Joy, Prayer, Thanksgiving
by Jack Wald | June 2nd, 2019

Philippians 4:4-7

What do you think of when I say the word “piety”? If I tell you someone is a pious person, is this good or bad? Do you want to be more pious?

To be pious is to be a devoutly religious person – which is a good thing to be, right? But the Merriam-Webster dictionary writes:
Pious has a bit of an image problem. From the beginning of its use in the 15th century this Latin descendant has been used to describe those who are simply very religious—that is, who are deeply devoted to their religion—but it has for centuries also described those who make a show of their religiousness and use it to assert their superiority.

Someone can say, “I’m tired of hearing politicians making pious pronouncements about their devotion to the people.”

The Living Bible translation of Matthew 23:28 where Jesus is critiquing the Pharisees says,
“You try to look like saintly men, but underneath those pious robes of yours are hearts besmirched with every sort of hypocrisy and sin.”

Henry David Thoreau wrote of “the pious slave-breeder devoting the proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sunday’s liberty for the rest.”

Religious hypocrisy damages the meaning of piety but in its positive sense, Paul talks in the verses for this morning about Jewish piety. Jewish piety consisted of joy, prayer, and thanksgiving and that is what we find in Philippians 4:4-7.

You can see this piety reflected in the psalms. Rejoicing in the Lord can be seen in many places including Psalm 64:10
The righteous will rejoice in the Lord
and take refuge in him;
all the upright in heart will glory in him!

And in Psalm 97:12
Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous,
and praise his holy name.

Prayer is seen in Psalm 61:1–4
Hear my cry, O God;
listen to my prayer.
2 From the ends of the earth I call to you,
I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
3 For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the foe.
4 I long to dwell in your tent forever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.

And in Psalm 84:1–8
How lovely is your dwelling place,
Lord Almighty!
2 My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.

Blessed are those who dwell in your house; 
they are ever praising you. 

Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty; 
listen to me, God of Jacob.

Thanksgiving is seen in Psalm 95:2
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.

And in Psalm 100:4
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.

The psalms tell us that a pious person has joy that is reflected in prayer and thanksgiving. The life of a follower of Jesus should be marked by these qualities.

These three aspects of piety make verses 4-7 a whole, meant to be read and understood together. They are interconnected.

Paul begins by saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” I talked about joy in the sermon three weeks ago. Joy is not an emotion. Joy is not happiness. Joy can be expressed with emotion, it can cause someone to be happy, but deep joy is present in funerals as well as in weddings, present in smiles as well as in tears.

Joy is the foundation of these verses. A deep joy that is present in good and bad times allows for the prayer and thanksgiving that reflect piety. Pious prayer and thanksgiving come out of the deep joy that is present in the heart and mind of a follower of Jesus.

So, at the end of his letter, Paul writes in Philippians 4:4–7
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

If Saul, the Pharisee who persecuted the followers of Jesus, had written this letter before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he would have had a different emphasis at the end of his letter. He would have encouraged the men and women of Philippi to obey Torah law, the Law of Moses. He would have encouraged them to observe the Sabbath, not to work on the Sabbath, to avoid contact with people and objects that made one unclean. He would have focused on rules and regulations.

This focus is why Jesus was critical of the Pharisees. They worked hard to obey the law but neglected the heart. When Jesus criticized the Pharisees he focused on their lack of internal righteousness. (Matthew 23:27)
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.

This is the problem with religion. Religion becomes a matter of following rules and regulations, all of which can be done externally, without regard to what is in the heart. It might be the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Nobel Eightfold Path of Buddhism, or of a Christian list of dos and don’ts. Unfortunately, a focus on external obedience is found in the religion of Christianity as much as it is found in all the other religions of the world.

Paul wrote in Romans 14:17
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,

The kingdom of God has nothing to do with Torah observance “food and drink” but everything to do with “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Christian faith is meant to be a focus on a relationship with Jesus and the internal transformation that results from that relationship, not one more religion with rules and regulations to be followed.

