Sermon: Say No to Anxiety - Philippians 4, Acts 16

The record shows that an earthquake set Paul and Silas free that night, but their songs tell us they'd been set free long before the chains fell loose.

Scripture: Philippians 4:4-7; Acts 16:16-25

Introduction

The apostle Paul is the New Testament's version of an "unsinkable Molly Brown." As was the case for the Titanic's most famous survivor, Paul simply refused to go down with the ship . . . literally. Three times Paul was shipwrecked, and he once spent a full day - "a night and a day," as he puts it - on the open sea. Other problems along the way? Try being stoned, scourged (five times), and being beaten with fists, rods and words. He'd been scored, chased, scandalized and slandered. He'd been the focus of riots and death threats, and after one harrowing, near-death experience, he was snake bitten! His focus, energy, and resilience were nearly frightening. In fact, the only thing that seemed to discourage Paul were the problems in his young churches.

To read Paul's letters to those churches, one might come away with the idea that Paul was continually frustrated, and that his work wasn't very successful. After all, those early letters were filled with corrections, some of them quite harsh. But in reality, Paul's work changed the world. In places like Athens, Ephesus, and Corinth, the once powerful temples and the religion of the Greek gods that so dominated his culture are in ruins. And yet billions have and are reading Paul's letters, memorizing passages and following the instructions as if Paul was still preaching his passionate message in our culture.

As human beings, we pride ourselves on being the only species that understands the concept of risk. Yet we have a confounding habit of worrying about mere possibilities while ignoring probabilities - of building barricades against perceived dangers while leaving ourselves exposed to real ones.

For example, we agonize over the avian flu, which (as of December 2006) had killed precisely no one in the U.S., but have to be cajoled into getting vaccinated for the common flu, which contributes to the deaths of 36,000 Americans each year. White-knuckle flyers routinely choose the car when traveling long distances, heedless of the fact that, at most, a few hundred people die in U.S. commercial airline crashes in a year, compared with 44,000 killed in motor-vehicle wrecks.

We wring our hands over the mad cow pathogen that might be (but almost certainly isn't) in our hamburger, yet worry far less about the cholesterol that contributes to the heart disease that kills 700,000 of us annually. Shoppers still look askance at a bag of spinach for fear of E. coli bacteria while filling their carts with fat-sodden French fries and salt-crusted nachos.

We put filters on faucets, install air ionizers in our homes, and lather ourselves with antibacterial soap. At the same time, 20 percent of all adults still smoke; nearly 20 percent of drivers and more than 30 percent of backseat passengers don't use seatbelts; and two-thirds of us are overweight or obese.

In short, we choose some of the strangest things over which to be anxious!

(Source: Jeffrey Kluger, "Why We Worry About the Things We Shouldn't," Time, Dec. 4, 2006, p. 65-67)

Bible knowledge is important. So you can understand the new pastor's quiet pleasure when he took a tour of his church, on his first Sunday at work, and saw many children in Sunday school, all of them apparently hard at work learning Bible stories.

The teacher in one of the children's classroom was excited to see her guest, and she introduced the pastor to all the children. Then she said, "Pastor, this morning we're studying Joshua."

"That's wonderful," said pastor. "Let's have a pop quiz. Who knocked down the walls of Jericho?"

Little Johnny - a boy known to be a bit rambunctious shyly raised hand and offered, "Pastor, I didn't do it."

The pastor chuckled and said, "Come on, now, who knocked down the walls of Jericho?"

The teacher was a bit unnerved. "Pastor," she said, "little Johnny's a good boy. If he says he didn't do it, I believe he didn't do it."

Flustered, the pastor went to the Sunday school director and related the story to him. The director, looking worried, explained, "Well, sir, we've had some problems with Johnny before. Let me talk to him and see what we can do. But to tell you the truth, I really don't think he knocked any walls down."

That afternoon, the pastor met with his deacons for the very first time. He related the entire story, and his concern that a child, his teacher, and even the Sunday School director didn't know who knocked down the walls of Jericho.

There was silence for a few moments. It was an awkward silence. Finally, the oldest deacon in the room stroked his chin and said, "Well, Pastor, I'll tell you what. I move we just take the money from the general fund to pay for the walls and leave it at that."

Somewhere along the line, those folks were missing their Bible knowledge. And they were missing one of the most incredible truths to be found in their Bibles . . . the secret of being "anxious for nothing."

Background of the passage

Paul, Silas, Luke (note Luke's switch from "they" to "we" between the Macedonian Call passage and the journey to Philippi) and Timothy reach European soil for the first time, and move quickly to the largest city of the region, Philippi. The ruins of the city include the main highway of the Roman Empire, the Egnatia, and an outdoor theater that once held 3,000 or more spectators. Outside the city, Paul and his companions meet Lydia and some other God-fearing women, and a new church is born. Things move along quietly enough until Paul heals a child in the name of Jesus, and her owners trump up charges against the stranger for ruining their little demonic money-maker. Years later, Paul will write the Philippians a letter, and included in the letter is the famous command to "be anxious for nothing."

