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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Philippians 4:1-9

The Choice Is To Rejoice

A Nation of Grumps

Concerned about the economic conditions of his country, the newly crowned King of Bhutan, decided in 1972 to make GNH, Gross National Happiness, his nations top priority rather than the GNP, gross national product. The king sought to ensure that prosperity was shared by everyone, cultural traditions were preserved, the environment was protected and the government remained responsive to the needs of the people. The nation is still working on these goals, after 33 years they now rate themselves as the happiest people on earth. While people in the United States rated themselves very high, the survey showed a steady decline in our perception of our well being. Even with the median family income showing a steady rise, more Americans are saying that life is less enjoyable.

Forbes magazine noticed this declining spirit of well being and decided to ask the great thinkers of our day why our country is losing is positive spirit. In a letter from the editor they asked, “Why, when we have it so good, do we feel so bad?” The answers showed some perceptive insight.

Speech writer Peggy Noonan wrote "This may sound silly but now and then when I read of fairy tales and see an illustration of a hunchbacked hag with no teeth and bumps on her nose who lives by herself in the forest, I think: People looked like that once. They lived like that. There were no doctors, no phones, and people lived in the dark in a hole in the tree. It was terrible. It's much better now. But we are not happier. I believe we are just cleaner, more attractive, sadder people than we used to be." She went on to say that we have made happiness an end in itself and not the byproduct of life lived for beauty, truth, and goodness.

Sports commentator Dick Schaap believes that our problem lies in the pervasive greed that is strangling every sport and every cultural arena, choking to death the joy that makes life worth living. Our hope lies in a renewed ethic of loyalty, love and life lived for purpose, not prosperity.

For Harvard historian Simon Schama, our problem is in seeking "bottled happiness," a way of looking at life that "confuses the good with the life of goods, that Bluebird of Happiness with the Right to Shop"

Read between the lines of these responses and you will see a common thread.  People in the US focus on the external world for the source of their happiness. We are not happy unless our external world is ordered the way we would like it to be. The result is that unless our insatiable appetites are satisfied we are not happy. We may have a good job but we know a friend who has a better one. We may have season tickets to the Red Wings but we can only afford tickets in the nosebleed section. We may drive a new car but dream about driving a new Chrysler Crossfire. We may now finally have a stable marriage but our ex-wife  makes it difficult to see our children and our step-son cannot keep a steady job and is still living at home. Rather than focus on what we have we worry, grumble and complain about what we do not have.

Rejoicing

The words of the apostle Paul lift our eyes above the unfulfilled desires of this world. He is drawing his letter to a close and is giving the church in Phillipi his final instructions. He tells them to work together to settle the conflict between Euodia and Snytche. Their disagreement must have been intense to warrant mentioning or maybe Paul is using a minor dispute between old friends to illustrate to the people the theme of his correspondence—unity. He then tells them to rejoice always.

Paul's admonition is abrupt. He does not offer an introduction. He does not preface it with an explanation of the power of God to accomplish great things. However, it is not the first time he has mentioned the concept. He first told them that he could rejoice that some would preach Christ out of envy or rivalry (1:18). The motives of the person might be suspect but God could take the message and still change hearts. Latter he would tell the church that he could rejoice even in his suffering (2:17,18). The apostle was able to look beyond his present discomfort and see the reward that awaited him for his present ministry. He followed this testimony with his first instruction to the churches in Philippi to rejoice and again repeats the admonition in this chapter not once but twice.

The act of rejoicing is not natural for most of us. When we are hurting we tend to focus on the pain. When I catch a finger in a door, I cannot see beyond the throbbing of that finger. When we hear the news that our mother has cancer, we cannot see beyond that one relationship. To rejoice, requires us to look away from the pain and to focus on God and what God is doing. It attunes our will to God's will and plan for our lives. It requires us to walk by faith.

This would not have been easy or natural for the church in Philippi. They probably were not a wealthy church. Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown into prison when their preaching threatened the job security of the local silversmiths. They were constantly under the threat of persecution.

The act of rejoicing requires a choice. We are not the victims of our circumstances. We are not the victims of our feelings or emotions. We are not the victims of the stingy criticism of others. We can choose to remain glum. We may choose to worry or we may choose to rejoice. Paul tells the churches in Philippi that the choice is to rejoice.

Don't Worry Be Happy

These are easy words that are difficult to implement. How do we rejoice when everything around us is falling apart? How do we rejoice with the bills mounting prospects of a better job slim? How do we rejoice when we keep getting sick and nothing the doctors suggest help?

I am somewhat reticent in approaching this subject a great many pastors treat the Bible as if it were a therapeutic manual for solving all of life’s problems. My wife would also say that it is partly due to my personality. She and I tease one another about our different perspectives in life. I have accused her of being too much of a Pollyanna when circumstances are bleak. She returns the volley by reminding me that Oscar the Grouch has not been nominated to the Hall of Fame of Faith. However, her silver lining approach is closer to Paul's prescription than a gloom and doom viewpoint.

Paul emphatically states “do not be anxious about anything.” His words remind me of that that tune by Bobby McFerrin, “Don't worry be happy.”

Here's a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note
Don't worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double
Don't worry, be happy
Don't worry, be happy now

Even when life is going great I found that song annoying but its message is profound. We do not have to worry. We can choose to be happy.

The advice is rather simple if we put things into their proper perspective. I am by nature not a worrier. I do not stay awake thinking about my lack of funds in my checking account. I do not worry about what would happen to me if the cancer should return. I am an over-reactor. When something happens to disrupt my plans I tend to respond with anger that is disproportionate to the disruption. Lately I have been trying to put things into their proper perspective by asking myself, “Will this problem thwart the advancement of world civilization or is it merely a minor annoyance?” It is amazing how that one question changes my attitude and perspective on the problem.

The apostle Paul advises us to refrain from worry because he recognized the difference between the timeless and the temporal. He could distinguish between the circumstances that had eternal consequences and the everydayness events that were  ephemeral. He believed that the value of the Unseen was vastly superior to the worth of the Seen. He was not willing to risk his eternal soul for the fading glory of this world.

The Role of Prayer

While this strategy may help us get through the everyday hassles of life, everyone of us has experienced situations that may not alter the course of civilization, but will most certainly threaten the course and direction of our personal lives and well being. These difficulties can only be addressed through long hours of prayer. Why do I say long hours because, much is required of us and it does not happen during the short prayers we email to God before we lay our head on the pillow.

Paul tells us that “by prayer and petition with thanksgiving present your [our] requests to God.” This brief admonition cancels what is sometimes a long and laborious journey. Most of the time offering thanksgiving is easy but one day, most of us have from personal experience know struggle to give thanks when a monumental crisis strikes. It is easy to pray about the matter but it is difficult to thank God. However, it is during those types of crisis when expressing our thankfulness is most necessary for our healing.

Tom was a young man who enjoyed the outdoors. He loved people and everyone loved him. He engaged every challenge, every obstacle with a positive spirit and youthful enthusiasm, so when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, everyone thought that he would overcome. But he did not and after a four year struggle and several surgeries and radiation his body finally succumbed.  Alan died in faith and knew that we would enjoy his eternal reward but his parents struggled to accept his death. They were angry at God for taking their son and they just could not move to that point of giving thanks and accepting God's will. Their struggle with depression extended for many years.

The shadow of despair will haunt us until we are willing to offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God. That may not happen quickly. We should never feel pressured or pushed by friends or a counselor. People must be allowed to move through their anguish at their own pace. After I make a visit to a family that is grieving a death, I am often asked, “How are the Williams’ doing?” My responsive is “They are grieving.” I will never evaluate the journey of grief. Each person must take a different journey. We only share a common destiny. We must present our prayers and petitions to God until we can finally arrive at the point of giving thanks.

From Grumpiness to Rejoicing

We do not need to be unprepared for the tragedies of life. Each day offers opportunities to face disappointment and regret. Each day we encounter unexpected problems and unanticipated setbacks. We can grumble our way through them feeling miserable and wonder why life is so unfair. We can blame others for being unkind and difficult. We can offer perfunctory prayers that pay lip service to God but accomplish nothing in helping us understand God's will and plan in our lives. Or we can choose to embrace each crisis, each inconvenience, each disappointment with a spirit of joy and thanksgiving. The choice is to rejoice.

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