Pastor Tim's


Blog

Category: Pastor Tim’s Blog

Don’t Miss the Joy! Chapter 6

CHAPTER 6

Finding Joy in Chaotic Times

Philippians 1:21-30

 

The classic little Charlie Brown cartoon offered this favorite of mine.  Charlie and Lucy are having a deep discussion about life.  Lucy says, “Charlie Brown, life is like a deck chair.  Some people set their chairs so they can see where they are going.  Others set their chair to see where they have been.  And others so they can see where they are in the present.” Charlie was wordless for a frame, and then said, “I can’t even get mine unfolded!”

One of the last places we would expect to encounter joy is in the middle of a dilemma… a confusing, perplexing experience… tossed back and forth between options or opinions.   Quite a few of us are facing dilemmas today in the midst of our current situation, and you are “trying to get your deck chair unfolded…” in the midst of chaos.

Paul wrote about this very thing in 2 Corinthians:

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”   (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

We are perplexed, but not in despair.  Nowhere has this been truer than in our now months-long battle with Covid-19:

  • Which media reports do I believe about the coronavirus… the conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated Twitter opinions or another source? Should I pay attention to them at all?
  • How do I talk to my kids about all this? Do I tell them everything, or shelter them from much of what is happening?
  • Should we just revert back to normal now that restrictions are being lifted, or continue “sheltering” until an all-clear is sounded or a vaccine is discovered?
  • Do I spend my time and energy taking care of my own family, or do I see this also as a time of generosity and ministry to my neighbors who hurt just like me and try to reach out to them?

We could list more.  Again, we are living through times like we’ve never experienced in our lifetime.  The uncertainty of it all produces a lot of dilemmas for us.  Times of crisis usually do.  They are “perplexing.”  They are chaotic.

Ideally, though, they force us to our knees in prayer.  Maybe we need to spend more time just focused there, rather than worry about the storm blowing around us.    Every emotion you are experiencing right now…fear, anxiety, anger, depression, loneliness, frustration…should be processed before God in prayer.  Don’t dwell on it until you have prayed about it!

We stand in serious times, to paraphrase a famous quote of John Adams.  Most of us have never seen times more serious than these.  It seems almost hourly a new reality is revealed making our bad situation worse.

Let’s admit it.  We do find ourselves confused, perplexed, sometimes frightened, anxious, stressed, and unsure what to do next.  Sometimes that is precisely where life circumstances bring us.  God knows right where you are today.  He is still on His throne and He is the One we should be looking to in this.

———————————————————

It may also help to realize that this is not the first time, nor the worst time the Body of Christ has faced on earth.  The church has continued and even thrived through far worse.  The Black Plague, The Spanish Flu of 1918, the Nazi takeover of Germany in World War 2; not to mention wars, genocide, and persecution on a scale we have never experienced were all thought to be “the worst of times” for the church on earth.

CS Lewis was a voice of stability to the British people during the Second World War.  His messages were broadcast over the BBC network and were eagerly heard by this beleaguered people.  After World War Two ended, Lewis continued to lecture and write.  In one essay, he responded to a question asked by an individual who was concerned of the possibility of a nuclear attack on London.

I will repeat his reply as he wrote it.  But as you hear it, just insert “coronavirus” wherever you read the words “atomic bomb.”

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age? I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.‘  In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.

He continued,

Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways…. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

While Lewis’ remarks may not speak exactly to our situation, there is enough of a connection to draw some lines to it.  First of all:

1).  God does not forsake His people.  The Lord is in the Heavens, and He does whatever He pleases.   He’s not afraid of catching the coronavirus, nor is He washing His hands and trying not to touch His face.  He’s not socially distancing from us!  Do not begin to believe God is absent from us, even though we are for a time absent from each other.   We should not let the prospect of what MIGHT happen dominate our minds and preoccupy and sideline our lives.

2).  As chaotic as all of this seems, God is working in the midst of our distress to bring His purpose to completion. You and I get to be a part of that purpose, and whatever the coronavirus does to us as a child of God, we still win!

3).  Let’s stop acting like we’ve already lost the war and everything important to us.  We haven’t.  God is still on His throne.  I am asking God daily to do a work that will be so amazing and undeniably His hand that no man or no country can take credit for it.  I am daily praying Ephesians 3:20 over us that we will see God do “exceedingly abundantly more than we could ask or imagine.”

“Look among the nations and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.” (Habakkuk 1:5)

God is at work, in ways that we would not believe if He told us!

I want us to be delivered from this moment.  But if not this it will be something else.  The world we live in… the world our Creator God entrusted to us…is broken beyond our remedy because of sin.  We are seeing now the outcome of what that truly looks like, without the candy coating of our daily lives and activities softening the reality.

In our study today, we hear again through the inspired Words of the Bible about a man who could be joyful in spite of false accusations, a prison sentence, and even possible execution for the crime of claiming that only Jesus was Lord….and not Caesar.

And we are looking clearly for the secret of his joy that was contagious.  Joy is more contagious than the coronavirus!  If we can choose joy in a time like this, well, some people will think we’ve just gone insane.  But others will want to know, “How do you do that?”

Well, we can do it like Paul did it.   People are looking for it now more than ever.

 

PAUL FOUND JOY BY HAVING A CONFIDENT HOPE

Paul was not suicidal, nor did he have some kind of morbid death wish.  Paul had hope.  He knew that when he went home, his suffering would be over forever.  The persecutors that sought to shut him up would forever be silenced.

He did not fear death.  He did not vacillate in what he believed about it.  We could argue that he welcomed it!  He had a confidence that the life to come is “better by far” than his life here.  He had confidence that death was a beginning, and not an end; a continuation of His walk with Christ only now with face- to- face fellowship.   It is possible to walk in a fellowship with Christ that is so real, and so life-giving that you barely notice it when you die.  I think Paul was there.

But fear is indication of a problem.   We are ONLY to fear God.  Oswald Chambers said, “If you fear God, you need fear nothing else.  If you fear anything else, you are not properly fearing God.”  Jesus said, “Fear Him Who has the power to throw both body and soul into hell.”

If we are fearful about everything happening around us, then we are not focused on the One we should TRULY fear.   Paul was not afraid.  He had a certain hope.  He knew, as he knew that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” that death opened the door to a lot of things for the faithful one who dies in Christ.

Death held an end of suffering for Paul; an end to pain and despair of imprisonments and illness and having nothing and no money and no family and no home.  Of course, he looked forward to it!

What is your hope in today?  Are you hoping in government, in the United States, in science, in health care, in the economy?  I pray for all of these and those involved in trying to solve this crisis.  But all of these will fail us, if not this time, then at some point in the future.  Only God is the Rock you can anchor your hope to, and He never wavers, and He never fails.

 

PAUL FOUND JOY BY LIVING A WORTHY LIFE

CS Lewis’ 1948 strangely relevant article continues:

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are… going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.  (And they should not crush our spirits.)

Jesus used an interesting word in talking about the day of His coming.  He gave instruction to the disciples, and to us, “occupy until I come,”

So how then do we live in this present distress?  What does it look like to “walk around” having a worthy life…to occupy until He comes?

First, Paul says we are to be “firm in one spirit.”  The strength of the church comes as we walk together in the “unity of the Spirit.”  We are to be one.  Jesus, in fact, prayed for this very thing in John 17.  “That they may be one…”  We take our English word “athletics” from a Greek term that means “to contend as one man.”

Second, as we stand “firm in one spirit,” we are to defend the faith.  The purpose of our defense of the faith is that we might engage the lost with the truth of the Gospel.

Peter tells us we need to be “ready to give an answer to anyone who asks us for the reason for the hope we have in us.”  That does not mean engage them in arguments, or philosophical debate unless those lead to a clear, loving presentation of the Gospel of salvation.

Third, we are not to be put into “fluttering alarm by any of our adversaries.” (Barclay.)  We are not to live cowering in fear.  We are not to live in fear of our adversary, the devil or be afraid of his threats.

All of this comes under a call to live consistent lives as citizens of heaven.  Our ultimate “residence” changed when we came into the Kingdom of God.  Our earthly citizenship, though we have obligations and responsibilities to it, are secondary to our heavenly one.

We are to be consistent in our lifestyle.  We are to be consistent in our love, as we are proclaiming a Gospel of love.  We are to be consistent in our liberty as we proclaim a Gospel of freedom.

