March 24, 2013

A Celebration to Remember

Okay, I want to do something this morning a little different.  I want to recreate a scene with you.  But, I’m going to need your help to do it.  Now, for those of you who are already starting to think, “Oh man.  Here it comes.  He’s going to ask us to do something silly.  This is going to make me feel really uncomfortable.”  Relax.  I am going to ask you to do something that’ll feel weird, but if we all do it together, it’s not going to feel as weird, so I need everyone committed to doing it.  In fact, if we all do it and you’re the only one who isn’t, then you’ll be uncomfortable.  Are you ready?  Okay, in order to recreate this scene, you all have some lines to learn.  I’ll keep them short.  For all the folks on house left, your line is: “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Hosanna in the highest!”  Let’s practice that (and remember: if everyone’s doing it it’s not weird anymore).  For my folks on house right, your line is: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Let’s practice that.  Both sides got it?  Let’s try it all together.  Again, but louder and try to sound like you mean it.  Okay, now, stand up and when you finish your line, starting cheering and clapping.  Now, I know this is going to shatter the mold for some of you of what is and isn’t appropriate at church, but trust me: if lightning bolts start flying, I’ll try and take the hit for you?  Got it?  Then let’s go.  I’m going to start reading a passage of Scripture and when I give you the cue, shout your lines and then start cheering and clapping like you just saw the best show ever.

“The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them.  They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.  Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting…[that’s your cue]…And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up saying, “Who is this?”  And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”

Now, how’d that feel?  How did it feel to celebrate Jesus like that?  Can you imagine what it would have been like to have been there as Jesus was riding into Jerusalem that final time?  All the crowds gathered to witness the event would have been near frenzied with excitement and celebration.  Here was their deliverance riding into town.  They need only wait to join Him when He called up the army of the faithful to drive off the Roman oppressors.   Can you imagine the feel in the air?  It would have been thick with rejoicing.  I mean, think about it: these people had been passed from one conquering nation to another for generations.  Freedom was a faint memory fueled by the ever-increasing hope for the Messiah of God who would finally come and deliver them from the hand of their oppressors, making them once again the nation God had always intended them to be.  And now, here was the guy who was the likeliest candidate in any of their lifetimes riding into town in a manner that intentionally drew their minds to one of the more important prophecies about the Messiah.  How could they not be celebrating?

Isn’t it great to celebrate Jesus?  Now I know some of you have had this experience, but some of you haven’t.  If you’ve haven’t, you’ll have to take the word of the rest of us.  Being in a place where 100s or even 1000s of other Jesus followers are singing and clapping and raising their hands in praise and just celebrating Him together is an incredible thing.  Now, if that sounds way too radical and religious an experience for you, maybe describing like this will help.  When Lisa and I were in Denver, the Colorado Rockies made their incredibly unlikely World Series run.  “Rocktober” gripped the city.  We managed to get tickets to Game Four of the NLCS where the Rockies would attempt to complete a four-game sweep of their division rivals the Arizona Diamondbacks.  The tension already present in the game was only heightened when one of the Diamondbacks’ outfielders, Eric Byrne, made the observation that his team hadn’t tried very hard yet and were sure to win the series starting with that game.  The mood in the stadium was electric to say the least.  And as the Rockies made the final out to win the game with first baseman, Todd Helton, perched in victory over none other than Eric Byrne who was face down in the dirt after his failed slide to avoid being the final out of the series, the stadium exploded.  We were hugging and being hugged by all the people around us, all of whom had become our closest friends, swinging our rally towels, cheering at the top of our lungs, and generally celebrating wildly the fulfillment of our hope.  In that moment the both of us became irrevocably dedicated to the Rockies.  I don’t know about you, but some of my most emotionally and even personally satisfying times have come in moments of celebration like that.  Certainly this was the case for the crowd welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem that day.

