In the midst of great suffering in prison, the apostle Paul composed his most joy-filled letter, the letter to the Philipppians. How is Paul able to be joyful in the midst of hardship? Because Paul understands that God is redeeming his suffering, transforming it into something good for him and the world. As I argue in this sermon, we can always trust that God will do the same for us.
Sermon Text: Philippians 1:12-26
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Many years ago I saw a concert by a singer-songwriter and church composer named Ken Medema. He plays piano and happens to be blind. At one point during the show he told the audience that he wanted to compose a song… spontaneously… on the spot. All he needed were some notes… any old notes would do. So he asked the audience to shout out random notes. He took the first four or five suggestions from the audience—it didn’t matter whether they sounded good together or not—and he began playing them on his piano, slowly at first, and then with greater confidence, arranging and rearranging them into different patterns until these random, sometimes dissonant notes were transformed into a discernible… melody.
But he wasn’t done yet. You can’t have a pop song without words, so next he asked the audience for some words… Any old words would do. So we in the audience were like, “Let’s stump the songwriter by giving him words that don’t fit together.” Two of the words that I remember were “aardvark” and “metamorphosis.” The rule was that he could add other words, but he had to at least use all of our words. So Medema continues to play around with his melody, and he works in some chords, and within a few minutes he starts singing a song about an aardvark who has a metamorphosis, and guess what? It becomes this grand, dramatic, poignant, beautiful song that proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ. Who could have imagined that notes that don’t fit together and words that don’t fit together could somehow be transformed into something beautiful? How do you take all wrong notes and all the wrong words and make something so right out of them? It doesn’t seem possible, but somehow it happened.
If the apostle Paul were in the audience the night that I saw Ken Medema in concert, he would not have been surprised at all. What Medema did with the wrong notes and the wrong words on this small stage in Atlanta is precisely what God had done on the much larger stage of Paul’s life and Paul’s world.
Paul is writing to this church at Philippi from prison. And he’s facing trial and possible capital punishment. Recent scholarship suggests that he was in prison in Ephesus—and that Paul refers to the harsh conditions of his imprisonment there in 2 Corinthians, where he says that he and his companions were “burdened beyond our strength,” that they “despaired of life,” and they “felt certain” that they had received “the sentence of death.” If that’s the case, you can get an idea of how much Paul was suffering in prison.
He makes reference to the “imperial guard” in Philippians 1:13. Paul wasn’t simply sitting in a prison cell. He was literally chained to a Roman soldier 24-7. These soldiers would take turns being chained to him, in shifts. Paul couldn’t even go to the bathroom by himself. His freedom, privacy, dignity… gone.
More importantly, it must have seemed to onlookers as if Paul’s life’s work was a failure. His ministry, his mission, the thing that he had worked so hard doing for the past 20 years was in serious jeopardy. We Methodist pastors, by contrast, expect that if we work hard, and do good work, and achieve success, we’ll go to bigger churches with better salaries in better neighborhoods. We don’t expect that if we work hard, and do good work, and achieve success we’ll go to prison and risk getting beheaded!
An outsider to the faith could have looked at Paul’s predicament and said, “If God were really on Paul’s side, why would this be happening to him? If God were really on Paul’s side, why wouldn’t God rescue him? If God were really on Paul’s side—and everything Paul says about God’s Son Jesus were true—wouldn’t God free Paul from prison so that he could continue to spread the gospel?” From an outsider’s perspective, it might even look as if God were punishing Paul. Why would God let this bad thing happen to Paul if Paul was doing what God wanted him to do?
If you’re a fan of any local sports team, you know first-hand how discouraging it can be to watch your team lose games because some of your best players are on the sidelines because of an injury. And I’m sure it’s hard for these injured players to watch from the sidelines as their teams lose. In Paul’s case, it’s as if the church’s best player was on the sidelines because of something that happened to him over which he had no control! What’s worse, the One who did have control over the situation, the One who could have prevented this bad thing from happening, the One to whom Paul had given his life to serve allowed him to be there!
Don’t you see how great the temptation would be for Paul to get discouraged? To lose heart? To give up hope? To be broken-hearted? To lose his faith?
But is that how Paul feels? Not even close! Is he acting all pitiful and woe-is-me? Hardly! Does Paul even consider this painful, career-threatening, not-to-mention life-threatening, setback a bad thing at all? No!
On the contrary, Paul writes, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, because I’m able to share the gospel with these Roman soldiers who are guarding me, and some of them are even becoming Christians! Some of the pagans who aren’t becoming Christians are still talking about the gospel: “Have you heard about this crazy guy they arrested named Paul? He’s been going around saying there’s a new king, a new emperor, besides Caesar. And it turns out he’s talking bout this Jew named Jesus that the Romans crucified a few years ago. Paul says Jesus was raised from the dead. Can you believe it?” It doesn’t matter to me that they’re putting me down, Paul says, so long as the word is getting out about Jesus. And not only that… my brothers and sisters in the church here are seeing what I’m going through, and now they’re inspired and emboldened like never before to share the gospel. Isn’t that awesome?
“So, you can see that even these problems, this pain, and this suffering are being transformed by God into something good. So don’t worry about me,” Paul tells the Philippians. “I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”
Can you imagine that? I tend to be negative. I tend to be pessimistic. I tend to get easily discouraged. About small, trivial things in life—not even life-threatening things like Paul was facing. When I compare my faith to Paul’s faith, well… he puts me to shame! I want to be more like Paul!
Don’t you? Couldn’t we all stand to be more like Paul when we face suffering in life, when we face trials in life, when we face adversity in life?
How do we do it?
Paul’s story reminds me of the story of Jacob’s second-youngest son, Joseph, in the Book of Genesis. You may recall that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son, and Jacob spoils him rotten. His other brothers resent him because of it, and, without their father knowing it, they sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt. After some adversity and setbacks and a miracle or two, Joseph wins the trust of the Pharaoh and the Pharaoh makes him Prime Minister of Egypt. And when severe famine hits the land, Joseph’s wise leadership ends up saving everyone, even his brothers who betrayed him. And he tells his brothers later, after they are reconciled to him, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
In other words, “What you did to me,” Joseph says, “was really bad, really evil, really wrong. And you thought it would harm me. Well, I did suffer, that’s true, but look how God has used this suffering! God transformed it into something good”—just like Ken Medema transformed those wrong notes and wrong words into something good.
Brothers and sisters, God does this sort of thing all the time. All the time. “We know that in all things”—all means all—“God works for the good of those who love him.”
So, anyone here going through a crisis in your life right now? Anyone suffering? Anyone afraid? Probably not. We’re all good, right? Yeah, right! Listen: we’ve all got an enemy, the devil, who is trying right now to use this bad thing in your life, this crisis, to harm you, to cause you to doubt, to make you lose hope, to make you lose your faith—just as he was working to harm Joseph, just as he was working to harm Paul. That’s just what Satan does. Now, what if we could look at the bad stuff we’re dealing with in our lives, and say to our Enemy, the devil, “You intended to do evil, you intended to harm me, you intended to harm people that I love—but guess what? God is infinitely more powerful than you, Satan, and God is going to transform this thing that seems so scary and so harmful and so worrisome into something that’s incredibly good—good for me, good for my loved ones, and good for the world. And I’m going to trust that God is going to do that!”
Not long ago, I was going through a tough time in my life, and I was complaining to a friend, who happens to be Jewish, as well as a Bible scholar—or, I should say, an Old Testament scholar. I asked him, angrily: “Why is this happening to me?” And my friend, who’s sort of like an honorary rabbi to me, said, “Don’t ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Instead ask, ‘Why is this happening to me now?’”
In other words, he wanted me to imagine that God was using this disappointment—this setback, this bad situation—in order to teach me something that I needed to learn.
And I’m like, “Of course! You’re exactly right!” Thank you for reminding me of something so blindingly obvious, and so biblical, and so true. I can’t tell you how comforting I found my friend’s words!
Will Willimon is United Methodist pastor and retired bishop. He’s written lots of books. Once, Willimon was paying a visit to a woman in his church who had just delivered a baby. When Willimon got to the hospital room, the wife and husband were anxiously awaiting word from the doctor. They had just received the “ominous news that ‘there were problems with the birth.’” Willimon writesWhen the doctor arrived, he told the couple that the child had been born with Down syndrome, but he also had a minor and correctible respiratory condition. He said, “My recommendation is for you to consider just letting nature take its course, and then in a few days there shouldn’t be a problem.” The child would die “naturally” if they just left things as they were. The couple was confused and asked why they shouldn’t fix the problem. The doctor looked at them and said that raising a Down syndrome child would create enormous amounts of stress in the marriage, and that studies showed that many parents of Down syndrome children separated or divorced. He then said, “Is it fair for you to bring this sort of suffering upon your other two children?”
At the word suffering, the wife suddenly seemed to understand. She countered that her children had lived a safe and comfortable life with every advantage in the world. They had known, if anything, too little of suffering and the difficulty of life in the world. She spoke of “God’s hand” [in this crisis] and said, “I could certainly see why it would make sense for a child like this to be born into a family like ours. Our children will do just fine. When you think about it, it could be a great opportunity.”
Did you catch that? Through the eyes of faith, this mother saw God’s hand in this crisis. “I can see why it would make sense for God to give us this child.” “I can see why God would put us through this, and it’s going to be hard, and it’s not what we bargained for at all, and I don’t know how we’re going to get through it. But God wouldn’t have given us this child if he didn’t think we could do it!” Granted, this event took place several years ago, but I bet if we could ask these parents today if they regretted for a single moment their decision to ignore their doctor’s advice and raise this Down syndrome child, they would laugh and say, “Are you kidding? This experience has been the hardest thing we’ve ever gone through. But you know what else? It’s the best thing we’ve ever gone through. Thank God this happened. Thank God for the gift of this child. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I wouldn’t want this child any other way.”
Brothers and sisters, there is no pain and suffering that you’re experiencing in your life right now or that you’ll experience in the future that our loving and gracious God can’t transform into something good, because God is always working for our good. Always, always, always… Paul was confident that God was doing this for him—and he says he will continue to be confident whether he survives this painful experience or whether it kills him. Because you look at verse 20 and you see that Paul isn’t so sure whether he’ll live or die, but it doesn’t matter, he says, because “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
There is also no pain and suffering that you’re experiencing in your life right now or that you’ll experience in the future that our loving and gracious God, through Jesus Christ, didn’t also experience… On the cross. He knows what you’re going through. He’s been there too. And he wants to help you get through it! Believe in him. Trust him!
Laura Story wrote a song called “Blessings” that relates to this theme. She sings,
We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All along You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things
‘Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life
Are Your mercies in disguise?
Almighty God, give us the courage and faith to see that the trials that we experience in life can become, through faith in your Son Jesus, channels of your love, your mercy, and your grace. Amen.