As Christians, Paul calls us to be faithful, to be forceful in our defense of the faith, and to be fearless as we face the enemies of the Gospel.

 

PAUL FOUND JOY BY SEEING A VICTORIOUS OUTCOME

This part of Paul’s letter leaves them with an expectation.  He fully expected they would be victorious, no matter what happened to him or even what happens to them.  “It has been granted you that you believe and suffer….” As your faith is a gift of God’s grace; (BUCKLE IN here) so is your enduring suffering well an evidence of faith and “a gift of grace” from God!

Being a Christian does not mean we won’t have problems.  It does not create a guarantee for you that you won’t get this cursed virus.  But even if you do, when you suffer as a believer you are showing the certainty of your faith and bearing witness to God’s goodness in the midst of it.

This is especially true when we are caused to suffer because of our faith.  Our suffering due to our faithfulness is as much a gift from God as is our salvation.  They are part of the same experience.

It’s our time to live a faithful and worthy life in a dark and chaotic time. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who are cheering us on!

It’s our time to choose to rejoice in the Lord, and having done all else, to rejoice!

—Make sure your hope is in the right place—and fear is put in its place

—Make sure you are living a life worthy of the Gospel—if not, course- correct!

—Make sure you are keeping your eye on the finish line, confident that the One Who began this good work in you will be faithful to complete it!

Don’t Miss the Joy! Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Finding Joy in the Hard Places

Few of us would expect to find joy while locked in a prison cell.  Especially if we were there for being obedient to God and awaiting a possible death sentence. Paul’s situation (as he puts it “the things that have happened to me”) give a lot of credibility to his words.  As he writes about how he found joy in the hard places, maybe it will give us encouragement as well in “the things that have happened to us!”

 

FINDING JOY IN SPITE OF TOUGH CIRCUMSTANCES

“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” (Philippians 1:12-14)

It isn’t a stretch for us to see that our culture (and our world) has entered into one of the most difficult seasons most of us have ever experienced.  And I am not just referring here to our movements being restricted or our isolation from others or Disneyworld closing.   People are frightened.  They are confused.  They are lost and if they do not know the Lord, they have nowhere to look for help.

If you are reading this book as a believer, then you can say with Paul, that in spite of our circumstances:

  1. We know God allows nothing to happen to us without reason.  Paul looked for Divine purpose in everything that had happened to him.
  2. We know that things happen TO US and IN US so God can make things happen THROUGH US.  What was Paul’s optimism?  That “the whole imperial guard has heard the Gospel.”  Paul did not want to be in prison, even as you do not want to be stuck in the prison of your tough circumstances.  But he saw, even though the inconvenience and difficulty, that God was using him to share Jesus with those whose job it was to be tethered to him by a chain.  They learned that this Jewish prisoner they were guarding was really the free one, and they were the prisoner, and they knew he was imprisoned for the Gospel and was not a criminal.

    You may not be literally “chained” to a difficult co-worker or an unsympathetic supervisor, but certainly God has placed them in our lives and us in theirs for a reason bigger than the moment.  How do we leverage these relationships, even in tough circumstances, for the Kingdom of God?  That’s how Paul coped.  And that’s how the joy came!

  3. We know that as much as this season we are in feels like a downhill bobsled ride with no brakes, God is in control even of times like these.   This is the time for us to answer the hard questions.  “Where does my confidence really lie?”  “What am I trusting in for my resources and provision?”  “Who am I really looking to as my strength?”

We find joy when we realize that our tough circumstances have a purpose, that God isn’t going to waste a moment of what we’re going through, that HE is in control of everything happening to us right now and we need to begin asking this question:  What is God wanting to do THROUGH ME in this time as we wait out the coronavirus, or a cancer diagnosis, or a divorce proceeding as things are happening around us and TO us that we cannot control?

 

WE CAN HAVE JOY IN SPITE OF DIFFICULT PEOPLE

“Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaims Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:15-18)

This is also a tough one.  All of us have experienced a person, or multiple people, who seem to have made it their mission to make life harder for you.  Maybe it is an unsympathetic boss at work, or an annoying co-worker, or someone who says unkind and untrue things about you online, or an irritating neighbor.  We will all encounter difficult people in life.

John Ortberg has a book he entitled, “Everybody’s Normal ‘til You Get to Know Them.”  Everybody’s got a little dysfunction in them; well… some have a little more than others… and it’s tough if the difficult person in your life is your mate, or a parent, or even a child.

So, I’m not going to give you three simple steps in how to pray that person out of your life… they may be there to stay, and again, they are there for a reason.  You need to stay open to the reason why God placed them in your life.  Paul was continually hounded by people whose mission in life was to frustrate his.  Let’s be honest.  Those kinds of people can suck the joy right out of you, can’t they?

In some settings, Paul had to deal with Jewish teachers who were jealous of his success, or angry at his teaching that disagreed with theirs.  Some thought they were doing God a favor by persecuting Paul, and some were sincere in their belief.  Clearly, they were enemies of the Gospel.

But I think it was a lot tougher on Paul to deal with those who claimed to be on his side.  I heard about a college football player who was permanently injured in a game when he was tackled by his own teammate.  You can brace yourself from a hit by the opposing team.  But when it’s coming at your blindside, from a person wearing your uniform, you cannot get prepared for that.

Paul was being tackled by those who claimed to be on “Team Jesus.”  But he chose joy in spite of them.  Let me offer a paraphrase of what he said:

“So, what if some preach Christ with wrong motives?  Furthermore, some may be overly impressed with themselves.  Who cares?  What really matters is this:  Christ is being proclaimed… and that thought alone intensifies my joy!  All the other stuff, I leave to God. “

Now Paul never allowed the message of the Gospel to be compromised by those individuals.   He said in Galatians,

But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a Gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.  (Galatians 1:8-9)

God is able to accomplish His purposes even through people we may see as difficult.  And even though we may not rejoice in that troubling person, we can find joy knowing that the Gospel can go forward in spite of them!

 

FINDING JOY IN SPITE OF UNCERTAIN OUTCOMES

“What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  (Philippians 1:18-21)

Paul truly did not know how the situation he was in was going to turn out.  There were no lawyers representing criminals in jail cells in Rome.  Paul could be set free… or he could face the executioner’s axe.

I think by far one of the most frustrating things for many of us in dealing with this virus crisis is the uncertainty of it all.  How long are we going to have to wait?  Will someone I know will be infected?  Will I?  What about my job?  My business? My children?  My future?  The economy?

And no one can tell us the outcome.  All the entities we have come to depend on in times like this: government; economics; health care… nobody seems to know what to do.

So clearly the government cannot save us; our money can’t save us; the medical community is overwhelmed.  But it leaves a big question that needs to be answered:  What are you really trusting in?

Paul could say, “For me, to live is Christ… and to die is gain.”  In essence he was saying, “If the worst-case scenario, physically, happens to me it won’t be a loss, but a gain.”  That’s confidence, folks.  That’s trusting Jesus above everything else.  He was saying, “Don’t cry at my funeral.  I haven’t lost… I’ve gained everything!”

If I live on physically, I live for Christ.  If I die, I go to live with Christ.  Either way, you win.  Either way, there is joy.

So where is your confidence and ‘earnest expectation’ today?

For me to live is… ____________?  And to die is… ____________?

Will you think about that for a moment with me?  How would you fill in those blanks?   For me to live is… money?  Fame?  A relationship on earth? Success in business?  And if that is how you would honestly fill in the blank, then how would you fill in the second?  “To die is __________?

If we have to add the word “loss” then we are living for something less than what God’s best is for us.  This is a hard thing to think about, since for many of us a person’s name is going to go into that blank.

But as many know, if you are living for a person, you can also lose that person and with them, your purpose and primary reason for living.

There was a time that I would have put my wife’s name in the first blank.  We had to come to a point in our relationship where we affirmed what we had said at the beginning:  “I must always say I love you but not as much as I love Jesus.”

If we cannot say that, then the relationship has become an idol that stands in the way of your total commitment to Jesus Christ.  When you can truly say, with Paul that “for me to live is Christ,” it gives depth of true love to every other relationship in life.  If a person is coming first in your life:  spouse, child, grandchild, or friend…  you are loving something that can be taken away from you by illness, or death, or divorce, or by a child leaving home.

If nothing else, this coronavirus gives us opportunity to truly ask ourselves some hard questions.  Where does your trust lie this morning?  Is it in something that death can take from you?  Or do you know a relationship with Jesus that makes life worth living NOW, and death no longer something to fear, but something that will bring gain?