And yet…it did not last.  Indeed, in spite of securing tickets to Game Five of the World Series (which we still have, by the way), our hopes were dashed as the juggernaut pitching staff of the Boston Red Sox demolished the Rockies in four games.  Perhaps you’ve experienced the fact that life is kind of like that.  We have periods of rejoicing, of celebration, but they always fade back into the daily burdens of regular life and we are consumed by those.  Are you with me?  Perhaps as a kid you received just the Christmas gift that you had been hoping for.  Do you still play with it today?  Maybe even this past Christmas you got something awesome, and yet the luster is gone.  Lisa got me a book of Star Wars Origami and an RC Helicopter like you see buzzing around the Mall this past year.  They are both really cool.  But as life as gone on, I confess that I have tended to forget about them and focus on things that seemed more pressing (until this afternoon when I go home, pull them out, and play with them again).  Or perhaps you were in a relationship whose exciting newness seemed like it would last forever, only to discover that even true love can grow stale over time.  If you are a follower of Jesus you might still remember when you started that journey.  You read your Bible all the time.  You memorized Scripture.  You prayed constantly.  You talked to other people about your faith.  You invited friends to church.  You were sold out for God.  But eventually, the fires cooled.  The flames died.  You were once again consumed by the drudgeries of life.  Yet what if I told you this is not what God intended?  What if I tried to convince you that His intention was for the celebration to continue indefinitely?  Would you buy a bit of what people often deride as snake oil to see if perhaps it’s something entirely more useful?

This morning we are in the sixth week of our series, “Living an Easter Kind of Life.”  For over a month now we have been talking about how to take the power of Easter and experience it on a long term basis; how to take the hope, the joy, the excitement, the confidence, the celebration of Easter and live with these every day instead of setting but a single day a year apart for their enjoyment.  The trick to doing this, I have argued to you, is found in a set of practices called the spiritual disciplines.  The spiritual disciplines are practices which help us to either disengage from the unhelpful influences of the world or else to engage more fully with the helpful influences of the kingdom of God.  So far in this journey we have talked about some on both sides of that line.  We started with disengagement as we explored the practices of fasting and taking a regular Sabbath.  On the other side of the line we talked about deepening our knowledge of God by memorizing His word and making sure that we worship only God not the plethora of other options regularly presented to us by the world.  Then last week, through the lens of community, we focused in on a discipline that kind of rides the fence.  The spiritual discipline of accountability forces us to engage more fully with the kingdom community even as it enables us to disengage from sinful practices in our lives.  This morning, Palm Sunday, as we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant ride into Jerusalem, I want to draw our attention to a similarly fence-riding practice: celebration.  In order to do this we are going to look at part of a letter the Apostle Paul wrote to some Jesus followers in the city of Philippi.  I don’t want to simply unpack this spiritual discipline for you this morning, though.  As we examine together what Paul wrote, I want to get very specific in showing you what the results of practicing the spiritual discipline of celebration are and also a way to actually do it.

The letter that Paul wrote to the Jesus followers in Philippi is part of a group of letters he wrote, including ones to believers in Colossae, Ephesus, and a guy named Philemon, which are often together referred to as the “Prison Letters.”  They are given this title because Paul wrote them while he was sitting in…wait for it…prison.  (Bible scholars are so clever about titles.)  Somewhat ironically, with the exception of Philemon which was written to very briefly address a specific issue, the other three Prison Letters contain some of the most hopeful, Jesus-celebrating, positive language Paul uses in any of his letters.  And get this: Paul wasn’t merely in prison.  He was in Rome, under house arrest, chained to two guards 24/7, awaiting his self-requested trial before the Caesar who happened to be the infamous Nero (the first Roman Emperor to lead the charge in persecuting Jesus followers throughout the Empire), where he would almost certainly be put to death.  In other words, Paul, in all likelihood, has a pretty good idea that he was on death row when he was writing this letter.  Given all of that, the joyful tone of the letter is really striking.   Paul writes, somewhat unexpectedly, about how to bear up under hard times.  He writes about following in Christ’s example of humility, being faithful, looking to godly Jesus followers as examples of this, and the like.  But near the end of the letter, Paul gets really specific about how to handle hard times.  He does so through a series of seemingly unconnected, popcorn-like commands.  Many of these verses are very well-known, but there’s a little verse at the beginning of this series that often gets overlooked for the simple reason that it sounds so ridiculous when put up against what most of us know of life.  It doesn’t make any sense at all if you think about it the way most folks in our culture would.  Yet Paul still wrote it, and if as Jesus followers we want to take seriously the words God wanted passed on to us to give us some guidelines for living life His way, we’ve got to do something with it.  We’ve either got to say, “Okay Paul, I’ll give that a try,” or else “Paul, you’re nuts, you don’t really understand my life, and there’s no way I’m going to do that.”  Doing nothing, by the way, is to take that second approach.

