The God Who Offers Peace: Sermon for October 15, 2023

Out of the seeds of hardship and suffering, a letter of joy was written. How is that? How can such harsh things produce evidence of such peace and contentment? How can pain produce encouragement?

From the moment Paul and Silas first arrived in Philippi, there was a harsh reaction to their preaching. These two messengers of God were arrested, severely beaten, and thrown into the darkness of a Roman jail cell. Like some today who end up arrested by the authorities, they were ill-treated and abused. They were apprehended by the police, their innocence never assumed and they were treated like guilty criminals.

Out of the deep dungeon of Roman imprisonment, two voices were lifted in song, creating a harmony of the heart. Those two faithful men took their beatings and responded by singing Christian hymns in their jail cells.

The story of the beginnings of this wonderful letter stands as a beacon of hope for all time. Their story lives on as sisters and brothers of pain throughout the ages have read this letter and gained strength from it. Bread for another day of endurance was broken and shared in the reading of this letter because in the pages of this so-called prison letter are the encouraging words of joy.

First, we are encouraged to rejoice in all things. Make no mistake, this is a counter-intuitive response when troubles and trials come our way. But this is not “pie-in-the-sky” thinking. It seems there is always the promise of something deeper at work in our worst circumstances.

Paul did not come out of some 1940’s Hollywood musical. Instead, he was on Death Row, in a place worse than any modern prison. Paul was talking about a distinctive way of facing life with a confidence that assumes God is present in the world and can give us the strength to endure anything knowing there is peace that transcends whatever circumstances we may face.

Second, we are advised to stop worrying. I know that’s hard for some of you because it’s second nature for you to think of all the things that could go wrong. It’s your job to worry! If you didn’t worry, who would? (That’s the kind of logic required of a true worrier) How would the world get along if there were no worriers? We are told to quit giving our internal energies to things over which we have no control. The advice to quit worrying is joined with the advice to do all the proactive, life-producing things that enable the future to come into being with no thought to all those endless things that might happen or that could happen.

Kyle Childress, my pastor friend in Nacogdoches, told me of the time he was driving through Little Rock and saw a hand-lettered sign by the highway that said, “All my life I’ve been prepared to fight dragons, but all I’ve ever met are spiders and gum on the bottom of my shoe.” After seeing that sign, Kyle drove on for miles thinking about that short message. What he concluded was that we often fight the windmills of what could be, when the only certainty we face are those problems right in front of us. When we really think about it, for most of us, the worst we face are spiders and the gum on the bottom of our shoes.

Third, fill your mind with good things. Paul, one of the first century’s greatest thinkers, offers to his Christian believers a list of Stoic virtues that the thinkers of his time contemplated and appreciated. The believers in Philippi were told to keep control over the habits of their thoughts and attitudes. It is important to exercise discipline over our thoughts. Work to build new cognitive patterns. Before pulling the lever of negative thinking, consider that God may be at work in the events or experiences trying to do something new and wonderful even though it looks as though you are suffering irreparable harm.

Throughout this section of Paul’s letter is his advice to build an attitude of prayer. There is an amazing amount of scientific study currently being given to the positive effects of prayer. The psychological and medical professions both are doing intensive studies that demonstrate a great mystery about the power of prayer. What they can’t understand, they at least recognize:  There is a power released when one prays. What power is released in the believer when prayer produces peace? Where chaos once reigned, peace now pervades. Where the soul was once in crisis peace is produced.

No matter whether you’re a person of faith or not, as humans, we’re meaning-making people and it’s in our nature to need to make sense out of all those inexplicable and capricious events that happen. When those events occur, we’re curious as kittens as to why they happened to us, or, why they happened just when they did. This is what Martin Buber would later call simply, “meetings,” that sees the autobiographical fragments of memory that are strung together like pearls on a necklace.

From the prison cell, Paul pushed the Philippian believers (and us) to turn the power of worry into the basis for prayer. He tells us to let those things that consumed us in the form of needless worry, be the foundation on which to build a life of prayer. Here’s how Eugene Peterson has translated those words:


Don’t fret or worry.

Instead of worrying, pray.

Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers,

letting God know your concerns.

Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness,

everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down.

It’s wonderful what happens

when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.

(Philippians 4:5-6, The Message, Eugene Peterson)


© Dr. Keith D. Herron 2023