For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life
Let us pray:
Hide me behind your cross, Lord Jesus. Articulate the Father’s heart through my voice and let the Holy Spirit breathe new life to us, opening our ears to hear the message of God. Amen
Maybe you’ve seen it. The black eye tape with an inscription as the athlete, usually a big burly football player, runs through their opponent in the latest competition: “Philippians 4:13”.
Perhaps you’ve heard it. The actress stands on stage with a quivering lip, holding the coveted trophy she’s just won, and bravely says that she can do all things through him who gives her strength, right after she thanks her producer, fellow actors, and her parents.
Sometimes I breathe it as a prayer. “Lord, I have so much to do, but I can do all things through you, right? Please give me your strength”
A facebook post, a wall hanging, a magnet, maybe.
And yet, Paul isn’t saying that he can do ALL THINGS through Christ – instead, listen carefully:
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Paul is SPECIFICALLY describing how Jesus gives him the strength, through the Holy Spirit, to learn to be content whatever the circumstances…
In other words – God doesn’t promise that you can do whatever you want or whatever you’ve committed yourself to: instead God promises through Paul’s words that no matter what circumstance you find yourself in, you can learn to be content.
I’m not saying that God won’t give you strength to do the things you must do. And I’m not saying that God won’t help you in your darkest moments. But I AM saying that if we are cross stitching this scripture on a piece of muslin to hang in our house, we would do well to remember that Paul isn’t talking about achievement or success: he’s talking about joy.
Philippians is a letter, after all, to a church that is experiencing a significant amount of persecution and suffering. Most Christians under Nero were, including Paul: he is after all, writing this letter from a Roman prison, while anticipating his own death sentence to be handed down any minute.
Paul and Silas founded this church in Philippi about 10 years earlier. Philippi is a place that was about half Greek and half Roman citizens by the time Paul arrived. The Roman citizens were primarily retired military and their families, who had been granted a parcel of land in the community after a military victory. The Greek citizens were those who had been there first, who now were primarily poorer and servants to the retired military group. The Christians faced opposition from the Roman citizens who felt a deep gratitude to the Roman empire for what they had and who were incredibly loyal to the Emperor, and they felt that any of the veterans and their families who converted were betraying their heritage and biting the hand that fed them.
Part of the reason for this is that Roman worship was pretty open about many gods – but the civil religion, the one that all Roman citizens were expected to be about – said that Ceasar (the emperor) was also a god. And thus, when the people said “hail Ceasar” it was more than an affirmation of respect, it was worship.
So Christians didn’t do that. Christians believe that Jesus is LORD of everything they do and say. Christians do not bend a knee to any other. Christians live their allegiance out to the God they’ve met and become a follower of – not swayed by political movements or currents of the day. As we have recently said – the law the Christian commits to obey is this: love your neighbor as yourself, no matter who your neighbor is. The Christian has no enemy.
Paul says some of this earlier in this letter too, to encourage the church in Philippi to keep going: Philippians 2 has a beautiful hymn to the Lordship of Jesus and the humility that brought him to us:
Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
These are words that Paul is writing to people familiar with the military, people who know how to obey and how to command, and Paul is telling them to think of the other first and to remember that their worship and allegiance are only to Jesus Christ, the Lord who has been exalted after dying for us.
But what does all of this have to do with joy, you might ask?
Well, the reality is that this letter mentions joy or rejoice no fewer than 16 times! This from a man who is in prison, writing to people who are experiencing persecution! Joy, Paul writes, is mandatory behavior that is made possible through the power of the Lord.
I can do all this through him who gives me strength, Paul says, and he’s talking about being content even though he’s poor. Or rich. Or failing. Or successful.
