“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” So Paul writes to the Philippians. But doesn’t he know what he’s asking, no, telling the Philippians, and us, to do? Doesn’t he know how impossible it is to always rejoice in the Lord? This is the same Paul who will go on to write in Romans 7, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing,” right?
While often quoted as a cheerful call to praise God, Paul’s words in Philippians 4:9 are hard to swallow in these times. These pandemic times. These times of heightened awareness of injustice. These times filled with fear. These times when anger, division, and vitriol appear as the norm. In these times, when the reign (one could say the terror) of sin, death, and the devil feels unyielding, we feel everything but a desire to praise the Lord, let alone praise him always.
While often quoted as a cheerful call to praise God, Paul’s words in Philippians 4:9 are hard to swallow in these times.
We may intellectually recognize the gospel, the free forgiveness of our sins on account of Christ, and say “Amen” to the daily reality of our baptism. But Paul’s words provide little peace when that gospel-knowledge doesn’t produce a feeling of joyful praise welling up inside of us and out of our mouths. They accuse as the law always does.
Here, David’s words in Psalm 51:15 comfort me: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”
I’ve hardly been a passionate pray-er. I practice this God-gifted spiritual discipline, but I wouldn’t say it is a spiritual gift of mine. I struggle to stay focused, juggle the various concerns, and remember the necessary intercessions I want to make. I get lost in my own thoughts and forget I’m even praying. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
David’s words comfort me because no matter how I feel, especially in times when praising or thanking God feels hard, I don’t have to rely on my own strength of feeling. Even more, I don’t have to rely on my own strength of vocabulary. God opens my mouth by putting the words I need in it.
It is not just these words, but where I daily encounter them that brings me comfort, even joy. This prayer opens the order or liturgy of daily prayer for the morning, commonly called Matins or Morning Prayer. And boy, do I need God to put these words on my lips in the morning.
Like many others, my first action after opening my eyes, often only slightly, is to grab my phone. Mainly to silence (let’s be honest, to snooze) my alarm, but then in my foggy and groggy morning brain, I pick up the burdens of my morning news email. I scoop on some sanctimony scrolling social media. I even defeat the daily challenge of the game on my phone. Only after 20, 30, or 40 minutes of this stalling do I get out of bed, grab the prayer book on the nightstand, stumble to the coffee maker, and then sit down to open to these words from David as the coffee drips and I rub the sleep from my eyes.
Rarely if ever do I heed Luther’s counsel in his letter to Master Peter the Barber to let prayer be the first order of the day. Instead, I stagger into calling upon the Lord half-awake, unfocused, but fully burdened by the world’s troubles and guilted by my continued lazy lack of discipline.
Yet, with these words, God transforms my pessimism into praise. Like a lighthouse in the daze of dawn, this God-gifted prayer guides me to cast the cares I’m already carrying so early in the morning. All I do is pray the words he gives me to pray.
These words not only rescue and defend; they also attack. They push back my sinful tendency to praise myself for relying on myself.
They anchor me. They still my storm-tossed body and soul. When I pray these words written for me so long ago, I’m pulled out of the waves and placed upon the sturdy ship of God’s word, a vessel no waves could capsize, a craft that keeps me from drowning.
These words not only rescue and defend; they also attack. They push back my sinful tendency to praise myself for relying on myself. They stare death in the face and laugh at it, reminding me that Jesus Christ, the Son of God and our Lord has saved me from death by his death and is worthy of praise. They ward off the devil who would have me worship anyone but the God who calls himself my God.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.