To the Philippians, those instructions didn't come across as religious theory, or an irrelevant sermon. They must have remembered the night when Paul and Silas had sung at midnight after the worst day they'd had in a long time.

Paul probably visited Philippi a second time (there's a hint that he did, in Acts 20), but it was the first, short visit that made the most powerful impact upon them. He modeled what he preached, choosing to rejoice at all times, and saying "No!" to anxiety.

From a practical aspect, this is one of the most obvious reasons Paul had such a successful career. Because he learned how to defeat stress, he was able to function successfully in some very stressful situations. In fact, he seemed to thrive in situations that would have left many people immobilized with anxiety, anger, or discouragement.

Never did Paul show the way more clearly than the night he and Silas sang in the bottom of that prison, backs bleeding and bruised, with feet in stocks probably made of worn-out crosses. A song, there? Then?

The record shows that an earthquake set Paul and Silas free that night, but their songs tell us they'd been set free long before the chains fell loose. The instructions of Philippians 4:4-7 tell us how they'd done it, and how it can still be done today.

I. Choose to rejoice no matter the circumstances

Any of us can sing on a good day. If your team wins, your stocks go up, your birthday present is terrific, and it doesn't rain on your vacation, then sure, we can sing.

But that kind of good-circumstances-laughter is ordinary. What Paul and Silas had - and what we can have - was extra-ordinary. Extra-ordinary joy rejoices no matter what happens to be going on at the time, even if the heart is breaking right in the middle of the song. None of us can escape the sharp pain or crushing grief in some of life's worst circumstances, but any of us can, even in that hour, choose to rejoice.

Paul and Silas did, in that Philippian jail.

It's both good news and bad news that in that hour of difficulty, people are watching and listening more than ever to know if your faith in Christ is genuine. To put it simply, they want to know if your faith works. Anyone's "faith" can work on a good day, but when the chips are down, they'll know whether or not your faith is the real deal. And they'll watch very closely.

Therefore, you must not go into that hour of crisis without a genuine, maturing faith. The knife of great pain and stress will cut right through the fat of a faked faith, and search with a surgeon's accuracy for the core of what you believe. You'll only be able to rejoice in a difficult hour if your relationship with God is real.

And to quote Paul directly, "Again I say, rejoice!"

II. Secure your foundation in Christ alone

Rejoice how? In your own strength? Never! "Rejoice in the Lord always," Paul writes in Philippians 4:4. A moment later, he gives us a four-fold reminder to pray about the things you need. "In everything," Paul writes, "by prayer (1) and petition (2), with thanksgiving (3), present your requests (4) to God."

And the peace of God, Paul says, will be like an armed sentry marching around your heart and your mind, literally fighting anxiety for you. Philippi was a city populated in part by a large number of retired Roman soldiers. Like any military community, Philippi would have known the lingo of the armed services, and would have quickly embraced the image of an armed sentry. Around their city would have been soldiers who stayed up all night to guard their gardens from rabbits, their homes from thieves, and their land from enemy attack.

To guard the city, in the Greek, was to "phroureo" the city. And in this letter to military families, Paul says that God's peace will be your "phroureo." He'll guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Get inside God's city walls, so to speak, and God's peace will march like a sentry around your potential anxieties.

And that, my friends, is a foundation you can trust.

This is not some kind of religion-based, complicated, psychological wish-list of faking joy until you feel better. This is an honest-to-goodness relationship with Jesus Christ that will so transform you, you'll sing in a prison, even if the prison is in Chicago.

Lee Strobel was working for the Chicago Tribune, without any intention of being caught up in faith. He was, at the time, a hard-nosed, investigative journalist who didn't believe in God.

Strobel's editors gave him the assignment. He was to report on the struggles of an impoverished, inner-city family during the weeks leading up to Christmas.

He came upon the Delgado family. Sixty-year-old Perfecta Delgado and her granddaughters, Lydia and Jenny, had been burned out of their roach-infested tenement and were now living in a tiny, two-room apartment on the West Side.

"As I walked in," Strobel wrote, "I couldn't believe how empty it was. There was no furniture, no rugs, nothing on the walls-only a small kitchen table and one handful of rice. That's it. They were virtually devoid of possessions.

"In fact, 11-year-old Lydia and 13-year-old Jenny owned only one short-sleeved dress each, plus one thin, gray sweater between them. When they walked the half-mile to school through the biting cold, Lydia would wear the sweater for part of the distance and then hand it to her shivering sister, who would wear it the rest of the way."