The Pharisees were obsessed with following rules which drowned their joy. A religion of following rules always destroys joy. Christians who focus on the dos and don’ts of Christian faith lose their joy.

During my years in business I used to visit a customer in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the west of the US. It is a beautiful place. On one visit I toured the US Air Force Academy. There is a large quad in front of the main building with large brown squares and white borders. The first year cadets are not permitted to walk across the brown squares. They have to cross the quad, staying on the white borders. So they make a lot of right turns and left turns while the older cadets can just stroll across without having to think about where they are stepping.

There might be a beautiful sky, perhaps a falcon or eagle soaring above them, but the first year cadets miss this beauty. They have to make sure they put their feet in the right place. The other students can observe the beauty as they make their way because they are not focused on where they are placing their feet.

If you go through life focused on where you put your feet when you walk, you miss out on the joy of life with Jesus.

Martin Luther famously said, “Love God and sin boldly.” He did not mean to encourage sinfulness. What he meant is that we need not be so afraid of sin that we are always worried about where to put our feet. We will inevitably sin. We struggle, with our sinful nature in conflict with our spiritual self. None of us will ever be perfect.

But Luther continued in his letter to say, “but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” Luther is telling us where to put our focus. Focus on Jesus and seek to live obedient lives pleasing to God, but beware of focusing on living obedient lives at the expense of losing sight of Jesus.

Our focus needs to be on the love of Christ for us, we need to deepen the intimacy of our relationship with Christ. If our focus is instead on the sins we don’t want to commit, we lose sight of Christ and become rule bound.

The Pharisees were obsessed with following rules which drowned their joy. Second, their prayer was hypocritical, showing people how pious they were. Jesus criticised the Pharisees in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 6:5)
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.

In a parable he talked about a Pharisee and a tax collector, the Pharisee who was highly respected and the tax collector who was despised for collaborating with the Romans. (Luke 18:11–13)
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

Jesus concluded: (Luke 18:14)
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The Pharisee prided himself on his obedience to the Law; the tax collector prayed from his heart. The Pharisee was delighted that he was better than other people; the tax collector knew that he was a sinner who needed to be saved.

The Pharisees were obsessed with following rules which drowned their joy. Their prayer was hypocritical, showing people how pious they were. And third, their thankfulness centered on what their own efforts had accomplished.

When the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable gave thanks, he gave thanks that he was not like the sinful tax collector. He viewed his obedience to the Law of Moses as his work that earned him the favor of God. His view of being blessed was that he had worked hard and done the right things to be blessed. He deserved to be blessed.

It is easy for us to be like the Pharisees. Our human nature pulls us in the direction of following rules. Our human nature pulls us toward self. Our pride fools us into thinking we are better than we are and we begin to think we are better than other people because of how hard we have worked, because of all the good choices we have made.

If you are born into a family where you are loved and encouraged, who support you in your education, and have the finances to help you get a start in life, you are more likely to be successful. Yes, you need to work hard in school. Yes you need to work hard in your career, but your start in life is a gift for which you can be thankful.

There is an expression of privilege you will not understand if you do not know the game of baseball, but if you do, it communicates just what I want to say. “He thinks he hit a home run but forgets he was born on third base.” In baseball you have to hit the ball and run from first, to second, to third base, and then to home plate. When you cross home plate you score a run for your team. The expression means that the person was born three-fourths of the way to the goal and only had to run from third base to home plate to score a run.

The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote: (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

The best musicians in the world are not people you have heard of. The musicians we know are the ones who got the lucky breaks. There are many other highly skilled musicians who never got the lucky break. This is true in all professions. The most successful people are not necessarily the most highly skilled and most intelligent people. We all need to be grateful and thankful for how we have been blessed.

We can learn lessons from the negative behaviors of the Pharisees and if we are reflective, we can see these same tendencies in ourselves.

Let’s take a look at joy, prayer, and thanksgiving and see how they are interconnected.

Joy should be the distinctive mark of the believer in Christ Jesus. I preached on this and do not need to spend a lot of time talking about joy this morning. Joy comes from knowing we are deeply loved by God, knowing that we are pilgrims passing through this world, knowing that this world is not our permanent home, knowing that we are heading toward our eternal home where the suffering of this earthly world will be gone. This is what allowed Paul to have joy even when he was sitting in a jail cell with Silas, suffering from the flogging they had experienced. They sat in chains in their cell, praying and singing hymns, filled with joy.

The apostles were arrested for preaching about Jesus. The Sanhedrian, the Jewish religious leaders, had them flogged and then released. How did they respond? (Acts 5:41–42)
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

They responded to the pain and suffering of being flogged with joy.

How do people see joy in followers of Jesus? Joy at a funeral is not seen in a smile. But joy is seen in how people react to pain, suffering, and grief.

When I was a young pastor, I officiated at 41 funerals in my five and a half years as pastor in Ohio. I saw the difference between people of faith and people without faith in the way they reacted to the death of someone they loved. Faith and the joy that comes from knowing that death is not the end was reflected in how people reacted to grief.

I remember one funeral for a 16 year old boy and an 18 year old girl. They had been drinking and borrowed a motorcycle from the boy’s uncle, who was also drinking at the time. The caskets were closed because they had been riding at an estimated 160 kilometers per hour when he lost control and their bodies were too damaged to be viewed.

At the funeral the uncle would stand up bravely and then collapse, weeping. He had to have people help him up and then he would be ok until a few minutes later he would collapse again. He was filled with guilt for allowing them to take his bike. He had no strength to stand and face the consequences of his actions and the reality of death.

On the other hand I met with people who were dying and who were an inspiration to me because of their awareness of the presence of God with them in their bed. They were suffering but they knew where they were going and that was of great comfort to them.

As followers of Jesus experience a deep joy, what the world sees is gentle forbearance. I saw a difference in people at funerals. But in all difficult situations, those with a deep joy stand out as being different. Peter wrote about the suffering of Jesus. (1 Peter 2:23)
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

Pilate had seen many prisoners, had presided over many trials. But he had never seen anyone like Jesus who stood silently, not meek and mild, but filled with an inner strength, a deep joy. Pilate was impressed with Jesus.

King Herod and King Felix were impressed with Paul when he was in prison, awaiting a decision. Herod Antipas was impressed with John the Baptist who he reluctantly ordered to be beheaded. Paul and John the Baptist, like Jesus, were not meek and mild, but filled with an inner strength, a deep joy.

Four years ago twenty-one Coptic Christians were beheaded by ISIS on a beach in Libya. What impresses me about the photographs of that tragic event is the dignity of those who were about to be beheaded. They were not struggling, they were not fighting, they were not cursing. They knew where they were headed and were filled with peace.

In 2010 when 150 foreign followers of Jesus were abruptly deported from Morocco, many were a witness for Jesus when they left. Morocco broke its own laws in the deportations. People were treated unfairly. But despite the unjust treatment, most left with an inner strength that came from their joy. The way they responded to the unfairness was a witness of their faith in Jesus that I am confident is bearing fruit.

Unfortunately, there were also some others who reacted very poorly. One man fought and struggled and had to be sedated in order to get him on an airplane and flown out of the country.

Deep joy leads to gentle forbearance in the midst of suffering. People see the deep joy in a follower of Jesus by how he or she reacts in the midst of trials and tribulations.

Paul writes:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all.

And then he says,
The Lord is near.

What does this mean? Does Paul mean that Jesus is coming soon or is he saying Jesus is present with us? Is this sentence connected with gentleness or to the anxiety that comes next in verse 6?

Does Paul mean, “Rejoice in the Lord always; and let your gentle forbearance be known by all, for the coming of the Lord is near.” Or does he mean, “Because the Lord is always near, do not be anxious about anything, but let your requests be made known to God.”

Both are great encouragements.

Psalm 145:18 tells us
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.

but Paul writes in Romans 13:12
The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.

And James writes (James 5:8)
You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.

