, embodied, and seen by all. But, unfortunately, parts of the church today have become the living embodiment of the two contentious Christian leaders, Euodia and Syntyche, mentioned in the verses preceding our text for today. Overcome with anxiety, no longer contending together for the Gospel, but instead contending against one another, transforming our reasoned tones into the screeches of self-centeredness and disharmony. We, like those ancient coworkers for Christ, need help. We need help to recover and maintain our joy and peace in Christ alone. And just as Paul called out to the Philippian church, he calls out to us. He pleads for us to remember where our joy is truly found, and once we do, to rejoice, to rejoice in the Lord, regardless of circumstance, with joyful shouts replacing anxious thoughts. For the glory to come, my friends, is far greater than the temporary squabbles of fragile and anxious followers of Christ.
The need is too great, the cost is too high, for our joy to be lost over something as small and eternally insignificant as our temporary anxieties about worldly things. But, if this seems too dire, not all is lost. There is, and there will always be, hope. For in Jesus, we have a Source of prevailing joy and peace, always accessible, always available, even when we fail to seek it. And how can you, how can I, find that deep and abiding joy once more? By following the words of Paul and taking our anxiety to the healing Source, to God in thankful prayer.
Paul knew that anxiety about the future is exponentially magnified when we forget to be thankful for God's past grace. How tempting it is to continually look forward to a future that is unknown instead of looking back, looking back to a past that is clearly seen. And this backward gaze is not mere reminiscence, it is a remembrance, a remembrance of all that God has done for us, all that He has done for you in Jesus Christ, in all of the promises fulfilled, in all of the anxieties overcome. As you look back over your life's shoulder, you see His presence, the presence of the divine. Not just once, but in each and every day of your life, Jesus promised that, "Lo, I will be with you always," is fulfilled, not in sentiment, but in reality, in history.
Remembrance, my friends, is our watershed of thankfulness, a reminder of all that Jesus has done for us from His birth, through His ministry, to the cross and the grave, all the way through His resurrection, His ascension to His Father's side, until this very day. This is the origin of our joy, the fountain of our hope and peace, the soothing balm for the anxiety that creeps into our bones. It is a peace that transcends all human understanding, all experience, and all expectations. The biblical assurance that regardless of what is ahead, the same God that was with us then is with us now, and will be with us forevermore, this is what you have today. This assurance is yours. And as a result, this divine reality is the true source of our unending joy—a joy that is found in God, an anxiety-breaking joy powered by grace, a joy unlike all other joys that the world could possibly provide. It is the very joy of our Lord Jesus Christ, a joy that was His, even as He contemplated His sacrifice for you, for all, on the cross, a joy that comes from being attached to Him, the one true vine, a vine that connects us and abides in us, and that abides with us, a healthy fruit-producing vine that glorifies, not us, but our loving Father in heaven.
And it is this love, this peace, this joy from God that is not only Paul's hope for your life, it is Jesus' hope for your life as well. Listen to His words recorded in the Gospel of John. "As the Father has loved Me, so I have loved you. Abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you that My joy, My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full"—that your joy may be full. You see, it's those who are filled and overflowing with the joy that only Christ can give, who have the ability to rejoice and rejoice always in good times and in bad.
And this, my friends, is my hope for you as well. I have seen, and personally experienced, how anxiety can overcome us when we are weak, how it can weigh down the hearts of even the most resilient among us. Family, friends, and most certainly I, have experienced anxiety's negative pull and immobilizing weight, a weight that results in self-loathing and fear, hateful words and deeds, desperate and selfish actions, crippling chains, and even life-ending despair.
But there is so much more that God has for you. He loves you so very much. He cares for you more than you could possibly conceive. So, when explanations break down, and our strength fails, the only thing left, and the only thing we are called to do, is to pray. So, in prayer and supplications, bring your burdens to Him. Place your anxiety at His feet. Lay down your despair at His cross and rejoice. How overwhelmingly beautiful is God's gracious gift in Christ? It's so extraordinary, so awe-inspiring, that it can't be captured in my feeble words. So, instead of struggling for metaphors and potentially hollow words, I offer to you a hymn, a poetic expression of the reality I share with you today, a reality captured by the Lutheran pastor and hymn writer, Paul Gerhardt.
"Entrust your days and burdens to God's most loving hand. He cares for you while ruling The sky, the sea, the land. For He who guides the tempests along their thunderous ways, will find for you a pathway, and guide you all your days.
"Leave all to His direction. His wisdom rules for you, in ways to rouse your wonder at all His love can do. Soon He, His promise keeping, with wonder-working powers will banish from your spirit what gave you troubled hours."
"In anxious times, rejoice!" a seemingly absurd command made possible in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I leave you with the words of another Christian leader, Peter, who himself was no stranger to anxiety, but who, like Paul, found his freedom from anxiety and the eternal joy in Jesus Christ, and in Him alone. "So, brothers and sisters, humble yourselves therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time, He may exalt you, casting all of your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you." In Jesus Name. Amen.
Reflections for December 16, 2018
Title: In Anxious Times, Rejoice!
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour, and was Dr. Tony Cook with a message entitled, "In Anxious Times, Rejoice!" And joining us now in the studio, here's our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thanks Mark. Tony, I really enjoyed the message. One phrase that stood out for me especially was the "screeches of self-centeredness." You talked about that, the tightening of the chest, and these things that anxiety does to us. I wonder if you could just talk more about that.