But the Delgado family had one thing that amazed Strobel. In the midst of very, very difficult living conditions, they had joy. It wasn't a cheap kind of joy that laughed at every joke. It was a gentle joy that had hope and peace. There was no despair in this home, nor was there any self pity. God, said the grandmother, had not abandoned them.

Strobel completed his article, complete with Perfecta's confident faith in Jesus, and moved on to other assignments. But as Christmas approached, he couldn't help but think of the family with so much joy, even as they had so little. In fact, he wrestled with their attitude, in the face of such emptiness.

"I continued to wrestle with the irony of the situation." Strobel said. "Here was a family that had nothing but faith, and yet seemed happy, while I had everything I needed materially, but lacked faith-and inside I felt as empty and barren as their apartment."

Strobel found an excuse to visit the family again. When he arrived, he was amazed at what he saw. Readers of his article had responded to the family's need in overwhelming fashion, filling the small apartment with donations. There was new furniture, appliances, and rugs. There was a Christmas tree and stacks of wrapped presents. There was plenty of food, and plenty of warm clothing for the girls. There had even been a generous amount of cash donated.

Of all the surprises of that second visit, however, nothing had prepared Strobel for the biggest surprise of all. The grandmother and her granddaughters were busy preparing gifts, giving away what had been given to them. "Why," Strobel asked.

"Our neighbors are still in need," said Perfecta. "We cannot have plenty while they have nothing. This is what Jesus would want us to do."

She waved at all the gifts. "This is wonderful; this is very good," she said. "We did nothing to deserve this - it's a gift from God.

"But it is not His greatest gift," she said, her words cutting to the heart of the reporter who claimed there was no god. "No, we celebrate that (gift) tomorrow. That is Jesus."

You can't fake rejoicing in the gift of Jesus when you're in a tough spot. Even a hardened reporter would know that. And as Strobel left that tiny apartment where those with very little prepared to give away what they had, something in him longed to know the Jesus they knew. And eventually, Strobel met Jesus. Today he uses his reporting skills and a passion for Christ to write books that have been read by millions, and he rejoices.

(Source: Lee Strobel, The Case for Christmas, Zondervan, 2005)

III. Develop the discipline of saying no to anxiety

This is not nearly as complicated as we've often made it out to be. If you're anxious about an issue, you've been thinking about the thing that makes you anxious. If you'd like to stop being anxious, you'll have to intentionally think about other things. This will take a great amount of discipline, but Paul was crystal clear in his instructions of Philippians 4:8-9.

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things. . . . And (then) the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8, 9, emphasis added)

How many anxious thoughts about rumors that aren't true have ruined otherwise perfectly good days? Think only on things that are true.

What's noble? Think on it! What about right, and pure? That leaves out things that are wrong and impure, and come to think about it, that would be a good move for any of us. Think of the lovely, and admirable, the excellent and the praiseworthy. Think about these things, Paul says.

A young bride was extremely anxious on the day before her wedding. The minister realized she was nervous, and he asked her about it.

"I'm going to make a mess of the whole thing," she said. "There are just so many people looking at me!"

The minister broke the ceremony down into small parts. "Hey," he said. "This is your church, your family's church. You know everything about this church. So, as your dad takes you by the arm, concentrate on the aisle. Just focus on the aisle."

"OK," she said.

"Then, as you turn the corner, you'll see the altar. It's the same altar that's been here for years, and you're familiar with it. Focus on the aisle, and then the altar."

"OK," she said.

"And then," said the minister, "you'll see your groom! Just focus on him, and you're there! Focus on the aisle first, altar second, and him third!"

So, just as she'd been promised, the zoned in on the three simple steps. But imagine her Dad's feelings when he heard her saying it over and over and over, as they got closer and closer and closer . . . "Aisle, altar, him. Aisle-altar-him. Aisle-alter him!"

Silly story? Sure. But it may be just that simple to zone in on the positives, to reject your anxieties, and tap into a joy that soars above all circumstances, and allows you to rejoice in any circumstance. Pull it off, and you've said "No!" to anxiety.

Conclusion

There once was a man, said teacher Calvin Miller, who wanted to teach the sparrows in his garden to sing. The sparrows knew only chatter, no song at all. So he bought a canary with a beautiful song, and hung its cage in his backyard.

And there, among the chatter of the sparrows, the canary sang. The bird sang and sang and sang, but the sparrows only chattered. And because he didn't watch closely enough, the man discovered a sad truth a little too late. Within a very short period of time, the constant chatter of the sparrows so discouraged the canary . . . that the bird lost its song. In fact, he knew only the raucous speech of the sparrows.

You and I do not live in a vacuum. We are surrounded by birds of all kinds of feathers, and only a few of them know how to sing. But those who sing? They'll sing no matter the weather, no matter the circumstances. And if you'll fly with them - if you'll soar with them - you'll sing, too.

Andy Cook is the pastor of Shirley Hills Baptist Church in, Warner Robins, Georgia.