It’s time to think hard about these questions.  Until we have this settled, something like the threat of this virus will continue to terrorize us and rob us of joy.

  1. We can choose joy in our difficult circumstances if we know Christ.
  2. We can choose joy in spite of difficult people if the Gospel is being proclaimed.
  3. We can choose joy in spite of uncertain outcomes in life is Christ is our life, and our victory.  Even death is gain!

Don’t Miss the Joy! Chapter 4

Chapter 4

The Secret of Joyful Prayer

If you were surveyed about your prayer life, would you characterize it as:

A. Boring, mundane
B. Mechanical, draining
C. Joyful, energizing

Does A, B, or C most characterize your time with God?  Now realistically everyone must work at prayer to a certain extent.  There is a real enemy who does not want you talking to the Father.  Nobody who truly prays doubts the existence of the devil!  But what if we could understand the secret of praying joyfully?

Truth be known, so many of the activities we participate in to celebrate our faith are done mechanically, without much conscious thought or effort, and are often without much joy.   Worship is sometimes automatic and perfunctory.  Our spiritual reading is often haphazard.

But sadly, our prayer life is often among those activities.  Jesus chastised the three men who were closest to Him in His incarnation by asking, “Could you not watch with Me one hour?”

It may well be we are just doing it wrong.  The disciples asked Jesus in Luke 11, “Lord teach us to pray.”  Sometimes a person will say, “I tried praying. but God didn’t give me what I asked for.”  Well maybe He did not if your prayers included:

 “Help me win the lottery”

 “Please bring my cheating boyfriend back to me”

 “Help me lose weight while I eat whatever I want and never exercise”

 “Bless me now, even though I’ve been ignoring you for years”

 “Make me smart enough to pass the test I didn’t study for”

Why didn’t God answer our prayer?  Maybe what we wanted was not God’s will.  James wrote, “You ask, and receive not because you ask amiss that you may consume it on your lust.”

And maybe it was just dumb.  Now I’ve said many times in a lecture to seminary students, there are no dumb questions.  But there sure are some dumb prayers!  (See the list above)

Maybe if we prayed liked Jesus taught us:

That the Father’s Name would be hallowed

That His Kingdom would come…it is more important than yours

That His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven…and in me

That He would give us what we need for the day

That we would be forgivers of those who sin against us

That we/our family would be delivered from the enemy’s snare

That His kingdom would be our first priority now and forever.

If these prayers that Jesus taught us were the central content of our praying, then prayer would begin to make sense…and even be joyful! We try to turn our prayer life into a thing that enriches us…not as a means of truly hearing from God and aligning with His will.

A Model of Joyful Prayer

Paul gives us a model of praying joyfully.  Now that is not to say that sometimes our prayer life isn’t marked with tears of sorrow at times or even by the pain of grief or guilt and shame over our sins.  We will at times agonize in intercession.  And the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus was heard through His “loud cries and tears.” (Heb 5:7)

But communion with our Heavenly Father can be marked with a sense of joy regardless of circumstances.  Jesus said, “My joy I leave with you.”  Let’s remind ourselves again that Paul wrote this letter from a prison cell awaiting execution!

Prayer should dry our tears, ease the heartache of grief and loss, and eliminate the shame and guilty stain of sin.  When this happens, joy remains.  But how do we pray with joy when it seems nothing is joyful around us?

Paul could pray with joy, first, because

He knew he was not alone (vv. 3-5)

When Paul prayed, he carried the grateful memories of the congregation that gathered in Philippi…a congregation that was marked by their love for Paul and their faithfulness to pray for him.

He offered his prayer “with thanksgiving,” which is a key to joyful praying. His joy came from their fellowship (partnership) in the Gospel with him.

It’s an incredible thing to have people praying for you.  A friend shared a dream he had about me a while back.  In the dream, he saw me standing in the pulpit, and then kneeling weeping under some burden.  During the dream, the church came around me, laying their hands on me.

I truly believe and will continue believing that I am continuing in ministry because of the prayers of God’s people.  The grace of God holds me fast…but their hands and prayers for me keep me moving forward.

Fellowship brings joy, and healing, and recovery.  We are not to try do this thing alone, though some of us try really hard to do that.

The joy comes along as a contagious experience of fellowship.  Paul could pray with joy, further, because he had

He had a confidence in God’s faithfulness (vv. 6-7)

Not only did Paul experience joy because he knew he was not alone, but also because he prayed with confidence knowing that, no matter what happened in his life or in theirs, God was working.  We all understand that God’s working does not mean we are going to see everything go our way, or always experience sunshine and pleasant circumstances.

Remember that the greatest work of God we have seen is His work of atonement at the cross and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  “For the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame.” (Hebrews 12:2). It was hardly a happy time for the Lord.

But it is God’s energizing at work in us that brings to completion what He began at the moment of salvation.  If you can look back at a time in your life when you can say, “I know God brought that about…I know it is God Who saves me and that is not something I can do for myself…;” if you have that moment to remember then know this:  God has never, is not now, nor will ever give up on you.  He will never throw up his hands and say, “this one’s too tough…I’m gonna bail out.”  God does not give up on what He starts.  This looks forward to Phil 2:12-13 which says,

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Our salvation, in Christ, is secure.  I hear people sometimes say, “I’d be a Christian, but I couldn’t live the life.”  Or, “I’m afraid I wouldn’t hold out.”  “I’d quit and then be a hypocrite.”

Well, you can’t live the life.  Christ -in- you lives out the life He wants you to live through the presence of His Spirit.  And you won’t hold out. Not in your own strength.  You are held in His hand, and Jesus said, “No man can take them out of My hand.”  You are not holding on to God.  You’re not that tough.  He is holding on to YOU!  That is our confidence, and our security.  He Who began the work will be faithful to complete it.

In Romans 8, we read of the ultimate plan that God has for our lives in Christ:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

God’s plan…God’s will for your life is that, through every experience and circumstance, you are being sharpened and shaped to be more, think more, and act more like Jesus.

A sculptor chips away everything that does not look like the image he or she is seeking to bring to the shapeless and formless rock.  The Divine Sculptor is doing the same in us as He “chips away” everything in us that does not look like Jesus.

This is exactly what happens in the process of sanctification.  The Divine “sculptor” hammers away at all those dimensions of our life that keep Jesus from shining through!    In the hard and the good times, God is at work.  Nothing stops His Divine progress in our lives.

He had an abiding affection (v. 8)

This affection for the Philippians, which interestingly could also mean “you have me in your hearts” can literally be translated “I have a heartache for you.”  Have you ever cared so much about someone that it hurts?  We hear songs that talk about that, and usually they are sung when the two lovers are apart.

The Motown hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was written to describe the power of love drawing two lovers together, no matter the obstacles.   When you really love someone, it can physically hurt to be away from them.

That is what Paul is talking about as he prays for them…this is a unique love that bound them together around their partnership in seeing the Gospel of Christ go forward.  But his heart was aching because of his separation from them.  He genuinely loved these people, and that reminder of his love brought joy in a prison cell.

He had an overflowing love (vv. 9-11)

Someone has said that love is like a river.  Rivers can bring life.  I grew up around the banks of the Ohio River.  This river that I played in, drove over, and gazed into thousands of times in my life brought commerce, and recreation, and beauty and life.  But a river that floods over its banks does not bring life.  It brings chaos and death.

The same river decimated my hometown more than once.    Love is like a river that “abounds” and flows.  It brings life to the creatures within it and the cities that are built near it.

But Christian love, like a river, needs to stay in its banks.  If there are no boundaries, and it loves everything indiscriminately …it will even love things it should not love.  And clearly, there are things we should not love as Christians. “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world…” the Apostle John tells us.  Christian love is discriminating…distinctive…discerning.  It loves and approves “that which is best/excellent.”  It does not love unwisely.

I hear a lot of people say, “being a Christian just means you’re supposed to love, right?”  Yes, but love what?  What are the “banks” of love?  Love needs to be guided by “knowledge” and discernment and result in “the fruit of righteousness” or else it indiscriminately picks up garbage and pollution. We are to be “pure” (our inner world) …below the surface where few if any people see…and “blameless” (our outer behavior) that we might be fruitful in our faith.  The same river that brought life and beauty to many people through the years, today is polluted and filled with garbage.  You can still catch fish in it…but a wise person will not eat them!

