As most of you know, for the past several weeks, I’ve been in Florida with my family – and, well, Florida is hot and humid. If you want to get outside, particularly in the summer and on through September, it’s best to do that first thing in the morning. So, every morning, I get up and set out for a 2-or-3 mile walk. Sometimes I walk in silence and take in the day. Sometimes I listen to a podcast. Sometimes I listen to music. Sometimes that music is show tunes – Hamilton, Rent, Hello Dolly!
One morning, I was walking, listening to show tunes, and there was this moment in the middle of one of the songs when one of the characters – a young woman who has just fallen in love – exclaims: “The world is full of wonderful things!” I laughed out loud. I guffawed. And I thought, in 2020, you could only get away with saying that in a Broadway musical. Ten months into 2020, the exclamation, “The world is full of wonderful things!” feels more than a little absurd.
And then I turned the corner in my walk – and I had to squint because of the brilliant light and the flash of color from the sunrise – and I walked the last few blocks toward the homes where I knew my family was starting their day – some just waking up, some just in from walking the dogs. We were alive and together, and I thought – well, maybe I should give this some more thought. So, on further reflection, the theme of this morning’s sermon – on October 25, 2020 – is “The world is full of wonderful things.”
In this morning’s Scripture, the Apostle Paul is writing this letter from jail. This morning’s text gives us some of the most beautiful words in all of Scripture – “Rejoice in God always! Let your gentleness be made known to all. Be anxious for nothing. God is near. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, think on these things.” And Paul is writing these words... from prison. The Apostle Paul lives a hard-scrabble life. He has been gripped by the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, and he is consumed with an urgency to make that love known and real throughout the whole world.
But almost everywhere he goes, the Apostle encounters resistance. As he travels building new communities that live the life of Christ, there is a group of opponents following him around, trying to undo what he is doing – always at his heels. When Paul arrives in a new city, he is often arrested and jailed. He is called before all manner of tribunals – local, imperial, even the councils of his own religion. Paul helps nurture these communities that he loves – but they inevitably fall into disagreement – sometimes with each other, sometimes with Paul. And all Paul wants is to share this Good News with the whole world – and so he longs to go to Rome (the center of the known world), and then onto Spain, the furthest reaches of the known world. But when Paul arrives in Rome, he is arrested and thrown into prison. He’ll never make it to Spain. He’ll spend the rest of his days, and he will die there, in prison, in Rome. Paul’s world is grim.
And, as he sits there in prison, Paul writes to the community in Philippi – whom he loves tenderly and deeply – and he says: “Rejoice! Again, I say rejoice.” What? You gotta wonder if Paul is paying attention.
If we take Paul seriously, the joy of which he speaks has to be something broader and deeper than happiness in the moment. It has to be something that doesn’t depend on present circumstances – Paul is in jail. It has to be something more. This joy of which Paul speaks has to be something that lives within the grit of the world – that doesn’t minimize or deny the suffering of a troubled world, but that also isn’t diminished or deterred by it. One writer describes it like this: “Joy is not an escape from the pain of the world; it is a re-consideration and a re-investment in life from a different and liberating perspective.” Joy is “a discipline of perception,” a re-seeing of the world through the lens of love. Joy is a re-orientation to the world from the sure and solid ground of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. God. Is. Near.