Is there a better word for us to hear this morning than this: “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus?” I can’t think of one. This week has been a tough week for our church. Many of us have been rocked by the news that Yovanny has a brain tumor and will be having surgery on Tuesday. Additionally, we have people going through challenging times in a number of different ways: life circumstances, recovery from injury, troubled relationships, discouragement in the job market.
This week I found myself being asked to pray for a number of people for a number of different reasons. And as I thought about you all and prayed for you all, I was also preparing for this sermon. I was reading these words about prayer from the apostle Paul.
It’s good to hear these words from Paul on prayer, but it’s also scary. Because this morning we aren’t looking for a feel good sermon with flowery words. We aren’t coming to God with abstract questions about prayer. We’re coming to God with real fears and real anxieties. We want to know if Paul is telling the truth. Is God really near? Can we really bring every request to God? Will we really receive a peace that passes understanding?
The truth is, I’m not very good at prayer. I used to be a lot better. When I was younger, my mom told me that God cared about whatever I did, no matter how small, so I could go to God in prayer about anything. Nothing was too insignificant. So I went to God in prayer all the time – anytime I lost something or wanted a new toy. But guess what I prayed for the most? Video games. When I was young, just like now, I really liked playing video games, and video games, as you probably know, can be hard. Whenever I got to a level I couldn’t beat or a boss I couldn’t defeat, I would pray that God would help me beat the game. Eventually, I always won. I guess God does answer prayers. I honestly can’t remember praying for any one thing more than I prayed for video games.
When I got a little bit older, I went to a Christian school, and at the end of our Bible class we did prayer requests. Everyone had to share one. When someone couldn’t come up with a specific prayer request they’d always pray for “the persecuted church.” That was the go-to prayer request. It was always infuriating when I was planning on using that one and someone else would use it before it was my turn.
But prayer has become harder for me since then, probably because I’m not sure exactly what prayer is. Is it simply making requests? Is it aligning our will with God’s? What is prayer?
I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer recently, not just in the last week but for the past few months, because I can tell I need a more robust prayer life. I feel the need for a richer prayer life deep in my soul.
This week, in light of all the fears and anxieties our church is facing, I’ve been finding comfort in Paul’s words from another letter, “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” I often find myself trying to pray and not knowing exactly what to do, or what to say. It’s good to know that the Spirit meets me, meets us, in that place and interprets the thoughts we can’t interpret ourselves.
So, I’ve admitted that I don’t have a handle on prayer. In fact, I feel especially unqualified to speak on it. And yet, I feel that this is what the Spirit has called me to preach on today. So I will proceed with caution – with fear and trembling in the words of Paul – hoping that my own lack is made up for by the living God who is in our midst right now. The God who, Paul says, is near.
This statement, “The Lord is near,” I believe is, above all, what God wants us to hear this morning. “The Lord is near.” It’s the key to prayer, and the key to Paul’s audacious exhortation not to “worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
That is quite a claim, Paul. Don’t worry about anything? The peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ? Not might but will? And this claim begins with the statement: the Lord is near.
Prayer draws us into the reality of God’s nearness. If prayer is not just wasting our time – and some of us might not be convinced that it isn’t just a waste of time – then God must be able to hear, and not just able to hear as one hears through a telephone, but as one who is present, one who is close.
We’ve been talking about the Trinity quite a bit lately. We’ve explored this idea of the Trinity as a dance between the three persons of the Trinity: Parent, Son, and Holy Spirit. We’ve talked about Salvation as being swept up into this dance.
It seems to me that prayer is an acknowledgement that we are in the dance. But more than an acknowledgement, it’s an active participation. If prayer is like dancing, then God must be near, all around us. That’s almost the point of dancing, the close proximity to the other person. In middle school, when you first start going to dances, it’s incredible to be that close to someone you’re attracted to. Dancing is intimate. Prayer is intimate.
Dancing is also active, so why do we so often pray sitting down?
There is, of course, a place for silence and contemplation, but for so many of us prayer has become static. It’s a forced conversation with a God we envision sitting on a throne somewhere listening to requests and arbitrarily deciding whether to answer yes or no.
But sitting and talking at God is not the image I get from Paul in this passage. This passage seems to move, like a dance. The paragraph begins with rejoicing, which seems hard to do while standing still. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Doesn’t that passage seem like a whirl-wind? Doesn’t it seem like it moves – like a ship skipping across the ocean?
But, as I said earlier, advocating for prayer, lifting up prayer, makes me nervous, especially today. Because we are praying earnestly right now for specific things: safety, healing, direction, provision, and what if what we’re praying for doesn’t come to pass? It’s all well and good to paint pretty pictures of prayer being a dance, of God being with us, but what about when bad things happen? As much as we want to have faith, we aren’t naïve.
