Sermon 11-24-13: “Thank-You Note, Part 4: Rejoice in the Lord Always”

December 4, 2013
"St. Paul in Prison" by Rembrandt.

“St. Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt.

In this Thanksgiving-themed sermon, Paul urges us to rejoice in the Lord always. Does always really mean always? Is that possible even in the midst of pain, suffering, and trials? If so, Paul would know: he suffered more than most Christians have, and he was writing this joy-filled letter to the Philippians from a harsh imprisonment.

Paul wants us to know that it is possible. “I have learned the secret,” he says, of being content under all circumstances. We also need to learn this secret.

[Please note: No sermon video this week. Yours truly accidentally deleted it from his iPhone!]

Sermon Text: Philippians 4:2-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

For Braves fans, this book, published in 1997, is depressing on so many levels!

For Braves fans, this book, published in 1997, is depressing on so many levels!

I was rummaging through my closet and I found a book that I salvaged from my mom’s house last year. It was published in 1997 with great optimism and fanfare. It’s called Turner Field: Rarest of Diamonds, and it’s a book about the new home of the Braves, Turner Field. The book jacket says the book “pays fitting tribute to the greatest baseball team of the ’90s and the new home it so richly deserves.”

That is depressing on so many levels. Do you think I could get anything on eBay for this—or would I have to pay someone to take this from me?

The lesson here, of course, is that one of the few things you can count on in life is that there are few things you can count on in life. Do you know Melissa and Glenn, the owners of the Jailhouse Brewery across the street? They have a child in our preschool, and they recently gave me a tour of their brewery, which is called Jailhouse Brewery. The names of all their beers and the labels on all the bottles have a criminal justice-related motif. I asked why: Because, as many of you longtime Hampton residents know, their brewery occupies the same space that was occupied by the old jailhouse in town!

Well, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good change: turning an old jailhouse into a brewery. But let’s face it: so much change that we experience isn’t good: We look in the mirror and think, “Oh my goodness, where did all this gray hair come from?” Or: “Where did all my hair go?” Or “Where did these wrinkles come from?” Or we step on the scale and think, “Where did these extra pounds come from?” Everything changes! We change jobs, we change careers, we relocate, we retire. We get married, we have kids, we become empty-nesters, we become grandparents.

Just recently I was admiring some little baby girl that one of you had. I was just making small talk, you know. And I said, “Ah! When I this sweet little baby, it makes me wonder, ‘Maybe I’m not too old.’” And my wife said, “No, Brent, you’re too old!” And then someone said, “Now you can just wait until grandkids!” And, I thought, “Oh no! I’m old enough now so that the next milestone I have to look forward to is grandkids!”

Change! I’m not sure I like it!

Even if you’re still young, you experience change: you change schools, you move, you graduate. Friends move away. Beloved pets die. Maybe you’ve lost a grandparent or two.

Change!

The apostle Paul’s life was characterized by change. Some of it was incredibly good: like when he was on that road to Damascus—on his way to persecute Christians—and the Lord Jesus encountered him, saved him, and commissioned him to bring the gospel to the Gentiles all around the Roman Empire—and church spread like wildfire. Change!

But then there’s the bad kind of change. As I’ve said, Paul was writing this letter from prison with the death penalty hanging over his head. Listen to him describe in 2 Corinthians chapter 11 just some of the bad changes he experienced throughout the course of his ministry: He was beaten many times on many occasions. He was stoned and left for dead. He was imprisoned not just once but many times. He was shipwrecked. He was lost at sea. He was left hungry and thirsty without food. He was left cold and naked. His life was threatened many times by many different people. And although it’s likely he gets out of the prison he was in when he wrote Philippians, he’s certainly prepared to die, as he says back in Philippians chapter 1.

And we know from history that Paul does give his life for the gospel, in Rome under Nero.

Change! Yet, in the midst of all this change, Paul is steady, immovable, solid as a rock. He’s able to say to his Philippian brothers and sisters, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice.” How is Paul able to maintain this calm, this equanimity? How is he able to rejoice in the midst of such severe suffering in his life? Because, he says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

So, Paul learned all these things… but how did he learn them?

