Defiant Joy: Life in the (Christian) Colony
Rocherty UMC November15th
“Rejoicing in All Things” Philippians 4:10-20

 

One of the great temptations in reading the Bible is to take the promises made by God to certain people in the Bible and apply them directly to our place and time without pausing to think about whether or not that’s a legitimate use of that particular Scripture passage. For instance, many people have heard the Old Testament verse that says “If my people who are called by my name will turn from their wicked ways, and seek my face, I will heal their land.”  This is often brought out around election times, or when a national crisis hits, or used by particular movements, and applied to the current political moment. There’s a little problem here, though. Can you guess what it is? People who do this are taking a promise made to the ancient kingdom of Israel and trying to apply it directly to the United States of America. God’s promise in that verse was for a specific time and place and spoken to a specific people.
In order to appropriately, carefully, and helpfully apply a passage to our own times and places, we first need to ask a major question. And that question is: “Who is this passage speaking to?” In answer to that question, we find the passage is speaking to God’s covenant people; the people God is in special relationship with.
Then we need to ask ourselves. In the present day, who is God in a special relationship with? And in answer to that question we find out two things. First, God is NOT in a special relationship with any particular nation or system of government. While it is very true that God promises healing when people return to the Lord’s ways, our country, or any other country for that matter, is NOT the ancient kingdom of Israel. This verse does not apply to the modern nation of Israel, even though it has the same name as the ancient kingdom of Israel, it is entirely different in politics, religion, leadership, culture, and even though some of the land is the same, many of the boundaries are not the same either. And secondly, God IS in a special relationship with all of those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, no matter where they live, what language they speak, no matter what form of government they live under.
So, the passage where God says, “If my people who are called by my name will turn from their wicked ways, and seek my face, I will heal their land.” Speaks to the Church, to Congregations, to Christians. We don’t have land like the ancient kingdom of Israel – but we do have spaces, relationships, ministries, places we work and labor to produce and create. When we act wickedly, are not those spaces, relationships, and ministries terribly ill and sick, and need healing? Absolutely.
Now, what I’ve just given you is a very brief window into the entire discipline that is called “biblical interpretation”. Each week, tens of thousands of pastors around the world do this exact kind of interpretive work in order to communicate God’s message to their congregations. When I preach a message, many hours are spent in the study, reading, praying, and listening to God’s Spirit to find out what God might be saying to our congregation. This involves a lot of steps, so no wonder pastors and teachers and Bible scholars sometimes make mistakes, forgetting an important question, or taking a giant leap from, say, step one to step three.
Harvesting good fruit takes time and careful cultivation. Patience will grant us great rewards. First, we want to figure out what the passage most likely meant to the original, ancient audience. Sometimes it’s easy and obvious, sometimes it means careful research and listening to scholars and teachers who know more about it than we do.  And THEN, and only then, we can find a bridge between the ancient world and our own. That’s the process I just demonstrated in our brief example.
When we take short-cuts in interpreting the Bible, we run the risk of getting into real trouble by applying the Bible to our lives in ways that run afoul of what God intended. There are dozens of examples of mis-understood scriptures, mis-applied promises, and mistaken identities. And in our passage for today, there is a terrible, great risk of that happening. In our passage, Paul uses the very famous, and often quoted phrase: “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” If I had a dollar for every time I have heard this passage quoted… You probably could be rich too, right? When someone is trying to do something difficult—be it from taking a test, to a professional athlete trying to win victory over their opponents, to someone trying to climb a mountain, change a tire, find lost keys… But is that what the passage is about? Does it mean that, if we are believers in Jesus Christ, we can do anything we set our minds to?
As much as I would love to say that the answer is yes, unfortunately, the answer is actually a great big no. When people take this one verse out of this passage of Philippians as a “proof text” that God is going to give us strength to overcome any obstacle in anything we might try to do, we aren’t doing justice to what the Bible actually says or how God actually works in a believer’s life. In fact, the great danger of misapplying these kind of promises is: when things DON’T turn out good, or we fail, or prayer isn’t answered, etc, etc, then:
1) our faith and belief, built here on sandy foundation, can crumble AND
2) others watching often conclude that we are pitiful, stupid, lost people AND
3) it appears to everyone that GOD is at fault, God has failed, God is not God.
Does that make sense? When we mis-quote God, we set ourselves up for disappointment, we set God up for failure, and we set non-believers up for yet another reason to say “no thanks.” I know we at Rocherty don’t want to do any of that – and I’m so thankful for you all, living, serving, and loving with all you are.
So, today, in our second to last message in Philippians, we’re going to take a close look at this passage to figure out what it meant for Paul to be able to do all things through Jesus Christ. We’ll figure out what “all the things” are and at the end, we’ll know better how we can apply this passage of Scripture to our lives.