With all of this in mind, open your Bibles or Bible apps with me to Philippians 4:4.  I’ll read just a bit, unpack what Paul’s saying for you, and then we’ll get on to figuring out what to do with it.  From Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”  Now, how many of you hear that and immediately get a picture in your minds of having a party for Jesus all the time?  You get that picture and you think, “Well, that’s not really for me.  I have other things to do than be at church all the time worshiping.”  Let me just say, “I could not agree with you more.”  If Paul was commanding us here to recreate the feelings of a big, exuberant church service all the time, I would join some of you in writing him right off.  That idea sounds absolutely absurd to me…and I’m the preacher!  Fortunately, I don’t think that is at all what Paul is telling us to do.  In fact, if you’re not a Jesus follower or maybe you’re still not really sure how into all this you want to get, Paul’s not telling you to do anything.  You can relax.  For the Jesus followers in the room, though, I think what Paul is commanding is for us to take up the spiritual discipline of celebration.  Okay, yeah, but what exactly is that?  And how are we supposed to do it all the time?  There are quite a few times during the day that I most decidedly do not feel like celebrating.  In fact, the last three months for us have kind of been one cause for us to not celebrate after another.  I know some of you are in the same boat; you’ve just been there longer.

Alright, let’s define our terms a bit more clearly and then we’ll go on.  What do I mean by celebration?  Well, I’m not talking about the kind of revelry that went on after the Rockies defeated the Diamondbacks in Game Four.  In fact, while that is one way to celebrate, to rejoice in the Lord, I don’t have anything like that in mind at all.  What more, Paul probably didn’t either.  Again, he was sitting chained to two Roman guards waiting for his soon-coming death sentence.  And while we have evidence of Paul singing songs while in prison, his current situation had stretched on long past the point that praise songs were going to solve anything.  What Paul has in mind here is something entirely different.  Actually, speaking of the mind, it has very much to do with our minds.  The spiritual discipline of celebration that Paul is talking about here results from a state of mind marked by a deep contentment in our present circumstances which itself stems from a clear understanding of who God is and what He has promised.  Now, I know that’s a bit formal sounding so let me boil that down a bit.  The kind of celebrating, or rejoicing in the Lord, that Paul has in mind here comes from a deep understanding of who God is and what He’s going to do.  To celebrate, or rejoice, in the Lord means very simply that we acknowledge who God is and let that reality dictate our mindset toward our present circumstances.  With this understanding of celebration in mind, then, it suddenly becomes something that we not only can do, but can do all the time.  In fact, if we take seriously the portrait of God gleaned from the various guys who contributed to the Bible, celebration like this is something we should be doing all the time.  If God really is who the authors of the Scriptures say He is, being anxious about our circumstances, contrary to the worldly thought that such a reaction is a reasonable response to hard times, is in fact entirely unreasonable.

Come now, though.  How can I say something like that?  I mean, there are folks out there…folks in here…who have experienced some incredibly hard times recently.  They’ve experienced tragic illness and loss, financial hardships and relational turmoil.  Surely they can be forgiven for being a bit anxious or unhappy about all that.  Of course they can be forgiven.  But let me be very clear here so there’s no confusion.  Encouraging Jesus followers to take up the intentional practice of celebration on a regular basis has almost nothing to do with the emotion of happiness.  In fact, it has next to nothing to do with emotion at all.  If you have experienced a tragic loss of some form, you should mourn.  We as a church should mourn with you.  But that doesn’t mean that we, that you, can’t still celebrate.  Particularly when we understand that celebration isn’t about faking some emotion in the face of contrary circumstances.  It’s all about recognizing who God is and facing our circumstances in light of that greater truth.  It is proclaiming with Job—a man familiar with perplexingly intense suffering if there ever was one, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes; blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Here, then, is the truth about the spiritual discipline of celebration: It comes from reasonably recognizing who God is.  Celebration is reasonably recognizing who God is.  And if God is who we claim He is, celebration is the most reasonable thing to do in any circumstance.  If God is who we claim He is, panic or anxiety in the face of hard circumstances are what is unreasonable.  Celebration is reasonably recognizing who God is.

