Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent Attitude: Joy

Advent Attitude: Joy
Philippians 1: 12 – 21.

In the story of the first Christmas, Luke tells us there were shepherds out in the fields watching their flocks at night.  These shepherds were simply doing their daily job of taking care of sheep, when suddenly a choir of angels appeared to announce the birth of a new king.  Of course, this was not just any king.  This was the birth of Jesus, the Son of God.
The angels told the shepherds that this was no ordinary birth and Jesus was no ordinary king when they said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people (Luke 2: 10 NIV).”
The birth of Jesus is Good News of Great Joy for All People.  Perhaps this is why our Advent theme for today is Joy.  Christmas is supposed to bring us Joy.
Last week our Advent theme was Peace.  It’s hard to think about Peace when the world is at conflict.  But Peace is not found in the absence of conflict.  True Peace only comes from the presence of God in our lives.
We might make the same argument about true Joy.  Many people have a hard time thinking about Joy during the Christmas season.  People who are experiencing Christmas for the first time without their loved ones don’t think of Christmas as a time of Joy.  The school shooting this week in Connecticut makes it difficult for us to think about Joy
In the New Testament Book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul writes a great deal about Joy.  He tells the Christians at Philippi to rejoice in all things and to rejoice in all circumstances.  Remarkably, Paul’s circumstances at the time he wrote those words were not what we might call joyous circumstances.  He was not on the top of the world at the time.  He was not experiencing an easy life at the time.  No.  Paul wrote those words from prison.
If Paul can write about Joy while he was in prison, then I think we can safely assume that true Joy does not depend on our current circumstances.  Circumstances can change very quickly.  Circumstances can bring happiness.  But Joy must come from something else.  Our Joy must depend on something that can never change.

Philippians 1: 12 – 21.
 12 Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard [fn2] and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.14 Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. [fn3] 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. [fn4] 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

There are a couple of ways we can interpret Paul’s words in this passage.  It is possible that Paul is writing to the Christians in Philippi to let them know how he is doing.  Or, it is possible that the Christians in Philippi had gotten word that Paul was in prison and sent a message to find out how Paul is doing.  Either, the Philippians had inquired about how Paul was doing, or Paul had taken the initiative to let them know he was OK.
When Paul wrote these words, he was in prison.  He had been arrested, locked up, separated from everyone he loved, and was now waiting.  He waited for someone else to determine his future.  He did not know what the Romans would do with him.  It was possible that he could get out of prison.  But, it was even more likely that Paul would either spend the rest of his natural life in jail or would be executed by his captors.
It is fair to say that Paul was going through a crisis.  At the very least, this was a personal crisis—waiting in jail and not knowing what the future holds.  At worst, this was a crisis for the Christian faith.
People in the ancient world were a lot like people in our modern world.  There were people who would wonder if Paul really was called by God.  After all, if God had called Paul to preach the Gospel and plant new churches, then God would have been able to protect Paul from arrest.  Others would use Paul’s arrest as an opportunity to express their doubts in God.  If God were sovereign and omnipotent, then God could have prevented this crisis.  Therefore, Paul’s crisis might suggest that there is no God.
Paul had a completely different interpretation of his imprisonment.  Even though Paul was no longer able to preach the Gospel, God was using this crisis to bring about a good result.  This doesn’t mean that God caused Paul’s crisis.  It means that God can use bad circumstances to bring about good results.

God’s Good Purpose

One of the reasons why Paul can speak about Joy and Rejoicing from prison is the fact that he can see God at work in three ways…
First, Paul knows that being in prison has given him the unique opportunity to share his faith with the prison guards and officials.  Instead of being angry at God for allowing him to go to jail, Paul thought of this as a divine opportunity.  Because of his imprisonment, people get to hear the Gospel who might not have heard it otherwise.
Second, Paul knows that being in prison has caused a new generation of preachers and pastors to take up Paul’s work while he is away.  Instead of sitting in jail feeling sorry for himself, Paul gives thanks to God for raising up new leaders for the Christian faith.
Third, Paul has heard reports of something else taking place on the mission field.  Other preachers and missionaries are using Paul’s imprisonment to make a name for themselves.  Before Paul went to jail, he was the most famous Christian missionary.  Other missionaries did not have the reputation Paul had, and they had not experienced the same kind of success Paul had.  Now, they are trying to surpass Paul by planting churches while he is away and growing their reputations.  Ironically, Paul sees this as a good thing.  It does not matter what the preachers’ motives might be…At least the Gospel is being preached.
There is a part of me that thinks Paul was very fortunate that God allowed him to see the good being done while Paul was in prison.  It is easier for us to experience suffering when we can see a purpose in our suffering.  When we do not see a purpose in our sufferings, they are unbearable.
There is another part of me that thinks Paul was able to see God’s work in his crisis as a result of Paul’s faith.  Paul’s faith caused him to look for God’s good purpose instead of focusing on his own troubles.
When we experience sufferings in life, we have to make a choice.  The natural choice is for us to focus on ourselves…our own pain…loneliness…loss…  The unnatural choice to for us to focus on God…and to think about how God might be at work in these circumstances…to search for God’s purpose in our suffering.
What would happen if we looked at our sufferings through eyes of faith?  Of course, this will never be our first reaction.  Our first reaction will always be survival and self-preservation.  But what will we do next?  Paul gives us a good example.  Eventually, Paul was able to look at his crisis through eyes of faith…searching for the ways God could use his crisis to accomplish something good.
You will always find what you are looking for.  If you are looking for a reason to complain and feel sorry for yourself…you will find it.  If you are looking for the ways God is at work in the midst of your suffering…you will find it.  And, if we look at the crises of life through the eyes of faith, we will also find a reason to Rejoice.  God is at work in all circumstances.  God is at work in the crisis.

God’s Salvation

In verse 19, Paul said something that sounds confusing.  He does not know what the future holds for him.  He does not know if his captors will let him live or die.  He does not know if he will ever get out of jail.  But, he says that what has happened to him will “turn out for his deliverance.” 
The word “deliverance” makes it sound like Paul thinks he will get out and everything will be OK.  But, when we read it in context, we discover that Paul is not saying he knows he will get out…

Philippians 1: 18b – 21…Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 

Perhaps “salvation” is a better translation than “deliverance.”  Paul is not saying that he is confident that he will be delivered from jail.  Instead, he is saying he is confident that he will be delivered from his crisis.  Paul knows that he might experience deliverance in this life or by going to Heaven to be with the Lord.  Either Paul will be delivered by a prison guard with a key, or he will be delivered by God himself.
I think this is one more reason why Paul was able to find Joy in his crisis.  He knew he had nothing to lose.  What was the worst that could happen to Paul?
If he got out of prison, he would be able to continue his ministry by preaching the Gospel, planting new churches and encouraging existing churches.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  If Paul never got out of prison, he would go to be with his Lord in Heaven.  There’s nothing wrong with that either.  Paul was in the ultimate win-win situation.
This win-win view of the future is something only available through faith in Jesus.  If Paul goes on living, he will live his life to the glory of God.  If Paul either dies in prison or is executed, he will die to the glory of God.  He knew that whether he lives or dies, it will be for the glory of God and for Paul’s salvation.  Life will give Paul an opportunity to continue to work for the Lord.  Death will give Paul release from the pain and struggle he is experiencing right now.
Through faith, Paul has found a reason to Rejoice in what has happened in his past, AND has found a reason to rejoice in what will happen in his future.  No crisis could take this Joy away from Paul.


There are two ways we can talk about Joy…
First, we can talk about Joy as an internal experience…something like an emotion.  The experience of Joy is the experience of happiness, pleasure or satisfaction.  But true Joy does not depend on the external circumstances of life.  True Joy can be experienced in either good times or in bad times.
So, how can a Christian experience true Joy?  Paul is our example.  When the world was falling apart around Paul, he found Joy through his faith.  He knew that God was present with him and that God was at work in the bad circumstances to accomplish something good.
Second, we can talk about Joy as an external expression.  We might say that a person who experiences internal Joy will also express external Joy.  We see this at football games when the crowd cheers for the winning team.  We see this at music concerts when the audience leaps to their feet to give a standing ovation.
How do Christians express our Joy?  One way is through worship.  We gather with other Christians to celebrate what God has done in the past, what God is doing in the present and what God will do in the future.  Another way to express Joy is to follow the example Paul set for us…continue serving God faithfully.
As the angels announced to the shepherds on the first Christmas…the birth of Jesus is Good News of Great Joy for All People.  Christmas is the season of Joy, because God sent his Only Begotten Son to live among us and to reveal God to us. 
Jesus is our Joy, because Jesus is the source of true happiness, pleasure and satisfaction.  Even when the world seems to be falling apart around us, we can find Joy in knowing that God is still at work. 
Paul experienced that kind of Joy in the midst of his crisis.  And, Paul expressed his Joy by living his life to the glory of God.

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