A man went to see a psychiatrist, and told him that he was lonely, despondent, and miserable. He begged the doctor to help him. The psychiatrist suggested that he needed to laugh so he instructed the patient to attend the circus and watch the clown who was famous for being able to make anyone laugh. His patient looked him in the eyes and said, “But Doctor, you don’t understand! You see I am that clown!”
That man’s name was Joseph Grimaldi, one of the most celebrated English clowns of the late 18th and early 19th century.
We live in a society where many people are desperately looking for true happiness, peace and joy, but ending up empty. People have tried to fill that huge empty hole with work, families, relationships, wealth, fame, power, purpose, alcohol, sex, drugs etc., but still failing to find the peace and joy they long for.
The psychologist Carl Jung recognized this emptiness: He wrote "About a third of my cases are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives".
From the time we can speak, we are bombarded with the message that we alone are not enough: We are constantly being told to take this; buy this; have this; feel better, stronger, safer, sexier, more desirable, more secure, more powerful, and none of it works because we’re looking in the wrong place. . .
There are few people who can say that they have never been anxious. A family had put their Grandma on her first plane flight, but she hadn’t been very confident about the experience of leaving the ground on this contraption. When they met her at the airport on her return, one of the family members kidded her by asking, “Well, did the plane hold you up okay?” She grudgingly replied, “Well, yes,” and then quickly added, “But I never did put my full weight down on it!”
Many Christians are like that Grandma. The truth is, they’re being sustained completely by God, but they’re afraid to put their full weight down on Him. As a result, they’re plagued by anxiety and aren’t able to enjoy the flight.
Few of us are strangers to anxiety. It creeps in over big and little things, gnawing away at our insides. Someone graphically described anxiety as “a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind.
We often feel anxious about our finances: How can we pay this month’s bills? Will I be able to fix my car if it breaks down? How will I manage retirement? What if the economy fails?
We feel anxious about our health, especially as we grow older: What if I get cancer or Alzheimer’s? What if I’m disabled or have to go into a nursing home? We may have these same anxieties concerning our aging parents.
We’re anxious about our children: Will they avoid drugs? Will they be safe in this crime-ridden world? Will they marry and have a happy home? What kind of world will their children have to live in?
The lists could go on and on. Maybe you’re getting anxious just listening to me give different reasons for anxiety!
Sometimes we can’t identify any specific reason for our anxiety, but it’s there, nagging away at our insides. If we don’t learn to deal with it properly, it can cause all sorts of health problems, which in turn feed our anxiety!
Jesus promised, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” In our text, Paul the prisoner tells us how:
To experience God’s peace instead of anxiety, pray with thankfulness about every concern.
There are three key words in these verses that reveal the theme: Anxious; prayer; and, peace. Being anxious is the problem we are told to put off; prayer is what we are told to practice; and peace is the product we are promised by God.
Ultimately there is only one person that can give us the true peace, joy and happiness that we all long for, and that is Jesus Christ. Only Jesus can satisfy that emptiness in your soul! That is the message of our reading today from Philippians.
It is worth remembering that Paul wrote the letter to the church at Philippi while he was imprisoned in Rome. Not an environment that you would imagine would lead to one feeling full of joy and hope. Therefore it makes this theme of joy even more significant. If Paul could know and write about true joy while imprisoned, then there’s hope for us that in whatever circumstances we are in, we too can know true joy.
The Christians Paul wrote to in Philippi were facing hostility, oppression and persecution, and yet Paul’s instruction to them is to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” It may seem an extraordinary thing to write, because when life is tough, when it feels as though the world is against us, the last thing we feel like doing is rejoicing, or being full of joy.
But Paul had the supreme qualification to issue this call, because he himself was engaged in the same struggle as they were. In encouraging the Philippians to be full of joy, and to rejoice, Paul is reminding the Philippians to place their trust and faith in the Lord. It is above all an appeal to faith.
What enabled Paul to be full of joy was the knowledge that no matter what happened to him, Jesus Christ was with him. Several times in this letter Paul urges the Philippians to be joyful, because it was a message they clearly needed to hear. It’s all too easy to get discouraged about unpleasant circumstances or to take unimportant events too seriously. We need to see life from the right perspective.
And the author Max Lucado writes ‘God is able to accomplish, provide, help, save, keep, subdue He is able to do what you can’t. He already has a plan. God’s not bewildered. Go to Him.’
The message of Philippians is that true joy doesn’t have to depend on our outward circumstances, but is grounded in our relationship with Jesus. Therefore we can be joyful in every circumstance, even when things are going badly, when we feel like complaining, even when no one else is joyful. Christ still reigns, and we still know him, so we can rejoice at all times.
Happiness depends on our circumstances, and this can change. But joy runs deeper and stronger. Joy is the confident assurance of God’s love and work in our lives, and that He will be there no matter what!
Paul goes on to write ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ It is relatively easy to let our request be made known – we know how to pray – but we so often forget the thanksgiving bit on the end.
Two men were walking through a field one day when they spotted an enraged bull. Instantly they ran toward the nearest fence. The bull followed in hot pursuit, and it was soon apparent they wouldn't make it.
Terrified, the one shouted to his friend "Put up a prayer, John.!" We are not going to make it.
John answered, "I can't. I've never prayed out loud in my life."
"But you must!" implored his companion. "The bull is catching us up."
"OK," panted John, "I'll say the only prayer I know. 'O Lord, for what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful.'"
When we pray with thankful hearts, we are taking time to remember God’s goodness and mercy. If we count our blessings, we will not be focusing on our immediate problems..
And so it is in this attitude of thankful, prayerful, generous hope that this Advent we wait for the coming of our Lord and the fulfilment of his promises.
The Third Sunday in Advent