For all of December and for the first two weeks of this new year, there were decorations both inside and outside our church building.
Outside, the Wise Men once again made their journey to Bethlehem, following the star. After Christmas, they turned around and headed back home.
Inside, the lobby, the fellowship hall, and Sunday School rooms were decorated with nativity scenes, garlands, and various other reminders of the season. In our sanctuary, there were beautiful trees and candles. There were garlands and wreaths.
What beautiful decorations, both inside and outside our building. Decorations that added to our celebration of Jesus’ birth. But now, the decorations are gone, taken down and put away until the next Advent season begins next December.
To me, and perhaps for you, it is fine to have the seasons change, but what we see around us is, shall we say, back to normal. That makes this what I understand is sometimes called an ordinary time. A time between holidays, in this case, the holidays of Christmas and Easter. An important time of remembering that even when there are no decorations and no major celebrations, we who are Christians still belong to God. A time of remembering that even in the ordinary times, we are still to worship and serve. Even if our serving is less bright, we still are to serve the one who came to be our Savior.
With that in mind, today and next Sunday we are going to think about some Bible passages that relate to ordinary times. What we are to do at times when the decorations are gone. Important things to help us continue to build our relationship with Jesus.
The passage for today is in the New Testament. It is in chapter 4 of Philippians, verses 4
The passage begins with a challenge. A challenge important enough to repeat. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice.”
Rejoice. That means to feel or show great joy, which is based on one thing, which is the presence of Christ.
Joy is not affected by negative things going on around us. That was certainly true for Paul, the author of Philippians. At the time he wrote today’s passage, he was in prison. At the time of this passage, the Christians in Philippi were in the beginning stages of being persecuted because of their faith.
There was nothing happy, in a worldly sense, in what Paul and the Philippians were facing. But they were to have joy because, no matter what, they who had accepted Jesus had a good relationship with the Lord. That was the most important thing. That was why they were to rejoice.
And always. That word means, always, as in every circumstance, every situation, good or bad.
Rejoice in the Lord always, Paul wrote. Then, as if he knew those who read those words might try to argue - that some might say, but what about the persecution, but what about the financial problems we are facing, but what about the family members who have rejected us, but, as we might say, what about the world situation today with all the wars and terrorism and crime and hatred and political strife?
As if he knew there might be arguments, Paul wrote, but nothing. “Again I will say, rejoice.
During this ordinary time - even as the Christmas decorations are down and before the Easter decor goes up - rejoice. Let’s work on that during this time.
Let’s also do what is recorded in verese 5. “Let all men know your forbearance.” Or, as some other translations have it, let your moderation or patience or modesty be known to all men. All those words put together mean we are to treat other people well, as in without hatred, with charity, with love, that happening even in the midst of afflictions.
Tough? You bet. It is extremely difficult to be nice to people who are not nice to us. At least, it is difficult for me.
And I do not think this means we have to be buddy-buddy with those who are nasty to us. But we are not to lose our love, even for those who are unkind. That is what being forbearing means.
Let all men know your forbearance because “the Lord is at hand.”
Jesus is coming back. I do not know when. You do not know when. But we know He is coming, at which time two things will happen. He will deal with those who need to be dealt with, so we can let Him handle any revenge that might be needed. And we will make account of what we have done. Will we not rather give a good accounting of our actions, which forbearance suggests, rather than have to answer for unkind things we have done?
Rejoice always. That can be difficult. Be forbearing. That can be more difficult. The list continues in verse 6 with something even more difficult. “Have no anxiety about anything.”
Again, there can be arguments against that teaching. But what about the terrorism? But what about illnesses But what if the economy goes bad? Even if it doesn’t go bad, but what about all the Christmas shopping bills that are coming? And pretty soon it will be tax time again. But what about? But what about? But what about?
There is so much about which we can be anxious, which I think comes to me naturally. Mama was a worrier. I think it was considered the thing to do, like it meant she was doing something. My dad was occasionally heard to worry about keeping the wolf away from the door, which I think was a concern about having enough money to survive.
There is so much about which to be anxious. That might be especially true in this time between the lights of Christmas and the flowers of Easter. But here is the teaching to not be anxious, about anything.
That teaching would be impossible to obey, except for what Paul went on to write. Instead of being anxious, “in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”
That refers to normal, systematic times or schedules for prayer.
