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Sunday, November 10, 2019
Scripture: Psallm 32:3-7 & Philippians 4:2-7
Rev. Kristine Aragon Bruce

Anxiety is one of today’s buzzwords. We hear about how anxiety plagues our youth with all of the pressures they face that didn’t exist or weren’t as pronounced a generation ago. How the state of our government and how politically divided we are as a country has caused us to be an anxious nation. Even in the business world you hear about the need for CEOs or anyone with a leadership role to be the “non-anxious” presence in the room.

As I was reading about anxiety online I came across an article that stood out from the rest. It’s title “20 tweets that will make you laugh about anxiety.” Anyone out there use Twitter? Yeah? Me neither. Nevertheless I thought I’d share some of these humorous tweets with you now.

BRAIN: hey whachya doin
ME: nothing just relaxing
BRAIN: would u like to think about all of ur failures
ME: what no
BRAIN: and away we go

I watch the news when I want my generalized anxiety disorder to be more specific.

My grandfather fought in 2 wars & I just had to audibly practice what I was gonna say to the lady at the drive thru bc of my social anxiety.

I’m worried that I don’t worry enough or that I worry too much or omg what if I worry the right amount (unlikely) but don’t worry correctly.

sticks & stones may break my bones
words will also hurt me
compliments make me uncomfortable
I have social anxiety
I’m a wreck
just go

I appreciated the humor from these folks for whom anxiety is a struggle they deal with every day. We all feel anxiety about something, but there are those who truly have an anxiety disorder. One helpful hint that I’ve read about to help someone who either has an anxiety disorder or someone who is experiencing an anxious moment is to concentrate on the details around you in an effort to keep the anxiety at bay and not completely overtake you.

Paul has also given the Philippians concrete steps to deal with the anxiety of the world they live in. The technique he proposes is rather different as it involves concentrating on who Jesus is rather than the sights and sounds around you. Paul reminds the Philippians that the peace of God guards our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ.

Whether our anxiety is caused by situations closer to home or the state of our country or the world, in Jesus Christ we receive protection from being completely overwhelmed by whatever it is that makes us anxious or fearful.

For the Philippians there are situations happening both inside and outside of the church that is causing them great worry.

Within this church family there are two women Euodia and Syntyche, who Paul implores to be “of the same mind as the Lord.” Most scholars interpret this statement as these two women fighting with one another, but Paul doesn’t give us much information about what they were fighting about or if they were fighting at all. All we know is that these two women were prominent enough leaders in the church who worked closely with Paul that whatever was going on between them was, for Paul, worth mentioning to the rest of the church that these two women needed to once again be on the same page.

In addition to this anxiety-producing situation inside of their church, there were the external factors that also caused great anxiety upon this small band of Christians. They were in the minority, they were associated with Paul, who has quickly been identified as an enemy of the great Roman Empire. They have good reason to worry and be anxious.

And in response to all of this Paul encourages them to not once, but twice: “Rejoice!”

I can only imagine the response of the Philippians. So okay, Paul, you want us to shout for joy? People are fighting in the church. “Yay!” We could be arrested like Paul any minute. “Hooray!” This is not helpful advice. At. All.

If we keep reading, Paul gives us good reason for rejoicing. At the end of verse 5 it states: “The Lord is near.” Also notice that when Paul says “Rejoice!” He’s not saying rejoice in your sufferings or because you are suffering, but rejoice “in the Lord.” It is because the Lord is near and present – the fact that Christ has not left them, is cause for joy and thankfulness.

Paul isn’t expecting the Philippians to break out in spontaneous joy in the midst of tough situations. What Paul is getting at is that joy is a byproduct of the realization that God is present. God is near. God hasn’t abandoned us.

Philippians 4:4-7 is a passage close to my heart. I remember when I first read this passage. I was a sophomore in high school and I was going through an especially anxiety producing time because…high school…though I have to say that the things high school students face today in terms of the academic pressures and the added stress of social media, I get anxious for them! I am grateful we are a church that wants to be a healthy and safe haven for our youth.

So when I was a sophomore in high school, my friend Joanne noticed how stressed and anxious I was, so she wrote down this verse and I can still vividly remember what her handwriting looked like, that it was written with a black sharpie and got super crumpled up in my Bible. I remember being shocked that the Bible had anything specific to say about “anxiety.” This passage brought so much comfort to me that I memorized it – it was the first passage of scripture I ever committed to memory.