But first: remember what Paul’s current circumstances are? and what the circumstances of the Philippian church are? Paul, as we’ve learned, was in prison as he’s writing this letter. He’s not in Lebanon County prison where he gets fed and clothed on the government dime. Remember, in Roman times, prisoners had to rely on the kindness of friends or family to feed them each meal, to clothe them, and to provide anything else they might need. Happily, it turns out that the Philippians especially had been generous to Paul. They had provided him with money, they had sent a fellow from the church by the name of Epaphroditus to tend to his needs, and they likely sent him other things as well.
So what about the Philippians? Well, we’ve learned that things weren’t going all that well for them either. As newer followers of Jesus Christ, they found themselves in a quagmire. They were living in a colony of the city of Rome. Everyone around them expected them to live life as good Roman citizens. This meant that they would worship the emperor, bow down to the goddess Roma, the patron deity of the state. That they would sacrifice to the gods to ensure a good economy. In short, they were expected to be a model for the rest of the Empire what it meant to embody the Roman Dream—to model good and patriotic Roman citizenship, pride, and allegiance.
But that presented a major problem for the Philippians. As followers of Jesus, the Philippians knew that they could no longer worship the emperor. No man but Jesus Christ was to be worshipped as Lord and Savior. Caesar might claim a great deal of honors in the world. He might even call himself Lord and God—and many did—but the Philippians couldn’t say that any longer. They couldn’t follow the crowds in claiming divine honors for Caesar. They could only proclaim divine honors for the one God revealed as Father, Son, and Spirit. That meant that while the crowd went to Emperor parties, sacrificed to the gods as part of their trade guilds, etc., that the Philippian Christians wouldn’t participate.
That meant that they would be suspect in polite society. They might be viewed as unpatriotic. They might even be viewed as bad citizens, or even worse, as traitors to the Empire.
And that’s where our passage for today helps us out as believers today. This is where the rubber really starts meeting the road for us as United States citizens in rural Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. As you and I turn on the television, as we read the newspaper, as we scroll down the Facebook, we find numerous and competing visions for how we are to live our lives.
But into this mess of noise and confusion, the clarion call of the gospel message and Paul’s message to the Philippians rings out loud to us like a giant church bell with the message: “Brothers and Sisters, Rejoice in All Things!” It doesn’t matter the circumstances. You might be rich. You might be poor. You might be hungry or well fed. You might wear silk robes or cotton rags. But we don’t find our contentment—our soul satisfaction—in earthly things. It’s not our wealth that gives us security. It’s not our military power – chariots and horses, tanks and AR-15 rifles, that give us security. It’s not even having food and shelter that gives us security. Instead, it is our relationship with Jesus Christ that gives us our real security, real contentment, not only for our bodies, but for our minds and souls as well.
Paul waited until the end of the letter to the Philippians to get around to thanking the Philippians for their gift. And even then, it doesn’t seem that he goes over the top in gratitude to the Philippians. This has led some scholars to declare that Paul is an ingrate. That he’s rude to the Philippians. That he’s a self-centered and arrogant man. In short, they think Paul’s a bad person. What do you think? Is that true?
I think Paul is very appreciative of the Philippians, but that he’s even more grateful to God and Jesus Christ for the amazing gift of salvation that is on offer for the entire world. Paul isn’t nearly as focused on his own plight as he is concerned that Jesus’s life and teachings, that God’s love and generosity, that the Spirit’s comfort and strength, be made known to as many people as possible. Paul is grateful that the Philippians have partnered with him in this endeavor. Indeed, partnership in the gospel is one of the major themes of the entire letter. By helping to support Paul, the Philippians have entered into a business partnership with him—they’ve entered the gospel business! As Paul is fed and clothed, he is further strengthened, encouraged, and emboldened to proclaim the gospel message to the world, even as he languishes in prison on trial with his very life in the balance.
Paul could survive, even without the generosity of the Philippians. We don’t have time today to go through a study of the entire life of Paul, but we can touch on just a few highlights. Paul was raised as a Jewish rabbi. He was a member of the Pharisees, an elite sect of Judaism that advocated for strict adherence to the Jewish Law. Paul would have been considered an elite member of society—sort of like we think of doctors and lawyers today. So, for much of Paul’s early life, he would have known plenty. He would have known what it was like to be looked up to, to be respected, to have an abundance of food, friends, and networking opportunities. He did all things.
But after Paul came to know Jesus Christ, most of that changed. He went from persecutor to persecuted. He went from rich to poor. He did all things.
As a traveling missionary, Paul was reliant on his skill as a tentmaker to make a living. Very few churches supported him—perhaps only the Philippians and some of the other churches in Greece. From many, like the Corinthians, he refused to ask or take money because it would give them the wrong idea—and we all know that the Corinthians had many wrong ideas! But also as a travelling missionary of a controversial religion, Paul knew what it was like to suffer. Yes, he did all things.
Paul was thrown out of synagogues. Paul was beaten. Paul was shipwrecked. Paul knew hunger. Paul knew poverty. In short, Paul, who once was rich, became poor for the sake of the gospel. Paul learned that following Jesus meant taking up the cross, taking up the suffering that would inevitably come for remaining true to the message of love and salvation offered in Christ.
And through this, Paul learned the most important lesson one can learn in the Christian life. And that lesson is this: we do not find our identity, or our comfort, or our security, in riches, in food, in shelter, or in clothing; but we find our identity, our security, our contentment in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Without Jesus Christ, we might as well eat, drink, be merry and try to be good Romans. Go along with the crowd, do what comes naturally. For without Jesus, we’re all lost, so we might as well go down singing.
But we’re not left on our own. We have the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. We have the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. The same Jesus who showed us what it was to love unconditionally. To live sacrificially. To practice love and non-violence. To love our neighbors and in so doing demonstrate that we love God—the one True God. That’s how and why we can find our contentment.
Money can be such a temptation. And many people fall into one of two extremes. On the one hand people who acquire wealth quickly become addicted to acquiring even more. The more they have, the more they want. They build bigger barns, they buy bigger houses, faster cars, flashier clothes, fancier hobbies. But on the other hand, there are Christians that are so suspicious of money that they call it evil. They believe that money itself is evil. But is that what Jesus actually says about money? No! It’s not money that is the root of all evil, but the love of money. It’s only when money becomes our God that money becomes evil. Otherwise, money is just a tool to be used and it can be redeemed and used for good as one of the good gifts that God has given us to fulfill his mission to save and redeem the world.
I think it all really comes down to some basic theology lessons. Theology sounds like a really complicated topic. People go to school like I have for many years to get to call themselves theologians. But all of that education doesn’t necessarily mean that someone understands God all that well.
You don’t need to be a professional pastor or theologian to understand God’s will. It’s really quite simple, even if it takes a lifetime to come to grips with it. The basic truth of theology is that God is God and we are not. All other truths about theology are just footnotes and variations on that theme.
God is the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of the universe. It’s God that is responsible for bringing all the wonder and beauty of nature into being. From the most distant star to the cells in your own body, God’s fingerprints are all over it. We stand in awe when we’re out in nature and we bless God when we see the miracle of a new life as a child emerges from the womb and takes the first breath.
But often we get a little short-sighted. In the United States, we have this myth that is called “the self-made man.” In this myth anything we do or accomplish is something we can take credit for. Is something we can be proud of. We make a killing in the stock market, we say we’re responsible. And because we earned it, we feel we get to use it for what we want. We buy the nice toys, the creature comforts, the premium grade supplies. In other words, we quickly forget that we don’t own anything and that we can’t take it with us. In the end, everything we own is going to go to one of two places. It’s either going to the trash or its going to our heirs when we die.
So, as we begin to close out this series, I hope we take a moment to look at our Christian lives in a new way. I hope we’ve learned from the Philippians that living a Christian life isn’t going to be easy. There are going to be many voices that tell us to compromise. There are going to be many voices that tell us that we can have our cake and eat it too. There are going to be so many voices that are telling us to pursue creature comforts, to find our security in our citizenship, in our jobs, in the stock market, in our 401ks, in so many other things.
But as Paul said, it is only in Christ that we can find our true contentment. It is only in Christ that we can do all things. And all things means all things. We can be rich and well fed in Christ. But we can also be poor and suffering in Christ. Why? Because our eternal destiny and the destiny of the entire world is not wrapped up in any earthly system of government, in how much money we earn, even in our physical health and safety. What Paul means is that there is no circumstance – no thing to do or experience – where Christ cannot comfort. We can do all things through Christ, who comforts us.
Ultimately, our lives are secured—are anchored—on the rock of Jesus Christ and his role as the ultimate mediator between God and human beings. We can do all things through Christ, who comforts us.
Our contentment is not found in power. It is not found in wealth. It’s not even found in health or safety. Our contentment ultimately lies only in our relationship with the God of the universe through Jesus Christ. We can do all things through Christ, who comforts us.
So, as we leave this place today, having dedicated these shoe-boxes to help those children around the world who are less fortunate than us, let us ponder this. Who is better off? Is it us who live in such abundance that we can give sacrificially to give gifts to others, but sometimes too easily forgetting that all we have and all we have to give away ultimately comes from God? Or are those better off who have little—who live each day in expectation for God to provide the next meal, for God to provide that new pair of shoes? Who lives in such dependance on God that God’s ways remains on their minds every hour of every day?
Perhaps this is a false choice; we don’t have to be rich and evil or poor and holy – we can be a combination, or somewhere in between; but it is a challenging thought experiment. So, this week, I challenge each of you: make a list of your blessings—we’re approaching thanksgiving after all—ask yourself honestly where this blessing came from. Did you earn it? Was it a gift? And then, I want you to turn your list of blessings into a prayer of thanksgiving, like the psalm we opened the service with today. Acknowledge that each blessing we have comes from God, is a way God shows us he cares, that God loves us and is for us. And then, after you’ve thanked God, dedicate those gifts to God’s service. Because ultimately, our blessings aren’t for us to hoard, they’re to be shared with the world. Amen.