A sermon on Philippians 4:1-9 & Matthew 22:1-14 by Nathan Nettleton
Here’s a little singing test to see who was around evangelical churches back in the seventies and eighties. Sing it with me if you remember:
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!
Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice!
Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice!
Well, there you go. We’re all older that we like to imagine! The words, of course, come straight out of today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. They make a cheery little song, but taking them seriously and working out how to live them out is rather more of a challenge. And a line later Paul adds to the challenge by talking about doing everything in prayer with thanksgiving. Always. Everything. Always and everything with rejoicing and thanksgiving. Now if there is anyone here who has managed to spend every moment of their lives in rejoicing and thanksgiving, I must have missed you on my pastoral rounds. And yet we have an echo of these words in our congregational covenant, don’t we? “We are called to live thankfully – to cultivate a heart of gratitude, looking for the blessings in all things.”
Now perhaps there is a helpful clue in that line from the covenant as to what this might mean: this heart of rejoicing and gratitude is something we are to cultivate. The Apostle Paul is not giving us a new law here: if there is a break in your rejoicing you have sinned and you will be punished for it. It’s not like that. But he is calling us to aspire to be people who are characterised by rejoicing and gratitude, and to cultivate those attitudes within ourselves. He is saying that these things are characteristics of Jesus and he is urging us to model ourselves on Jesus. This is the same letter we heard from two weeks ago with the call to have the same mind as was in Jesus. Taking Jesus as the model we strive to imitate is a big theme in this letter. Now, how we go about striving to cultivate these things is given some content in the final verses of the section we heard today, and it reminds us again of that idea of having the same mind as Christ Jesus because it is all about what you set your mind on.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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.
Think about these things. Fill your mind with these things. Seek them out and ponder them. Meditate on them. Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, whatever is gracious, whatever is loving, whatever is hospitable, whatever is merciful, whatever makes for reconciliation and peace. Think about these things. Make them the cud your mind chews on as you go about your business. And Paul reinforces the idea that positive imitation is part of this when he concludes by saying, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” Keep on imitating the good things you have seen in me as I keep on imitating the ways of Jesus who is in turn imitating the ways of his Abba, the God and creator of all.
Now, I don’t know about you, but one of the questions that occurs to me as I say all this, especially after our little nostalgia trip back to the seventies before, is “is this just another version of the power-of-positive-thinking that was so popular back in the seventies?” You remember, Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller and so on. Well, truth is truth, wherever it comes from, and I’m sure there are some points in common, but I don’t think it really is the same thing entirely. Rather a lot of the power-of-positive-thinking message fell on the first word – power. Whatever truth it had, it tended to get tangled up with the current concepts of power and success and became just another road to achieving them. The crucified Jesus, rejected and hated and cast out, was hardly the pin-up boy for the success-seeking power of positive thinking.
However, one thing they clearly have in common is the belief that what you set your mind on is a major factor in how things turn out for you. I remember many years ago when I first learned to ride a motorbike being told that one of the secrets to not running into things was to where you focussed your attention. If you suddenly saw a pole in front of you and your mind goes “the pole, the pole, witch out for the pole”, then sure enough, you run right into what you’ve focussed your attention on. But if you respond by fixing your eyes and your mind on the gap to the left or right of the pole, then there is every chance that you will be through that gap unscathed before you know it.
This of course raises legitimate questions for some people about some of what we do in the worship service. Why do we devote time to confessing our sins every week? Isn’t this focussing on the negative and more likely to hold us captive there than it is to help? Can’t we focus on something more positive? It’s a fair question. But our focus on the positive needs to avoid falling into denial and escapism. It needs to deal with the reality we face. Our confession of sin is the reality check that sets up our proclamation and celebration of the positive message of grace and mercy and forgiveness and the freedom to sin no more. But that is a message that would be superficial and delusory if it wasn’t offered in the face of a real consciousness of our continued confrontation with sin. The message of forgiveness and release would have little power to change us if we were in denial or just oblivious to the reality of sin in our lives. It is a very positive message precisely because it is related directly to a named and faced reality.
