Third Sunday of Advent (Year C)

One of the blessings of preaching regularly to the same group of people is the joy of seeing folk journeying in discipleship.

Rodin's John the Baptist
"Rodin's John the Baptist." Image by Eric Chan via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0.

December 13, 2015

Second Reading
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Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7

One of the blessings of preaching regularly to the same group of people is the joy of seeing folk journeying in discipleship.

Sometimes the signs are small, sometimes significant, but on occasion there is the very real need to encourage people to stand their ground, to keep going when the going gets tough, to keep on keeping on. And there is no hiding the reality that the challenges on the road of discipleship are many.

The passage before us (Philippians 4:4-7) comes in the context of an awareness that some of those who have not only begun well, but have journeyed well, and struggled for the gospel now appear to be having second thoughts. Perhaps they are counting the cost of following Jesus and are hesitating, and even now contemplating turning back.

Perspective, purpose, and pressing on

Earlier Paul has reflected on his own experience and has shared key factors in what it means to “stand firm” (Philippians 4:1). Paul has had to change his perspective on life, now acknowledging that he considers all things as loss compared to the great value of knowing Christ (3:8). Paul’s central purpose is now that he should know Christ and ultimately to attain to the resurrection from the dead (3:10-11). And third, Paul emphasises the need to ‘press on’ (3:12, 14) ‘for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’

“Stand firm”

Now, Paul addresses directly the believing community in Philippi and encourages them to “stand firm in the Lord in this way” (Philippians 4:1). In particular he addresses two women, Euodia and Syntyche. These two women have “struggled … in the work of the gospel” (4:3) alongside Paul, but now Paul has had to encourage them to “be of the same mind” (4:2), that is, to commit themselves again to follow his example” — found in chapter three — to “stand firm.” Many commentators assume that Euodia and Syntyche have disagreed with one another and that this is the fundamental issue Paul is addressing. But the context suggests that it is far more likely that they have stepped back from the challenge of discipleship, and no longer hold to the principles found in Paul’s example of perspective, purpose, and pressing on.

So, for those who are struggling in discipleship; for those who are reconsidering their commitment to walk the way of Christ, for those who no longer want to take up their cross daily and to love regardless of the cost, what does our passage have to say?

First, hold on to the joy to be found in God (Philippians 4:4). Paul specifically encourages them to “rejoice in the Lord.” It is not that they are to rejoice in spite of their circumstances. It is not even that they are to rejoice through gritted teeth, but rather than they rejoice in all the goodness that is found in God and in his blessing. In a similar context where the writer to the Hebrews is encouraging believers to hold on to their faith he says, “fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1) and “fix your eyes on Jesus” (12:2). It is in looking to God that we can truly rejoice. The road we travel may be difficult — even distressing — but we can look to God and rejoice. For He is good, He is kind, He is loving and merciful and forgiveness. His faithfulness never fails.

Second, hold on to the character of Christ (Philippians 4:5). One of the key challenges of following the Lord Jesus, and thus the aspect most likely to be put down when the going gets tough, is the commitment to adopt the character of Christ in one’s everyday life. Paul encourages the Philippian believers, and particularly those who are reconsidering their commitment, to continue to live in the spirit of gentleness. Gentleness doesn’t always go down well in our culture. To live in gentleness is to provide a stark contrast to the harsh, acrimonious, and sometimes cruel values that are the norms of the ethos of our culture. The character of Christ is our prime example of gentleness, and his gentleness was often met with hatred and violence. But Paul seeks to encourage the disciples to hold on to the character of Christ, because it is by living in Christ that we experience salvation.

Third, hold on to the nearness of God (Philippians 4:5). At the heart of the good news of Jesus is the announcement that God is near. God is not a distant and aloof deity, requiring sacrifice before he draws close to sinful humanity. In Christ Jesus God has come close. Whatever we experience in our lives, relationships, workplace, “the Lord is near.” Whatever we go through in the struggle to follow Christ Jesus and to witness to his Lordship, “the Lord is near.” This statement is intended to bring comfort and consolation, to encourage and strengthen the resolve of everyone who has ever stepped out on the journey of discipleship.

Fourth, pray with thankfulness (Philippians 4:6). The encouragement to pray is one that we all need, but so often overlooked when things get tough. Here, there are four key words of inspiration. First, in our prayers we can and should include everything. Don’t leave anything out. Some things spring quickly to mind, but particularly when it feels as though the cosmos and its armies are against us, we should include everything. Second, in prayer don’t worry; let anxiety drift away from us as we share our concerns and troubles and trials with our heavenly Father. Third, give thanks to God — not for the trials — but for God, for His goodness, for his presence, for his listening ear. Fourth, make your requests known to God. We might be reminded of the Israelite slaves in Egypt who cried out to God, making their concerns about the trials and trauma that they faced everyday known to Him (Exodus 2:23-25). God heard and responded with love, mercy, and salvation.

Fifth, God’s peace will be our guard. When the life of following the Lord Jesus gets tough we can so easily feel as though we are unprotected. It can feel as though our commitment to gentleness, love, and kindness has left us vulnerable. But, Paul is clear that if we hold on and we pray, then the wonderful, mysterious, peace of God will guard and keep safe our hearts and minds.