The kind of prayer Paul is talking about here does not ignore the bad stuff. It isn’t naïve. Remember what we’ve read from Philippians so far. While he admonishes the Philippians here not to worry about anything, Paul has already admitted earlier in this letter that he has anxiety. He says he is eager to send Epaphroditus so that he might be “less anxious,” so Paul acknowledges his own anxiety, even as he encourages the Philippians to be “anxious for nothing.” Paul has already said outright that his imprisonment might result in his death. In fact, we know that he will eventually die as a prisoner.
This admonition to pray takes place in the context of a letter in which Paul speaks of disunity in the church, pressures from outside, and the dangers of bad theology. Case in point: it follows a specific example of a troubled relationship within the church between Euodia and Syntyche.
When Paul says “rejoice” he doesn’t mean bury your head in the sand. He doesn’t mean pretend to be carefree when you’re scared, pretend to be happy when your sad, pretend the world is good and just when trans people are told they’re a burden and the vulnerable are in danger of losing healthcare. Our joy is not ignorant of our circumstances, but neither is it dependent on them. Paul tells us not to rejoice in our circumstances, which change, but in the God who does not. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he says, “and again I will say, rejoice.”
If we lose our joy in God, if circumstances become more influential than our place in Christ, our place in the dance, then we will find ourselves in a desolate place, indeed. In the words of the theologian Daniel Migliore, “Human life stagnates and withers when joy is absent. The desire for joy and delight in life belongs to all human beings…Human life flourishes not when it has unlimited power or possesses complete autonomy but when it is gifted with the joy of life in communion with God and our fellow creature.”
Nowhere (that I can think of) does the New Testament say that if we pray hard enough we’ll be saved from trouble in this world. Jesus, Paul, and the disciples all prayed, and they all faced a great deal of hardship.
Jesus said outright, “In this world you will have trouble,” but, like Paul, he doesn’t think of peace as being the absence of trouble. The full verse says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace,” and then he says, “ In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Peace and trouble can coexist. Anger and joy can coexist. Fear and faith can coexist.
Peace is the gift of God that “guards our hearts” when the troubles we face threaten to crush our hearts. Peace is not sentimentality but strength.
When I get stressed out…I call my mom. I’m a grown man, the pastor of a church, but sometimes, I just need to talk to my mom. Brie knows this all too well. I will be stressed out and I’ll pull out my phone and Brie will ask, “Are you calling your mom?”
When I talk to my mom I feel like I’m back at my childhood home, sitting on our couch, probably playing cribbage. Most of you have met my mom. She’s small. She’s not strong in the physical sense. But she always knows what to say (probably because she lives a life of prayer). I always feel better after talking to my mom.
But the thing is I don’t think my mom has ever changed my circumstances. She’s never gone after someone who disrespected me, she’s never told me what to do when I was unsure about what path to take in life, she’s never paid my bills (okay, maybe a few times my parents paid my bills). My mom doesn’t tell me bad things won’t happen, but she always reminds me, in one way or another, that God is faithful. Perhaps we need to stop thinking of God as a warrior king who stops all the bad things from happening, and maybe we should start thinking of God as a mother. A mother who doesn’t snap her fingers and make the hardship disappear, but a mother who somehow instills in us a comfort that lodges itself deep in our hearts. A mother who creates a home for us when we are far from home.
Or perhaps we should think of God as one who was crucified, who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” One who is not victorious because he evaded or skipped over death, but is victorious because he lived through it.
I wish that God would just make all the bad things stop. I wish I could tell you that if we prayed hard enough sickness would cease, suffering would vanish, the scars of trauma would fade away without a trace, danger would be no more, injustice would be trampled, questions would be answered, and hazy futures would be made clear.
But I can’t.
But keep praying.
Prayer does not make sense. We cannot reason it. Paul says so himself. It is a “peace that passes understanding.”
But I feel it in my bones that Paul is right. I feel in my bones that God is near. I feel in my bones that we can, really, bring our requests to God. I feel in my bones the need for a peace that only God can provide. I don’t know how prayer works, but I know prayer works (whatever “works” means). I am tired of waiting for everything to be perfect to trust in God. I’m tired of trying to make sure God has all the answers before I ask the questions. I’m tired of resisting the dance because I’m not sure if it’s right to dance considering the circumstances.
I wish I could tell you what lies on the other side of a life of prayer. I wish I was more experienced in the area of prayer. I’m not. We’re all on this journey together, and we’re all growing, myself included. But I know that I need to pray. My soul is thirsty for it.
In a world full of injustice, in a church facing many unknowns, I need the peace that passes understanding. We need the peace that passes understanding. The world needs the peace that passes understanding.
So, let us ask, as those disciples asked so many years ago,
“Lord Jesus, crucified Christ, son of God…teach us how to pray.”
 Daniel L. Migiliore, Philippians and Philemon, 160.