If we want to fill our minds with things that are going to change our lives for the better, they have to be things that are well grounded in reality. Positive thinking that has lost connection to reality is just filling your mind with fairy-floss and it will be powerless to bring about any positive changes. And in some cases there may be some very negative consequences. I think a good example here is what is going on in this generation with pornography. Since the advent of the internet, which is still less than twenty years ago, young people, and young men in particular from about Daniel and Matthew’s age and sometimes even younger, have been feeding their minds with the images produced by the pornography manufacturers. Now part of the thinking and part of the marketing here is that by feasting your mind on such images, you better prepare yourself for sexual engagement. But the truth is usually the opposite because the patterns of sexual behaviour depicted in the majority of porn are not grounded in reality. They are fantasyland stuff, and so especially for those with little or no real life experience to put it alongside, they distort perceptions and expectations and thus drain real sex of its enjoyment. We’ve got a whole generation of young men coming up who have been robbed of their capacity to engage in and enjoy a real sexual relationship because they have been emasculated by the pornographers. And please don’t mishear this as simplistic prudishness. I have no objection at all to the beautifully erotic and even explicit portrayal of healthy loving sex in movies or other art forms. But the majority of porn is anything but that and if you’re filling your mind with it you might as well be taking to your genitals with a whipper-snipper for all the good its going to do your sexual prospects. Now there’s an image to focus your mind on next time you’re tempted to click on those porn links!
Anyway, enough about that. It is also really important to consider carefully what sort of images of God we fill our minds with, and I think the story we heard Jesus tell in the gospel reading tonight gives us a good example of the issues here. A lot of Jesus’s stories take a conventional image or a well known stock story and twist it or turn it on its head. But you remember what Jesus said himself about how many will listen and never hear. Many will only hear the old story and its usual interpretation and nothing will get them to hear how Jesus is upending it. I reckon this story is a case in point. You see the conventional way to hear this story of the king who invites people to a wedding banquet is to equate the king with God, and so it is perfectly possible to hear Jesus tell this story and hear it that way still. But if you do, God comes out looking like Moamar Gaddafi. When people refuse this king what he wants, he launches violent reprisals, killing, maiming and burning their villages to the ground. No wonder the next lot of invitees turn up – they’ve seen what happens to those who refuse this king. And then he finds a man who still hasn’t done quite what he wants, so he has him chained, hand and foot, and thrown into the outer darkness. Fill your mind with images of God like that, and you will soon be relating to God from a position of constant fear and resentment.
But look what Jesus is doing with the story. He never says that the king equals God. Memories of King Herod’s bloody execution of John the Baptiser are still recent, and Jesus himself is about to be one who stands silently, giving no answer to an angry accusing ruler, before being bound and cast into the outer darkness of a disgraced death on the cross. For those who have ears to hear, Jesus is turning the story on its head and inviting us to see the lone rejected non-conformist as the new hero of the story, as the messianic figure who will not be cowered by the brutality of the world’s powers, but who also does not return violence for violence. Feed your mind on that kind of an image of God, and God-made-flesh, and you will cultivate quite a different heart and quite a different way of being before God.
And just as a side note, when you are reading the similar parable of the wedding feast in Luke’s gospel, don’t assume it is the same. It isn’t. Jesus can spin the same stock story in different directions on different occasions, and the king in the Luke version is not a violent vengeful figure, but is one who sends his invite to “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame”. A very different image, and one that can speak to us of the God who is made known to us in the crucified Jesus.
The images you fill your mind with really matter, and the Apostle Paul calls us to imitate him and Jesus and any other figures of heroic faithfulness and righteousness and generous hospitality in filling our minds with “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable” so that these might be the things that shape us and form us and sustain us and bit by bit become us. Make these the things your mind feeds on.
There is an old story you’ve probably heard which I think comes from native American origin. It tells of a wise old man talking to a teenage boy about the inner struggles the young man was experiencing between his desires to do good and his desires to be violent and vengeful and spiteful. And the old man describes the two impulses as being two wolves doing battle within him for the mastery of his soul, a good wolf and an evil wolf, both big and powerful and formidable, and now pitted against each other in a deadly struggle for control of the young man. And hesitantly the young man asks the wise elder, “do you know which one is going to win?” The old man looks at him and replies, “The one you feed.”