I used to understand this passage as saying you won’t receive the peace of Christ unless you prove to God you’re genuinely happy and, pray with a thankful heart about everything that is weighing you down. As if Paul is giving us a tried and true formula that results in God finally giving us his peace. That’s not what Paul is saying.

What Paul is actually saying is one can rejoice because the Lord is near. Whether we feel it or not doesn’t matter, because God’s presence is not dependent on our feelings. God is present because God chooses to be present and always chooses to be with us no matter what. This is worth rejoicing about. In being thankful to who God is we are practicing the discipline of remembering all the things God has done for us, which helps us be more aware of how he is within us and around us in the present. And to be honest by taking everything to God in prayer. Everything.

It’s not that God will not give us peace unless we do these things, but when we do these things we are more aware that God’s peace is ours for the taking.

Since we currently have a mission team in Belize it’s brought back memories of my experiences with short-term mission trips. These were opportunities to see how God’s work is not limited to one specific culture or country, but is present with and at work in people of all nations. These trips were also an opportunity to get to know another culture better. One spring break in college I went with a mission team to Jamaica to help with repairs on a church and assist in an after school program. I remember driving past the touristy all-inclusive resorts to get to our destination out in the country. I’m so glad we did because outside of the touristy areas we really got to know true Jamaican culture. We ate the food they ate, had extensive conversations and therefore really got to know the people at the church we were partnered with. We learned quickly that worship was not limited to an hour, but filled with lots of dancing and movement around the sanctuary while singing loudly. The more you immerse yourself in another culture the more you engage in the rituals and traditions even if it’s for a short amount of time as a week, the less foreign the culture becomes. The food tastes less strange. The language more familiar. You become more acquainted with the culture of that country.

The more we immerse ourselves in prayer, the more aware we are that God is present. The Lord is near. Not that our prayers bring Jesus to us, but prayer makes us aware that Jesus is already with us. The more aware we are of Christ’s presence then the more thankful we become and we have reason to rejoice. And the more we are in the habit of sharing with God all that is on our hearts in prayer, the more acquainted we are with Christ’s peace.

A faith in Jesus Christ doesn’t guarantee absence of conflict or anxiety in our world, whether that anxiety is close to home such as in our families, in jobs, or in the headlines. I wish it did though, because that’d be nice. What we are promised is the peace that only comes from God himself guards our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ, despite all that is happening around us.

The word “guard” in the original Greek can be translated to “Garrison.” The Philippians would’ve identified with the idea of Christ’s peace being compared to a garrison as there was a garrison of Roman Soldiers stationed in Philippi ready at all times to defend the city from any outside danger. What Paul is getting at then is that when anxiety-provoking situations come barreling down on us like an invading army, Christ’s peace guards and protects our hearts and minds from completely succumbing to this anxiety.

When we experience Christ’s peace our circumstances don’t necessarily change, but internally we are changed. This is where the peace of Christ doesn’t make sense. It really is beyond all human understanding because why in the world would we experience peace if nothing externally has changed? It really doesn’t make sense. Such a peace can’t be willed or produced by any person – it has to be beyond human control. It’s why Paul calls it the “peace of Christ” because such a peace is found only in Jesus Christ, but Jesus willingly gives this peace to us.

Now I just want to say that I’ve been a pastor long enough and because depression and anxiety run in my family, I can say that severe anxiety disorders are real. There are some for whom their anxiety is so severe and ongoing that it affects their job performance, their relationships or just the ability to interact with people on a daily basis. The worst thing that could ever be said to someone suffering from real anxiety disorder is to tell them to “just pray more.” They should definitely still pray and be prayed for, but it should never be said that because they don’t pray enough their anxiety is their fault. The peace of Christ is just as readily available to the person who suffers from anxiety disorder, but that person also needs counseling and possibly medication, and there’s no shame in those things. Jesus wants all of us to be healthy and whole both mentally and physically and if tools such as medication and counseling are helpful in achieving better health then they should be taken advantage of.

No matter what we are going through, Christ offers us his peace. The peace that gives us confidence that no matter what situation or circumstance we may find ourselves in, the Lord is near. Christ is with us and will never leave or forsake us. And that is something to rejoice about.