(a sermon for January 21, 2018, the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, based on Philippians 4:4-9)
I should begin here by confessing to you that the moment I sat down this week to begin writing this sermon, this very next sentence immediately caused me to “flash back” to a time when my children were much younger than they are now:
“I want to have a talk with you this morning about your attitude!”
Believe me, I know how that sounds! Granted, like most parents, I did have that conversation with my children back in the day; with the boys at some point when they were teenagers, and with my daughter, actually, when she was about five years old and imitating some obnoxious character from a cartoon show! But I don’t want to give the impression that I’m giving you that kind of a lecture, because I’m really not; and besides, I don’t want you to be “rolling your eyes” at me the way my kids sometimes did back then!
That understood, however, I would like to talk with you this morning about… our attitude! Because certainly attitude is a crucial issue for every one of us, most especially as adults; and moreover, because attitude plays into just about every aspect of our lives. Health care workers, for instance, tell us again and again that whether we’re dealing with something as serious as a catastrophic illness or recovering from surgery or whether it’s something relatively simple as trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle, having a poor attitude about these things can only make a difficult situation that much worse; while a more positive attitude might well contribute mightily to faster healing and making things better overall! And we’re not just talking physical health, either: a good attitude cannot help but have a positive effect on your day, your week, your work productivity, your family atmosphere and the state of your relationships with others. By the same token a negative, “gloom and doom” attitude has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy; in other words, expect the worst in things, or in people, and that’s pretty much what you’re going to get! Simply put, a proper attitude is of utmost importance!
Chuck Swindoll actually expresses this very well: he says that “the longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude,” he says, “is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, [or] than what other people think or say I do… we cannot change the past. We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced,” Swindoll goes on to say, “that life is 10% of what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.”
I like that; and believe me, friends, when I say to you this morning that this is especially true as it applies to the spiritual life. For you see, there are a whole lot of spiritual people out there who seem to be far more negative in their attitudes than positive! These are people – ostensibly people of faith, mind you – who are more about what’s wrong with the world and people than what’s right; who are more willing to talk about everything they’re against and can’t approve of, than what it is (and who it is) that they truly stand for; whose very words and actions would just seem to betray that which they come and sing about every Sunday morning at church!
Truth be told, there’s a real cynicism that can be seen in a great many Christians today. Now, I don’t know if it’s world-weariness, the by-product of all the conflict and divisive rhetoric that surrounds us these days; if it’s about the kind of worldly culture that has long sought to pull us away from Christianity; or if it’s just what happens when you begin to feel like you’ve been living your own life in some constant state of fear and anxiety: but there are those who have let themselves get so caught up in an attitude of negativity that I have to wonder if they can even hear what Paul has proclaimed in scripture reading this morning, much less receive it: Rejoice, he says. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, Rejoice.”
That particular verse from Philippians stands among the most upbeat, positive affirmations in the Epistles, if not all of scripture; certainly one of the most familiar to our ears. It’s also, by the way, one of those verses that’s pointed to by those who would make the claim that faith in general and the Bible in particular have no real basis in reality! But I would suggest to you that such an attitude (there’s that word again!) represents a major misunderstanding of scripture, and one proof of this comes from Paul himself.
You see, by the time he wrote this letter to the church in Philippi, Paul had been in prison, probably in Rome and in miserable conditions, for upwards of two years; and, by the way, quite literally shackled to an endless series of Roman palace guards, waiting at some point to “stand trial” before Nero (in fact, here’s a not-so-fun fact: such was the cruelty of this imprisonment that the Romans would change guards every four hours, so that no one guard could ever begin to sympathize with Paul and perhaps be inclined to show him mercy).
So here’s Paul, facing a dismal future that would almost certainly include his execution at the hands of Nero himself; and yet, still, Paul is able to say “I rejoice in the Lord greatly;” (4:10) and what’s more, he’s able to say these Philippian Christians, and to you and me, you also rejoice! “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” As The Message translates this, “Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. [And] before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful,” Paul concludes, “what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.” It seems incredible that Paul could maintain such a positive attitude and rejoice in the midst of all of that he was suffering, but in the end, you see, it was not a shallow idealism that was guiding him; it was optimism fueled by his relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
Of course, we need to understand here that there is a huge difference between idealism and optimism. To be filled with idealism is to live unto the notion that everything is wonderful in life, that things will always go well, and that nothing in the world can ever truly be wrong; you know, “all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” And don’t get me wrong, idealism is fine to a certain extent; it’s idealism that inspires hope and dreams, and it’s what moves people to higher vistas in their lives; but ultimately, idealism can also be unrealistic, given the world as it is. The truth is that those who live wholly unto idealism and who carry on as though everything is always sweetness and light are bound to come crashing down to life’s harsh realities; and that cannot help but do damage to the spiritual life. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said it well: “Idealism is a greater threat to faith than [even] despair.” It’s no coincidence that some of the most negative people you’ll ever meet in this life are “burned out” idealists.
