Sermon delivered April 20, 2008.
Yesterday, at the end of the Liturgy for the raising of Lazaros, I asked the children in attendance if they noticed anything different about the decoration of the church. One of them correctly noted that all the purple clothes and coverings were gone. Purple is a royal color. It is the color of the robe that the soldiers mockingly put on Christ before crucifying Him. We Orthodox Christians use purple in the church during Lent to remind us of Christ’s royalty as King of the Jews and to remind us of His suffering and how we mock Him with our words and actions. Being reminded, we should then be motivated to repentance and confession of our sins and trespasses. However, what we see yesterday and today, Palm Sunday, is gold coverings and palm branches decorating the church. These are symbols of victory and joy because Christ has demonstrated His power to give life by raising Lazaros from the dead and now He triumphantly enters Jerusalem.
To underline this period of celebration, the Church assigns St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 4:4-9 as the epistle reading today. It begins with, “Rejoice in the Lord always,” and in case you missed the point, St. Paul immediately repeats the message, “Again I will say, rejoice!” (v.4). These words are not a request but a command. We are told to be joyful. As Christians we must rejoice. It is our duty. Jesus Himself commands us to rejoice several times in the gospels. Most notably during the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us to rejoice, not when things are going great, but when people persecute us and slander us (Mt.5:12).
Yet, as all of us know, it’s not easy to be joyful all the time. Even when things on seem to be going very well, we can struggle to be happy. We may feel down and depressed but for no good reason that we are aware of. For a few, the struggle with depression is very difficult and brought on by chemical changes within the body that require medical attention. For most of us the struggle to rejoice is a result of a few key things that may be missing in our life. One of those key things, perhaps the most important of all is the “peace of God” (v.7). St. Paul says the peace of God, through Jesus Christ, can guard our hearts and minds. It’s like a fortress of protection abound our inner sanctum.
How may one acquire the peace of God? It’s quite simple. St. Paul commands, he doesn’t ask, “By prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God” (v.6). We must pray. We must talk to God. We need to let Him know what’s going on in our life. Not because God doesn’t know what’s going on. Rather, because we need to turn towards the only Person who can ultimately help with whatever we are anxious, whatever we have anxiety about. Even if God does not change the external circumstances of our life, He can provide the grace that guards our heart and mind so that our inner life is not dictated by what’s going on around us. In order to ‘rejoice always’, we need to pray always.
Now some may say, “I pray everyday or I pray a lot and I still feel depressed and unhappy.” But wait a minute, read the fine print in verse 6. Our prayers, supplications and requests must be made to God with one key ingredient—thanksgiving. I’m sure most of us heard from our elders, “Be thankful for what you have.” Asking for more of this and more of that, get me this and give me that is not always the key to our happiness and well-being. Being grateful for what we already have, however little it may be, is the key to rejoicing. So, each day in prayer, make a list of things you are grateful for and then thank God for them.
There is another element to rejoicing that accompanies prayer and thanksgiving. We all know what daydreaming is and we kind of picture it has the typical looking out the window when we have nothing else to do. I would assert that we probably daydream more than we think we do in the sense that we all have momentary or extended thought distractions during the day even when we are busy doing something and even during conversations with other people. Thoughts of all different kinds are constantly running through our mind. These thoughts have the power to bring us joy or to bring us sorrow, anger, distress and anxiety and other emotions.
St. Paul recognizes the power of thought and therefore instructs us, commands us to think about the very things that will contribute to rejoicing. He says “whatever things are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (v.8). In other words, in order to be joyful, don’t think about what you know to be false or never happened or has not happened yet. Do not concentrate on people’s imperfections and mistakes. Don’t mull over injustices done to yourself and others. Do not fill your mind with impure, lustful stories and images. Do meditate on the inherent beauty of God’s creation. Do listen to good news and do not listen to slander or gossip. Hearing these commands, hopefully we see the wisdom of turning off the television, especially during Lent, to guard our heart and mind. Hopefully, we understand the necessity of avoiding idle talk and gossip so as not to tempt our brothers and sisters as they seek to guard their heart and mind.
Implicit in these commands is that our thought involves our free-will, our choice. The peace of God cannot guard our heart and mind if we keep filling it up with junk and garbage. We must participate in the clean-up of anger, depression and hopelessness within us. God will not do it for us while we continue in a life contradictory to His commands. The power and ability to rejoice lies within us in as much as we receive, as much as we let in, the triumphant Lord, Jesus Christ to reign victorious on throne of our soul. Let us lay down our garment of humility before Him and wave our branches of rejoicing. Amen.
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.