Joyful Living in a Grumpy World
September 6, 1998
This morning we are beginning a new sermon series from the book of Philippians. By all accounts this is one of the most beloved books in the New Testament. We love to read Philippians and we love to study it and to memorize it. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is that this is the happiest letter the apostle Paul ever wrote. It is clear that sometimes Paul was not in a lighthearted mood when he wrote his letters, especially when he had to correct serious error in the churches (Galatians comes to mind and so does Colossians and perhaps II Thessalonians). But Paul’s mood was obviously on the upside when he wrote this brief letter.
I am excited about preaching through Philippians for three reasons: First, although the letter is short, it covers almost every Christian doctrine. As we work through these four chapters in the next few weeks, we’ll be introduced to many great doctrines, including the Person and work of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, the Second Coming, and many aspects of sanctification. Second, this book also shows us the relational side of the Christian faith. Here we learn how Paul dealt with his opponents—both inside and outside the church. We also discover how to deal with cantankerous Christians and the importance of unity in the body of Christ.
Third, a study of Philippians teaches us how to find joy in the midst of personal pain. This is perhaps the place where truth touches life at it rawest point. All of us have been saddened by the crash of Swissair flight 111 in the waters off Nova Scotia this week. Among the many victims was a son of former prizefighter Jack LaMotta (made famous to a new generation by the film Raging Bull some 20 years ago). Another son had died within the last year. When Jake LaMotta heard about the crash and that there were no survivors, he cried out, “What is God saying to me?” It is a sobering question. Why would God allow two sons to die in the same year?
This is truly a mystery both personal and theological. Unfortunately, we live in a world where tragedies like this have become commonplace. I do not think that Philippians offers us a final answer to the mystery of suffering, but it does point the way to a genuinely Christian response. As we read these four chapters, Paul tells us in many different ways that while we can’t control what happens to us, we do have total control regarding how we respond. Tragedy strikes, children die, planes crash, good men go to jail, people gossip, marriages break up, and people lie about their behavior. There is nothing to be done about all this because it’s an ongoing consequence of living in a fallen world. But we do have a choice regarding how we respond to the hurts and heartaches of life. That’s the primary contribution of this wonderful little book that has blessed the people of God for 2000 years.
First, A Bit of Background
Before we jump into the book, let’s get a bit of background in front of us. Keep these two key dates in mind―AD 51 & 61. The first date is the approximate year when the apostle Paul made his first visit to Philippi (recorded in Acts 16). There he meets Lydia the seller of purple by the riverside and leads her to faith in Christ. Then he casts a demon out of a young girl and for this act of kindness is thrown in jail. There he leads the jailer to Christ and baptizes him and his family in the middle of the night. Soon after that he leaves town and travels to Berea, Thessalonica, and Athens.
From that inauspicious beginning a great church was born. Since Paul had founded the church, and since he had personally led the charter members to Christ, they naturally looked to him with great reverence and love—and he in turn kept this particular church always in his heart. A bond was formed that would never be broken.
Ten years later Paul found himself in prison in Rome awaiting trial before Caesar. He was under a type of house arrest, which meant he was watched by the Praetorian Guard (a group of elite Roman soldiers). He was evidently chained to a guard at all times. However, he wasn’t in solitary confinement, which meant he could receive visitors, and could even preach and teach while in prison. When the Philippian church heard about his imprisonment, they sent a much-loved leader named Epaphroditus to Rome with a monetary gift for Paul’s personal needs. While in Rome Epaphroditus became sick and nearly died. When word got back to the Philippians they were naturally very concerned.
Eventually Epaphroditus returned to health and Paul sent him back to Philippi carrying a brief thank-you note to the church. That brief note is the New Testament book of Philippians. Its tone is spontaneous, warm and personal. Paul uses the words “joy” and “rejoice” 14 times in 104 verses. One commentator calls it “an intimate diary” written by a great apostle of the Christian faith.