And the answer is clear: he learned them through suffering. I heard a testimony from someone who said, “You can’t know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” That sounds exactly right to me. In my own experience, nothing brings me to my knees faster than when I’m suffering. Nothing forces me to pray more diligently, more earnestly, than when I’m suffering. Nothing forces me to depend on God more than when circumstances prevent me from depending on myself.

In his new book, pastor and author Tim Keller shares a story told by missionary Elisabeth Elliot in a controversial novel she wrote in the ’60s called No Graven Image. Elliot describes an American missionary in South America named Margaret who has devoted her life to translating the Bible into an indigenous tribe’s native language. The tribe’s language has never before been written down.

The key to her success was the discovery of a man, Pedro, who knew the unwritten dialect that Margaret needed to learn in order to translate the Bible into that particular language. He began to teach her the language, and her painstaking work of systematically recording and documenting it moved forward.[1] Pedro, she believed, was the answer to her prayer. “God now seemed to be bringing things together. Margaret imagines the possibility of bringing the Bible to a million people in remote regions of the mountains.”[2]

One day she arrives at Pedro’s home to continue their work. She discovers that Pedro has a painful, infected wound in his leg. Since Margaret was equipped to provide routine medical care, she gives him a penicillin shot. Except… it turns out he’s allergic, and he begins convulsing from anaphylaxis. Within moments, and despite her fervent prayers, Pedro dies.

And guess what? With his death, her life’s work goes up in smoke. She simply couldn’t continue without him. There was no one else to help her. At first, she was angry at God. She felt like God let her down. And there really was no happy ending or silver lining for Margaret, except this one thing: on the last page of the novel, she says the following: “God, if He was merely my accomplice, had betrayed me. If, on the other hand, He was God, He had freed me.”[3]

If God was merely my accomplice, he had betrayed me. If, on the other hand, he was God, he had freed me. What do you think she meant by that?

She meant that she had been living her life as if God existed for her benefit, to help her, to serve her needs, to make her plans succeed, rather than the other way around. Tim Keller calls this a counterfeit god—a “god-of-my-plans” who’s supposed to make everything work out according to our plans. And if you believe in this kind of God, well… how can you not be disappointed, angry, bitter, when things don’t go your way? When Margaret’s life came crashing down, she realized that her faith had become idolatry. She repented and found true freedom.

I shared this story on my blog last week, and a retired missionary commented on it, and he didn’t like it at all. He said, “I can’t believe that translating the Bible”—which is a good thing—“could become an idol. That’s non-sensical to me.” And I responded, “No, her work wasn’t an idol. It was her firm conviction that God would make sure that everything worked out according to her plans—instead of trusting that God would work things out according to his plans.”

I agree that maybe idolatry is too strong a word to describe Margaret’s problem, but I’ve learned from painful experience—as did the apostle Paul, as have many of you—that our plans, no matter how good they may be, no matter how blessed by God they seem to be, won’t always work out. And when they don’t work out, that doesn’t mean that God has failed. It only means that God has some other plans for us. And whatever those plans are, we’ve got to trust that they’re good.

I was thinking about this last week at charge conference. Our new district superintendent, Rev. Richard Winn, talked about the importance of our church having a vision. He said your church doesn’t have a vision if that vision is just something that you can accomplish without divine intervention. It’s not a vision if it’s something that we can do on our own, by our own wits, by our own strength—without stretching our faith and trusting in the Lord to see us through. Then it’s just my plans and your plans. We need to have a vision that focuses on God’s plans—what God wants for our church.

I’m not good at this, personally. When something goes wrong in my life, I’m all like, “What can I do? What can I do? What can I do?” This is the wrong question! The question should be, “What can God do?”

Andy Stanley, the pastor of Northpoint Community Church in Alpharetta—which has been perhaps the most successful church in our country at reaching the unchurched with the gospel—wrote out a prayer shortly after he started Northpoint, and it sits on his desk to this day: It reads, “Lord, this was not my idea. You got me into this. I’m trusting you to see me through it.”[4] That’s the right attitude!

After all, very little of what happened to Paul after Jesus got hold of him was Paul’s idea. Paul didn’t choose the beatings, the stonings, the imprisonments, the shipwrecks, the constant threats to his life—but all of the trials, all of the suffering, all of the pain that he went through taught him to trust in the One who wanted him to go through all these things. All this pain and suffering was good for him, and God appointed the pain, the suffering, and the trials for him.

