I hope as you were coming in to church this evening I hope you noticed the sign with our bible reading on it out the front, and the tree and bird house. The tree is a prayer tree planted in June here at the church. The idea is to invite the community to bring their cares and concerns and place them in the bird house and a dedicated team will commit themselves to praying about them. Bringing them to God.
I’m not a member here at Mt Albert but think it is a great idea, and I hope people in the community take advantage of it. There is a wonderful picture in the book of Ezekiel chapter 17 of the coming messianic king, being like a tree that God plants out of the royal house of David, and it growing to be a strong and healthy tree bearing fruit and offering shelter and a place to nest to all the birds of the air. It’s picked up by Jesus in Mark 4:30-32 where Jesus likens the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds that is planted, that falls to the ground and dies, but then becomes the biggest of all the garden plants, and the birds of the air come and find shelter and nest in its branches. So I see all that symbolism in what you’ve done out the front. The bird house is like inviting people to come and find shelter and rest and hope and hopefully home amongst the branches, in the Kingdom of God, as they experience God in their lives through the power of prayer and your churches Christ like love and care.
When I came out to Mt Albert to get some idea for a poster to advertise this evenings service, it wasa cold rainy winters morning, and I had to keep whipping rain drops off the camera lens and my glasses. But down in the carpark I saw a tree that seemed to be an answer to the hope of the prayer tree round the front... It was blooming despite the adverse conditions, and I thought Wow, what a great picture, not just technically, by symbolically as well of the hope we have when we come to God in prayer; New life blossoming, freshness, beauty, health, I’m not sure if it was a fruit tree, but the hope of fruitfulness to come, even in the face of the greyness and storms of life.
Now that all may sound kind of flowery, but tonight I want come in from the carpark and the outside and explore what Paul has to tell us about Knowing God’s presence and help in that verse from Philippians and what the wider passage has to tell us, and what at its heart it tells us about the power of prayer.
The church at Philippi was facing external opposition and some internal strife and Paul had written to encourage them to keep going and to be a unified community that would keep on sharing the gospel even in those tough situations. He was in Prison himself when he was writing and so able to share with them how he kept himself going. The passage we read is like a series of three quickfire encouragements for the believers. In fact Paul would have been chained to a guard and here Paul says it’s not that guard that keeps me safe, but these things guard my heart and mind and will guard yours as well.
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!
In his letter Paul had used the word Joy fourteen times. In the face of persecution Paul wants his readers to know that standing firm is not just a teeth grinding, white knuckle hanging on for dear life, but rather to know in their lives and to share the fullness of joy that comes from Jesus Christ. It is a joy that Transends circumstance, that is not dependant of situation or emotion or feeling. To rejoice in the Lord is to find our joy in who God is and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. he has made the world and all that is in it, he is the God who is sovereign in history, who has shown his faithful love for his people, who send Jesus Christ to be one of us, Jesus Christ who showed us God’s great love, who died on the cross that we may be forgiven and reconciled with God, whom God raised to life again, who promised to be with us until the end of the age, who poured our his promised Holy Spirit on all of us. Who leads and guides, who is working all things for good not for harm, who will come again to put all things right. That’s just not our theology, that is our hope its our source of joy. When its going wonderfully well, we need to remember it is because of God’s goodness, when its going bad, we need to remember it is still true.
Paul himself had given the Church at Philippi an example of this. While in Philippi he had been arrested beaten and thrown into jail. Instead of grumbling and sulking, he and Silas had sung psalms and given praise to God. The Church would have been aware that as they were doing that an earthquake had happened and their chains had been broken and the cells sprung open. Even if they hadn’t I think Paul and Silas would have kept on praise God and rejoicing.
I read the testimony of Czech national Petr Jasek in the August edition of the voice of the martyrs magazine. Petr had visited the Sudan to encourage the local church and on the way out of the country was detained and jailed for espionage. He was kept in appalling conditions packed in with a group of Muslim extremists in what was meant to be a single person cell. He said his attitude to his imprisonment changed when he called to mind the prayer of the angelic hosts in the book of revelations “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God almighty”, and began using that as his public prayer of praise. It didn’t improve his circumstances his cell mates objected to it and became abusive towards him. But just as Pauls says to the Philippians he found that the peace of Christ was with him. Later in another cell he shared his faith with a group of people and saw a couple of them come to know Christ. he said this for him was the reason God had allowed all this happen. After four months in prison the Czech government arranged his release.
When we rejoice in the Lord it changes our focus from situation to God, from problem to god’s goodness, from despair to hope. It guards our hearts and minds.
Let your gentleness be evident to all.
It is easy and maybe natural when we find ourselves in confrontation situations or situations where we are facing opposition to want to retaliate, to give as good as we get. But here Paul exhorts the church to react in a Christlike way. To extend having the mind of Christ, he talked of in Philippians two not only towards others in the Christian community but to those outside.
We often confuse gentleness with weakness, but rather it is the word meek, which has the idea of harnessing ones strength for the common good and not being distracted by slight or injury, insult or threat from achieve that common good. The Clydesdale hporse is a great example of that… they are blinkered to stop themselves from being distracted so they can focus all their strength in achieving the common goal of pulling a cart.
In Romans Paul speaks of not returning evil for evil but overcoming evil with good. I was reminded of the example of one woman in the aftermath of the bloodshed and genocide of Rwanda, who even though up to fifty members of her extended family had been killed, looked after the father of a neighbour who was in prison for leading one of the very mobs that could have killed some of her family members.
I don’t know about you but I find myself needing to hear this sentence from Paul. It is so easy to simply worry and be concerned about an issue, to let it sap you of your joy and peace, here Paul says the first port of call is not anxiety but rather in all situations to pray, with thanksgiving.
In his testimony that I mentioned earlier Petr Jasek said that as he began rejoicing and focus on Jesus Christ he found himself able to pray. He found that instead of worrying about his family and friends he began to pray for them, he found that his prayers for persecuted Christians round the world became more insightful and deep.
It is as we turn to the Lord and bring him our cares and worries that we become aware of the presence of the God of peace and his presence can guard our hearts and minds. Shane Clairborne says that Christian often use prayer as a form of escapism they want God to airlift them out of a situation, but rather what happens is that Jesus parachutes in to the issue alongside us. We talk about faith that can move mountains, its as if there is Jesus with some shovels and he hands us one and then gets to work right alongside us.
But the God of peace also tells us, that prayer is not only so that we may become aware of the abiding presence of God, but also that there is the hope of God kingdom coming as well. That God does answer prayer sometimes in miraculous ways . Peace in the scriptures comes from the Hebrew word shalom, which means wholeness and as we pray knowing God’s peace, can be God speaking wholeness into our lives, a restoration of right relationship with God, with each other, of justice when we have been mistreated and abused and a restoration to health, as the consequences of sin are dealt with in Jesus Christ.
In the midst of these three quickfire encouragements, Paul gives the reason we can rejoice and be gentle and that we can have confidence in prayer. Paul is very Jewish in this thought patterns and often the central and most important thing appears right in the middle of a whole lot of ideas that are connected and here it is this wonderful short sentence… God is near. We can rejoice even in the face of tough times, because God is near, God is here, we can live with gentleness and not be distracted from living for the common good because God is near Christ is here, we can have confidence in bring all situations to God because god is near Christ is hear, the Holy Spirit of God dwells within us.
I love the picture of God that we have in psalm 113. The God who is sovereign in control seated on the throne above heaven and earth… but not a distant disinterested deity, cut off, separate and uncaring. But rather we have this picture of a sovereign God who stands and even more stoops down to see, to see and know what is going on, then who reaches down and raised up the poor and the fatherless those in need to seat hem with princes.
It is interesting that the idea of a king stooping down to see and to connect with the poor isn’t such a shocking idea for us, because we see it in our royal family, we don’t realise how historically unique it is, to have royals connecting and bending down to talk with children, or to play football with orphans. It maybe that the queen has had to learn that it is necessary to make that connection, or it maybe that it comes from her Christian faith and the idea of leadership as service. But its a good illustration what the psalmist says God is like.
This God who stoops and sees and lifts up the poor and needy and seat them in places o honour is at the centre of the scriptures. It’s the God Moses encounters at the burning bush, who says I have seen the mistreatment and sorrow of my people and I have heard the cries of my people and I am going to sent you to bring them out of their captivity so they may worship me, and I will take them into the promised land and they will be my people.
It is the posture of God that is at the centre of the gospel, God sees and hears the plight of humanity enslaved to sin and death and stops down even further and in Jesus Christ becomes one of us, and to die on a cross for our forgiveness, that we may be lifted back to being in relationship with God, we may know new life and fullness of life in Christ.
That is the power and hope of prayer, not our words, not our action, not even our level of faith, but the God who is near, who sees who cares who stoops down to lift up and restore and bring God’s peace.
So tonight can I encourage you to hear and to put into practise Paul’s encouragement that in all circumstance and situations, with thanksgiving we bring it all to God in Prayer.
If you ar here tonight and you don’t know Jesus and you feel that while God is near and Christ is here, that you are still out in the cold and dark, or caught up in captivity. We’d love to pray for you and lead you into finding peace with God. That God would guard your heart and mind…
If there is stuff going on, if you are finding yourself slogging through the greyness and the storms of life and you are longing for that spring bloom of hope come forward and we will pray with you. God is near. Christ is here.
If you are faced with illness and unwellness, we’d love to pray for you that you might receive a healing touch from the God who raises up and brings wholeness.