Optimism, however, is something different: optimism, at least as it is understood biblically, is ultimate hope. An optimist knows that life is going to be rough; understands that stuff can be bad and that sometimes we’re going to get hurt, but also knows that good things can and will come through in the end. A good analogy, I think, is to say that an optimist is something like a marathon runner: he or she knows that the race is hard, that running may well tax every bit of residual strength they have, and wait… just when you think the race is over, “Heartbreak Hill” is dead ahead! But the optimist’s attitude is, it’s going to hurt, yes, but I will win this race!
By the same token, Biblical optimism is the attitude of accepting difficulty, but expecting victory. It is to be looking for God’s hand at work in every situation – the good, the bad and the ugly – and to know that God’s strength and hope pervades any suffering and struggle we face; it is to live expectantly unto what God will be doing in and through our lives; and it is to purposefully live with a positive attitude in a negative world, facing the day with the kind of confidence that comes in knowing that whatever else comes down, we will be able to find the wherewithal to do as Christ himself inspires and leads, including rejoicing in the darkness of a prison cell!
And no, in times such as these, it’s neither an automatic nor easy process to adopt that kind of an attitude, but it’s within such a positive, spiritual stance that we are able to truly embrace the kind of unending hope and redeeming joy that each one of us longs for in this life. Rene Schlaepfer, a pastor and writer out of California, makes the point that while many in the world view positive people as naïve and shallow, “as someone has said, ‘cynicism is just intellectual laziness.’ It doesn’t take any character to be negative,” he says; “it doesn’t take creativity to be negative about [the things] you see… it doesn’t take any deep spiritual maturity to be upset [about everything]… it takes perspective to be positive; it takes wisdom to be positive; you have to be spirit-filled to be positive.” It takes work, friends; but in the good news that is ours in Jesus, and “in the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” by grace we are given that which we need to weather the storms and challenges of this life; so that we might truly “rejoice in the Lord always” as we do.
And I don’t know about you, friends, but I want to rejoice in the Lord, and in life… I need to rejoice in it! I do not believe that life should be something that is merely endured and trodden through; I believe that life, most especially as a Christian, is to be an exciting and joyous experience; that every moment of it, be that moment joyful or sorrowful, should be filled with dynamic power. Beloved, as believers, we are being called to live lives that are thrilling to behold, exciting to watch, ennobling, enkindling, enabling, and enthusiastic. Because of faith, who we are and what we do in life ought to have a vibrancy about it that’s unmistakable; and let me also say that it can, and it will, make a difference in the world!
But how that happens, and if that happens… in many ways, it’s a question of attitude; yours and mine.
The late Mike Yaconelli, in his book, Dangerous Wonder, writes beautifully of how the Christian life can accurately be compared to a roller coaster ride; but not one of the newer rollercoasters where they strap you in and but bars around your shoulders; rather one of the old fashioned ones where you sat on a bench with only one skinny metal pipe in front of you! In other words, “suddenly you are strapped in and you think, I’m going to die! Then you begin the long climb up the track of [spiritual] growth… and you think, Hey, no problem, I can follow Jesus anywhere, and then – ZOOOOOOM (!) – you crash into the twists and turns of life, jerking left then right, up then down, and fifty, sixty years go by and – WHAM! – you’re dead.” But, writes Yaconelli, “if I died right now, even though I would love to live longer, I could say from the depth of my soul, ‘What a ride!’”
The Christian life, he says, “is the breathtaking, thrill-filled, bone-rattling ride of a lifetime where every moment matters and all you can do is hang on for life dear… most people believe that following Jesus is all about living right. Not true. Following Jesus is all about living fully.” And to live fully means to take the ride… and to do it with joy, and spirit, and optimism along every turn.
I think that’s what Paul was saying to the Philippians, and us, when he said, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable… think about these things,” and, most importantly, keep doing those things.
It’s all a question of attitude, you know. May our life’s faithfulness be of such an attitude that one day, we also might be able to say with great satisfaction, “what a ride that was!” What a ride!
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry