- 14 November 2023
- Stuart Robinson
November 12, 2023.
A friend of mine is dealing with – what from his perspective is, a monumental and unjust legal matter that has gone on for almost 20 years.
This tragic situation has caused Norm (not his real name) such mental distress that he spends time in the psychiatric unit of a local hospital, on an increasingly regular basis.
As we speak, a young widow faces her first Christmas without her spouse following his lingering and painful death; all the while she is seeking to care for her rambunctious toddler, who is constantly asking why daddy is not coming home.
And as a community, we are reeling from news of local murder-suicides, global geopolitical instability, terror attacks – and the invasion of sovereign states.
Not much joy in what I’ve just reported – is there?
And it may well be that you yourself are struggling with a personal ‘joy-deficit’.
Perhaps unrequited love, unmet longings, unfulfilled dreams, ‘unanswered’ prayer, unfaithful friends, and unexpected illnesses have eroded, or leached, or diluted, your joy and your zeal for life.
So, to my friend, Norm, and to all who are mired in difficulty and uncertainty, I offer the example and the words of St. Paul in his correspondence with the very first – and therefore very vulnerable, church in Europe, Philippi, N.E. Greece.
On the surface of things, Paul’s life appears to be anything but joyful.
He writes this letter from prison.
He says that he is in chains for his faith (1:7) and that, with malicious intent, people are spreading rumours about his motives for ministry and service, and his integrity as a leader (1:17); they are deliberately stirring up trouble for him.
And this is a man who has already endured public beatings, lashings, and stoning; shipwrecks, near drowning; robbery and assault; hunger, privation, sleeplessness, and humiliation for his unswerving commitment to Jesus – II Corinthians 11:23-30.
And yet, here in his letter to the Philippians – in just over 100 succinct verses, Paul speaks of joy, or rejoicing, no less than 16 times!!!
And that is because Paul’s focus is less on his circumstances and deficits, and more on:
God’s provision, and
Which in his view – is cause for rejoicing and celebration.
Beloved, here is the very, very good news:
God has not abandoned us.
Psalm 46:1 reminds us that God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble.
Now, in Philippians chapter 3:21, Paul reminded his friends that through Christ, their citizenship is in heaven, and that the Lord Jesus is returning to take them to be with him.
Paul speaks of Jesus’ second advent when the people of God, and his created order, are renewed and restored.
In eager anticipation, he writes to his friends (in chapter 3:21) that the returning Jesus will ‘powerfully bring everything under his control and he will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
And right now – in the midst of disappointment and decline – we can be joyful because the Lord Jesus is (v.5) very ‘near’ or very present.
That is not simply a reference to Christ’s imminent return (though it is that) but also to his transcendent, supernatural peace that fills our hearts, and calms our minds (v.7).
In his grace, the God of the universe is lovingly, and tenderly, and personally, caring for his children.
Indeed, Paul concludes this piece with a promise in verse 5, that ‘the God of peace will be with you’.
Not that you’ll be released from all that is troublesome and vexatious – but that God is with you in and through the storms.
He is, by his Spirit (3:3), enabling and empowering you to accomplish that to which you have been called.
Hence Paul’s refrain, “rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again: Rejoice” (verse 4).
Second, God’s provision.
Prayer (among other things) is God’s provision.
Prayer is the means by which we express our misgivings and fears, bring our requests to our Father, and offer him our praise and adoration.
In prayer – our hearts, and minds, and wills are being conformed to his.
Hence Paul’s injunction, “do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God – verse 6.
Do you recall – in Mark’s gospel (11:22ff) – Jesus’ promise to his friends that God is both willing and ableto remove even seemingly immovable objects – like mountains, in answer to earnest, faith-filled prayer?
Commenting on Jesus’ words, Pastor Alistair Begg so very rightly observes,
When God is the object of our faith, we can have an audacious faith – a faith that believes the impossible, to be possible with Him. We can know that we are speaking to someone who is able to do more that we can ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Jesus essentially says to us, I want you to pray in a way that says you actually believe in a God who is too wise to make mistakes, who is too kind to be cruel, and who is too powerful to be subdued by the normal forces of the universe. Do not set these aside these verses with a hundred qualifications. Just let them sit there for a minute. Enjoy the truth that God is able to do things beyond anything you can imagine. Rest in the reality that He knows no impossibility. And then pray.
And having come to our gracious Father with that which is on our hearts we can rest in his goodness – and be filled with that peace which is beyond human ken (verse 7).
So, dear people we may rejoice in God’s presence, his provision, and last – his people.
Yes – the church of God is cause for great celebration.
Do you believe that?
St. Paul did!
He describes this little community of faith, standing firm for Jesus in Philippi, as his ‘joy and crown’ – 4:1.
- Because as sisters in brothers in Christ they will share in an eternity of celebration and service – their names are written in the ‘book of life’- verse 3.
- Because in spite of differences of opinion and diverging perspectives on peripheral matters – this little church – comprising outstanding female leaders such as Euodia and Syntyche, and their colleague, Clement, and Paul’s unnamed ‘true companion’ and peacemaker, have contended shoulder to shoulder for the advance of the gospel – vv 2-4.
Yes – God is miraculously ministering his love and grace through ordinary, flawed people like those in Philippi, and through us here in Watsons Bay and Vaucluse.
And I use the word, ‘miraculously’ advisedly; Philippi was the very first church in Europe …now there are thousands of churches in Europe – comprising millions of men, women, boys, and girls, who through the centuries, have placed their lives in Jesus’ hands.
Yes, beloved; a miracle almost beyond our capacity to grasp!
And our responsibility, as we await Jesus’ return, is to continue in joyfully contending for the gospel of Jesus – not abrasively, but graciously and in all gentleness (v5), focusing our hearts and minds on that which is lovely, and edifying, and praiseworthy, and true (verse 8), following the examples of godly mentors like Paul, and Euodia, and Syntyche and Clement (verse 9) – as we patiently and eagerly await our Saviour from heaven (Ephesians 3:20).
May we pray?
It is a joy and a comfort to know that you are present with us in and through the vagaries of this life.
We do thank you for the provision of prayer; that we can bring all our concerns and needs before you and lay our anxieties at your feet.
And we thank you for the gift of the church – your people, the community of faith. May we continue to support one another as together, in this place, we contend for the advance of the gospel.
Thank you, Lord, for that peace which passes all understanding – ours in and through our Lord and Saviour, Jesus the Christ.