Text: Philippians 4:4-13
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Dec. 13, 2015
In our epistle today, St. Paul expresses joy in the midst of difficulty. Paul’s plans have been frustrated. He had anticipated many more years of productive ministry, visiting new countries, planting new churches, encouraging the faithful. Instead he finds himself in prison facing the reality of pending execution.
How does a person handle such disappointment, indeed one might say disaster? Many of us, and here I especially include myself, would be tempted to spend our time thinking: “Poor little old me, what have I done to deserve this?”
It is not easy to have dreams dashed or expectations shattered. Believe me, I know. And, I suspect, most of you do too! Nor is it easy to move from independence to dependence of what others decide for you, as Paul found in prison and as many folks today find in aging.
With all that is gone wrong in Paul’s life, I keep listening for Him to blow up, to finally let God have it. After all there is plenty of precedent for this in Scripture. I think for example of some of the psalms written by David, or of Job or Peter. But with Paul this never happens. Instead, we hear him say: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again. Rejoice!”
How could Paul feel this way? Did he really mean it? Or was he just putting on a good front? Is this an example of “sugar coated spirituality” that glibly tells people in the depth of despair, “well praise the Lord anyway.?” Or, has this Apostle found something, or rather has he been found by Someone who gave him inner strength in the season of distress?
In this final chapter of a letter written to his dearest friends we discover that: Yes, indeed, Paul really has found the secret of victorious living in any and all circumstances.
This morning I direct our reflections under three themes. First, Paul lived in the Presence of God. Secondly, he experienced the Peace of God. Finally, he discovered the Provisions of God.
I. The Presence of God
Under arrest, threatened with death, disappointed in his dream to take the gospel to distant places, Paul has written to a church facing persecution. What is worse, he has learned that two women, Euodia and Syntyche, persons with whom he had worked in the proclamation of the gospel, are now engaged in a serious disagreement between themselves and it is threatening to polarize the whole church. (Always it is the internal dissent which emerges in the face of external pressure that is the real threat to the spiritual health of the church. How we respond is the test of spiritual maturity.)
What is Paul’s response to potentially critical situation? “Rejoice in the Lord always!” What is going on here? Surely he doesn’t have his head in the sand, does he? We discover the answer in verse 5 where he reminds us that “The Lord is near.”
This, of course, is first of all a word about our Lord’s second coming and undoubtedly is why this passage read in Advent. Both St. Paul and the Christians in this little church expected that our Lord would return for them at any time. They looked forward to this event. They longed for it. Paul is reminding them quite gently, set your eyes on Jesus, not the situation around you.
But he is reminding them also that not only is Jesus coming soon, His spirit is already present with them. Lo I am with you always,” says our Lord, “even to the ends of the earth.”
“The Lord is near,” this is the secret of Paul’s serenity. With that assurance he can face anything.
II. The Peace of God
Paul next twice refers to the gift of peace. In verse 7 he assures this church “and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Two verses later he powerfully connects the presence of God with God’s peace. “And the God of peace will be with you.”
Obviously, he does not predicate the presence of this peace on the circumstances of our lives. He is facing the possibility of martyrdom, the church is facing the possibility of persecution and they have been staggered by strong divisions within.
This is not a pretty picture. Most of us would be overwhelmed. But Paul sees the eternal at work in the midst of the earthly. Nor was it necessary for him to understand all about this peace or to comprehend the reasons for everything that had happened.
He receives this peace as a gift. It is the peace of God, and as such it is always beyond our ability to understand. We simply place our trust in him. In verse 9 he reverses the order, now talking about the “God of Peace”. It is important for us to keep our minds and hearts focused on the things that are “true, noble, right, pure lovely and admirable.” Peace of mind is directly related to the focus of our thinking and our living.
Whether it is the “peace of God” or the “God of peace” the fundamental fact is that peace is both a gift to be received, and it is also a reward for obedience. Peace is the reward of right thinking and right living. If we choose to dwell on the negative, we will never experience peace. As Christians, we are called upon to take the circumstances of our lives and place them under the complete control and care of our Lord!
The Provisions of God
How did Paul ever arrive at such an attitude toward life? Is this Stoicism baptized into the Christian faith? “I don’t care any more,” some people say when the pain has become too intense and they have to find some way to cope. I have looked at the vacant eyes of people going through the trash to find a scrap of food in Africa and in Brazil, faces that have lost the ability to reflect feelings.
Is this what Paul is doing? Has he been in prison too long? Has isolation, disappointment, lack of intimacy with those he loved, robbed him of reality and made him indifferent to his situation?
Not a chance! “I have learned the secret of being content,” he goes on to write: “ I can do anything through him who strengthens me.” This is not a verse that says that we can do anything we want simply by invoking the name of Jesus.” This is not justification to tell someone with a terminal illness, “If you have enough faith, God will heal you.”
On the contrary, Paul’s faith says more about the change inside him rather than the change in his circumstances. He learned that some things have to be accepted and that God can give us the strength to endure even in the most difficult of circumstances.
This is not a letter from a person who could not wait to get out of prison so that he could get on with his life. This is not from a bitter man railing against the way life had treated him. Rather this is a story of someone who had discovered that his provision is in Christ, and with God’s unchanging presence he can face all of life’s circumstances with full assurance. Paul may be in prison, but he was “In Christ”.
Presence, peace, provision, these are the things we need in life. Most of us have learned that circumstances do not always work out the way that we want them. Dreams fade, relationships end, our fondest hopes do not always happen according to our script.
How then shall we live? May your answer and mine be always the same as St. Paul’s, “In Christ.” Amen.