The end is nearer than we think

The world is headed for the day of Christ.  He is coming.  Being ready does not mean simply BELIEVING that…being ready means “bearing the fruit of righteousness” that will TRULY bring joy to our lives and glory to God as we wait for His appearing.

And folks, I’m not trying to be apocalyptic here, but things are not getting better and better in the world, are they?  We are seeing things that we never thought we’d see…and the world just seems like it is on the verge of exploding into chaos.  Jesus predicted that His appearing would come after the birth pains of tribulation…the baby normally does not come out on the mother’s first contraction.

But we need to heed the wakeup call and hear the reminder on occasion that it won’t be long before Christ appears…and we need to be ready now.

Learning to pray with joy is one thing we can do as we anticipate Jesus’ coming back again.  But let’s also remember that this prayer that Paul prayed can become a model for your prayer life as well.

What if, in all the places Paul uses the word “you” in the prayer, you insert your spouse’s name?  Your children’s names?  As we personalize this prayer, we begin to see another level of it’s value.

Joyful praying is a possibility for all of us.  The next time you pray, pray expecting

Don’t Miss The Joy! Chapter 3

Chapter 3

 Finding Joy When Happiness Won’t Come

THE JOYFUL LETTER

Philippians is one of the most-quoted, most familiar books in the New Testament.  More verses in Philippians have ended up on coffee mugs, T-shirts, Facebook memes, and Christian art plaques than any other Biblical book.

“For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain.”

“He Who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.”

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”

“I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.”

“That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His suffering.”

“This one thing I do, I press forward to the high calling of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.”

“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!”

“Do not be anxious for anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God…and the peace of God….”

This is the only one of Paul’s letters in the New Testament that is not corrective in nature or dealing with some divisive issue.  It is a joyful letter.  Obviously, we can see that Paul had a deep affection for this little church.  Part of his purpose was to thank them for a sacrificial gift they had given Paul while he was in prison.

THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS

Have you ever found yourself saying it?  “I’ll be joyful when I finally get a decent job!”  “I’ll be joyful when my husband (or wife) starts loving me like they should.”  “I’ll be joyful when this illness is finally cured.”  “I’ll be joyful when I’ve paid of all my credit cards.”

We’ve all done it.  We mistakenly think that joy can only be ours when our circumstances agree.  And we make a mistake that many make.

Joy is not the same as happiness.  Happiness is a pleasant thing. Don’t get me wrong.  I am as much into happiness as the next guy.  But I know a secret.  I know that joy can come even when happiness will not.

Happiness is one of those words we have hung onto from the old English language.  Now not that we do not speak English today (although I have a British friend who would disagree).  But we have moved past a lot of words that occupied our language for hundreds of years.

Happiness is from the old English word “happenstance.”  “Happenstance” is an acknowledgement of the chance that things just happen and hopefully they are good things.  So, our “happenstance” are our circumstances that “happen” to us.

Happiness, therefore, simply came to mean having pleasant circumstances occur in our lives.  It is our “chance,” our “lucky stars” that we have to thank for those.

Joy is more robust than that.  It does not fade away in the face of hard circumstances or unpleasant days.  It endures despite them.  The lie the enemy would have us believe is that joy cannot come to us unless our “happenstance” is positive.   In other words, it is the lie that joy and happiness are not different.

Nothing is further from the truth.  We see joy coming in some of the most difficult and painful circumstances.  It is a supernatural gift and does not blow away with the winds of adversity.  Paul’s joyful attitude we see on display in his Letter to the Philippians is evidence of this.

Worldwide, people say the number one thing they are searching for is happiness.  In the three-hundred-year storied history of Yale University, the most popular class they ever offered was on “How to Find Happiness!”   And if you Google “happy hour,” you will find over two billion five hundred and eighty thousand options.

We are assured in our founding documents as a nation that “all men are created equal, and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Well, we are sure pursuing it, but few are finding it.

Magazine covers promise us everything from happiness with amazing weight loss to financial happiness to happiness in remodeling your house.  But they are empty promises.  Happiness is circumstantial.  Circumstances change.

My circumstances are very good at the moment.  As I was working on this chapter, my granddarlin’ McCail showed up to visit.  She brought along her little tablet and sat right down at the table beside me to “work” with Poppy.  Grandfather heaven!

But my joy is not dependent on all my circumstances aligning, though they’re really good at the moment!  But I want to talk to you about how to find something that remains even when your circumstances change.  Some of you might say,

“I was happy but then my job was eliminated”

“I was happy but then I was diagnosed with cancer.”

“I was happy but then my wife left me.”

In other words, life has kicked the happiness right out of some of us!

So, let’s stay focused on finding joy.  “Weeping endures for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”  Despite weeping, and loss, and illness, and loneliness, we can know JOY that the world cannot give us, and, as an old song says, “the world can’t take away.”  And neither can your circumstances.

Joyful Christians are contagious Christians.  You will spread this “virus” of joy if you have it.  There is nothing more inconsistent than a person sharing Jesus and looking like they just gargled apple cider vinegar.  Get joy and then give it away!  The Bible tells us that joy is a fruit of the Spirit.  If we are short of joy, we are not connected to the source which is the Holy Spirit indwelling those who believe.

JOY IN SPITE OF OUR CIRCUMSTANCES

So, can we know joy when our circumstances aren’t cooperating?  When they may be anything but good?  When our prospects are not promising, and our future is foreboding?

Well Paul had it.  Paul knew joy despite the worst of external conditions.  Imprisoned for preaching the Gospel, Paul wrote one of the most joyful and encouraging letters in the New Testament while in jail.

It is an amazing thing how joy can buoy our spirits when everything in our life is trying to push us down.  Let’s summarize:

Paul had been falsely imprisoned

He was being held on “death row” awaiting sentencing

He never knew if each meal; each sunrise was his last

He didn’t know if he would ever be free again.

He lived each day connected by a short chain to a Roman guard.

And yet, in spite of these circumstances, Paul had an unquenchable joy. Something like that can only be attributed to a supernatural source.  Not “happenstance.”

Throughout the four chapters that make up Philippians, we will encounter the source of Paul’s joy and how he lived it out.  And the best news is the joy of the Lord that Paul knew is not out of anyone’s reach who knows the joy giver of Paul’s life:

The Lord Jesus Christ.

Don’t Miss the Joy! Chapter 2

Chapter Two

The Joy of Unlikely Relationships

There are few things in life that can bring us more joy, and almost at the same time more pain that relationships.  If you ask most people who seem to be happy or joyful for the reason, they will almost always tell you something about a relationship.

At the same time, if you find someone who is long-faced and looks miserable, and you ask them the reason for their sorrow, they too will almost always mention something about a relationship.  Maybe it is a relationship gone bad or is undergoing stress, or perhaps they have lost someone close to them or they are lonely.  But it all goes back to a conversation about relationship.

By the same token, the church is made up entirely of relationships.  Good ones, bad ones, or people looking for one.  Ideally these begin and are rooted in a relationship with the Savior.  But sometimes they are not.

It is by means of relationships that much pain and grief is experienced among Christians, along with immeasurable joy if we are open to it.  But sometimes we are not.

THE PROBLEM OF ALONENESS

Being alone was never God’s intention for any of us.  Our God, in Trinitarian array, exists in an eternal relationship: a “joyful dance” as someone called it.  A joyful interaction of the Three-yet-One we know as the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It was always God’s intent that those He created in His image (“let us make man in OUR image”) join in that endless, eternal, and joyful dance.  God is a generous God.  He wanted to share part of Who He is with us.

And so, when He drew us up from the dirt of Eden’s garden and breathed spirit life in us, He said “it is good.”  It is good that we are in His image.  It is good that we are like Him.  It is good that we can relate to Him as our Creator.

But later in the Creation account in Genesis, He said “It is NOT good that the man should be alone.” This state of aloneness is unnatural to our God-stamped natures.  It hurts to be alone.

When a captor wishes to break the mind and will of a stubborn prisoner, the prisoner is placed in solitary confinement.  Left there sometimes for weeks or months on end, the human mind begins to melt down.  The will begins to sag under the weight of isolation.

We are not created to be alone.  “I will make a companion suitable for him,” God said.  And so, Eve entered the picture, taken from Adam’s side.  Like him, but different.  Equal to him, but submissive.  Invaluable to him, but not ruling him.  