Second, a Glimpse into Paul’s Heart
The heart of the letter begins in verse 3 of chapter 1 with Paul’s thanksgiving for the Philippians. This paragraph (which runs through verse 8) gives us a glimpse into Paul’s heart and shows why Paul loved this church so much.
1) Thanksgiving v. 3-5
“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.”
Paul begins by expressing his gratitude for all that the Philippian believers meant to him. He remembered his friends—and his memory led him to give thanks to God. And his thanksgiving led naturally to joyful prayer on their behalf. Paul chose to focus on the positive. I wonder how many of us could say the same thing about our own prayers. Often we focus only on the negatives. We pray to “correct” something in other people or to ask God to change them more to our liking.
Pastor Steve May offers the following helpful advice about the importance of keeping a positive focus when we pray:
Whenever you pray for someone, begin by thanking God for them. Thank God for the role they’ve played in your life, for all that they’ve done for you, for the good things they’ve done for others. Even if you’re having conflict with this person, thank God that he or she is giving you the opportunity to grow spiritually, learn forgiveness, be more patient, and on and on. If you try, you can find something to be thankful for in just about anyone.
Pastor May goes on to mention the famous 80/20 rule—in any church 80 percent of the people do 20 percent of the work while 20 percent do 80 percent of the work. It is said that this rule holds true in the business realm as well—80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your customers. He commented that he once pastored a church that followed the 80/20 rule in a peculiar way: 80 percent of the people wanted to fire him, and 20 percent wanted to kill him. He found it difficult to pray for his opposition—and for one man in particular who openly opposed him. The pastor determined that he would never pray for this man without first giving thanks for him. As difficult as that was, he eventually found the Lord bringing many things to mind, including the man’s faithfulness to the church, his willingness to serve, his generous heart, and his love for his children and his grandchildren. Eventually the pastor found his own heart being changed as he prayed for this man. The day came when the pastor and the man found themselves in a car together. The man opened his heart and began sharing about his wife, his work, and even ended up complimenting the pastor on his sermon that Sunday.
What had happened? Thankful prayer made the difference. Anyone can pray “against” another person. But only God can give you the grace to pray “for” them instead.
When asked how he dealt with his many enemies, Abraham Lincoln replied, “If at all possible, I turn them into my friends.” That radical transformation is possible as we pray with thanksgiving for those who oppose us. George Buttrick once advised praying for your enemies this way, “Lord, bless this person whom I foolishly regard as an enemy. Keep him in thy favor. Banish my resentment.”
Note one final thing about Paul’s thanksgiving for the Philippians. All of it was centered in the gospel. In verse 5 he mentions their “partnership in the gospel.” The Greek word for “partnership” is koinonia—sometimes translated “fellowship.” In our day “fellowship” means something like a social gathering where we drink tea and eat crumpets and share casual gossip. To most of us “fellowship” means warm friendship with other believers.
Now it’s true that drinking tea and eating crumpets has its place, but that doesn’t begin to exhaust the New Testament meaning of “fellowship.” The word originally had commercial overtones. If two men bought a boat and started a fishing business, they were said to be in koinonia—a formal business partnership. They shared a common vision and invested together to see the vision become a reality. True Christian fellowship means sharing the same vision of getting the gospel to the world—and then investing personally to make it happen. Thus there are financial overtones in the word koinonia—as well as a call to personal sacrifice. When Paul thanks God for the “fellowship” of the Philippians, he is thanking God that from the very first day of their conversion, they rolled up their sleeves and got involved in the advance of the gospel. True fellowship means putting the gospel first as the controlling motive of your life and then doing whatever it takes to spread the life-changing message to the ends of the earth.
Yesterday I got word that Ed Grosser had died in Sarasota, Florida at the age of 81. His father—Ed Grosser, Sr., affectionately called “Pa” Grosser by those who knew him—helped found Calvary Memorial Church in 1915. When Ed. Jr. was born several years later, he was literally raised in our church—through all the decades that followed until he and Betty finally moved to Florida in the early 1980s. His death marks the end of an era that stretches back to our very beginning. On Wednesday when I heard that the end was near, I remarked to someone that Grosser is a good name at Calvary. Even though Ed and Betty haven’t been around much in the last 18 years, we won’t forget what they meant to this congregation.
