14th December 2008 - "Rejoice in the Lord Always"

Stephen Fielding - St Mary's
Philippians 4:4

Last week I had the privilege of meeting the chairman of HSBC, the world’s largest bank. He’d come to the theological college where I work to give a lecture on leadership to the ordinands in training. And because of his position as the chairman of the world’s largest bank, and previously its CEO, he also spoke about the economic, financial and lending crisis which the world is facing. I should add in case you don’t know that Stephen Green, the man in question, has been an Anglican clergyman for 20 years. So it was fascinating to hear a perspective from the frontline, which was well-informed technically and also powerfully informed by a Christian understanding.

His key point about our crisis is that we in the West, particularly the US and Britain, have spent too much, borrowed too much and saved too little over the last 15 years. And the ship has run aground. This crisis is as bad as the crisis of 1929, but this time unlike then (he believes) governments are acting well by injecting more credit and more stimulus into the economy in order to get the ship afloat again. And thus he sets out a dilemma. Too much spending and borrowing have got us into this mess and we need to cut back on it. And yet we cannot get out of the mess unless (in his view) we spend and borrow more now. In fairness he says the long-term prescription must mean lower spending, lower consumption and more saving. But the immediate dilemma is surely real.

What did he have to say about leadership? A key quality of leaders he suggested will perhaps have been surprising to many of his listeners. The quality he names – and which I know from business school research on leaders over 20 years – is humility. The best leaders subordinate themselves. They allow others to flourish. And at first sight, you may be inclined to think we have another dilemma on our hands, or at least a paradox. How can I lead if I am to show humility? Success – or better still, triumph – as a result of humility might sound like a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron.

But then we open our scriptures, and we look at St Paul’s letter to the little community at Philippi. We look at the passage which some of us explored at Woolmer Green only two weeks ago. ‘Let this mind [this attitude] be in you which was also in Jesus Christ – who being in the form of God did not snatch at equality with God, but humbled himself.’ So it seems our business leader – who to me conveyed a deep personal humility – has it right. The way to glory is through the way of humility, submission, the cross, self-sacrifice. It’s not the world’s way, for sure. The world’s way to glory is through glory, bonuses, success, wealth. But St Paul says, if you want to be a disciple of Jesus, then you have to follow his way of sacrifice, submission, humility, cost, suffering. This leads us to our third dilemma. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always!’ St Paul says we must rejoice. He says it, although he’s in prison. The theme that runs right through his little letter to the Philippians is the theme of joy. The note of joy sounds throughout his letter. Rejoice in the Lord always! Well there’s the difficulty. Another dilemma! Always?

I sat earlier this week with a friend in Oxfordshire who has just had a brain tumour removed and is now having the radio therapy and chemotherapy which are necessary. She was fairly knocked about. And she said to me, “I’m trying to be positive, but it’s so difficult … I’m worried about so much”. Is it credible to say to such a person – ‘Rejoice in the Lord’? Is it? Or the sales assistant at Woolworths who is now without work, and perhaps without a realistic prospect of further employment? Is it credible to say, Rejoice in the Lord always?

And you – if you’re bearing a heavy burden, for yourself or for a loved one, or for the world’s needs or sorrows, how will you respond to this call to be joyful in the Lord? ‘Not just now thank you’ or ‘I think I’ll pass on that one’? For that seems to be the challenge. Not, am I happy to rejoice when things are going well, because what’s difficult about that? (though I know quite a few people who though greatly blessed have a nice line in complaining). The challenge is – what should I do, think and practise when things are down and out, when I’m under the cosh when I am simply not able to see the presence of God at all? When I’m just sick with worry, or ashamed or despairing? And if our Lord, at the moment of his great crisis could say ‘my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ then we are not alone in finding it difficult to be aware of the power and goodness of God at times of suffering and crisis, and so may find it hard to sing the Lord’s praise. And any attempt by Christians to deny the crushing effect of suffering, sin, pain or anguish is a mistaken attempt, because it denies the reality of the life lived.

But I want to ask this question. Has the pilot light gone out? Has that little flame inside everyone who suffers been extinguished or can it be brought back to a stronger flame? Can the pilot light be lit again or kept alight? Michael Ramsey, one of my heroes, used to say that faith is going on with darkness all around. How then will we keep going? I think the answer to this, as to so much, may lie in those prayers we know as the psalms, where the psalmist is not ashamed to say he’s angry with God, he’s terrified of what’s happening, he’s jealous of people who are flourishing, he’s in a pit and he can’t get out. He acknowledges the reality of his suffering, the reality of his pain, the reality of his distress. And perhaps he blames God for it… but sooner or later he reverts to what deep down – and perhaps only imperceptibly – he knows to be the case, that God loves him, that God cares for him, and that God is the strength of his life, and therefore is the God to be praised. To hang on to, and to repeat, the fact that God loves us and cares intimately about us is to understand the paradox at the heart of the Christian faith: no light without darkness, no redemption without sin, no resurrection without suffering.

It can sound very glib to say we should count our blessings – but when we’ve vented our anger, or our envy, or our distress, let us gently begin to compile the long list, the big inventory of our blessings. It can help to start small, with the little things we just take for granted. Gratitude always changes our perspective and the way we feel. To thank God is to release the power of the spirit in our lives. It is to acknowledge that God is a faithful God who changes lives. It is to trust in the Advent hope that around the divine corner will be the God who comes, who can make something out of nothing, who raises the dead.