The pair shared everything.  Work. Procreating: childbearing and child-rearing.  Ruling the world for a time, having dominion over everything.  The Bible describes their joyful condition as “The man and his wife were both naked but not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25)

THE JOYFUL DANCE OF INTIMACY

Pastor and author John Ortberg wrote a book recently entitled, I’d Like You More If You Were More Like Me.  The book is an exploration of human intimacy.  One counselor refers to intimacy as “into-me-you-see.” 

The pursuit of intimacy is a joyful pursuit.  It calls us out when we would rather hide because of shame and our sinfulness.  It stabilizes us when we feel bad about ourselves.  It does not leave us alone, even when we deserve and want to be isolated.

But intimacy as an expression of human relationship is not the experience of “becoming like” the other.  It is the experience of “become one” with them.  Those are two different experiences.

The first, “becoming like,” is the experience of conformity.  Some dysfunctional religious groups and dystopian societies are experiments in conformity.  I often will tell a pre-married couple in counseling that if both of them are the same, one of them is unnecessary.  Conformity is not the goal.  Conformity can be enforced, but it is not natural.

The goal is not uniformity.  The goal is oneness.  It is not the weaker clinging to the stronger in fear.  That is unhealthy attachment.  It is “two-becoming-one” that is expressed in marriage.  

The joy of seeing “two-become-one” over the course of a long and healthy marriage is a marvel that deserves to be called miraculous.  We do not see it often enough.

Sometimes marriages are abandoned because getting to that oneness is not automatic.  It’s laborious.  It’s hard work.  Sometimes one will not be willing to pay the hard price of dying to self so the relationship can become what it was intended to be.  Yet they fail to realize that, even though the relationship is painful, tearing it apart is still tearing flesh apart.  “What God has joined together, let not man tear apart.”

THE JOYFUL BODY

It has ever been God’s intent that His church, His body, His bride on earth know the oneness that is known in Heaven.  Marriages in Christ express a visible picture of God’s intention for all believers and for all the redeemed to have with Him.

No one was more aware of that intent than Paul.  It was his desire to present the churches he was planting as a “spotless bride” to His Lord.  He was jealous to protect and keep them pure until the wedding day, as the best man would be responsible for doing.

He fought as a warrior for joy to be found and known among the gathered but dissimilar believers that made up the first New Testament congregations.  But it was a battle where victory was never fully realized while he was on earth.  

God’s intention is for the relationships we experience in the church to bring us joy.  Too often these relationships end in pain, and heartache, and disappointment and can even become abusive.  The same author who wrote I’d Like You More If You Were More Like Me also wrote another book on relationships called Everybody’s Normal till You Get to Know Them.

We are not normal.  Peter refers to God’s people as “peculiar” people.  Now I know the theological thought behind that has to do with our being unique, and distinct and set apart.  But we all know folks in the church who are, well, peculiar in other ways.  

Churches are not joyful because everyone’s walking in lock step with each other.  We do not have to be the same.  Churches that grow around affinity demographics (same age, same social and religious backgrounds, same musical tastes) create an artificial sense of unity that is not a reflection of the New Testament church.

A.W. Tozer suggested that coming to unity would be like tuning one hundred pianos to the same tuning fork.  They would automatically be in tune with each other if tuned to the same pitch, but not if the tuner sought to tune each individual instrument to the one beside it.  

The church that Paul was seeking to build crashed together different nationalities, different language systems, different cultures, different religious backgrounds.  They had to become one through abandoning prejudices, overcoming religious one-upmanship, and burying long years of inborn hatred.  Their unity came because they were “attuned” to the same Person:  The Lord Jesus Christ.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near through the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.  (Ephesians 2:13-14)

It is only through the blood Christ; a radical focus on Christ and His Kingdom that different races, different cultures, different religious backgrounds, and assumptions about life can be in unity.  We cannot do this by our best efforts.  Only God can accomplish it.  

But when it does happen there is unbelievable joy!  There is a depth of richness in a relationship that could only have happened because of Jesus.  There is a joyous wonder in a friendship, a fellowship, or a marriage that is Christ saturated and Spirit-formed.  

A married couple truly attain oneness in the same way.  When we focus on our own needs and concerns to the exclusion of the other, we are in constant friction and conflict.  When we try to “tune” ourselves to the other person but not to Christ, unity is missed.  But when we agree that Christ is more than our needs, and greater than our personal wants, we find ourselves automatically attuned to each other as a result.

THE UNLIKELY CONGREGATION

Acts 16 tells us that the first person Paul preached to in Macedonia was not the man he had dreamed about.  It was actually an Asian woman named Lydia, who dealt in purple cloth.  She was a fashion mogul.  She was wealthy; she was not from Philippi, but she owned a home there, as well in her home in Thyatira.  So, here’s this lady, houses in two cities, wealthy and bright, and the Bible also adds she was “a worshiper of God.”  Her foundation had been laid in Old Testament Scripture, and her heart was ready to hear the Gospel.  When Paul arrived, she received Jesus and was baptized, along with her family.

Next, we meet a person on the opposite end of the social spectrum.  She was a slave girl.  Not only was she physically possessed by men, but she was also possessed by a “python spirit;” she had the power of divination, a demonic gift that her owners exploited.  She followed Paul and Silas and Timothy around yelling out “these men are the servants of the most High God” until Paul could handle it no more.  He cast out the demon, and she became a believer.  She was the second member of the Philippian church.

The third person was equally unlikely as the first two.  The jailer, a former Roman soldier, had been given the responsibility of keeping Paul and Silas in custody.  He threw them into the inner dungeon, a dark, damp, place and “placed their feet in stocks.”  This, by the way, was a means of torture, not just securing them.  It was an interrogation technique to place prisoner’s feet and legs in distorted positions causing cramps and sometimes paralysis.  

But at midnight, the Bible informs us, Paul and Silas began singing praise through their pain.  By the way, that is a characteristic of joy.  Joy isn’t having all of your circumstances line up just the way you’d like.  It transcends them.  But as they sang, “the place began to shake,” and the jail doors flew open.  When the guard saw all the doors unlocked, he drew his sword to kill himself for failing to do his duty.  Paul stopped him.  “We are all here” he said.  And the jailer fell at Paul and Silas’ feet, saying, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

The jailer… blue collar… like a retired Marine… and his family became part of the church at Philippi.  The most unlikely group of people possible came to be in the same house group and made up the first church on the European continent!

This brings us to a problem we face.  Do you know how easy it is to build a church where everyone is the same age, the same nationality, the same race, from the same background?  Sociologists call this “the principle of homogeneity.”  Like attracts like.  Most churches are that.  Caucasian churches attract Caucasian people.  African American churches attract people of color; Filipino churches attract Filipino… Baptist churches attract…well you get the picture.

But the “picture” that presents is not the Gospel.  Now hear me carefully.  The most joyful and powerful testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not churches that all see things the same way, want things the same way, or think about life in the same way.

We have to get over thinking that the church is supposed to be made up of people who all see things exactly the same.  Maybe (to quote the book title) “I would like you better if you were more like me.” But the reality is we’re different.

Let me just get you to imagine an experiment.  What if I came to your church and told the people, “I’m going to make a cup of coffee right here that will make every person in the building who likes coffee happy?”

After you’d finished laughing, you would say “that’s impossible!”  What would such a cup of coffee taste like?  You like your coffee bold and black, caffeinated or decaffeinated or frothy with cream, or sweetened with Splenda or sugar or honey, or hot or iced?  It would be humanly impossible!

So, if we can’t even all get along on how we like our coffee, then how on this earth are we going to build a fellowship of believers who are all going to get exactly what they want?  It’s impossible to come to consensus on some things.  

Yet the church survives, and even thrives on our differences.  It’s not being different that kills churches and congregations—it’s the demand of a few to have their own way.  It’s the expectation that things should always go the way they want them.  

The picture of heaven is “every kindred, every tongue, every race,” together.  Ever think about that?  You will be the same race in heaven that you are on earth?  Different races are not a mistake, and not a curse.  There is no preferred race of people.  They are an indication of God the artist’s love of variety!  

And He wants His church to reflect that tapestry and variety and that glory on earth!  Now I’ll be candid here.

It would be a lot easier to pastor the church I serve if we all were from the same generation, saw things the same way, wanted the same things, liked the same music, and had the same background.  We’d get along great!  And that’s how some larger churches grow.  Some churches are begun with the intention of catering to ONE group of people.  Just run the rest of them off.  Again, much easier.  

A year or so back we commissioned a survey of our community, and the group studied the “psycho-social and religious” profile of our church field.  Would you like to know what they discovered just in our immediate church field?

Fifty percent of the people wanted a church building that looked like a church building.

Fifty percent of the people preferred a building for worship that didn’t resemble a church building.

Fifty percent preferred music that sounded like they believed church music” should sound.

Fifty percent preferred music that was contemporary and didn’t resemble traditional music in any way.

Fifty percent wanted a church where people dressed up on Sunday.

Fifty percent wanted a church where people preferred casual dress for Sunday.

The truth?  Representatives of both groups attend worship at our church!  Every week.  We shouldn’t get along.  At all.  But we do because it’s not us trying to match people to their preferences.  As long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, we’ll be unified.  

My understanding of the New Testament shows churches that do the hard work of tearing down walls between people, forgiving, and messing up and forgiving again.  (Ephesians 2:14-22). That takes the grace of God to work.  And it does.

THE JOY OF AN UNLIKELY CHURCH

For most of the ways we evaluate church success, Philippi scored zero.  The people were not similar in any way, except each of them had met Jesus Christ personally and believed in Him and were focused on Him.

But when Paul and Silas left Philippi the next day after their release from prison, that was the church they left behind.  We remember the words of our Lord in Matthew 16 that remind us

I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. 

Jesus built His church in Philippi.  He chose the materials; He put the “stones” of the temple in place.  He set them in Lydia’s house as their physical location.  He added more “stones” as they shared the Gospel with family and friends in their network.  

And from there, these different individuals with their diverse social and economic backgrounds became the unlikely relationships that gave Paul encouragement, support, and the will to press on more times than they would ever know.  They were the church.

And, these unlikely people brought him much, much joy!  As we open the Letter to the Philippians, we find ourselves benefiting from that same encouragement.  

Don’t Miss the Joy! Intro & Chapter 1

Introduction

I missed Philippi by 25 miles.  By plane and by bus, I had already traveled over 5500 miles to arrive in Sofia, Bulgaria. From the Sofia International Airport, I traveled several hundred more miles by van and bus through small Balkan villages and mountainous passes and armed guards at checkpoints.

And finally, my bus arrived…in Thessaloniki.  I offered my most diplomatic American voice and questioned the driver: “I thought we were going to Philippi?”

He said, “Thessaloniki better.  Shops better.  Food better.  Philippi just ruins.”  I slumped back in my seat.  It was apparent my travel companions were more interested in acquiring lovely souvenirs from Thessaloniki tourist spots than seeing one of the most incredible and intact archaeological digs on the route of Paul’s journeys.

“Paul also went to Thessaloniki,” the driver offered me helpfully.  “I know, I know.”  And so, Thessaloniki it was.  Philippi, just a scant forty-minute drive to the north, eluded me.  I found out later the driver did not know HOW to get to Philippi, but he failed to mention that fact.

So there I was, stuck in Thessaloniki.  It was drizzling chilly rain, but it was actually a beautiful seacoast city.  Sadly, not the one I wanted to see.  And so I sulked.  And I missed the joy available in the moment.

We do that all the time, don’t we?  When we don’t get our way, on our timeline, in just the manner we saw it playing out in our heads.  And so we pout like children.  How many times has it happened to you?

I’m beginning my thoughts on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus outbreak.  We are now told that the peak of infections in Florida will arrive within ten days from this writing: maybe sooner.  I just had a church member reach out to me who leads a nursing home facility to my south. She was asking me to pray for her staff.  The next day the National Guard was arriving to test all of them after a patient and one of the nurses tested positive for Covid-19.

It’s hard to find the joy sometimes.  Life bumps into us in unlikely and unexpected ways.  And we miss the joy…maybe by a few feet or maybe by 25 miles.  But somehow it escapes us, and it is difficult to find it once it’s gone.

My prayer is this book will remind you to look for the joy in unlikely places.   Joy is not awarded to the ones who “try” the hardest to get it and hang on to it.  It is not a wage given to a worker, and it is not on loan.  Joy is a gift given us by Jesus: “My joy I give to you.”  And as we abide in Him, we can embrace it.

We just have to recognize it, and then accept that sometimes joy comes wrapped in unexpected and sometimes even unpleasant circumstances.  Sometimes it comes by means of unexpected people.  And sometimes it comes in situations that only God, through the eyes of the Spirit, can enable us to see.

But I am deeply convinced that God does not want us to miss it.  It may not come in the timing we thought, by the people we thought, or even through the circumstances we thought. It may surprise us if it comes wrapped in disappointment, or tears, or heartache or confusion.

Joy could have met me in Thessaloniki.  But that was not where I’d planned to meet it.  I missed it by 25 miles.

Don’t miss the joy.  Even when the gift comes wrapped in the unexpected!


Chapter One

Finding Joy in Times of Confusion

“And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.”  (Acts 16:6)

Paul and company weighed anchor and set sail full of confidence.  It was a confidence born of God’s call.  A confidence affirmed by God’s people.  They set sail to parts unknown, determined to bring the Gospel to lands and people where it had never been preached.

The apostle “born out of time” (his description) was leading the missionary venture after he and his friend Barnabas parted ways.  They were bravely following the bold vision and clarity offered by their influential leader.

Those were the days before electronic navigation and GPS systems.  Sailors traveled by locating the stars and heavenly bodies.  They relied on wind and currents that a skilled mariner could mostly predict.

But it was not maps and navigation they lacked.  They were waiting for the clear and affirming voice of the Spirit of God, which Paul had learned to recognize and rely on, to direct them.

And all they heard were “no’s.”

And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.  (Acts 16:7)

The Book of Acts, penned by the physician-historian Luke, tells us that one-by-one Paul’s efforts fell apart.   Asia was a no-go.  The Holy Spirit had “forbidden” them to go.  Then, they attempted to enter Bithynia, but “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”  Sometimes our best-laid plans seem to end just like that.

 

CUE:  CONFUSION

We lay our lives out: school, career, marriage, children, home purchase, then retirement. While some may not be nearly so structured, all of us have a kind of built-in expectation of how things will be.

By the way, let me say quickly that there is nothing wrong with planning.  The Book of Proverbs, for one reference, affirms careful planning:

“Commit your work to the Lord, and your plan will be established.” (Proverbs 16:3)

“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”  (Proverbs 16:9)

“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.”  (Pr 16:21)

That is just a sampling of one chapter.  There is no caution about planning in the Bible as long as we understand that God has a right to overrule our plans to establish His own.  Sometimes we get it wrong.

And sometimes our plans do not take the Lord into account at all.  It is continually surprising to me how many young people raised in churches and coming from families of faith never truly seek the Lord about what He wants them to do with college.

We take one of the most important (and expensive) decisions we have ever made and just “wing it.”  I wonder how different things would be if we simply asked, “Lord, which school do you want me to attend?  Which major?  Which professors and classes do you want to use to shape my mind and thinking?”

And then we scratch our heads and wonder why college is such a frustrating and sometimes futile experience.  Did you ask God to “establish your plans” as you filled out applications?

Or how about the new job offer you’ve received?  Yes, it will mean uprooting your family…again.  Yes, it will mean disrupting the routine of your family and tearing your household out of networks of community and friends.  But after all, God wants you to make more money, right?  Isn’t that all that matters? Is the Lord “establishing His plan” in your job?  If He says “no” will you do the same?

For those who are dating, is God “establishing His purpose” in you as you seek a date, or a mate?  Is He guiding those you spend time with, as well as you, in the course of your lives?  Has He established His plan in your relationships?

God has an interest in our plans.  The American church has several favorite verses that end up, well, everywhere.  One such verse is Jeremiah 29:11

“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you.  Plans to give you a future and a hope.”

God is personally and deeply invested in us as His followers and children.  When we give ourselves to follow the Lamb of God into eternal life, God becomes deeply interested in using the life you have surrendered to Him.  He wishes to “establish His purpose” in us.

But when we follow our own wisdom, our own counsel, and our own instinct, we sometimes wind up in a cul-de-sac of confusion.  We cannot understand where God is.  Why didn’t He show up?

 

CLEARING THE FOG

I do not wish to imply that Paul had taken a wrong turn in Acts 16.  The men on that voyage did not embark with a clear destination in mind, except to go where the Gospel had not been proclaimed. They were simply willing to trust God wherever He led.  It is the truest example of discipleship, of trusting Jesus moment by moment in obedience wherever He leads us.

Their problem was discerning where that next step was to be!  They were listening to God.  They knew He wanted them in the ship they were in, and in the sea they were sailing.

But they could not discern clearly where He wanted them to drop anchor.  Asia?  Europe?  An island?  The mainland?  Where was God leading them to go and proclaim the Gospel?

Sometimes we reach those intersections in life where it is not clear what God is doing.  On several different occasions in my life, I have had to stop to discern the will and direction of God.  It’s not always a clear choice and option of “good” or “bad.”  Often, it is more “good, better, or best.”

Those are actually much harder choices.  None are terrible.  But one, you know in your heart, is optimal.  These times can become paralyzing if we let them.

When these moments occur, I know instinctively that I will have to make a decision without all the information I would like to have on hand.  At some point, maybe due to prompts and thoughts that I cannot objectively validate, I will take a step (maybe a leap?) of faith.

This can be particularly frustrating to your mate if you’re married.  They have questions.  They have concerns, and “a dog in the fight” too.  How do you know?  What is God saying to you?

Pam and I went through such a period as I was finishing my college degree and trying to begin the steps of moving to Louisville, Kentucky to enter the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Frankly, I had been in two years of non-stop classes, carrying heavy class loads including two years studying Greek, and I was just over it.

For almost three months, I floundered.  Her life was in the balance, too.  She needed to apply for jobs.  To complicate matters, a door had opened for me to go to Nashville and work with a friend who had done quite well for himself in the Gospel music industry.

One day while driving south on the Interstate near our home in Williamsburg, we passed a sign that summarized the dilemma.  The sign said “Louisville Nashville” and showed the interstate parting just ahead.

I had caused us to be adrift in a sea of uncertainty.  It seemed in the moments that followed a voice welled up inside me and said, “Make a choice.”  I knew if I had to decide in that moment, I needed to point my car toward Louisville.  And when I acknowledged that, I had peace.

I’m sure Paul fielded a few of those questions.  To Paul’s credit, he was not going through a “hunt and peck” or “trial and error” approach.  He was praying and waiting on the Lord.  And finally, the answer came.

 

WHEN GOD SPEAKS

God does speak.  Our God is not silent.  We are just hard of hearing sometimes.  Other times, God has shrouded what He is doing in mystery.  But sometimes God speaks in ways that are crystal clear.

So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him saying, `Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ (Acts 16:8-9)

On this occasion, God spoke to Paul through a vision.  This vision apparently came to Paul as he slept.  Paul awoke with the only confirmation he needed for their trip to continue.

And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them (Acts 16:10)

Now some may object, “well that was how God did things in the Bible, but not today.”  There are many in unreached Muslim cultures and other people groups who would disagree with that assessment.

They still see visions today in some circumstances.  I have heard numerous testimonies claiming this, and people have come to faith with the help of these visions.

In a nation like ours where Bibles are plentiful and people are literate, visions and dreams may not happen quite as often.  Leaders will sometimes claim heaven-sent “visions” for their churches or ministries.

I do believe, however, that God gives us what I call “dreams and visions” when He is calling us to a new ministry or season of ministry.  While these are not visions that focus on a glimpse of the future, I believe God calls us to “daydream” and be preoccupied with the thing He is calling us to do next.

 

THE JOY OF MOVING FORWARD

Out of the season of waiting and drifting in uncertainty, the joyful travelers set sail for Macedonia.  You could almost hear the songs of praise being sung over the spray of salt water as they pointed the bow of their ship toward their destination.

There is always a joy within us as we know we are following the will of God, even when we have to seek for a season and travel through some period of confusion and uncertainty to find it.

But the joy makes the journey worth it!

The Gift

“What are you giving up for Lent?” I overheard several chatting and saw some online conversations about this as the Easter season began several weeks (or several decades?) ago.

The answers would vary. Some would go to the stand-by sacrifices of favorite foods or beverages. Others were planning to fast from social media. And some (like me) were going to ignore it altogether.

I did not grow up in a liturgical church that followed the church calendar. Lent was something reserved for Catholics or Lutherans and, according to my upbringing, was not something Baptist folks observed (though we did often eat fish on Friday). Lent, I later learned in seminary, has long been observed as part of the Christian calendar. My observance of Lent became listening to the second part of Handel’s Messiah to remind me of the Easter season.

There are some healthy things about Lent we would do well to pay attention to, and, whether we like it or not, we have been participating in a rigorous Lenten season.

If we see God as Sovereign over all He has created, then that leaves little room for coincidence and luck. Things happen for a reason; some we understand and some are above our pay grade. My belief is it is not coincidence that the coronavirus crisis began in America at almost the same time Lent began.

As the coronavirus began to take hold in America, we immediately began losing things. We experienced having things taken from us that were precious to us as Americans: our freedom to travel around as we wanted, our access to stores that actually had what we wanted on the shelves, our ability to gather together in worship.

The list can go on. Now I said these things were “taken” from us. But let me suggest something to you. Things cannot be taken from you if you willingly surrender them.

Ok don’t click off yet. “What are you giving up for Lent?” Well, I am giving up my ability to come and go as I please. I am giving up my right to have answers. I am giving up my freedom and joy of assembling with my church family for worship. I am giving up access to restaurants, and coffee shops, and social gatherings, and face-to-face conversations with friends.

What if we started to approach this whole thing differently? Instead of griping and grousing about what we are having “taken away” from us, what if we simply said, “It’s Lent. I’m giving these up in remembrance of the One Who gave everything up for me?”

Jesus said, “No man can take My life from Me; I give it freely.”

What if we surrendered these things joyfully? What if we live in imitation of the One Who “though He was equal with God, did not consider (the rights) of that equality something to be grasped?” What would it mean if we were to say, “Lord whatever you want to do with me through these things I’m surrendering, then I give them as a gift?”

And as this mentality takes hold in us, we allow it to guide us as we approach Holy Week; the week where we remember Christ’s passion, Christ’s willingness to die for our sins, Christ’s willingness to die alone on a cross. Let the things we are surrendering draw us closer to Him in His dying, so we can also be drawn closer to His resurrection. What if we willingly sacrificed these conveniences and the blessings we have known (and often taken for granted) as a gift to Jesus?

What are you giving up for Lent?

A Choice

All of us, to one degree or another, are experiencing having things taken from us.  Things we have come to value, love, and maybe take for granted.

  • A visit with friends at our favorite coffee shop or restaurant
  • A gathering of believers in worship at our local church
  • A paycheck
  • A predictable future

I’m convinced that we aren’t at the end of that experience… at least not yet. Certainly some are sacrificing and feeling this more than others. A family in our church, the Moodys, experienced the painful separation of husband and father Evan who was deployed by the military to serve in one of the virus hotspots as a member of the medical team.

We don’t yet know where all of this will end. Some (ME!) are asked to stay at home due to age (ME!) or vulnerable health. But really, that’s a small sacrifice to make. Some will face some very hard days ahead. We can’t predict what it will be or who it will happen to. But we can predict how we will react to it should that time come.

We have a choice. A choice as to our attitude through this whole crisis, and personally… internally… a choice moment-by-moment how we are going to respond.

May we choose joy. I’ve tried to remind you in sermons and in other things I’ve written that, as followers of Christ, we are “infected” with a much more contagious agent than the coronavirus. Joy is catching. Joy is more contagious than ANY virus ever created. Joy is the only antidote to fear, and depression, and self-pity.

When Paul wrote, as he did in many places, that we are to “rejoice in the Lord,” he did two things:

(1). He wrote, in the Biblical language, with an imperative voice meaning it’s a command. We are commanded to be joyful! That means that joy doesn’t wait for our feelings to catch up. Joy controls our feelings, not vice-versa. We are commanded to be joyful.

(2). He showed us that joy is a choice we make, regardless of difficult or even austere outward circumstances. A Roman prison cell, an enforced lockdown, is a strange place to write about having joy, and yet he rejoiced!

We choose joy. We don’t know what God is doing in all of the things happening to us, but we know HE IS DOING SOMETHING! And so we rejoice in what God IS doing in this, not because it’s pleasant now, but because we will understand God’s purpose in it. And it will be a cause of joy.

We choose joy. We can still pray. We can still worship. And we CAN choose joy because of the promise of what lies ahead, not because we’re having such a great time now. And we can rejoice because we know the One Who is in control of this…

…loves us.