So what does Paul intend when he writes: “The Lord is near.”

Gordon Fee, in his commentary, thinks this is primarily an encouragement that Jesus is returning soon, but that there is also a double message of encouragement.

Since the suffering of the Philippians is at the hands of those who proclaim Caesar as Lord, they are reminded that the true Lord is near. At the same time, Paul is encouraging them to prayer in the midst of their present distress, because the Lord is near in a very real sense to those who call on him now.

This double encouragement reflects the two great promises of God in the New Testament. First, I will be present with you. In every circumstance of life, both good and bad, I will be present with you. Second, I will take you safely to be with me in my eternal kingdom when your life on earth is over. These promises are the source of our joy and our hope for the future.

This leads to the final part of these verses.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

We are to live without anxiety. This is what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 6:25–34)
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

What makes us anxious? Money, finances. How we are viewed by people we like. Whether we get into the school we want to or get the job or promotion we want. How our children are treated by their teachers and classmates. How our accomplishments are viewed by others. We are anxious about health issues. We are anxious about so many things.

These are all important. We need money to live. A good education is important. We want what is best for our children. We need to be loved and valued by friends. Being in good health is important.

But in all these things, a deep joy allows us to know that none of these things is of ultimate importance. We are pilgrims passing through this world and how much of the world’s wealth and favor we accumulate on our journey is completely without eternal value. It will all be left behind when we die. What the world thought of us and how they viewed what we were able to accomplish during our years on earth will be forgotten. What God thinks of us will be all that matters.

A deep joy allows us to deal with the things that are important in this life without being anxious about them, to have a peace that passes all understanding in the midst of crises.

This is really wonderful. We would all love to have a deep joy that led to authentic prayer and thanksgiving and kept us from being anxious. We would all love to go through life with a peace that passes all understanding. But when we look back on crises in our lives, we ask ourselves where was the deep joy we needed. When we look at church fights, we ask where is the deep joy followers of Jesus are supposed to have.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote: (James 4:1–2)
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.

Several years ago at a RIC board meeting I lost my temper. I was frustrated with one of the board members who kept bringing up the same issue, meeting after meeting, even though the issue had been settled the first meeting. So I exploded. Afterwards I had to apologize but it wasn’t helpful to me at all as pastor of the church. My behavior caused the board members to have less trust in me as a leader.

In thinking about this later I realized that what was going on in me was anxiety that I was not a good enough leader of RIC. I was feeling insecure and so my strong reaction came out to protect my feelings of inadequacy.

I have grown since then. I have grown in my experience of being loved by God which has given me security regardless of how well or how poorly I lead. How I view myself is less dependent on my performance than it used to be. I handle difficult relationships in a much healthier way than I did in my past. I have a deeper joy than I used to have.

Deep joy does not come quickly. Deep joy develops over time, often by holding on to Jesus in difficult circumstances. And as joy deepens, the world sees our gentle forbearance. They see a calmness, a peace when we face a crisis. They see our ability to care for others when our own world is being threatened.

We will still have a lot to be anxious about. We will spend time and energy on issues that affect us. But we will pray, putting those things in God’s hands and trusting him with them. Then we will have a peace that passes all understanding. As we hold on to our relationship with Jesus, keeping our minds and hearts open to him, we will grow in our sense of being loved, we will become more secure, we will have a greater peace in the midst of crisis, the world will see Christ in us by the way we react to trials and tribulations.

Be patient. The power of God is working in you. The Holy Spirit is working to deepen your intimacy with God, working to give you a deeper joy. Hold on to Jesus and you will be fed. You will experience a deeper joy as you hold on to your relationship with Jesus.

Live without anxiety. You are deeply loved by God. Jesus is present with you. You are never alone and when it is time for you to leave this earth, Jesus will bring you safely into his eternal kingdom. Put your worries in the hands of God and trust him. It is going to be OK. You are safe. Suffering will not last. You will be saved. You will be healed. You will soon be completely out of danger.

Romans 15:13
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.