When I spoke with Betty yesterday, she asked that in lieu of flowers, people should earmark their gifts for the retired missionaries of our church. She specifically mentioned Eva Lodgaard, whom we have supported since 1945, and Paul Peaslee who has been a missionary since the early fifties and whose father was also a founding member of this church.
It is a testimony to the growth of the congregation that 90% of our people don’t know who Ed Grosser was—or what he meant to this church. But it doesn’t matter. When I think of Ed and Betty, I give thanks to God for their fellowship in the gospel of Jesus Christ from the first day until now. Eternity will reveal what they did and the part they played in securing the blessings we presently enjoy.
2) Confidence v. 6
“Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Many people consider this one of the greatest verses in the entire Bible. Theologians use it to defend the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. I don’t particularly like that phrase—”the perseverance of the saints”―because it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. I prefer to say that I believe in the “perseverance of God” and the “preservation of the saints.” Philippians 1:6 teaches us that we will be “reserved” to the end because God will always “persevere.” What God starts he always finishes.
Note three things from this verse. First, God takes the initiative in starting his work in you. He is the one who “begins a good work” in us. Salvation always begins with God. He makes the first move, and if he didn’t make the first move, we would make no move at all. Perhaps you’ve heard of the country preacher who was being examined for his ordination to the ministry. When asked how he had become a Christian, the preacher replied, “I did my part and God did his.” That sounded questionable, so the learned brethren on the council asked the preacher to explain “his part in salvation.” “My part was to run from God as fast as I could,” the preacher answered. “God’s part was to run after me and catch me and bring me into his family.” That’s a perfectly biblical answer because all of us were born running from God, and unless God took the initiative to find us, we would still be running away from him.
Second, God takes personal responsibility for completing his work in you. I find this a most comforting thought. God has a “good work” that he intends to use in your life and in mine. Nothing will block the accomplishment of that divine purpose. God intends that all his children be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, and he will not rest until that “good work” is finally finished.
Perhaps you’ve seen those buttons that read PBPGIFWMY. Those cryptic letters stand for a most important truth: “Please be patient. God isn’t finished with me yet.” Thank God, it’s true. I may not look like much—but God isn’t finished with me yet. And when you look in the mirror—and even deeper into your own soul, you may not like what you see, but no matter. God isn’t finished with you yet.
There is good news and bad news in this truth. The good news is that since God isn’t finished yet, we have great hope for the future. The bad news is that since God isn’t finished yet, he won’t let us stay as we are today. He’s going to keep chipping away at us until we are conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Most of us have a long way to go—and some of us have an enormous distance to travel. But it doesn’t matter. I’d rather be six inches from hell heading toward heaven than six inches from heaven heading toward hell. Direction makes all the difference.
If you find yourself in the muck and mire of personal defeat as you read these words, be encouraged. Child of God, he’s not finished with you yet. Rise and walk, my Christian friend. God is not finished with you yet. If you’ve been sent to the bench for a personal foul, learn the lesson God has for you and then get back in the game. God’s not finished with you yet.
Third, God guarantees the outcome of his work in you. Not only does God start the process, and continue the process, he also guarantees its ultimate outcome. He will “carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” This means that God won’t be turned aside by difficulties of any kind. He is so determined to make you like Jesus that even your own backsliding won’t ultimately hinder the accomplishment of his purpose. Someday you and I will stand before Jesus Christ as redeemed children of God—holy, blameless, and complete in every way. We’re a far sight from that today. But a better day is coming for the people of God. What is incomplete will be made complete. What is unfinished will be finished. What is lacking will be made full. What is partial will be made whole. What is less than enough will be far more than adequate. What is broken will be fixed. What is hurt will be healed. What is weak will be made strong. What is temporary will be made permanent.