Look, then, at the next command Paul gives in v. 5: “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.”  When we take up the spiritual discipline of celebration people will take notice as we face hard times that we aren’t reacting in the same way everybody else does.  When they see us delighting in God, even with tears running down our face, they are going to want to know what’s going on.  When we calmly explain that because we know who God is, we don’t have to give in to the fear or anxiety such a situation might normally cause, the first thing they are going to think is that we are delusional.  They’ll think we’re using a coping mechanism to avoid really dealing with the pain.  But, as they witness the peace that comes with celebration, they will come to see that we are being entirely reasonable.  Celebration is reasonably recognizing who God is.

Indeed, look at the next thing Paul says here, starting at the end of v. 5: “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything…”  When we are deeply convinced of the character of our God and His intention to walk with us through hard times, we won’t be anxious about anything.  Celebration allows this to happen.  Celebration is reasonably recognizing who God is.  And when this happens, in tough circumstances we won’t experience panic or anxiety.  We’ll consciously hand off things to the God who we know is there with us in the midst of the mess and who is more than equipped to deal with whatever it is.

Come back with me to the text in v. 6: “…in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  Are you with me?  This handing off to God is exactly what Paul commands.  Pay careful attention to what Paul says, though.  We sometimes forget the part in the middle about “with thanksgiving.”  We’re not treating God like a vending machine.  When we do that we don’t really release our anxiety and worry—we ask God to give us what we need so we can fix it.  Instead, our requests are to be made in the context of our practice of celebration.  Besides, when we are aware of who God is, will make better requests of Him.  Celebration is reasonably recognizing who God is.  When we incorporate this discipline into our routines, it naturally takes our attention off of our present circumstances and places it squarely on the larger activity of God in the world around us—the Upper Story, for my Table Talk crowd.  Yet this is no escapism as perhaps it might be accused of being.  It is instead a sober-faced embrace of reality.  If you are a Jesus follower, your present circumstances pose no threat to His ability to bring you to God’s glorious, intended end for you.  In fact, the deeper the circumstances are, the greater the glory of the intended end.  When our attention is here, we will naturally be more sensitive to the activity of God and more ready to join in it when He invites us to do so.  And should He invite us out of the pain, when our eyes are focused on Him, when our vision is not flooded by whatever it is we’re going through, we’ll be ready to receive that exit as well.  Through the spiritual discipline of celebration, we make ourselves more aware of all this.  The result, then, is spelled out in v. 7: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding [in other words, the peace of God that invades our circumstances and floods our life in a moment or situation that seems absurdly, ridiculously, laughably distant from any human conception of peace], will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

I told you at the beginning of the message that I was not going to simply tell you about celebration.  I said I was going to tell you what it does.  Here’s what celebration does: it brings a peace that defies human understanding in the midst of our anxiety.  Are you in the midst of a storm?  Or perhaps you are facing something more like a thick fog.  You want to go forward, but you don’t know the way.  You want to go forward, but the chains of anxiety are holding you down and every step is a battle.  Through celebration you are going to find the path.  When you reasonably recognize who God is, the next steps are going to start to clarify.  Now, you may yet need help in taking them.  You may need to cling tightly to the community of faith.  You may need to get some help from a good counselor.  That’s okay.  But until you take up the practice of celebration, until you remember that you serve the God who wants to see you be made whole again, you’re not going anywhere.  And hey, if you’re not yet a Jesus follower, Paul’s command doesn’t apply to you, but at least consider the wisdom of what he’s saying.  When you get fixated on a problem, you’ll never be able to see the solution.  It’s when you see a set of challenging circumstances in light of the bigger picture that sense can start to be made.  All Paul is doing is leading us to look at the biggest picture possible.  It makes sense.  The bigger the picture, the more the context, the more sense can be made.  Celebration is reasonably recognizing who God is and viewing our circumstances in light of that.