Tony Cook: I think it's interesting. Anxiety is more than a simple mental state. It impacts more than your thoughts, but it literally impacts who we are as a whole person. I was searching different symptoms of anxiety and, obviously, I didn't really need to, because I've experienced them myself. But the symptoms of anxiety—one, would be that tightening feeling. You know when anxiety hits you, you feel it, it's almost like that cold, tight feeling in this deep, deep center of your chest. But also, it changes how we respond, almost that kind of "fight or flight" syndrome that can happen. One of the things is our speech begins to change. I was just thinking of people who are becoming anxious and how their tone gets higher and higher, the more and the more of the anxiety approaches. It's not anything to play with. It's not just a thought that we have, but it has a way of impacting us in our totality, as a human.
Mike Zeigler: And I wonder if you could say more about the scope of this and maybe how anxiety can be a taboo that we don't talk about.
Tony Cook: Well, it depends on really how you're brought up and where you come from. But for those who come from that kind of Germanic background, there's kind of a sense in some families, at least historically, that suffering from those effects of anxiety, or depression, or really, any type of mental illness or impact is potentially a sign of weakness. All you need to do is kind of pull yourself up by your bootstraps, get your head on straight, and you'll be ready to go. But one of the things that I've realized over my time as a pastor when I was in the parish and in my personal life, is that we are all immersed in anxious environments.
Anxiety is many times created by external stimuli, things that are outside of us. When we have that impact of that anxiety, and that unknown aspect of the future, each and every person is open to the ability of experiencing that anxiety. I've seen little children all the way up to seasoned professionals, parents and adults that get caught off guard by this unknown future. Because for me, and many times fear is kind of being impacted by the thing you see, and I see it and I'm afraid, but anxiety is almost a little bit more insidious at times because it's a reaction to things you can't see; it's a reaction to things that have yet to come. I don't know about you, but my mind has a tremendous capacity to generate the most horrible future outcomes of things. So as my mind begins to spin and think and churn, those images of what might be, the what-ifs, those are the things that impact me. Really, none of us are impervious to experiencing that kind of anxiety in our life.
Mike Zeigler: It makes me think of a Martin Luther quote that you can't keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair. I think that's that kind of thing of letting anxiety build, and I wonder if you could say some more about a process of moving from anxiety back to faith. Maybe there's some thresholds that we pass through back to faith away from worry.
Tony Cook: Yeah, I think that if we use the definition of faith as trust—that really is appropriate for our conversation. If anxiety is a reaction to the unknown future, faith is also a way of reacting to an unknown future. Anxiety is kind of a negative reaction. But faith is a hope, it's a hope in things unseen. In the sermon, really, in the text, there are a couple of thresholds, if you will, or steps that can help us.
I think one of them is that when we are experiencing anxious times that we should relate to one another. There's a call in the text, just before the words that we used in the sermon today, about the conflict in the Philippian church, and there were two people who were fighting. Paul calls out to a fellow coworker to go and to help them, to remind them of their relationship, to remind them of their history together as workers for the Gospel, and to relate with them in a way to reduce that anxiety and bring peace again into the community. So I think relating is one of the steps. Speaking to a friend, speaking to a pastor, speaking to a counselor, speaking to a physician—all of these are ways that we can relate with others that can help us manage that anxiety. The next step or threshold that I find interesting in the text is the call to remembrance. So not only are we relating with one another, but when we do, we are helping and encouraging each other to remember God's faithfulness in our life. So much of the ability to overcome anxiety is to remember God's gracious deeds. In fact, when I spoke about the usage of the Greek and the Greek root that "rejoice" comes from, same root, that the words "joy" and "grace" come from, that in some ways, rejoicing is in many ways, a delighting in the remembrance of God's grace. So much of our strength and Christianity comes from us reminding each other through the Word, through our liturgy, through our mutual consolation of the brethren of what God has done.
Then finally, the last threshold, if you will, is that of requesting of prayers and supplication to God. For me, that's one of the most effective yet most difficult. I think many times I don't want to give up the ability to perhaps fix it myself, or to admit that I need help. But God calls us to lay our burdens down before Him in prayer. Prayer is a powerful and effective tool for lightening that load and helping us during anxious times.
Mike Zeigler: Relating, remembering, rejoicing, requesting, that's helpful. When do you think there's a point where maybe we need some more intentional kind of help?
Tony Cook: There's one thing that I want to be really, really clear about—is that there is a point in many people's lives where their anxiety paralyzes them from their daily tasks. I strongly encourage that we seek help. When I was a seminary professor, I tried to remove the stigma from getting help with the students who were in my class. I would always say that all of us think nothing about going to the dentist twice a year, going to our physician once a year, why would we have that stigma about speaking to someone about what burdens us at least once a year as well.
For those who are in anxious jobs, those who are pastors, those who are in the medical profession, but really anyone who lives in the anxious world, there should be no guilt and no shame in seeking that help. Sometimes we don't even recognize it ourselves, or perhaps we don't want to admit it ourselves. Sometimes our friends and our family can alert us to those times when we need to speak to a professional and get that help that we need.
Mike Zeigler: God help us in anxious times to rejoice.
Tony Cook: Amen.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)