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Confessions of a Small Church Pastor

Sermon: Good Thoughts Bring God’s Peace


Good Thoughts Bring God’s Peace

Philippians 4:1-9 NIV

1Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!

2I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

4Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8Finally, 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. 9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

The Power of Positive Thinking

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church from 1932-1984, is best known as the author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale was so convinced of the connection between the mind and the spirit that he established a program of Christian psychology in the basement of the church. Peale sold over 20-million copies of The Power of Positive Thinking, and his life is summarized this way —

Peale applied Christianity to everyday problems and is the person who is most responsible for bringing psychology into the professing Church, blending its principles into a message of “positive thinking.” Peale said, “through prayer you … make use of the great factor within yourself, the deep subconscious mind … [which Jesus called] the kingdom of God within you … Positive thinking is just another term for faith.” He also wrote, “Your unconscious mind … [has a] power that turns wishes into realities when the wishes are strong enough.”


The world-famous Mayo Clinic encourages its patients to practice positive thinking. Research indicates, according to the Mayo Clinic, that the results of positive thinking can include:

  • Decreased negative stress
  • Greater resistance to catching the common cold
  • A sense of well-being and improved health
  • Reduced risk of coronary artery disease
  • Easier breathing if you have certain lung diseases, such as emphysema
  • Improved coping ability for women with high-risk pregnancies
  • Better coping skills during hardships
So, if nothing else, as we move into cold season, positive thinking can prove helpful. USA Today reported on the research of Dr. Carol Ryff, psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Ryff noted –

“There is a science that is emerging that says a positive attitude isn’t just a state of mind,” she says. “It also has linkages to what’s going on in the brain and in the body.” Ryff has shown that individuals with higher levels of well-being have lower cardiovascular risk, lower levels of stress hormones and lower levels of inflammation, which serves as a marker of the immune system.” USA Today, Oct 12, 2004

 

So, there is something to thinking positively. The question is — Should we as Christians practice positive thinking? And, is positive thinking all we need to live a full and peaceful life?

Paul’s Encouragement
Paul writes to his friends in the church in Philippi and tells them — “8Finally, 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.” Sounds like positive thinking to me — true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable — all positive attributes that we as Christians are to think about. But why is Paul saying this? What brings him to give the Christians in Philippi this advice? After all, things are bad there.

It was in Philippi that Paul and Silas were thrown in jail. The population of Philippi consisted of few Jews, so few that Lydia and a handful of God-fearers were meeting down by the river at “the place of prayer.” Philippi was actually named for Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. It was a military and agricultural center located on the Egnatian Way, the main east-west road in the Roman empire.

According to Jona Lendering, the city was home to “two bathhouses, a forum, a temple dedicated to the emperor, an aqueduct, and inscriptions in Latin. There’s also a temple for the Egyptian gods Isis, Serapis, and Harpocrates.”

Why then, was Paul telling them to think about good things? Well, the key to understanding that is found in the verses that conclude Philippians chapter 3. Here’s how Paul winds up that chapter –

17Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. 18For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Paul couldn’t have given a more apt description of life in Philippi. With the temple for emperor worship looming over them, the Philippian Christians well understood that there were those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” It was as Roman cross, a Roman governor, and a Roman system that tried to do away with Jesus.

Paul says of those who live in the culture of the empire —
  • their destiny is destruction: The purpose of the empire was power and conquest. It’s destiny was both to destroy and to ultimately be destroyed. The founding of Philippi itself was testament to that destructive power. The conflict that brought the end to the Roman republic, and saw the rise of the Roman emperor was marked by the founding of the city of Philippi as a colony for retired Roman centurions and commanders.
  • their god is their stomach: Appetites for the Roman life is what Paul is referring to here. The Philippians live to consume; to eat more than they need; to satiate, not just satisfy, their passions and longings; and, to do so with the approval and encouragement of the Roman empire.
  • their glory is their shame: The glory of Rome, a familiar phrase, was based on power, wealth, excess, and corruption. Living by the Roman system made them partakers of the glory that was Rome’s — the pax Romana — which brought death, destruction, cruelty, and inhumanity to the cultures Rome conquered and ultimately it’s own citizens.
  • their mind is on earthly things: Everything Rome stood for, and by extension Philippi, was fleeting, earthbound, and tenuous. They worshipped gods they make fun of, jockeyed for power and position, and sought their own good at the expense of those who were most in need.
Wait a minute! Does any of this sound familiar? A culture that values military power? A culture that celebrates wealth and status? A culture that gives lip-service to a religious system that has little influence on its ethical and moral choices? A culture that has been the envy of everyone else in the world, and has basked in the glory of its place in history?

Well, if you’ve followed the financial crisis or the presidential election, you’ve heard all of these things before. This is the culture that the followers of Christ found themselves in 2000 years ago, and it is the culture that we find ourselves in today. Same song, second verse.

A Contrast Society
But, Paul says to the Philippians, “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

Now, when Paul says “our citizenship is in heaven” that is a direct challenge to the Roman empire. The residents of Philippi held citizenship in the Roman empire. They, like Paul, were citizens of Rome. With all the rights and privileges that included.

