In Plenty & In Want, In Sickness & In Health
When I watch a historical show, one of my favorite bits is when a king dies and all the royal officials yell out, “The king is dead! Long live the king!” It seems ironic, but the slogan is real. The king is dead… long live this dead guy? Still “The king is dead! Long live the king!” or queen as the case may be… is tradition in most of Europe’s monarchies. The saying mourns the death of one monarch—the king is dead!—but celebrates a continuation of the monarchy in the belief that the ruler’s heir has now immediately become monarch—long live new king! It’s a way of saying queens and kings may come and go… but the nation itself endures. It grieves a death, honors a new ruler, and weds tradition with transition. “The king is dead! Long live the king!”
Paul’s letter to the Philippians today remind me of that saying. “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” It seems a bit contradictory. Some might want Paul instead to merely say, “If you follow these helpful steps, you’ll make so much money you won’t ever go hungry.” Others might prefer if Paul said, “I have transcended such needs. I no longer sweat that small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.” But no, Paul does not say he no longer has problems in life… and he also does not say his problems are not a big deal. No, the obstacles Paul faces are real, are a big deal, and they don’t go away with mere positive thinking. “The king is dead!”
So where is our “Long live the king!” moment? Like that old saying, how does Paul find continuity amid change, permanency amid peril? Here is Paul’s real secret to being content in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health. “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.” And elsewhere Paul writes, “The God of peace will be with you…” and also “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Paul isn’t saying “do not worry because it’s not a big deal” but rather is saying “bring your worries to God… by prayer, by supplication and with thanksgiving.” Your problems are real, but you can share them with God. Not only that, but Paul says that God is with you, even if you aren’t mid-prayer right this instant. “The God of peace will be with you… [and] strengthens you.” Paul is not saying Christians never have problems. And Paul is not saying your problems aren’t real or aren’t that big a deal. Instead, Paul is saying that God is with you in your difficulty, that God struggles alongside you in hardship, that God mourns with you in grief or in isolation. And not only is God with you: God strengthens you, gives you faith and hope to endure bad times until you emerge on the other side.
This year will have a strange holiday season. This year we’re told by medical experts to stay away from family to avoid spreading a deadly plague. This year we’re told to wear masks in addition to our usual Santa hats, though I’m sure somebody somewhere has already made a facemask that looks like a Santa beard to match our Christmassy hats. Thanksgiving this coming week is going to feel strange, however many turkeys we may still eat. And so I encourage us all to cling to Paul’s words. Like Paul, may we also this holiday season “be content with whatever [we] have,” whether it be meager or rich… by remembering that whether the times are good or bad, whatever comes our way, God is with us… to share our troubles and our joys; to rejoice when we give thanks and to grieve when we weep; to give us strength when we are weak and to give us rest when we are tired. It is this reliance on God, this constant awareness of God’s presence in his life… that enables us to be content in all circumstances. Not that all circumstances are good, but that God is with us in all circumstances.
Paul’s words remind me of the ending of that classic story: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Though all their presents and decorations are gone, still the Whos down in Whoville find contentment in what they have, still rejoice in what they can even as they mourn what was lost. Because Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas Eve, and all the other holidays we celebrate this time of year? They aren’t about the lights or the food. They aren’t about parades or decorations. They aren’t even about coming to church per se. These holidays are meant to be times when we notice God in our midst, when we thank the Lord for being present in our lives in good times and bad, when we remember past assurances by God to endure the present moment better. So in this unusual, Lord willing once-in-a-lifetime holiday season… may we find contentment as Paul did, by knowing that God is with us, that God shares our joys and grief, that God never abandons us, and that God indeed strengthens us for the journey ahead. Let us give thanks, for the Lord is always near. Amen.