There’s just one more piece to this puzzle.  How do we actually do it?  Well, I think there are a number of ways, but let me give you one really good one.  You can take this with you today and put it into practice immediately.  Most folks in this culture acknowledge praying in the midst of hard times.  But when we pray, we pray out of our anxiety.  We pray with our eyes firmly fixed on the mountain looming before us.  We can’t be aware of who God is when this is the case.  Celebration is reasonably recognizing who God is.  When we pray, then, we need to focus on who God is and what He’s promised before anything else.  Until we have that piece down, we’re not going to get beyond ourselves to think rightly.  But, we have to train our brain to do this.  Our culture has trained us to think in terms of being chiefly responsible for our lives.  Well, with responsibility comes burdens.  The greater the responsibility, the greater the burdens.  What greater responsibility is there than life?  Any first time parent has felt the huge burden of responsibility for the life you created, resting in your arms.  The burden is no less when it’s your own life.  There’s a lot that goes into maintaining a whole life.  The natural reaction to this is to worry about it, to experience anxiety over it.  Worry is the natural result of placing our focus on anything other than God.  We can even worry when we’re praying.  We pray: “Lord help me do this or that.”  We’re not asking for Him to take care of it and then going along merrily.  We’re not putting anything in His hands.  We’re asking for Him to do His God thing in order to make sure things are going to work out favorably for us and then to get out of our way.  We can’t celebrate when we do this.  We’re too caught up in trying to run things.  If we’re too caught up in running things, we are necessarily not aware of who God is and what He’s promised.  And while we may protest that we are being realists, the truth is that such a posture is actually out of sync with reality.  But we’ll never realize that if we’re not celebrating.

Therefore, in order to celebrate, we need to place our focus where it belongs: on who God is and what He’s promised.  To do this, when we pray, we need to focus on that before anything else.  In fact, here’s the challenge.  Here is how you begin to retrain your brain to think in celebratory terms, to reasonably recognize who God is: For the next 30 days stop praying about people and situations in your life.  I know how crazy this sounds, but trust me on this.  Stop praying about people and situations in your life.  Stop it.  Don’t even give it a thought in your prayer time.  Instead, focus entirely on who God is and what He’s promised.  Dwell on these truths.  Let them consume your thoughts.  Keep doing this until you find yourself thinking in these terms all the time.  When this has happened, then start to add back in intercessory prayer as Paul commands in v. 6.  When our hearts are consumed with thanksgiving, with a reasonable recognition of who God is, our requests will be set in the proper context.  Then the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  This will take some discipline, though, because if you’re like me, when you start praying, you immediately start going through your laundry list.  “God bless this person, make that person well, help this person with money, help me to handle all these issues, amen.”  Instead, stop when you start getting into all that and focus on who God is and what He’s promised.  “God, you are sovereign.  Because of that, you are capable of handling all my issues.  Thank You for caring so much for us that you’re involved in the nitty-gritty of my life instead of just running the universe from afar.  In fact, thank you for being involved in the nitty-gritty of everyone’s life.  Thank you for being so in tune with what I have going on that you know what I need before I even get a chance to tell you about it.  Thank you for guiding all these things to the perfect end you have designed for your people.  Amen.”  See the difference?  Now, your praying doesn’t have to be that fancy (although you’re welcome to use that one if you want, God won’t mind that you didn’t write it).  Just make sure you are focused on who God is and what He’s promised, not all the things you want Him to help you do.  Celebrating is reasonably recognizing who God is.  As you do this, you will gradually begin to think in those terms.  You will gradually come to be more and more convinced of those truths.  And as this happens, you will begin to celebrate, to rejoice in the Lord always, to view your circumstances in an entirely new way.  Just as Paul commanded.  May you know deeply and truly who God is.  And may you take this knowledge and live in a state of celebration.