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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Joy, Joy, Joy - Down in My Heart (Philippians 1.12-20)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
April 22, 2007

“For those parents… for the rest of their lives… their best days, their happy days… it’s all behind them now… all past. There will not be a day that is not tinged with… framed by this loss.”

Earlier this week, that’s what a friend said to me about the families of the Virginia Tech victims.

That’s intense.

Right now, we are all still reeling from the shock of the tragedy at Virginia Tech. We can’t wrap our minds around it. I can’t even really imagine what it would be like for some one close in… for a close friend or a family member… or a parent.

Well, until I talked to my friend this week. If anyone else had said those words – about the best days being in the past, I would have kindly nodded, but thought otherwise.

But he knows. He’s lost a grown child and it’s been some years now. And he’s a Christian. And he still said those words with all the conviction in the world. I have no reason to doubt him.

In the kind of world we live in, there is such evil, such pain, such sorrow, and such loss, that we can receive a heart-wound that leaves a permanent scar. There is part of me that wants to argue that God can heal all things with time and in His miraculous mercy. But maybe there are scars that we bear for a lifetime. Jesus, after all, kept his.

This was not the introduction I would have used for this sermon prior to the events of this past week… but if God’s Word is what it claims to be, then it does not shrivel up or fail even in the face of the worst kinds of evil we can imagine.

And so, listen to God’s Word; seek God’s truth; see what redemption and hope God would plant, even as you and I struggle with the events of this past week.

Jail… or Worse

The Apostle Paul is writing to his friends at the church in Philippi. He is imprisoned because of what he has been doing – preaching about Jesus and drawing crowds everywhere he goes.

We know that Paul was imprisoned more than once. He was beaten severely and his life threatened. Even death, itself, was not out of the realm of possibility. Paul had participated in the execution of the earliest Christians, and there were still those around who would have liked to see the new Christian Paul removed from the picture.

On top of those experiences, which are also beyond what most of us could imagine, Paul was dealing with jealousy and betrayal – some trying to anger him and make him look bad so they would look good. We do know something more about those kinds of rivalries.

And here’s the bottom-line message from today’s text… whether it was facing up to those rivalries and betrayals, whether it was suffering from beatings or being imprisoned falsely, and even if it meant death, Paul knew God’s joy deep within.

And here’s where it all comes to focus for us. Is “joy” (and we’ll talk about what that is)… is joy something just for church potlucks and minor challenges and victories, or is God’s joy something for the deepest, darkest, and most difficult things in life… even things like war, cancer, car accidents, or school shootings?

Christ is Proclaimed

First, let me define joy. It is not “happiness” – though it may at times have some similarities. Happiness disappears in the face of challenge, disappointment, suffering, and loss. Joy bravely weathers those storms, like a strong tree with deep, deep roots.

Joy is a mixture of God’s peace, a trust in God’s sovereignty, a persevering faith, an external focus, and an eternal perspective. Joy can be the exuberance of worshiping in God’s presence or the tears of relief that God is holding you tight. Joy is a sense of belonging to a God who will not let you go, and that as bad as it may be, you are not alone.

And “rejoicing” is the act of expressing joy. And strangely, supernaturally, that’s what Paul was doing in this passage.

After describing some of the scenario, Paul gives us this explanation for his joy:

Distress…. What of it? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. (v. 18)

Verse 18 has the only mentions of ‘joy’ in our text today, but joy will be a major theme in the rest of Philippians. And what we see here is the first explanation of where joy comes from. Paul says it comes from “proclaiming Christ.”

That’s what landed Paul in jail, but it is also being accomplished by Paul being in jail. Many of the Roman guards (the praetorian guard) had apparently become Christians. In v. 13, Paul says that all of them had at least heard of Jesus.

Even with those working to discredit Paul or trying to make him envious, Paul rejoices to the extent that they are preaching Christ. It’s all-important to him… it reminds me of the way that in Billy Graham’s newspaper columns that no matter what question is asked, he always manages to present the Gospel… to give an invitation to Jesus Christ.

That is not to simplify tragedy and joy to an altar call, but to say that Paul points us away from ourselves to say that Jesus Christ is the single most important thing. He is going to go on in this letter to say that nothing is more important than knowing Jesus. He is going to look to the suffering and death of Jesus as the singular saving act of history and THAT Jesus and his suffering, death, and resurrection are the source not only of our salvation, but also our joy.

Paul goes on in vv. 18-19 to say not only “I do rejoice” but:

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance… that I will not be put to shame… but… Christ will be exalted in my body.

Paul’s hope and expectation were that all that he was enduring – all that he was suffering – would work toward the goal of proclaiming Christ to the world.

This Jesus is worth going to prison for.

This Jesus is worth being beaten for.

This Jesus is worth ridicule and envy and betrayal.

That doesn’t mean I won’t cringe and weep and wish for another course of events, but that this Jesus is everything to me. I live for him and for his glory. I long to make him known… no matter the cost. That is the source of joy.

Whether by Life or by Death

And reading that, just as I start to think, “Well, that’s fine as long as Paul’s “earnest expectations” and hopes are met. He’s so confident in the outcome and God’s answering their prayers and all. But what if things don’t turn out well? What if Paul is killed? What then?”

And Paul surprises me and goes on to say:

…whether by life or by death. (v. 20)

Even in death, Christ can be proclaimed. Even in death there can be joy.

That’s intense.

I also spoke to someone this week who told me that whenever their funeral happens they don’t want it to be a sorrowful affair. They want it to be joyful.

Most of us fear death. We don’t understand it. We don’t want to look at it or think about it. When someone steals life and shoves death right in our face, it’s overwhelming.

And yet, God seems to hold out the possibility of joy. Maybe not immediately… maybe not for a long time. And maybe, if my first friend is right, there is a permanent scar that lasts for the rest of this life. That’s just the kind of scar that Jesus bears even now. Strange that God wouldn’t remove it when He raised Jesus from the dead.

Deep Joy

This is not a sermon for the families of the Virginia Tech students who were killed this week. They have a long journey before the wounds will close up and even get to become scars.

But this is a sermon for those of us who struggle to live in a world full of darkness, evil, senseless tragedy, untimely death, and overwhelming sadness.

God’s Word says that there is a deep joy that somehow, without negating or erasing such experiences, nonetheless encompasses and surrounds them… comprehends them… and offers us a today and a tomorrow.

Interestingly, I was talking to the first friend I mentioned in the context of a prayer meeting. We went on to pray later and my friend began to pray about Heaven and God’s Holy Spirit – and I heard the realness and presence of God’s joy. My friend still bears the scars of profound loss – for some 5 years now – but he also has a deep joy that is readily apparent to anyone who spends time around him.

How can we tap into that profound and deep joy?

It has to do with seeking Jesus, pointing to Jesus, and most of all, proclaiming Jesus with our lives, our circumstances, and even ultimately in our death. May God grant that it be so. Amen.