“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, REJOICE”

An Unseen Enemy

It’s a strange time, and one that is testing each of us… our nation, and even the world, to the breaking point. An enemy has landed among us, like some alien force from a science fiction movie, and it’s great weapon is invisibility. We can’t see it.

The effects? Oh we see plenty of those. Empty parking lots at malls, restaurants, and churches. Full parking lots and shopping carts at grocery and big box stores, filled by fearful people. We see the stock market plummeting, the President floundering to know what to do next, and the medical system brought to its knees with overflowing patient need. This enemy is relentless, merciless, and all too real.

But yet invisible. How do we fight an invisible enemy? One we can’t see with our eyes, and one which can invade and assault our bodies through an airborne droplet or an infected surface or doorknob.

Yet as Christians, we should be the most familiar with unseen realities. We have been redeemed by a God we cannot see. We have been filled with a Spirit we cannot know with our eyes. And we have a Savior Who, “Having not seen Him, yet we love Him.”

And yes, we and this entire world are afflicted by a spiritual enemy we cannot see. Our adversary, like a roaring lion, roams about unseen in this world “seeking whom he may devour.” We never see him coming.

So how do we defeat these unseen foes? We are in a spiritual war as Christians. At all times. We are constantly barraged by “the flaming darts” of the evil one. The Bible is clear. We are either casualties in this war, or we are taking up the armor of God and standing firm in it.

We defeat the coronavirus threat with the same invisible weapon we use to defeat the enemy of our souls: Prayer. As the Christian prays, the enemy flees. As Christians across America and, in fact, across the world… fall to our knees and cry out to God the enemy will fall. Every time.

While we are “socially distancing” at home, or at least away from the fellowship of believers for a time, use this opportunity to wield this invisible weapon against the enemy.

Don’t let fear overwhelm you. Don’t let the icy grip of the devil choke out the vitality of your prayer life. Get on your knees. Ask God for grace and deliverance for us.

And though unseen, the “effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man (or woman) will avail much.” Let’s unleash the unseen against our invisible enemy… whether that enemy is a microscopic virus… or Satan himself.


We are providing worship plans for families and a in-home Bible study guide to walk us through Easter Sunday. 

Philippians Sermon Notes Week 03

THE SECRET OF CONTAGIOUS JOY
Finding Joy in the Hard Places
(Philippians 1:11-21)

Few of us would expect to find joy locked in a prison cell for being obedient to God, and awaiting a death sentence. Paul’s location (as he puts it “the thing that have happened to me”) gives a lot of credibility to his words. When he shows us how he finds joy, even in the hard places, that gives us encouragement in “the things that have happened to us!”

FINDING JOY IN SPITE OF TOUGH CIRCUMSTANCES (vv12-14)

“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”

It isn’t a stretch for us to see that we have entered into one of the toughest seasons most of us have ever experienced. And I’m not just referring here to the NCAA or NBA seasons being cancelled or Disney World closing down. People are frightened. They are confused. They are lost and if they don’t know the Lord, they have nowhere to look for help.

If you’re listening this morning as a believer, then you can say with Paul, that in spite of our circumstances:

  1. We know God allows nothing to happen for us without a reason. Paul looked for the Divine purpose in everything happening to him.
  2. We know that things happen TO US so that God can make things happen THROUGH US. What was Paul’s optimism? That “the whole imperial guard has heard the Gospel.” Paul didn’t want to be in prison, even as you don’t want to be stuck in the prison of your tough circumstances. But he saw that, even through the inconvenience and difficulty, he God was using him to share Jesus with those whose job it was to be tethered to him by a chain. They learned that this Jewish prisoner they were guarding was really the free one, and they were the prisoner, and they knew he was imprisoned for the Gospel and was not a criminal.
  3. We know that as much as this ride we’re on feels like a downhill bobsled ride with no brakes, God is in control even of this. This is the time for us to answer the hard questions. “Where does my confidence really lie?” “What am I trusting in for my resources and provision?” “Who am I really looking to as my strength?”

We find joy when we realize that our tough circumstances have a purpose, that God isn’t going to waste a moment of what we’re going through, that HE is in control of everything happening right now…GOD IS GREATER…and we need to begin asking this question: What is God wanting to do THROUGH ME in this time as we wait out the coronavirus; as things are happening around us and TO us that we cannot control?

WE CAN HAVE JOY IN SPITE OF DIFFICULT PEOPLE

“Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”
This is also a tough one. All of us have experienced a person, or multiple people, who have just made it their mission to make life harder for you. Maybe it’s an unsympathetic boss at work, or an annoying co-worker, or someone who says unkind and untrue things about you online, or an irritating neighbor. We will all encounter difficult people in life.

John Ortberg has a book he entitled, “Everybody’s Normal ‘til You Get to Know Them.” Everybody’s got a little dysfunction in them; well… some have more than others… and it’s tough if the difficult person in your life is your mate, or a parent, or even a child.

So I’m not going to give you three simple steps in how to pray that person out of your life…they may be there to stay. Paul was continually hounded by people whose mission in life was to frustrate his. Let’s be honest. Those people can suck the joy right out of you, can’t they?

In some settings, Paul had to deal with Jewish teachers who were jealous of his success, or angry at his teaching that disagreed with theirs. Some thought they were doing God a favor. Clearly they were enemies of the Gospel.

But I think it was a lot tougher on Paul to deal with those who claimed to be on his side. I heard of a guy who was permanently injured in a game when he was tackled by his own teammate. You can brace yourself from a hit by the opposing team. But when it’s coming at your blindside, from a person wearing your uniform, you can’t get ready for it.

Paul was being tackled by those who claimed to be on “Team Jesus.” But he chose joy. Let me offer a paraphrase of what he said:

“So what if some preach Christ with wrong motives? Furthermore some may be overly impressed with themselves. Who cares? What really matters is this: Christ is being proclaimed…and that thought alone intensifies my joy! All the other stuff, I leave to God. “

Now Paul never allowed the message of the Gospel to be compromised. He said in Galatians,

But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a Gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8-9)

God is able to accomplish His purposes even through people we may see as difficult. And even though we may not rejoice in that troubling person, we can find joy knowing that the Gospel can go forward in spite of them!

FINDING JOY IN SPITE OF UNCERTAIN OUTCOMES

“What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (vv 19-21)

Paul truly didn’t know how the situation he was in was going to turn out. There were no lawyers representing criminals in jail cells in Rome. Paul could be set free…or he could face the executioner’s axe.

I think by far one of the most frustrating things for many of us in dealing with this virus crisis is the uncertainty of it all. How long are we going to have to wait? Will someone I know be infected? Will I? What about my job? My business? My children? My future? The economy?

And no one can tell us the outcome. All the entities we have come to depend on in times like this: government; economics; health care; nobody seems to know what to do.

So clearly the government can’t save us; our money can’t save us; the medical community is overwhelmed. But it leaves a big question that needs to be answered: What are you really trusting in?

Paul could say, “For me, to live is Christ…and to die is gain.” In essence he was saying, “If the worst-case scenario, physically, happens to me it won’t be a loss, but a gain.” That’s confidence, folks. That’s trusting Jesus above everything else. He was saying, “Don’t cry at my funeral. I haven’t lost…I’ve gained everything!”

If I live on physically, I live for Christ. If I die, I go to live with Christ. Either way, you win. Either way, there is joy.

So where is your confidence and ‘earnest expectation’ today?
For me to live is….______________? And to die is…____________?

Will you think about that for a moment with me? How would you fill in those blanks? For me to live is…money? Fame? A relationship on earth? Success in business? And if that is how you would honestly fill in the blank, then how would you fill in the second? “To die is……

If nothing else, this coronavirus gives us opportunity to truly ask ourselves some hard questions. Where does your trust lie this morning? Is it in something that death can take from you? Or do you know a relationship with Jesus that makes life worth living NOW, and death no longer something to fear, but something that will bring gain?

It’s time to think hard about these questions folks. Until we have this settled, something like the threat of this virus will continue to terrorize you and rob you of joy.

  1. We can choose joy in our difficult circumstances if we know Christ.
  2. We can choose joy in spite of difficult people if the Gospel is being proclaimed
  3. We can choose joy in spite of uncertain outcomes in life is Christ is our life, and our victory. Even death is gain!

© Fruit Cove Baptist Church
Site By: OneEighty