God has promised to do it and he cannot lie. Has God begun a good work in your life? Do you feel incomplete and unfinished? Fear not, child of God. He will complete his work in you.
Not So Safe in Nairobi
This week’s Calvary Family News contains a brief item from Tim and Debra Carpenter, our missionaries serving with Africa Inland Mission. Last year they were forced to leave their home in Zaire because of unrest in the region. They were here in Oak Park for a few months and then returned to the field. I hadn’t heard a word about them until I saw the report that they had once again been forced to evacuate their home. This time they moved to Nairobi, Kenya, arriving on August 9. “And what news did we receive upon our arrival? You all know about the deadly bombing at the US embassy here in town. So where are we safer? In God’s hands!”
Some people might think it reckless to take young children into such a dangerous area of the world. But Tim and Debra have done it for the sake of the gospel. Because of their confidence in God, they can go without fear wherever the Lord leads them. Maybe you’ve seen those T-shirts the kids wear—the ones that say “NO FEAR” in big letters. If you have confidence in God, you can have “NO FEAR” as you face whatever comes your way.
3) Affection v. 7-8
“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.”
Paul explains his affection this way:
1. Personal Commitment: “I have you in my heart”
2. Shared ministry: “All of you share in God’s grace with me”
3. Divine testimony: “God can testify how I long for all of you”
As I ponder these verses, the thought hits me that the world can counterfeit this, but it can’t duplicate it. This is why people go to bars hoping to meet that special someone. It’s also why they join clubs and social organizations and why they serve on community improvement groups and why they go to chat rooms on the Internet. Men and women desperately want this kind of deep relationship but they don’t have a clue where to find it. The affection Paul had for the Philippians—and they for him―comes only through a shared relationship with Jesus Christ. Those who know Jesus are joined in a spiritual bond that runs deeper than any human tie.
Third, An Invitation to Real Joy
Only two questions remain. First, how could Paul feel so joyful, so positive, so optimistic? One thing we know for sure, it wasn’t because of his circumstances. He is in jail, in chains, on trial for his life, physically weak, and under attack from fellow Christians who distrusted him now that he was behind bars. Surely if anyone had a reason to be angry, it was Paul. Yet instead he speaks of joy, thanksgiving, gratitude, confidence, and the deep affection he felt for the Philippian Christians. Although his circumstances were not ideal, he refused to let his circumstances dictate his emotions. By God’s grace he chose to rise above his circumstances.
That leads to a second question that comes to mind as I read these verses. Which is harder—to be in prison or out? Surely most of us would say it is harder to be in prison and easier to be out. That’s the quick answer but it’s not the right one. The correct answer is, it depends. I know people behind bars who are truly free because they have discovered the life-changing power of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And I know many people who are “free” in the sense that they aren’t in jail, and yet the chains of bitterness, anger, lust, despair, greed and a host of other sins enslave them on the inside.
That leads me to a statement that might serve as a theme for this entire sermon series. Joy does not depend on circumstances but on a living relationship with Jesus Christ. If you do not have joy right now, don’t blame your circumstances. They were never meant to bring you joy in the first place. If you build your life on circumstances, you’re going to be miserable at least as often as you are happy. You need a source of joy that does not change―an eternal perspective that comes only from knowing Jesus Christ.
Many years ago I learned a little acrostic based on the word joy. I hadn’t thought of it in a long time until I began preparing this message. Here is God’s prescription for joy:
It is a statement both simple and true—when Jesus is first in your life, you can have joy that goes beyond your circumstances. If you know Jesus, you have discovered the central reality of the universe. Build your life on Jesus Christ―and you will never be disappointed.
Our Father, you know what you are doing in our lives—even when we don’t see it and don’t fully understand it. We pray to discover the joy that comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ. Help us to be patient as you complete the “unfinished work” of making us like your Son. In Jesus’ name, Amen.