But Paul challenges that notion. By saying, “our citizenship is in heaven” Paul doesn’t mean “wait until you die to get out of this place.” No, Paul means, we’re citizens of a different community, a community that lives in contrast to the Roman empire. We are citizens of the kingdom of God, not of Caesar.

And to further assure them that he does not mean “heaven-when-you-die” citizenship, Paul says, “We eagerly await a Savior from there (heaven) who will come here (earth) and bring everything under his control, and transform us into his image, his glory. In other words, we live as citizens of heaven here, and while we’re doing that we’re waiting for Jesus to come back. When he does he’ll change the world, and he’ll change us. Not a bad thing to hope for.

Then, chapter 3 ends and chapter 4 begins with these words —

“Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!”


So, the idea is this — the way you are to stand firm in the Lord is to realize that 1) there are those who live as enemies of the cross, and 2) you are to live as a citizen of heaven.


How Do We Then Live?

Alright, took us awhile to get here, but what does that mean? How are we to live if we are citizens of heaven? That’s exactly what Paul tells us and the Philippians in Chapter 4.


First, Paul encourages them to agree with one another — to be united in their community of faith.


Secondly, Paul encourages them to rejoice in the Lord, be gentle to others, don’t be anxious, but pray.


Finally, think good thoughts —


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. 9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.


One of my favorite writers, Thich Nhat Hanh, Nobel Peace prize nominee and Buddhist monk, says that the things we take in to our lives are important. Nhat Hanh says that those things include parts of our culture like TV, movies, books, media, and other intellectual things we consume that affect our lives. There are times, he says, when we need to turn off those programs or songs or movies that do not help us to live lives of peace and well-being.


Paul’s version of the power of positive thinking isn’t wishful thinking. In Paul’s mind we are not building castles in the sky, but are living our lives by an alternative vision — the vision that God has sent Jesus and that through Jesus, God is making all things new.


Followers of Christ are hopeful, positive, and good, not because thinking like that will make us rich and powerful, but because those are the attributes of the kingdom of God. We think about beautiful things because the Creator of the Universe is the author of beauty. We think about good, true, noble, pure, praiseworthy, and admirable things because these are part of the image of God in us. An image that Christ is coming back to complete in resurrection power.


We think this way because we serve a living Christ, a risen Lord, who has defeated the most negative, destructive force in our world — Death. And if death is dead, then life abounds.


But, Paul also reminds us that we think positive, good thoughts because we have seen others do think that way. Paul makes the bold assertion –


“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”


Wow. Would you say that to someone else? Anything that you have heard me say, or seen me do, or learned from me, put it into practice? We learn from others whose faith has enabled them to think differently. To embrace a hopeful vision of God and his plan for all mankind. A positive message of good news for all people. A counterpoint to all that the empires of this world present as a competing vision.


Christian Thinking Is Centered in Christ and Learned from Others

So, that’s it. Paul’s take on the power of positive thinking. And the amazing part is that all humanity seems to be hardwired to think positively. When we do we are healthier, happier, more faithful, and more hopeful. Our reason to think good thoughts is in Jesus, our example comes from others.


Let me tell you a story that will help you understand how all this works together.


In south Florida, a pretty typical American family composed of mom, dad, and four kids was living a pretty typical American life. Until their oldest son, CJ, started complaining with stomach and back pain. CJ’s parents took him from one doctor to another. Tests were ordered — x-rays, blood work, examinations — but the pain would return and the cycle would start all over again. Did I tell you that CJ is 9 years old? And that he plays flag football, loves his dog Diamond, and is a pretty typical 9-year old boy.


One doctor ordered an MRI for CJ, but in its infinite wisdom, their insurance company denied the doctor’s request. So,two more months’ of pain and doctors’ visits continued. Finally, an orthopedic specialist ordered the MRI, and this time the insurance company okayed it.


The results were bad. CJ was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma, a very serious, but treatable form of cancer. We heard about CJ from Debbie’s sister, Christy, who sent us the link to the family’s website. The website has morphed from being about typical family stuff, into a journal of their walk through CJ’s battle with cancer.


As in any case where a child is sick, their story is heart-wrenching. But, CJ is amazing. This little 9-year old boy has become the encourager of the family. And he’s a poet, too. CJ’s mom has posted several of his poems, and the grace and courage of this little boy is astounding. I want you to listen to this poem by CJ. It’s titled “There Was God.”


There was God….

God created the Universe.
Inside that universe was a solar system;
inside that solar system was a planet,
inside that planet was a continent,
inside that continent was a country;
inside that country was a state;
inside that state was a city;
inside that city was a county;
inside that county was house;
inside that house was a boy;
inside that boy was a heart;
inside that heart………

There was God. by CJ George


CJ understands what Paul meant —


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 –


Because CJ knows that God has a plan, and that plan includes him.



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Categories: bless the world, Lectionary Yr A, Philippians, sermon, Sermon Illustrations, Sermons, theology, Worship

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1 reply

  1. Thank you. I had to miss church today and needed a sermon about positive thinking. I’m so glad I found yours. Thank you again.

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