What? Are you kidding, Brent?”

I realize this is not a popular idea in Methodist circles these days. But listen to what Peter says in 1 Peter chapter 1. After reminding his fellow believers of the gift of salvation that awaits each of them in heaven, he writes, “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”[5] He compares the pain and suffering that we experience to the refining of gold in a furnace—which burns away the dross and makes gold pure. God uses trials in our lives to make us better, stronger, more faithful people.

We all know about the Thanksgiving tradition of going around the table and naming something we’re thankful for: Oddly enough, no one ever says, “I’m thankful I lost my job.” “I’m thankful my boyfriend left me.” “I’m thankful I got sick.” But if Paul and the rest of scripture is right, that’s the kind of thing that we ought to be able to say—because these things happen according to God’s will.

Besides, what’s the alternative to believing that God sometimes wants us to suffer and experience pain and go through trials?

We Christians believe that God has the power to answer prayer, to give us what we ask for in prayer, and prevent evil and suffering if he wants to. But think about it: Nearly every time evil and suffering happen, a prayer has gone unanswered. As C.S. Lewis said, “Nearly every deathbed represents a petition not granted.” Why does God answer some prayers and not others? Is it because he isn’t as powerful as we imagine? Is it because prayer doesn’t really work? Is it because he really just lets events run their course naturally, without any intervention from God?

By no means! God is in control. He already knows the future. And he’s infinitely wiser than we are. If God doesn’t give us what we pray for, we may not often know why, but we can be sure God has good reasons. God has something better in store either for us or for our world—even if it’s not according to our plans. And we may protest, “But I want God to do things according to my plans!” Sorry. A part of what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus, a part of what it means to “lose our life in order to find it,” a part of what it means to surrender our lives to Jesus, means surrendering our own plans in order to follow his. And if that sounds difficult, well, guess what? It’s supposed to be!

Paul was in prison writing this letter because he surrendered his own plans. God wanted Paul to go through all these things, like gold in a refiner’s fire, in order to shape Paul into the kind of person who would learn that—oh, yeah—“I can do all things through him who gives me strength”—even if the very last thing God asks Paul to do is to walk to the gallows with his head held high, confident that the Lord was in control, working his plan, taking care of him, all the while knowing that even if he died, he was going to be O.K. Because—guess why?—Paul’s name was written in the “book of life.” His name was written in the book of life!

See: Learning to be content in whatever situation, learning to rejoice in the Lord not just some of the time—when the weather is fair and we’re feeling fine—but always, always, always—means keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the future—when Jesus Christ returns at the end of history as we know it to judge the quick and dead and give us new and eternal life in transformed bodies in a transformed world.

So when things are going very well for us in this life, we ought to remind ourselves, “This is great, but this is temporary. Life isn’t mostly about being happy in this world; it’s about preparing for what happens next—in the world to come.” And when things are going very badly for us, and we’re suffering, we remind ourselves, “This is bad, but this this is temporary. This feels like the end of the world—but that’s not a bad thing because the end of the world is mostly what life in this world is all about!” Therefore, keeping our eyes fixed on the world to come prevents us from getting either too high or too low about what happens in this world. It helps us be content.

I spoke earlier about how there are very few things that we can count on life. How everything changes. A couple of weeks ago, I watched the farewell message that Billy Graham delivered on his 95th birthday. Except for his physical frailty, Billy Graham—I’m happy to report—hasn’t changed. And Graham reminded me of something else that doesn’t change: that simple, beautiful gospel message, that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Friends, there is nothing more important that Billy Graham or I can say than that.

There is no greater reason to be thankful on Thanksgiving than that!

God wants to save you from your sins and make you his beloved child. He’s provided a way to do that by sending his Son Jesus to die for your sins on the cross—and remove your guilt, and give you eternal life.

God wants your name to be written in the book of life. Don’t you want that, too?

I’ll tell you what I want our church’s vision to be: to do all that we can—by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us—to share the gospel message with people in our community, so that their names can also be written in the book of life alongside ours. Amen?


[1] Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 170.

[2] Ibid., 171.

[3] Ibid., 172.

[4] Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 13.

[5] 1 Peter 1:6-7 NIV

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