Could have been an argument over coffee-makers – what kind to buy, how many cups it ought to serve. Or maybe something about setting the table for the communion meal – plates here and not there, these cups and not those ones. Likely it was more important things like what qualifications they’d enforce for widows who received food or how they’d go about counseling young women about proper dress and behavior or who would take which visitation-to-the-sick responsibilities… It was something, whatever it was, that finally wedged its way in between two Christian women – sharp and serious and obvious. Enough that Paul, writing from afar, felt the need to mention it in v.2 of ch.4 – appealing to Euodia and Syntyche to agree.
But you know how it can be when two people fight – especially when it’s not over God-says-so things – when it’s over whose opinion is more right. It can get personal, uncomfortable, disheartening. And sad, because the conflict is over something so small. And complicated, because some would necessarily feel the need to take sides and others would be weakened in their faith over petty infighting. And almost as the antidote to those kinds of things Paul said, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
I wonder if, at first blush, Euodia and Syntyche were self-righteously shocked, “Paul, do you know what kind of silly ministry plan she’s put together? Oh it’s sad…” “Are you aware of how she’s treated me? Rejoice!” You know what? It doesn’t surprise me that Paul had to say it twice… In fact, as people who get weak and weary and wounded fighting through this world, you might hear Paul this morning and say, “Come again? You might have to say that twice…not sure I understood. It sounds, Paul, like you’re saying that I ought to rejoice all the time?” And we might stand in line with some of our things, sit Paul down for some real-life schooling: “Paul, let me introduce you to my daughter and her unchristian life…rejoice?”, “Paul let me tell you about Bob, my friend whose life is junk and who thinks Jesus is a joke.” Or maybe we’d share some of what we’ve seen – of death, of grief, of guilt. The things that have made our life as back and forth, frenetic as a pinball. The things it seems unfair to call “worry” – they’re really what that word means – things we really care about, that matter to us, that don’t always fit together or work out. There’s this part of us, isn’t there, that feels like Paul is asking us to stand outside that building in Santa Barbara, day of the shooting, and dance and sing for joy – some insensate request, out of touch and offensive even. We might say, “Maybe once or twice, Paul, maybe now and again but not always with rejoicing – not in a place like this.”
Of course, when we show our hand like that, Paul will lay out his royal flush: more than once stoned to death, at least once flogged bloody, former persecutor of Jesus, on the run, in danger, mocked, ridiculed, rejected, betrayed… He’s rejoicing (and from a prison cell)…
On the other hand, we might instead say something more like, “How? Just practically, Paul?” Because we know logically that we need some kind of peaceful place for rejoicing and that’s what we’re working out. And it makes it harder when he’s negating the things that contribute to what we sometimes consider peace. “Look man, we worried away at it, but this little interpersonal trouble is too deep, we’re too different, we work differently – so agree to disagree…” Peace. But he says, “Agree in the Lord, please.” Or we know that sometimes when we are weak and in trouble we have to assert ourselves, get our way, take it in order to make it – peace, and then happiness, rejoicing. But he says we ought to let our gentleness – our willingness to forgo what’s rightfully ours, our willingness to yield, our general spacious generosity – let our gentleness be the thing every single person always sees – all the people who wrong us, the dude in Jamba Juice who whole-milks our soy-milk smoothie, all the ones who are inconsiderate, the girl who whispers about us even when we can see…
And maybe, people of faith, we might hear a practical, “how to” moment here. This is Paul with the “always be selling” sort of motivational shot-in-the-arm at the quarterly sales meeting, where he’s going to hand out prizes. Where now we’ll remember again what we have to do in order to be truly happy – be praying, be repentant for our selfishness and mindful of it, be magnanimous and mellow, set free our cares like glowing Chinese lanterns rising hot into the night… Like, if we just say it, twice or three hundred times, we can achieve it, have it – then peace and happiness will settle over us.
How do we rejoice, and always? From where does ubiquitous spacious generosity come? How does worry go away and prayer replace it? What shall we do to achieve this divinely-mandated level of joy? Maybe don’t say it at all – at least not at first. This week in our midweek Bible class, we had one of those cool moments that make pastors love Bible study. We were in the middle of our brief look at Zephaniah. We had acknowledged that at the beginning of chapter three God had basically said Israel was worthless in their depravity and sin – from worship life to work relationships – finally, “still eager to act corruptly”, unrepentant. By v.14, it’s something different, and it’s abrupt…it’s a call for Israel to shout and dance and sing – to rejoice… Someone said (something like this…) “You know, it’s like God doesn’t tell Israel how to rejoice. He is what makes them rejoice. He brings what makes them rejoice. He does what makes them rejoice. And then they do.”
Isn’t that Paul, here? Isn’t it in that simplest little phrase, everything of our confidence in Christian life and all of our anticipation in Advent? “The Lord is near.” There Paul’s encapsulating everything he’s heretofore said – our confidence:
The Lord is near – the Savior who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire, with ministry power like no one else could ever.
The Lord is near – his generosity is so spacious, his attitude so yielding that he gave up everything and took on everything we are instead so that everything we lost he might achieve. Becoming a man and suffering to death on a cross, paying for every sin, the Lord Jesus gave us everything of God’s love in life – and brings it near to our lives by faith.
The Lord is near – the one who rules every thing. He assures when we fear that we actually have everything already: “our citizenship is in heaven”. So that in every thing, instead of being overcome by worries and fears, we can know…
The Lord is near – we belong before him in worshipful prayer – with our petitions, what we need, how we’re weak, our confessions of sin, our need for absolution – with thanksgiving for all his saving work already applied we present our requests right to God – and he will hear us.
The Lord is near with the peace we need in order to actually rejoice. He brings this special kind that “transcends all understanding”. Which is not a word meaning, “incomprehensible” but more the peace that is “better than all understanding”. The Lord Jesus Christ is reminding us that what we can understand or reason or achieve of peace, what things we find here to cause rejoicing – they’re as Paul said in ch.3:8 – that stuff you happen upon in the bathroom stall when someone forgets to flush – “human waste” when compared with Christ and what he brings. After all, can any amount of money buy what the blood of Christ has bought and given away? Can the best of our health compare with the sigh of freedom from all guilt before the Almighty? Can secure retirement comfort and assure like the promise that the Lord is near to us with a heavenly reward? Can financial security and a good job compare with the promise that the minutia of our days is so near to our Lord that he will use every bit for our eternal good?
With that far better, far superior, vastly more competent peace standing guard over our hearts, we are safe to kick our “understanding” and our “sensibilities” out the door and begin to really think… Paul’s told it like it really is in this letter – we’re Jesus’ holy ones who shine like stars as his power works in us to do his work; even suffering for his name, we know there’s nothing to lose and we have everything that truly matters already near at hand; we are never alone but always have his ear for any and every thing. What wouldn’t we yield? When wouldn’t we be gentle? What else than satisfied and overflowing peace could we show – to tell of that kind of peace? When wouldn’t we pray? About what wouldn’t we ask? In everything, can we do anything but give thanks – for that kind of peace?
And does it really surprise you anymore that Paul couldn’t just say it once? Or, if he had stopped, would you have shouted out, “Say it again!” Won’t we have to say it twice, three times, again and again, every day until he returns? “Rejoice in the Lord…not just now, but always!” I will say it again, and I know you will too. “Rejoice!”