Our Gospel today is the story of a King who sends out invites to a wedding – and many commentators over the years have said the King is God. But it isn’t a picture of God that we often like to dwell on.
As N T Wright says “We want to hear a nice story about God throwing the party open to everyone. We want (as people now fashionable say) to be ‘inclusive’, to let everyone in. We don’t want to know about judgment on the wicked, or demanding standards of holiness, or about weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
But, like it or not, that is exactly what we do hear today.
Our Gospel warns us that our own agendas, our own clothes and our own goodness simply won’t do. For the invitation of the King demands a response and His banquet requires us to change – to be transformed by grace into people fit for His presence. He loves us as we are but we can not stay the same – we can not take the invitation for granted but must treat it with the respect it deserves.
Benjamin Franklin once observed that many remember Christ’s birth but few keep his precepts. ‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’ The challenge, and gracious invitation of the King, is to be one of the few.
Meanwhile our Epistle provides a partial lesson in how we can ensure that happens. How we clothe ourselves and our actions so that we are quick to respond to God’s calling and fit to dine with the King.
And Paul sums this up in one sentence:
‘Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice.’
This is good news because it is so simple and very bad news because it is so hard.
I think everyone wants to rejoice, we all want to feel and show joy, and most people do rejoice at times, but Paul commanded us to “rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS.”
And its that last word which is tricky. Always.
Even in a pandemic? I’d say rejoicing for many is quite hard right now.
But actually Paul writes this from a very 2020 perspective – he writes it from a place of isolation, and darkness and uncertainty and possible death.
For Paul was in prison at the time of writing this – he knew he may soon face execution for his faith – and prison at the time was a truly miserable place of isolation, pain and fear.
Paul writes from the perspective of suffering and near death and that is helpful – we all spend most of our life thinking it will never end. Although we have moved on from the Victorian era death remains the big taboo – and I think that is partly why we have found 2020 so hard – it has been impossible to escape the fact that people die – are dying all the time – and one day we shall be counted amongst them too.
And the passages today assure us that a feast awaits with the God who is always near.
And a bit like death – on one level we know that instinctively – and on another we like to forget that we should ever meet God face to face and have his light expose our life.
These passages should ring like alarms in the morning – for the day still lies ahead of us. And they both warn us not to live as if we will never face judgement. Not to waste the day for this is not a rehearsal, this is the one chance we get – so we need to rejoice in God always.
For to rejoice in the Lord is to show and express joy in his presence – which is always there – whatever our circumstances. And traditionally we rejoice by singing hymns and anthems to God, by praying with thankful and grateful hearts, by receiving communion with faith and by reading the Bible and allowing the Bible to read us too.
In doing these things we connect deeply to the strength of God’s own joy and peace – and these practices provide a powerful shield to the troubles of this world.
But Paul does not stop with rejoicing he goes on.
He says let your gentleness be known.
The Greek word for gentleness here can also mean moderation or forbearance – and to forbear means to endure with courage. I think that is what we are being called to do in this time – to endure with courage. To go through very difficult times with faith.
Paul also gives us another seemingly impossible command – not only should we rejoice and be gentle or endure – but we should not worry about anything he says.
And surely this is the hardest of all?
But this is a very orthodox reminder from Paul. Do not worry or do not fear appear 365 times in the Bible – once for every day of the year and Jesus said “Who of you can add a single your hour to your life by worry?”
Worry is absolutely not God’s will for us.
It eats up your time, it eats up your joy, it destroys your peace and separates you from God – and keeps you from rejoicing.
But how do we stop? For we all worry from time to time – and some of us are anxious most of the time right now – and with good cause.
What helps me is to remember the opposite of worry is faith.
Trying to stop worrying when you are worrying is impossible – but focus on faith when worrying – and worry dissipates.
Faith trusts God to work all things for our good. Faith doesn’t need to know all the answers – it just needs to know the one who has them.
And then it really helps me to really take on board the next piece of Paul’s advice. He tells the Philippian believers to think about what is…
true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise think about these things.
Quite often recently for me that might mean a break from the news – or social media! Both of which can contain quite negative content – as well as good news.
But in the Greek this sentence is constructed in a present imperative, which is a command to do something in the future which involves a continuous and repeated action today. So it is about more than just a break.
It is about focusing on the good in every area of our lives – Paul is very helpfully endorsing our local vision for the next year to be Sentinels of the Good. And he is saying that failure to recognize God’s blessings in every day living will cause us care and anxiety. But recognizing God’s hand in even the smallest things will cause peace and joy. Remember he writes this from a dirty prison cell – facing death – he knows. He gets it – this isn’t glib advice – it is treasure born of the hardest experience.
And thinking on the good – being grateful for what we have – is the way to life in all its fullness – the life Christ comes to give and share with us when he is born.
As the artist Matisse – and expert in observing life – said “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”
Helen Keller – born blind and deaf said – “Keep your face to the sun and you cannot see the shadow.”
And modern science backs it up too: by focusing on the good you can improve your immune system; increase your resilience to stress; raise your self esteem and lower your blood pressure.
These are passages for our time.
Let’s be sentinels of the Good – as I keep saying – always watching and appreciating the small blessings which lie in every day and every experience.