But the thing that caught my eye as I studied this week was not just the idea of being content, but this:
I have LEARNED to be content…Paul says. It didn’t happen overnight, it is learned behavior. And not only that but this is part of what Christ gives him strength to do: not just the being content part, but the learning part as well. Paul says I can trust God to teach me and give me the ability to learn how to be content whatever happens. And when I am content no matter what my circumstances, I am able to say Rejoice in the Lord Always, again I say Rejoice, even while I am in a Roman prison waiting for the Roman government to execute me.
I want to make sure we clearly see that Paul is not delusional, he is not happy go lucky, singing fa la la while pretending that he is not actually in prison or that his circumstances aren’t dire: Paul knows exactly where he is, what awaits him, and how serious it really is. He can likely hear the roar of the crowd from the coliseum as lions tear apart his brothers and sisters in Christ, or hear the screams of his oil-soaked compatriots as they are set alight in Nero’s gardens. He doesn’t deny this is happening, he doesn’t wish it away, he recognizes it is bad and negative and terrible.
But he also knows there is more. And he also knows that God is teaching him to be ok in the moment he is in, celebrating who God is even as he waits. He lives in prison, but preaches the Gospel by being content and by telling others of the good news of Jesus, the redeemer who sets people free from their bondage and sorrow and teaches them to be content, too.
Joy isn’t laughing as though your heart isn’t breaking when real sorrows and hurts come along. It is grieving those losses and still recognizing that the grief isn’t forever, that the grief is ok, but the feeling and the state of existence are two different things: being satisfied that the Christ who is Lord of all, the Christ who walked through suffering himself and who promises to walk through it with us, that is a joy that doesn’t succumb to the whims of circumstance, but it is a joy that is stronger than job loss, bad health, financial windfalls, and incredible success. It is a joy that stands separate from the feelings we have, but tempers every moment with a reverberating chorus of I will live in this moment with Jesus and it will not break me or wreck me or make me or magnify me. That is a joy worth having, a joy that brings with it peace that passes understanding.
If you don’t have that joy and peace, but you are following Jesus, remember that it is a learning experience. You can have it, but it is not something that just happens. Like any education process, it requires time and persistence and the work of God in your life. Let God work.
And the next time you see that verse on a bumper sticker, the one that says “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” remind yourself that it is not a promise of being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but something much more thrilling and fulfilling and powerful: it is a promise of joy.
As we have been doing every week in this series, I will remind you of what it looks like to say that the love of God is found in every page of Scripture. Follow along on your sheets and whenever I point at you say whatever is bolded on your page:
What does it mean to say God loves?
God loved us enough to create us, to form us from the dust.
God loved us enough to let us fail, to let us choose our own way over God’s – to let us chain ourselves to sin and defeat and heartbreak and sorrow and death.
God loved us enough to provide a rescue, a way back: through wanderers, murderers, adulterers, defaulters, promise-breakers, foreigners, strangers, and lovers.
God loved us enough to show us mothers, judges, kings, and prophets who loved and spoke for God and kept reminding us of the promise of redemption
God loved us enough to show us how evil and wrong continually mess things up and how obedience to God fosters holiness and bestows blessing
God loved us enough to send us Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, to preach and live peace, grace, hope, joy, and love.
God loved us enough to see Jesus rejected, to see him die, to see him buried.
God loved us enough to raise Jesus from the dead and send the Holy Spirit to remind us of all we have in him and empower us to live like Jesus.
God loves us enough to want us to live like Jesus – an abundant life infused with all the fruit of the Spirit, redeemed, free, loved.
God loves us enough to still let us choose our own destiny.
God loves us enough to promise the hope of forever, of resurrection from the dead, and final judgement.
God loved us enough, God loves us enough, God will always love us enough.
For God so loved the world…
God loves you.
God wants you to know it. God wants you to live in it.
God wants you to be able to love others because you know you are loved.
God’s love is expressed to us every week, most tangibly, as we gather at this table: The Son who died and yet lives, gave everything so we could know the depth of God’s love.
So, Come. Drink the wine. Eat the bread. Know you ARE loved.
God loves you. Go, love the world with him.