By the way, I am working on that this year - to spend more time in personal prayer, even in ordinary times. I am working to pray more often. More regularly. The goal is to increase my closeness to the Lord. Maybe you are also making a more concerted effort to pray regularly.
In everything also refers to praying in times of emergency. When burdens are especially heavy. When we are perplexed or distressed. When we need direction or help when decisions need to be made.
In everything, by prayer and supplication.
Prayer is praising and thanking God for all He has been, is, and will be. It is thanking the Lord for all His blessings.
Supplication is asking or begging for specific things. Specific needs of ourselves and others. Supplication is asking or begging earnestly, but humbly.
And see the word thanksgiving? For each praise He accepts, for each answer He gives, we are to thank Him.
We might even thank Him for the privilege of prayer.
Think of it. Could I ever communicate with a president? I suppose I could write a letter or send an email, but with millions of others, would he ever read what I would send? I doubt it. The same is true with governors and mayors or other high officials.
But I can communicate with - I can pray and supplicate to - God, knowing He will hear and respond, answering in ways He knows are best for others and for me.
And there is this that I read. How the Lord answers might not be what I would like. But even then I am to give thanks, thereby showing a willingness to submit to His will rather than my own.
What a privilege prayer is. What a help prayer is to rely on the Lord in everything, at all times.
Why? Verse 7. “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
the word keep can also be translated stand guard.
What does a soldier on guard duty do? Two things. A guard keeps anything bad from getting onto the base. The guard also keeps what is on the base, which is what is good, from getting out.
The point. God’s peace can keep spiritual enemies out of our hearts and minds. At the same time, God’s peace can keep joy in our hearts and minds. That is what will happen as we pray to God and trust in Him always and in everything.
Then verse 8. During this ordinary time, let’s work at making our thoughts pleasing to the Lord.
Pleasing how. Tink about whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious. If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Iin my study of that word, I was reminded that so many things around us are deceptive.
We have heard the last few months about fake news, the purpose of which is to sway public opinion with nothing but innuendo as a base.
Deception also comes from promising to deliver what cannot be delivered. I am thinking, for instance, of lottery tickets.
I never have bought a ticket. I do not intend to ever buy a ticket. But I will admit to noticing all those lottery billboards around the city. I especially notice when the number gets up to 100 million - or 200 or 450 or 537 million - dollars.
The promise seems to be untold wealth and happiness. But we know the chances of winning are astronomically small. And we have all read the reports that those who win are hounded by people. If they survive that, the statistics I have read are that most big winners lose all their winnings - and everything they had before they won - that happening in about a year-and-a-half. How is that happiness?
Fake news. Promising what cannot be delivered. Those are examples of things that are not true. Such things are not to be in our thoughts. Instead, we are to think about what is true. Such as everything in the Bible, which tells us about God’s love, salvation, how to live, how to prepare for Heaven. Think about whatever is true.
Whatever is honorable, or honest, as it can also be translated.
I found this explanation. Being honorable is moving through the world as if it were the Temple of God. That translates to treating the world and every part of God’s creation in the world with dignity. We are to think about how to do that. This ordinary time is a wonderful time to concentrate our thoughts on that.
Whatever is just.
The root word is justice, which means treating others, including God, the way they should be treated.
It can, in a worldly sense, be so easy to think about how my pleasure and my wants are supreme. But I am - we are - to think of things that are just. During this ordinary time, let’s think about how we can treat the Lord and others in ways that are honoring to them.
Whatever is pure.
The word from which pure is taken means something so clean it is fit to be taken into the presence of God and used in His service. That means even our thoughts - which lead to our actions, but even our thoughts - are to be pleasing to God.
Whatever is lovely. Whatever is attractive. Whatever calls forth love.
Thinking back to the teaching to let our forbearance be known, remember it was said it can be difficult to be nice to people who are not nice to us. That being the case, it can seem natural to be bitter, to want vengeance, to hope the one who hurt us will suffer in some way. But just as we are taught to be forbearing, here we are taught to be lovely, even toward those who hurt us.
Again, that is not a call to allow ourselves to be hurt over and over and over again, but maybe us showing at least a willingness to be kind or sympathetic will help the one who hurt us to repent, maybe even to the point of joining the Christian journey.
Whatever is gracious.
That refers to language. Whatever is fit for God to hear is what we are to think about. Again, our thoughts dictate our actions, in this case, our words. We are to think, not about false or ugly or impure or threatening words. We are to think of true, beautiful, wholesome, encouraging words.
That speaks of the best of anything. We are to think only the best thoughts.
Worthy of praise.
We are to think of things for which we can praise God. Doing that will keep us away from negative thoughts, which we are not to have. Negative thoughts that will threaten to cause us to be anxious, which we are not to be. Thinking of things worthy of praise will lead us to keep relying on the Lord’s goodness.
Rejoice. Be forbearing of others. Pray, supplicate, and be thankful. Think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise. These are things we are to do all the time, including in ordinary times. Between now and the start of the Easter season, let’s work on each of these things so we can grow closer and closer to our Lord.
* * * *
Throughout the recent Advent season, each message included a story. To keep that going, here is a story, this one based on football.
As the author of the story writes, football is a game of inches and yards. It is a game where the difference between winning and losing is a matter determined by the momentum of going forward. In addition, football is a game of strategy and precision. It is a game not always full of 99-yard touchdown passes. Each offensive possession tells a story. Some stories are short, some stories are long, but they are all great.
Football players have to earn every yard to get down the field just to get a chance to score. It is not uncommon to see backs desperately push through piles of players with outstretched arms, trying to get the ball over the invisible yellow line we see on our television screens, or the goal line.
Sometimes players dive for the end zone, or drag their tip toes on the grass to maintain possession of the ball for a reception before falling out of bounds. They stiff arm and aggressively push away the hands and bodies of defenders. They do all that for a chance to put their team ahead.
One time, the author of the story and his son were watching a game. It happened to be a Monday night game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins.
As they watched, the son began to get discouraged. He was a Dallas fan and was frustrated the Cowboys could not seem to make it to the end zone. After every play he screamed things like, “I wish they would just score already.” “What is taking them so long?” “Why does the other team keep tackling them?” “Stop running the ball. Can’t they see it’s not working?”
As the father sat and watched his son, he noticed his son was ready for the excitement of a score, but did not enjoy watching the journey. So he explained to his son how the team on offense has four downs to try to make 10 yards. He explained why a play - even a running play - that gets only three yards might still be successful. He explained the progression of play calling and strategic offensive alignments.
When the father was done explaining, his son looked at him like he was crazy, but here is the moral of the story, as explained by the author.
There are so many times in our lives when we get to the point where we want to score the touchdown and win the big game. At those times, we can get so caught up with trying to put points on the board that we end up trying to throw a Hail Mary pass in the first possession of the first quarter. In our desperate pursuit of success we take unnecessary risks going for the big play, when we only need 10 yards to keep the ball in our possession. The author adds that as long as we are going forward, we have a fighting chance to win the game.
With that story in mind, the next time there is an obstacle blocking you or me or us from rejoicing, let’s lower our shoulders and push through it.
The next time life or another person tries to push us out of bounds, let’s drag our feet on the turf and fight to have the discipline to be forbearing.
The next time any of us seem to be coming up a little short of the goal, let’s have the heart to stretch ourselves and reach for the discipline to pray, supplicate, and give thanks.
The next time we face circumstances that make us feel like we cannot get free, let’s take our arms and push off whatever threatens to keep us away from the goal of thinking about things that are pleasing to the Lord.
During this ordinary time, let’s keep going forward, not on a football field, unless, of course, you are a player or a coach, but in life.
Today’s closing song is based on the part of today’s passage that speaks of the peace of God. It is Come, Holy Spirit, Still My Heart. As we sing, let’s remember the teachings of today’s passage to rejoice and be forbearing and pray and think about what is good and wholesome.
Come, Holy Spirit! still my heart
With gentleness divine.
Indwelling peace You can impart;
O make that blessing mine!
Give me a heart of calm repose
Amid the world’s loud roar,
A life that like a river flows
Along a peaceful shore!
Above these scenes of storm and strife
There spreads a region fair;
Help me to live that higher life,
And breathe the Heavenly air.
Come, Holy Spirit! breathe that peace,
That victory make me win;
Then shall my soul its conflict cease,
And find a Heaven within.
Lord, thank You for the holidays You give us to celebrate, each one representing blessings from You. Thank You, too, for the ordinary times between the holidays.
Lord, help us never to stagnate. Instead, help us to use every time to learn from You and obey You, including what You teach us this day to rejoice, be patient with with others, pray, and think good thoughts. Help us, we ask. Amen.